The Responsive Eye
Opening night at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, a gathering of Gothamites to admire and deplore works in the vein loosely called Op Art but including Josef Albers (in attendance) and others carefully differentiated in the commentary by Seitz (the curator) et al.
An invaluable record of the exhibition.
The nuts-and-bolts operation, implemented by LBJ, to fulfill his predecessor’s inaugural pledge “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
It is a question of establishing, for example, who the assassins were, and that the “new generation of Americans” are very young, and what the New Frontier actually looks like.
Hitchcock (Rear Window, Marnie) and Antonioni (Blowup) go in, Kubrick comes out (A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket), Richard Lester is practically subbed by Richard Hamilton.
Howard Thompson of the New York Times, “way off target.” Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), “just like Mack Sennett used to do.” Time Out, “silly and substantial.” Halliwell’s Film Guide, “fleeting satirical bits.” And so forth, “aw, ya mudder wears garden hose.”
Or David and Lisa (dir. Frank Perry) meets Porgy and Bess (dir. Otto Preminger).
“Y’know, tragedy is a funny thing.”
“Oh wow, it certainly is.”
Confessions of a Peeping John (“m’introduire dans ton histoire”).
Be Black Baby (National Intellectual Television).
The Urban Guerilla (“à la tour abolit”).
The title signifying success (cf. William Klein’s mr. Freedom).
Roger Greenspun of the New York Times, “stands out for its wit, its ironic good humor, its multilevel sophistications, its technical ingenuity, its nervousness, and its very special ability to bring the sensibility of the suburbs to the sins of the inner city.” TV Guide, “curiously interesting”. Richard Luck (Film4), “De Palma doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say, or how to say it.” Time Out, “the sequel to end all sequels.” Lucia Bozzola (All Movie Guide), “irreverent”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “busy comedy of the drop-out life.”
Get to Know Your Rabbit
The “marketing analyst in the servomechanism industry” who packs it in to become a tap dancing magician.
Business and “the field of glamour”, the “cheap broad” of a night.
A demanding vocation.
A great trend of thought in Nichols’ Catch-22 thus receives a sterling analysis (cf. Tashlin’s The Geisha Boy), and there is Orson Welles both times. A “swing through the second-rate bars and cocktail lounges of America’s heartland,” first stop The Old Corral, a beer bar in Elgin, Illinois.
The danger, as Beckett foresaw, is that this could be an industry.
The Indiana Bombshell, and that great homage to The Band Wagon (dir. Vincente Minnelli), “Felix Hoff’s ‘Golden Egg’” in lights.
“The Ballad of Longwood Glen” (V. Nabokov, see his notes on “The Metamorphosis”).
Vincent Canby of the New York Times reported it three years delayed in release and among the “movies that promote the importance of non-conformity” of which “A Thousand Clowns is a case in point.”
Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader), “a mess, but not intolerable.”
TV Guide, “De Palma at his most intelligent and moralistic—which, commendable as those traits are, tended to overshadow the charm that might have made this film work.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “inane sex farce... self-indulgent comedy is an utterly sophomoric burlesque posing as a spoof of conventional society.”
The ending is that of Nichols’ The Graduate, Katharine Ross both times.
The strength of the title is that the sufferer cannot tell the daughter from the late wife, who was killed in effect by the partner’s obsessive greed.
A widower, a daughter, and a partner who is dead form the action finally.
In spite of the much material cited from Hitchcock, the resemblance is closer to Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up, for example.
At the very least, a satire of the businessman who neglects his wife for his affaires and eventually takes a young mistress for the pangs of middle age.
Maslin calls it “misogynistic” and misses it by a country mile. There is an ultimate cruelty in this film revealed at the last, and the victim is the horribly defenseless individual you will at last remember from your school days.
Other than this, Carrie either defies criticism plainly or puts it to its mettle with prodigious inventions that require description, one after another.
