Yes, you can like the works of a filmmaker even if he begins to make a very different kind of film. Case in point: Brian De Palma
When I heard that Brian De Palma had a new movie out — Passion, inspired by the French thriller Love Crime — I went to Rotten Tomatoes to see the consensus, to see if the filmmaker’s luck had finally turned with the critics. (They haven’t been kind to his films since the first — and, in my opinion, the best — Mission: Impossible movie in 1996.) But no. The approval rating was a miserable 36 per cent
I’m not really surprised. The adult thriller with psychosexual overtones — something of a De Palma specialty — hasn’t been very popular of late. But I also think that people may be missing something in evaluating De Palma. They’re probably coming at him as an A-grade director, which he once was, but perhaps the key to his recent work is to acknowledge that he’s using those same skills with lesser material, and he’s become, therefore, an A-grade B-movie director.
I haven’t seen Redacted, but these post-Mission: Impossible films are delicious explorations of form. The filmmaking is so slick, so in control, that the plot, the performances become secondary. De Palma may be making schlock, but it’s very classy schlock (which is more than what you can say about another filmmaker’s schlock).
Take the opening of Femme Fatale. Of the film, the critic David Edelstein said, “At its greatest, in Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), Casualties of War (1989), and much of Carlito’s Way (1993), [De Palma’s] technique adds up to more than bravura showmanship. But even when it doesn’t — as in his new Femme Fatale — it’s like an outrageous new Ben & Jerry’s flavor for thriller gluttons. So, dig in.”
And we dig in from the very first frame, where we see, on a television set, the climax of Double Indemnity. But we’re really seeing two images, the black-and-white frames from the classic noir, and the fleshy tones of a woman who’s watching the film (De Palma’s always been interested in watching) — she’s reflected on the television set. There’s a femme fatale on screen and a femme fatale off it. The camera tracks back slowly, and we have before us a visual representation of what this woman will say later: “I’m a bad girl... Real bad. Rotten to the heart.” How many filmmakers bother to infuse even this amount of artistry into their movies anymore?
I’m not talking about the Paul Thomas Andersons and the Wes Andersons and the Sofia Coppolas, or even the Martin Scorseses, to take the name of a filmmaker who is De Palma’s contemporary. I’m simply talking about the others, the people who make the cinematic equivalent of junk food that we crave once in a while because we cannot always be having cinematic spinach. Few, if any, of those filmmakers approach their work with the craft of De Palma.
Take Mission to Mars. We see films set in space all the time, but the grace notes in these films, the little things tucked away in the corners that have no direct relation to the plot or the characters, may involve, at best, some humour, or a reference to “back home on Earth.” But here, we have a bit of dialogue early on about a character who doesn’t like to dance and his wife who insists on taking dancing lessons before her sister’s wedding, and we get the payoff later in a scene where this couple is in space and the husband finds himself dance-ready due to the anti-gravity. “Zero G,” he says. “My last chance to be graceful.” It’s a gorgeous grace note.
Part of the resistance to De Palma’s recent work comes, I suspect, from the tendency of viewers (critics as well as audiences) to fix a filmmaker as this guy who does these things and who should keep doing these things — and if he does other things, then there’s a disconnect. Few viewers seem to want to engage with De Palma once he stopped making movies — in the sense of a plot populated with characters that we are invested in — and started making these empty shell-like formal experiments, with ludicrous plots and characters that barely seem human.
I just look at it as two phases of a filmmaker’s career. He did that then. He does this now. And if what he’s doing now doesn’t resonate as much as what he did then, it’s still fascinating at a formal level — not just because of the camera moves but also because there’s a sense of abstraction here, a sense of stripping away everything that’s superfluous and getting to the mechanics of moviemaking, the nuts and bolts. You may not put these films in your year-end best-of lists, but they’re not dismissible either.
Take The Black Dahlia. As a movie in the traditional sense, it fails on almost every level. The acting is strictly second-rate, a bunch of uneasy performers playing dress-up in a period piece. And the plot, about the investigation around the murder of a 1940s starlet, should drum up the usual movie responses — tension, sympathy, fear — but it doesn’t, mostly. But focus on the mechanics, not the what but the how, and you can’t stop watching — whether it’s the first time we glimpse Scarlett Johansson (in extreme close-up; the camera practically bounds up to her) or the double murder on an ornate flight of stairs.
There’s a tricky question underlying this: Why do we grant some filmmakers this leeway, this benefit of the doubt that there’s something else than just style over substance? The answer comes from the heart sometimes (old times, and all that) and sometimes from the gut. We feel it — the effort in the planning, the staging, the refusal to settle for easy solutions, and we acknowledge the parts, if not the whole.