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Brian De Palma's Split-Screen

Brian De Palma's Split-Screen: A Life in Film

Douglas Keesey
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 360
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    Brian De Palma's Split-Screen
    Book Description:

    Over the last five decades, the films of director Brian De Palma (b. 1940) have been among the biggest successes (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) and the most high-profile failures (The Bonfire of the Vanities) in Hollywood history. De Palma helped launch the careers of such prominent actors as Robert De Niro, John Travolta, and Sissy Spacek (who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress in Carrie). Indeed Quentin Tarantino namedBlow Outas one of his top three favorite films, praising De Palma as the best living American director. Picketed by feminists protesting its depictions of violence against women,Dressed to Killhelped to create the erotic thriller genre. Scarface, with its over-the-top performance by Al Pacino, remains a cult favorite. In the twenty-first century, De Palma has continued to experiment, incorporating elements from videogames (Femme Fatale), tabloid journalism (The Black Dahlia), YouTube, and Skype (Redacted and Passion) into his latest works. What makes De Palma such a maverick even when he is making Hollywood genre films? Why do his movies often feature megalomaniacs and failed heroes? Is he merely a misogynist and an imitator of Alfred Hitchcock? To answer these questions, author Douglas Keesey takes a biographical approach to De Palma's cinema, showing how De Palma reworks events from his own life into his films. Written in an accessible style, and including a chapter on every one of his films to date, this book is for anyone who wants to know more about De Palma's controversial films or who wants to better understand the man who made them.

    eISBN: 978-1-62846-702-4
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 3-16)

    Brian De Palma has directed twenty-nine feature films over the last five decades. His movies have been among the biggest successes (The Untouchables,Mission: Impossible) and the most high-profile failures (The Bonfire of the Vanities) in Hollywood history. De Palma’s films have helped launch the careers of such actors as Robert De Niro, John Travolta, and Sissy Spacek (who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress inCarrie). Quentin Tarantino has namedBlow Outas one of his top three favorite films,¹ praising De Palma as the best living American director.²Dressed to Kill, which was picketed by...

  4. CHAPTER 1 The Wedding Party (1964–65)
    (pp. 17-21)

    De Palma’s first feature film,The Wedding Party, was shot in winter 1964 and summer 1965. Because no distributor could be found for the film, it was not released until 1969, after the success ofGreetings.The Wedding Partywas a collaborative effort: De Palma did most of the directing and editing; his drama teacher, Wilford Leach, worked with the actors; and Cynthia Munroe, a student at Sarah Lawrence College, financed the production ($100,000) and wrote the script. Originally, De Palma, Munroe, and three other friends were each going to direct separate segments of an anthology film, along the lines...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Murder à la Mod (1966)
    (pp. 22-27)

    If Godard had made a Hitchcock film, or if Hitchcock had made a Godard film, it might look something likeMurder à la Mod, De Palma’s second feature-length movie. Mixing self-reflexive humor about filmmaking with the horror of a murder and the suspense of its investigation, De Palma here combined the styles of the two directors who arguably had the most influence on him in his novice years. “We have three suspects,” De Palma explained, and “ we go back to the murder three times. Three different perspectives.”¹

    The first segment is told from the (implied and sometimes literal) point...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Greetings (1968)
    (pp. 28-36)

    But it is comedy that De Palma would emphasize in his next feature. One of the few films about the 1960s counterculture actually shot by members of that culture at the time,Greetingsshows the continuing influence of Jean-Luc Godard on De Palma. “If I could be the American Godard,” he said, “that would be great. I think there are more interesting social and political things going on here in the United States than in France.”¹ Among the topical issues explored by the film are the Vietnam War draft, computer dating, the Kennedy assassination, and pornographic movies. Made for $43,000...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Dionysus in ’69 (1970)
    (pp. 37-42)

    Dionysus in’69, De Palma’s filmic record of a Greek tragedy, may seem like a misfit, bearing little relation to the two comedies,GreetingsandHi, Mom!, he shot before and after it. But the theme of voyeurism and a self-reflexive awareness of the camera provide strong links among the three films. In June and July 1968, De Palma shot two performances, which were then melded into one film, of an avant-garde play based on Euripides’sThe Bacchae, staged by Richard Schechner’s Performance Group in New York City.

