Friday, July 24, 2009

Question of the Day: Brian DePalma, innovative auteur or lazy aper?

I've always struggled with DePalma's films. I can probably count on one hand the films of his I really, really enjoy -- and the funny thing is I only enjoy them because I count myself lucky enough to understand his references. I've always wrestled with DePalma's place in the pantheon of filmmakers. On one hand I like that his allusions are for cinephiles, filmgoers who will feel like part of a special club for "getting" the reference. It's kind of like how I feel when I see a Judd Apatow film. Sure, the scene may be funny, but I know why it's funny. And so it is with DePalma...yes the scene is beautiful, but to fully enjoy it must you know why it's beautiful? Do you need to know where that scene came from and what films DePalma is constantly paying homage to? More thoughts after the jump...

And then there's the flip side to that coin...Ryan Kelly of the wonderful Medfly Quarantine and I had a brief discussion in one of his blog threads a while ago about the merit of DePalma. Sometimes I feel like he uses his famous line "the camera lies 24 frames a second" as a crutch, a means to just simply ripping off better directors than himself, and Ryan elequently defended the polarizing director. However, no matter how many valid opinions I hear from respected sources I think I will always wonder if DePalma has an original thought in his brain? But then I watch a film like Femme Fatale or Body Double and my mouth is agog at how brilliantly this guy can direct a scene.

It's a constant dilemma that I don't see being resolved anytime soon (at least in my own brain) then I leave it up to those of you smarter than DePalma an original, an auteur; or is he just really good at taking other people's ideas and making them look good in his own way? (Obviously there's a middle ground in there somewhere, but I figured I would set up the two extremes to see which side people stand on.)


  1. Definitely an auteur. All things done in cinema (and storytelling as a whole) are variations on well-worn themes anyway. At least he comes by his stealing honestly.

    One only need to see Scarface, Carlito's Way, or Femme Fatale to come to the conclusion that though his movies certainly begin by "aping" other landmark films, the homages are just departure points from which he takes us in exciting new directions.

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  3. Tony:

    Thanks for chiming in. I tend to agree with you, but then all it takes is a different day and a different mood for me to be in and I tend to think that DePalma isn't such hot stuff. I do think Femme Fatale is a masterpiece, I remember seeing it twice in the theater and being equally exhilarated during the second viewing.

    I agree with your comment, and I think it can be applied to art as a whole -- everything is essentially a variation on something else.

    And you're right, DePalma has been open about his homages. I just don't know if I buy that he takes those homages and moves them into interesting directions on a consistent basis. The films you list are all good, with only one of them being great, in my humble opinion; however, what do we make of films like Raising Cain or Snake Eyes? Do we just chalk them up to creative failures like Scorsese's Cape Fear or Gangs of New York?

    I think if someone would put a gun to my head I would say that DePalma is an auteur...he's just not on the Mt. Rushmore of filmmakers that so many bloggers I respect place him on.

    He's one of those extremely popular and respected figures that I often struggle with...Kubrick being the other.

    Thanks for your thoughts's definitely got me thinking.

  4. I'm a huge De Palma fan. Here are my favorite American directors in order:

    1. Malick
    2. Kubrick
    3. Lynch
    4. Michael Mann
    5. De Palma
    6. Philip Kaufman (Threw you with this one I bet)
    7. Friedkin
    8. Coppola
    9. Spielberg
    10. Altman

    So De Palma ranks pretty high for me. And I love Raising Cain and Snake Eyes, which I believe are just smaller films... not necessarily failures. No. Failures would be The Fury, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia, and Redacted. The difference being that I think he accomplished what he set out to do in Cain and Snake Eyes... even if it didn't meet his audience's expectations.

  5. Tony I love that list of directors. And I agree with almost the entire list. But more on that later...

    You say here: And I love Raising Cain and Snake Eyes, which I believe are just smaller films... not necessarily failures. No. Failures would be The Fury, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia, and Redacted. The difference being that I think he accomplished what he set out to do in Cain and Snake Eyes... even if it didn't meet his audience's expectations.