There is a beautiful setup at the first, a high angle on girls in gym class playing volleyball, which cranes down and in to the inept Carrie being flouted as the other players pass her on their way to the locker room. As the credits play, De Palma simply fabricates one of the greatest shots in cinema. In slow motion, the camera tracks right across the girls before the rows of lockers, finds an aisle leading to the showers and dollies-in to Carrie under the stream, bleeding, with her back to it.
Pino Donaggio’s theme here anticipates the remembrance of Morricone’s in Once Upon a Time in America. De Palma pursues his image in a remarkable scene at the principal’s office, tilting down from a close-up of Carrie’s face to an ashtray with a lit cigarette on the desk before her, which her distress plummets to the floor.
A provisionally-furnished suburban ranch house is seen, visited by Carrie’s mother, proselytizing. Her girlish turn at the door after a last adjuration with lifted right hand is a key element of the performance.
Her own house is a century-old gem, somewhat dark inside with a Last Supper hanging, etc. Carrie is excoriated with an article entitled “The Sins of Women” and sent to her penitential closet and its arrow-stricken crucified Christ (whose open eyes are curiously lighted or reflective), filmed overhead like the famous scene in Broken Blossoms. Afterward, Carrie kisses the rod and her mother at the sewing machine. Piper Laurie’s face is firm-set in homage to Olivia de Havilland’s, perhaps, at the close of Wyler’s The Heiress. Alone in her room, Carrie’s mirror oscillates and breaks. A bearded Jesus is reflected in the shards.
In English class, De Palma fabricates a close-up of William Katt on the left, beaming and blond-curled with sardonic superiority, and in the background Carrie to the right, pre-Raphaelite behind her hair, looking down.
The gym class meets indoors for a lecture, which affords a long bottomless caricature of the girls, until a janitor is seen in the background working on a door.
And now comes the tracking shot right across the girls at calisthenics outdoors, contrasted with Carrie at the card catalog, where she finds The Secret Science Behind Miracles by Max Freedom Long, and reads (in a scanning pan which improves on Hitchcock) about telekinesis.
Katt and his class are on the track, a POV leads him to his girl. Another couple is out on a date, her breasts are his delight, another car pulls alongside, the fellow is tossed a can of beer, yet another is full of japing girls, a last has police with a flashlight, he drops the beer, smiles, then slaps his date (this scene is superbly filmed).
Another invention. In the center of the shot is a television set broadcasting the opening scenes of Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo. Katt, right, is watching it (Western desert, cowboy, aerial shots, etc.). His girl, left foreground, is poring over a book in the center foreground.
In a daylight exterior later repeated at night, the gym teacher descends a stairway to console Carrie. They look into a mirror, with “SENIOR PROM” reversed behind them, as the teacher bucks her up and sees herself.
A superb scene in the gym teacher’s office with Katt and his girl betrays the random situation. This close setup is contrasted with a long-lens long shot of him in his truck among the trees, on his way to Carrie’s house to ask her to the prom.
Now the gang by night advance along a pig farm mural to slaughter a pig for the prank. At a candlelight supper in front of the Last Supper hanging, Carrie’s mother throws her coffee in the girl’s face, extinguishing the candles. Lightning illuminates the hanging.
The parochialism of parenthood is contrasted with the bold boys of high school (who take the lesser breeds in stride), the girls in the beauty salon, general preparations for the prom, and a crane shot up the ladder in the gym for decorations.
Carrie has a corsage of miniature roses, and a mildly revealing dress. Her mother is hysterical, and telekinesis knocks her down on the bed.
De Palma’s marvelously vast planes of artifice, if that’s not too finicky a term, have prepared the prom night at Bates High School, whose team is the Stingers. Katt’s girl now descends the stairs to observe the prank. It’s filmed in slow motion, with an intermittent split screen to follow. Carrie and Katt are rigged to be voted Prom Couple, she is drenched with pig’s blood from a suspended bucket. Her telekinetic powers destroy the gym (with an incidental echo of It’s a Wonderful Life, to say nothing of The Last Days of Pompeii).
