Is there another contemporary American director who more sharply divides critics and audiences alike than Brian De Palma? For more than 30 years, he has weathered charges of being a Hitchcock plagiarist, a misogynist and a pet enthusiasm of the late critic Pauline Kael (who is mistakenly believed to have liked — nay, loved — all of his films). He has made nearly as many films that have been enshrined in the pop-culture firmament (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables) as have been met with total apathy (Raising Cain, The Bonfire of the Vanities). There have been costly failures (Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars) and a couple of neglected masterpieces (Casualties of War, Femme Fatale). He has never been nominated for an Oscar. And, like many of the visionary directors who came of age in the New Hollywood of the late 1960s and early ’70s, he has found it increasingly difficult to work with the autonomy he deserves in an industry where art is regularly sacrificed at the altar of commerce.
Chances are, the 12-film De Palma retrospective that kicks off this week at LACMA (and which includes a preview screening of his latest, The Black Dahlia) will do little to convert the unconverted. Even the series subtitle, “The Stylish Thrillers of Brian De Palma,” offers more ammo (as if any were needed) for those who have charged that the director exalts style over substance. It’s not an entirely invalid criticism, as De Palma, by his own admission, believes in the supremacy of images. (“Where the camera is placed is, to me, as important as the material itself,” he has been quoted as saying.) But to dismiss De Palma as a mere stylist is akin to deeming Andy Warhol a mere silkscreener. For in De Palma’s best work, much of which has been selected for the LACMA retro, the “style” reaches such ecstatic, orgiastic proportions that nothing else about the film can hope to compete with it. Nor would you much want it to.
De Palma’s thrillers — they are not the only films he has made, but the ones for which he is the most celebrated/reviled — are movies of childlike terror, repressed sexual urges literally bursting into bloom, femmes douces and fatales, doppelgängers and split personalities, all-enveloping conspiracies and pea-soup-thick lesbian eros. They seem, by turns, the work of a dirty-minded popular showman — a carnival-barker filmmaker who thrives on the peculiar and the perverse — and of an impish satirist, who exposes our basest instincts by way of pandering to them. They are also among the most visually ravishing achievements in cinema, not (or not just) for their noted “beauty” and technical complexity, but for their ornate expressiveness, the way in which the movement of the camera and the movement of the actors (often in super slow motion) tell the story in a way that renders words irrelevant and, for a moment, takes us back to the primal intensity of silent cinema.
I speak, of course, of the baby carriage descending the stairs of Chicago’s Union Station in The Untouchables; of the man (Cliff Robertson) running toward his lover (Genevieve Bujold), whom he doesn’t yet realize is actually his daughter, in the airport finale of Obsession; and of the brilliant jewel heist in the bathroom of the Cannes Film Festival at the start of Femme Fatale. Or perhaps you prefer the menstrual fireworks at the end of Carrie — I, for one, will certainly not hold it against you. De Palma is not for the faint of heart, or for those who dislike films that leave stains on their party dresses. But for the rest of us, for the next three weeks, a charnel house of bloody pleasure awaits.
DRESSED TO KILL: THE STYLISH THRILLERS OF BRIAN DE PALMA | Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Sept. 12-30 | ?www.lacma.org