    Good call. The opening to Snake Eyes is pretty exciting, and I guess the movie is never not interesting. Compared to the films you just listed as his failures, Snake Eyes and Raising Cain certainly don't seem so bad. I had totally removed Mission to Mars from my well as The Bonfire of the Vanities.

    I really didn't mind The Black Dahlia all that much, but that may have been due to Zsigmond's beautiful cinematography more than anything DePalma did (although it's hard to discount his influence on DP"s because he is such a visual director)...and I didn't even bother with Redacted.

    As for your list, I am surprised there is no Scorsese on there. Although I don't think that's a sin, just surprising. I'm glad you give Spielberg some love...people are too quick to slough off his stuff. And Philip Kaufman did indeed surprise me, but I have to give you kudos for that. He's an underrated filmmaker to be sure and his version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of my favorites. And I love The Right Stuff and Quills which is a somewhat forgotten masterpiece of 2000.

    Thanks again for your wonderfully insightful response.

  6. Okay, first of all, I've only seen six DePalma films as follows: Carrie
    The Untouchables
    Dressed to Kill
    Mission to Mars
    So I realize that I probably don't have the best perspective on him, but I'll answer the question to the best of my knowledge.

    I guess DePalma is an auteur, but there are moments in his work where his cribbing is just obvious and dull (the baby carriage scene in The Untouchables in particular is really plastic and inert) but I like a few directors who steal more egregiously than DePalma, so that's not really the issue I have with him.

  7. Krauthammer:

    Yeah I agree with you about the scene from The Untouchables. In fact, the scene I prefer from that film is where he lifts the black-gloved killer POV from Argento's gialli films. Now that's how you lift a scene.

    Yes, most filmmakers take from others...I just think DePalma is the most famous and publicized of them all. I can't recall another filmmaker, aside from Tarantino, who has been so open about his influences and that he takes so freely from them.

    I would highly recommend Sisters, Carrie, Body Double, and Femme Fatale. Those are the four that I tend to favor.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  8. I'm with Krauthammer in that I haven't seen that much DePalma, and largely only what seem to be more mainstream, less personal works: Mission Impossible, Untouchables, Scarface, Snake Eyes, Carrie. Mostly not bad movies, I guess, but nothing that's ever made me sit up and take notice of the guy as a director -- and for that matter, Snake Eyes was fairly lousy besides the always-welcome hotness of Carla Gugino, and I dislike Scarface more every time I see it.

    I will follow up on Tony's best American directors list with my own, though:

    1. David Lynch
    2. Howard Hawks
    3. Woody Allen
    4. Alfred Hitchcock (he must count as an honorary American, no?)
    5. Stan Brakhage
    6. Stanley Kubrick
    7. John Cassavetes
    8. Jim Jarmusch
    9. Gus Van Sant
    10. Robert Altman

  9. After Ed put up his best list I feel the need to point out that my list was "favorites". I've always made a distinction between best and favorite, or else Kaufman wouldn't be on there among others. But that's just me.

    Hitchcock is too easy to count as American (but you can have that one). Hope that doesn't mean we'd have to drop Kubrick for being an honorary Brit.

    (tongue was firmly planted in cheek throughout this comment post)

  10. He's not my favorite director, and I love to trash him when he fails- as in The Fury- but he's no less an auteur for being less subtle about his cribbing.

    I feel he's like Tarantino in a way. An aper, but still an auteur. Don't mean to say they're equals, either. I find many of his scenes to be excessive and it grates on me.

  11. This is certainly a side issue, but I always use "best" and "favorite" more or less interchangeably -- after all, best according to who? Me, of course, which makes the directors I think are the best my favorites. It's a wonderful tautological definition. Heh.

  12. Continuing briefly on this side issue (because it does hold some interest vis a vis cinema), my only problem with using "best" and "favorite" interchangably derives from the following. Hawks and Ford, for instance... I've seen enough of their films to "suspect" they're among the best directors. But I haven't seen enough to call them my favorites. So that's why I have a separate list for best.