At home, her mother stabs her like Abraham, and is skewered like Saint Sebastian. The house collapses and burns. Katt’s girl, who lives in the suburban ranch house, visits the site, and is seized by “the agenbite of inwit” in a shot echoing Deliverance.
De Palma’s refined, streamlined understanding gets directly to the point of the murder in Blowup, the saxophone-playing at the end of The Conversation. Hitchcockisms are similarly made his own by a very deep awareness of Hitchcock’s sources, the climax is derived from a key film in that regard, King Kong, and thus provides the ambiguous result (Kong dies, but so does the girl).
Again, the dissolves to an over-the-shoulder view of the assassin’s prey in a photo acknowledge the mickey and abstract it. On the other side of this coin is technical precision rendering problems into legerdemain, the scenes of the sound man at work have been noted by critics, and the result (a flip book of magazine stills, the assembled and synchronized film).
The amazing drive through a police barricade and up the Liberty Day Parade ends in a shop window representing the last words of Nathan Hale, and may have influenced Scorsese in his remake of Cape Fear.
Absolute power absolutely contradicted.
The structure is by way of being a highly elaborate joke on the downfall of Al Capone for income tax evasion. He is the great invention of the film, a canting thug who cavorts for the press like a politician of the specifically mayoral type compared to Scarface (who never knew what hit him) and his world.
The joke in its manifold aspects is built on an Irish cop and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, as a reflection also to some degree of the topsy-turvy world erected by the Volstead Act.
The Canadian theme is an echo of the days when Americans toasted King George there in gratitude. To make a virtue of starving praise is the glory of the moniker that gives the film its title, exemplified by the cop on the beat in a brilliant script brilliantly pointed by De Palma.
The Bonfire of the Vanities
The spectacular long mobile take at the beginning is a caricature of Tom Wolfe, and for this one can forget The Painted Word. Not long thereafter, De Palma establishes the scene at the outdoor table which is meant to be (and doubtless is) what Matisse saw when he painted Tea (1919), for example, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s not made of wax figures, it’s free of any strictures applying to these things in movies or on stage but approached with real artistry, as though something difficult even to imagine were to be put on film, and how? De Palma probably didn’t know either, until he did it. To paraphrase a film critic who is sometimes right on the money, if a director can do that, he can do anything.
And so, one is entirely disarmed for the grand joke, which is that the DA is a fool, and the defense attorney a knave. The judge steps down from the bench and rebukes the boisterous courtroom, and there you have an end.
Among the performances, one must single out F. Murray Abraham’s beautiful study along lines developed by Bradford Dillman, because he receives no screen credit. The judge should have been Alan Arkin as Myron Kovitzky, but Morgan Freeman as Leonard White fulfills the demands of the part, if not of the epiphany. But then there is Tom Hanks, whom no director can do anything about. Ask him to be on Saturday Night Live for union scale and he will show what a lively, talented actor he can be. In films, he and Tom Cruise and Helen Hunt and a number of other leading actors have struck the bargain proposed by Alain Bosquet to Dali in 1965 or 1966. “If a billionaire,” Bosquet asks Dali, “asked you not to paint for a year, how much money would he have to pay you?” “Oh,” Dali replies, “not much! A few million...” That is what Hanks is paid for his services year in and year out, accounting for inflation.
The deus ex machina approach may have set off a craze for daytime TV judges, but De Palma can hardly be blamed for that, or can he?
The celebrated poolroom scene is “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” or nearly, and that gives a clue. Pacino, because it’s Shakespeare, and with his beard on the train platform in close-up he resembles Pavarotti.
This explains the structure, fine set pieces interspersed with prose, a musical with a caméra-stylo.
The critics were wearied by this Scarface variant (they were waiting for The Lord of the Rings and did not know it).
It’s about the loss of a building. Robert Browning wrote a poem that saved one, just as Oliver Wendell Holmes saved the U.S.S. Constitution, and there is Hugo’s Les Misérables. But De Palma entertains no such hope. The jewel is immured in a pylon before our eyes with a long slow zoom from Hitchcock’s Family Plot.