    I guess I equate "best" with logic, and "favorite" with emotion. Citizen Kane is probably the best American film ever made but it certainly isn't my favorite. That would be The Godfather Part II.

  13. Ed:

    I am not much of a fan of Scarface, either.

    Oh boy...I feel like I need to submit a top 10 American directors. I could be up all night...

  14. Tommy:

    I agree with you about DePalma in that it seems his failures, or the scenes that are a bit much (I like what you say in that they're grating), seem to stay with me more than the good stuff. Thanks for chiming in.

  15. Ed:

    I think I'm with Tony in regards to separating the two -- because like Tony I can see why a lot of people hold certain films in high regard, but I wouldn't necessarily count them as my favorites. I just happen to think a lot of my favorite films are also some of the best films I've ever seen.

    It reminds me of the debate that a lot of people seem to have between a movie being "good" or "about something" and being "entertaining". All relative terms, sure, but you often hear the causal moviegoer say they don't go to movies to think they go to be entertained. Well I say what's the difference?

    I think I'm reading your comments that way, Ed. You don't necessarily see a clear difference between "the best" and your "favorite".

    I do like what Tony says in regards to equating "best" with logic and "favorite" with emotion. Interesting dichotomy, here.

    As always, thanks for chiming in.

  16. My top 10:

    1. Martin Scorsese
    2. Michael Mann
    3. Terrence Malick
    4. Alfred Hitchcock
    5. Howard Hawks
    6. Woody Allen
    7. David Lynch
    8. Jim Jarmusch
    9. Paul Schrader
    10. Paul Thomas Anderson

    I'm sure there's some I'm leaving off that deserve to be on here. And in fact I think that someone like Raoul Walsh or John Ford could be on there...same with Altman or Coppola...and Spielberg...and...

  17. Kevin,

    I hate to be a pedantic jerk, but your question is whether he's an auteur or not, and he most certainly is. An auteur is defined as a director who puts an undeniable stamp on his movies, so you can watch an auteur's flick and tell that it's one of his. Auteur has to do with whether a director has enough control over his product to put that stamp there, and DePalma is most definitely an auteur.

    As for whether or not you like his movies, that's a different question, as is whether they are any good. To take the subject of Greg's blogathon, Ed Wood is an auteur, but his movies suck, but I love Plan 9. Go figure.

    My favorite 10 American directors; I would not call all of them auteurs:

    1. Robert Altman
    2. Alfred Hitchock (actually British, of course)
    3. Martin Scorcese
    4. P.T. Anderson
    5. Billy Wilder
    6. John Huston
    7. Steven Spielberg
    8. Woody Allen
    9. Frank Capra
    10. Francis Coppola

    Of course, the list might be different tomorrow

  18. Rick:

    Hmmm...Yes, Rick I seemed to have been thinking auteur was also synonymous with whether he was good or bad, so I guess I was asking two questions here...hehe. I was initially wanting to see if people thought his particular stamp was actually his particular stamp -- but then when I started writing the blog post I immediately got sidetracked into whether or not I thought he was a good director.

    As for whether or not you like his movies, that's a different question, as is whether they are any good. To take the subject of Greg's blogathon, Ed Wood is an auteur, but his movies suck, but I love Plan 9. Go figure.

    Great point. DePalma is definitely an auteur, which seems to be the consensus here, but whether or not people like his particular stamp on films is a much more polarizing discussion.

    I liked your list, and I agree that on any day my list could change, too.

    Oh, and trust me, you don't sound like a pedantic jerk. I don't mind when people point out my errors...I make multiple mistakes on a daily basis -- most of them on this blog, hehe.

  19. Oh, and what I mean by "if his stamp is actually his stamp" is because it's pretty obvious he lifts a lot of his most famous scenes from other movies.

    I guess an interesting follow-up question would be whether or not people think Tarantino gets a pass even though he's doing the same thing as DePalma?

    I know I'm not as hard on Tarantino as I am on DePalma, but that's also due to the fact that I think Tarantino's films are a lot more interesting and fun.

  20. When I said that I liked directors who stole more egregiously than DePalma, I was basically talking about Tarantino. His works seem much more like a fun patchwork journey through film history, the stuff that he takes really lives and breathes in a way that DePalmas never does for me.

  21. Having been trained by Hitchcock, it would be hard for De Palma not to have patterned himself after the master, certainly in early works like the brilliantly entertaining and twisted Sisters. That's what I like so much about De Palma. He is such a savant in anything that he tries. In Body Double, for example, his porn movie short is one of the best music videos I've ever seen. He has such a touch for the con, better than the more mannered David Mamet.

  22. Krauthammer:

    I agree with you. Tarantino's energy is palpable in every scene...not to mention his memorable scenes feel less showy to me.

  23. In Body Double, for example, his porn movie short is one of the best music videos I've ever seen. He has such a touch for the con, better than the more mannered David Mamet.

    Intersting, Marilyn. I think I prefer Mamet's cons, though. However, I certainly agree with you that DePalma's films do have a touch for the con, as you so eloquently state here.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  24. I'm with Marilyn on this one. Mamet tries to be clever and put one over on you, whereas De Palma lays out all the cards before he plays them. For instance, there's no reason anyone watching Dressed to Kill closely should be surprised at the killer's identity... and same goes for Body Double. In other words, Mamet tries to show you how smart he is, while De Palma tries to find out how smart you are.

    Also, for those using for originality in his films, I can't think of a director that has done more for the use of split-screen, and I mean effectively, than De Palma has.

    I may be way off-base here, but I think some of you guys haven't seen enough of his films. He can be a pretty uneven director, but boy when he's on he's on. I recommend Sisters and Blow Out in addition to other films mentioned in this thread.

  25. Tony:

    Yes, Mamet's cons do tend to be a tad convoluted. However, I think some of his recent films like Spartan and Red Belt do a great job of being more simple cons that focus more on an interesting story, instead of just trying confuse the audience. In fact I would say that when Mamet doesn't focus on cons in his films (Homicide, Spartan, State and Main, etc.) he's arguably at his best.

    I like what you say about DePalma's use of split screen. I like that you mention Blow Out, which, as you know, is based on one of the best "con" films ever made Blow-Up. I really liked his version of that film.

    And yes, when DePalma is on he is an extremely fun filmmaker to watch. I've seen almost all of his films with the exception of some his early 70's stuff and some random films from the 80's, but I think that the films really show me his skills are: Sisters, Carrie, Body Double, and Femme Fatale. There are a lot more that I think are good movies, but to me those four showcase DePalma at his best.

  26. I would definitely say that De Palma is an auteur. Sure, he cribs from other filmmakers but I think that there is enough of his own thematic preoccupations that make his films unique to him... if that makes any sense.

    Hell, I even find some of his paycheck movies (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) entertaining as hell to watch as much as his more personal films.

  27. Thanks J.D.

    I agree with you about his lighter, more commercial stuff like Mission: Impossible (by the way I loved your review that you posted this morning) sometimes being better than the more "serious" stuff. I think one thing can be universally agreed upon here, and Rick helped point this out, the man is an auteur...whether or not we think he's any good is a whole other question.

    Thanks for chiming in and for plugging the blog in your Mission: Impossible post.

  28. I can't see how anyone could not think DePalma is great, and still call themselves a cinephile. I assume Kevin that 'SLatIFR' questionnaire spurred this question; look back at some of the answers to that question. all the 'when it's over' ect, make may stomach turn.