The formal structure is rich and detailed, but given clarity by its many interior articulations built on an allusion in the image or the dialogue, and by the nature of the form placed largely between two scenes which are identical in purpose. The entire film amounts to the opening shot of a reporter announcing the last fight at an Atlantic City arena, followed by the symbolic representation of its demise. Thus, a surrealist film could be made by omitting everything after the first shot and before the reporter’s second appearance, since these two shots are really one that in turn is surrealistically opened to provide the body of the film, in which a politician’s death (“a prairie populist dismantling the military”) figures as the image, from The Manchurian Candidate.
The climax comes when the reporter’s standup is interrupted by a woman and a bloodied man who burst from the building she’s standing in front of during Hurricane Jezebel, pursued by a man with a silencered pistol who is stunned by the bright light of a police van and kills himself like Judas. Then comes the coda as described.
Judas, a name from Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, which figures in the television booth inside the arena, and the plot as well. This middle section of the film, dividing the reporter’s number, begins with a famous sequence of Steadicam shots spliced together like Hitchcock’s Rope, which is further analyzed by flashbacks from the viewpoint of several characters. The key or master shot is purposely rough, since it expresses a false or deceived view (it is heightened by Nicolas Cage’s impression of an Andy Kaufman character), prepared by the news director’s spin and the cop’s shakedown. The flashbacks from different angles are more polished, more concentrated, but subjective, falsified or imaginary to some extent.
The new project replacing the arena is The Powell Millennium, owned by Powell of Powell Aircraft, a defense contractor, it’s the military-industrial-entertainment complex. His missiles are defective, the woman is a whistleblower, the bloodied man is the crooked cop, whose best friend is the man with the pistol (he wears a naval commander’s uniform and is jokingly compared to James Bond, who significantly wore his in You Only Live Twice).
The film is set in Atlantic City by dint of Louis Malle’s film of that name, with a tacit reference to his Vanya on 42nd Street.
Scorsese’s Raging Bull figures in the treatment of the boxing match in some scenes, and his style is acknowledged elsewhere in one or two shots.
The cop is described as “a Columbo running loose”, with reference to “Blueprint for Murder”, for the body in the pylon. His walk down the corridor to the antechamber where the woman is hiding briefly sketches Terry Malloy’s in On the Waterfront, while her situation is also briefly seen as the girl’s in Broken Blossoms.
The coda is a little stretto that begins with an all but explicit reference to Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (the fake lighthouses used by New Jersey pirates of two or three centuries ago to lure ships onto the rocks), followed swiftly by the cop’s joke about his wife and mistress, evoking Woody Allen’s Manhattan just enough to recall “I once tried to block demolition. You know, getting some people to lie down in front of a building... and some policeman stepped on my hand. The city’s really changing.” In the background, workers end their lunch break (reversing the situation at the beginning of Buñuel’s La Mort en ce jardin) and, in the finest shot of the film, the pylon is laid.
The Black Dahlia
The great name of Mack Sennett is invoked as the ideal of Hollywood. The structure is by no means as complicated as it appears, owing to a system of identifications that makes for a broad scope of dramatic scenes reflecting the main point. De Palma takes the title character as his fairy-tale heroine, and puts her back together.
She is the boxer whose mouth is mauled in the opening scenes, and the blonde with a pimp’s initials carved on her haunch, and the wayward daughter who does in her nominal father’s enemies. The image of a dog shot by its owner and stuffed to hold a newspaper in its mouth commemorating the day of his first million is the mirror of her divided torso.
Josh Hartnett’s performance mirrors Mia Kirshner’s in the Dahlia’s screen tests, blundering, inept and gawking at first. The subjective camera stands in for him by way of a reply, when he meets the Linscotts. The paterfamilias is associated in terms of building construction (Sennett’s Hollywoodland) with Morrie Friedman’s Olympic (Friedman is a friend of Mickey Cohen’s).
The overall idea is of a mobster who supports his otherwise very efficient local police, mirroring a construction magnate who makes his fortune on Hollywood sets reused as substandard housing. The essence of the visible, outward drama is Mrs. Linscott’s suicide with a pistol to her mouth, which summarizes the entire case as dramatically realized. De Palma’s purpose is expressed in the two lovers meeting finally, since they each reflect the Dahlia.
Dichotomy is the formal model right from the start, the zoot suit riot, the boxing match of Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice (Blanchard and Bleichert, a Joycean subtlety of names), etc. The profusion of material is necessary in another way as well. One must work through Chinatown and films of the period to arrive at the time and place, De Palma suspends a line of shadow on the wall to articulate the texture authentically. This is the tactile foundation of the Linscott living-room’s second appearance, lighted and minutely dressed to evoke the visual reality.
The immodesty of film critics has blamed De Palma for their shortcomings. Blanchard on Benzedrine is drug-addled Mrs. Linscott, the Lesbian underworld is a house of mirrors, fame and money and power are the simple Hollywood ingredients.
Hitchcock’s Blackmail has been noted, also The Birds (Leni’s The Man Who Laughs is featured). De Palma’s citations are generally allusive, as of Coogan’s Bluff in Dos Santos handcuffed to the radiator. He sharpens this for the Dahlia’s later screen tests, which begin to reflect Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and conclude with the tearful smile of Antonioni’s La Signora senza camelie. Bertolucci’s 1900 figures prominently toward the end of the film, Nicholson’s The Two Jakes throughout.
At the Red Arrow Inn, a fine point is made, the two figures outside are not from Edward Hopper but Millard Sheets, in effect.
One expressionist angle at the Diner by the Sea serves to activate the camera view as a study of contemporary design, the purpose being to “invent” the look as Lang did, rather than imitate. A swift tilt down to a cigarette put out serves the same purpose in the subjective camera sequence, the first of three views. The Linscott dwelling is homey at first, later it has the magisterial appearance described, finally it’s a palace at night when Bleichert shoots it up.
De Palma at the lake in Echo Park achieves a Mary Cassatt (after Polanski). These painterly nuances point up a curious imperfection in Ferretti’s painted signs, whereas his architecture hits the mark and is grist for the mill, the overwhelming perfection of the visual evocation is made of many parts.
Blanchard is blackmailed as a “dirty cop”, he has a bank robber’s girl and loot. The Dahlia’s body is found as he murders the blackmailer outside a bordello close by.
Georgie was a friend of the family, served in the Scots Regiment with Emmett Linscott, worked in Hollywood at lighting, introduced Emmett to Mack Sennett.
Blanchard’s little sister was killed when he was 15, no-one was arrested. He kills the robber and pimp with a pistol and silencer upon the man’s release. The house he chastely shares with Kay is “only a Band-Aid to cover a fractured life.”
The revelation of Linscott’s daughter comes to Blanchard as a literal earthquake, he dies at her hands for blackmailing (and beating) her father. This she considers to be a piece of good fortune for Bleichert, without her “you wouldn’t have had the balls to fuck your partner’s girl.”
Emmett Linscott had Ramona Boulevard named for his wife, an insignificant roadway in Bleichert’s neighborhood, where “Mexican prostitutes show themselves naked in windows” and know Emmett by name.
She kills and butchers the Dahlia because her lover fancied the girl with a resemblance to their daughter, for whose sake Georgie was disfigured by Emmett but hired as a gardener. Georgie observes the filming of a Lesbian nudie at a Hollywoodland property, Emmett hires the girl for him, Mrs. Linscott attacks her with a baseball bat. The house in the film is recognized by Bleichert as the set of The Man Who Laughs, about a boy who grows up with a permanent rictus as the result of a vendetta.
Mrs. Linscott dies on the society pages as an accidental gunshot victim (the rich live differently, and die that way, too), Blanchard’s body is burned in the Olympic incinerator by Morrie Friedman, his days of seeking fame are over. De Palma’s Snake Eyes is the basis of understanding, there is a critical backlog.