    I mean he has three or four stone cold American modern masterpieces (Blow Out, Sisters, Dressed to Kill, and probably Carrie), and a whole slew of good to great middle-tier films (Femme Fatale, Carlito's way, Scarface, The Untouchables, Body Double, Obsession, Casualties of War, Phantom of the Paradise-- the last two being absurdly underrated), and heck his failures (Raising Cain, Snake Eyes, The Fury, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Black Dahlia) are worth watching for craft and style alone. most filmmakers would scratch and claw for one film as good as any of his middle-tier films.

    also his earliest films (Hi, Mom!, Get to know your Rabbit, The Wedding Party, ect) when he wanted to be an the American Godard are worth watching too. De Palma in this era can claim an important film feat: he (not marty) gave de niro his first break.

    and personally to me he can claim two things: he made the second most paused event in my early film VHS life-- the exploding body end in 'The Fury' (number one paused moment is obviously exploding head in 'Scanners'), AND he is the only director that has realized (up to now) the talents of one of the great underused actors of that generation: Jon Lithgow.

    i'd also add that Martin Scorsese steals just as much as tarantino and De Palma, it's just easier to spot a Hitchcock rip then it is an obscure Godard one (like '2 or 3 things I know about Her' that Marty rips a few spots of in 'Taxi Driver' ect).

    as someone else has said as well, if all he ever added to cinema history was his use of split screen (which is unmatched) he'd be a master in that right alone.

    great blog, I really need to post/frequent this more....

  29. oh and I forgot this (I wanted to list until I got to De Palma, then stop at the next round number):

    1. Terrence Malick
    2. Woody Allen
    3. Billy Wilder
    4. Martin Scorsese
    5. David Lynch
    6. Nicolas Ray
    7. John Cassavetes
    8. Paul Thomas Anderson
    9. Jim Jarmusch
    10. Samuel Fuller
    11. Robert Altman
    12. Elia Kazan
    13. Francis Ford Coppola
    14. Brian De Palma
    15. John Carpenter

    I should add that I don't consider Hitchcock, or Kubrick American directors (which matters little as neither are in my top 15 anyways)

  30. Kevin J. Olson:

    You're more than welcome for the plug on my site. It just seemed really serendipitous that you, John Kenneth Muir and myself all had a post about De Palma!

    I'm also glad you liked the MI post. I really do dig that film in a big way and De Palma's camerawork is definitely a big reason why.

    Anonymous Jamie:

    "AND he is the only director that has realized (up to now) the talents of one of the great underused actors of that generation: Jon Lithgow."

    Well, him and, of course, THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI. Man, is Lithgow deliver a wonderfully crazed, inspired gonzo performance in that film. Easily, my fave of his.

  31. Jamie:

    I agree with a lot of what you say. The people who claim that his best moments are the one's that "are over" I think have an unfair biased against the man. I am not an acolyte by any fact I find a lot of his films overrated -- however, I cans till see the craft there. His use of split screen, and his allusions to great filmmakers make him a favorite among cinephiles...I just don't count myself among them...but I would never discount his eye for a scene.

    I like the list of films you mention to back up your argument.

    Yes, Scorsese is pretty open about his influences, but I would suggest that he's a lot more nuanced in how he compounds upon those influences. Tarantino and DePalma are anything but subtle.

    Thanks for stopping by and for giving your thoughts, here. I also really like your list of directors...especially where Nicholas Ray sits. Nice choice.

    I hope to see you around here more often, too. Thanks again.

  32. I love The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai! Man...whatever happened to Peter Weller?

  33. just realized I left Tarantino off the top 15... he should be there, not sure who I'd bump. Oh well life goes on.

    I will say this about DePalma as well (to close) when his films fail it's always because the script does (the only exception in my opinion is 'Redacted' which fails in most areas)... he's never had as great a script as the first two or three Paul Schrader's (love that he made your top 10) that Scorsese had the pleasure of getting (i'm talking about 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', and 'Last Temptation of Christ'). this of course isn't a knock on Scorsese, just a fact I think. I will add that I do think Scorsese is slightly better as a director-- watching his 'Life Lessons' proves that I think.

    I think actually this is where DePalma may be the weakest, his ability to read scripts and choose projects... but I can't speak for him and why he chose what he did and when. maybe he needed the pay check; I won't judge him.

    I know Tarantino has said when he was younger and trying to become a screenwriter/director DePalma was his 'Rock Star' (he even cites 'Blow Out' in his three favorite films), I sometimes wish Tarantino would just write a project for DePalma. something like 'Jackie Brown' would be perfect...

  34. I agree. I would never judge a director based on what film they choose to do...they all do what they want to do, and when you're talking about directors who have paid their dues...well then why not try and make a big budget feature and make some money...nothing wrong with that.

    I like what you say about his scripts failing him, and I agree with you that not everyone has been as lucky as Scorsese in having a brilliant mind like Schrader's working on the narrative. That's what's so amazing about that specific collaboration: you have two geniuses at who can write a deep, existential script; and the other who can take those ideas and visualize them like no one else because he has a wealth of cinematic knowledge and allusions to help put the exclamation point on his own visual ideas.

    In fact, I would say that it's pretty safe to claim that Scorsese has been at his best when he's teamed with Schrader (except for Goodfellas, of course...that still remains one of his triumphs).

  35. i think it's also weird to me that many of schraders scripts for himself are just 'ok', at least compared to his (as you say) existential stuff he lends Scorsese, and others.

    consider 'blue collar', 'hardcore', 'cat people' and 'american gigalo' all are a little to calvanist/conservative for my particular worldview. i've just always found that interesting. his greatest scripts (the marty ones, and 'the Yakuza') he always sells.

    this of course omits his brilliant 'Mishima' (one of my favorite novelists btw), and recent 'Adam Resurrected' (which he didn't write). in fact 'mishima' is the only time he's given himself a great script to direct.

    also interesting, i didn't know this he wrote DePalma's 'obsession' (which I will now rewatch).

  36. A day late and a dollar shot, as usual. As we discussed on my blog, his lack of 'originality' has never bothered me, because while he may be taking concepts that are old-hat to an extent, he goes about them in his own unique way. I think you should particularly see Hi, Mom! for a better understanding of his unique sensibility.

    But as for the Hitchcock 'thing', which I intend to devote a blog-post to one of these days, surely other film makers have paid homage to Hitchcock as well, just none have done it as blatantly as De Palma. Like Hitchcock, I think De Palma is really more looking into sexuality than just making straight-up thrillers per-se.

    And as for Scarface, I used to hate it but now I kind of love it. First, I think it's been misrepresented by it's so-called 'fans'--- it's really a satire of 80s excess, a la RoboCop, a live-action cartooned painted in pastels. Now I look at it as more of a satire of say, Wall Street or Hollywood in the 80s, as opposed to a documentation of the drug scene in Miami.

  37. Jamie:

    I agree with you about Schrader's lesser films you mention. Although, Light Sleeper is pretty damn good, and his brilliant 2002 film Auto Focus proves that he can direct a script not written by him.

    I also quite enjoyed his version of The Exorcist prequel.

  38. Ryan:

    As always your thoughts are much appreciated here. I will certianly give Hi, Mom! a look. As for this:

    And as for Scarface, I used to hate it but now I kind of love it. First, I think it's been misrepresented by it's so-called 'fans'--- it's really a satire of 80s excess, a la RoboCop, a live-action cartooned painted in pastels. Now I look at it as more of a satire of say, Wall Street or Hollywood in the 80s, as opposed to a documentation of the drug scene in Miami.

    Interesting take. I can definitely see how a viewing through that lens would make the film much more enjoyable. Perhaps I think of it in terms of how its "fans", as you put it, regard the film today. It has become synonymous with hip-hop culture, which I must admit, despite my daily encounters with 16-19-year old kids at the school I work at, I don't understand that culture at all, and I have never understood all the love for Scarface.

    However, I like your reading and how it reminds you of the great Verhoeven film about 80's excess Robocop. I will have to give Scarface another shot.

    Thanks for chiming in.