    An experiment in “environmental theater,” the play involved breaking down barriers between...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Hi, Mom! (1970)
    (pp. 43-51)

    De Palma got the idea forHi, Mom!when he saw filmgoers lined up outside a theater to attend his movieGreetings. Across the street from the theater was a high-rise building, and he imagined that inside each one of its apartment windows there was a story to be told. In his mind, each window became a kind of movie screen.Greetings’ voyeuristic character of Jon (Robert De Niro) returns inHi, Mom!, which is self-consciously a sequel to the earlier film. (In its initial stages,Hi, Mom!carried the titleSon of Greetingsand everyone hoped it would be...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)
    (pp. 52-58)

    Hollywood was eager to cash in on the new youth market that had made movies likeThe GraduateandEasy Riderso profitable, particularly after the failure of more conventional, big-budget productions (Cleopatra,Paint Your Wagon,Hello, Dolly!). Given the recent success of his counterculture comedy Greetings , a fresh talent like De Palma seemed to be a good bet, so Warner Bros. brought him out from New York to LA to makeGet to Know Your Rabbit. “Warners were making a lot of young pictures with young directors,” said De Palma, “and they wanted some crazy, lunatic New York...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Sisters (1973)
    (pp. 59-68)

    WithSisters, De Palma moved from Godard to Hitchcock, changing genres from political satire to the psychological suspense thriller. Having worked inGreetings,Hi, Mom!, andGet to Know Your Rabbitwith episodic, freewheeling narratives, handheld tracking shots, and semi-improvisational dialogue, he decided to try his hand at a tighter script, a more structured plot (one that was carefully storyboarded), and experiments in editing. His low-budget comedies had been shot in long takes for efficiency’s sake, which De Palma believed made them come across as “long and talky. It bothers me. I like films that use cuts to build...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
    (pp. 69-80)

    Winslow Leach (William Finley) is an aspiring singer/songwriter whose music is stolen by Swan (Paul Williams), a media mogul who wants to use it to open his new rock palace, the Paradise. After all of Winslow’s attempts to reclaim his music meet with rejection and his face is mangled in a record press, he dons a mask and cape, becoming the Phantom who haunts the Paradise. Using an on-stage car bomb, Winslow sabotages a surfer band to prevent them from playing his music.

    To stop further destruction, Swan signs him to a contract whereby Winslow sells his soul in order...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Obsession (1976)
    (pp. 81-91)

    In 1959 New Orleans, Michael and Elizabeth Courtland (Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold) celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary by dancing with each other and then with their nine-year-old daughter Amy (Wanda Blackman). But that night, Elizabeth and Amy are both kidnapped and a ransom note is left in their place. Michael is persuaded by police to leave dummy money at the drop site, rigged with a radio transmitter allowing police to track the kidnappers to their lair. A chase ensues, resulting in the deaths of Elizabeth and Amy when the kidnappers’ getaway car collides with an oil truck, explodes, and...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Carrie (1976)
    (pp. 92-105)

    Kept ignorant of the body by her religiously repressed mother, Carrie (Sissy Spacek) fears that she is bleeding to death when she has her first period in the high school gym shower. The other girls don’t help by pelting her with tampons. Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) enforces the school’s punishment for their bad behavior, but one of the girls, Chris (Nancy Allen), refuses to do the required physical exercises and so she is denied her tickets to the upcoming senior prom. Another girl, Sue (Amy Irving), feels bad about her role in the tampon “stoning” of Carrie and...

  14. CHAPTER 11 The Fury (1978)
    (pp. 106-115)

    Peter (Kirk Douglas), a secret agent for the U.S. government who is on the verge of retirement, is vacationing with his teenage son, Robin (Andrew Stevens), at a Middle Eastern beach resort. Suddenly, a band of ghutra-clad Arabs launches a guerilla attack, and Robin looks on helplessly as they fire machine guns at his father and then blow him up when he attempts to escape in a boat. However, unbeknownst to Robin, the attack was actually ordered by Peter’s colleague, Childress (John Cassavetes), who wants the boy’s father out of the way so that Robin’s psychic abilities can be developed...

  15. CHAPTER 12 Home Movies (1980)
    (pp. 116-127)

    When the horror/espionage thrillerThe Furyproved less successful than had been hoped, the studio withdrew its financial backing forThe Demolished Man, the film De Palma had intended to make next. In response, the director returned to his roots and shot a loosely structured comedy calledHome Movies, which was similar toThe Wedding Party,Greetings, andHi, Mom!, all made in the ’60s: “I hadn’t done just a straight-out comedy in a long time, just letting an ensemble do really good character acting, having them carry the movie as in my earlier pictures.”¹ As Keith Gordon (star of...

  16. CHAPTER 13 Dressed to Kill (1980)
    (pp. 128-146)

    Dressed to Killnotoriously begins with a fantasy scene of wealthy housewife Kate (Angie Dickinson) masturbating in the shower while watching her husband shave in front of the bathroom mirror. Languorous violin music plays, accompanied by breathy female vocals, as Kate runs soapy hands over her breasts and between her legs. But these moments of soft sensuality, along with the music and heavy breathing, are suddenly cut short when a strange man comes up behind her in the shower, clapping one hand over her mouth to stifle her screams and grabbing her with the other hand between her legs while...

  17. CHAPTER 14 Blow Out (1981)
    (pp. 147-155)

    Starting with a blade-wielding killer who attacks a woman in the shower,Blow Outbegins whereDressed to Killended, but only so that De Palma can distance himself from the kind of stalk-and-slash film that he has been pigeonholed as making. “I’m typed as . . . the specialist in B-movie horror,” he has said, 1 and soBlow Outbegins with a scene that is gradually revealed to be from a film-within-the-film, a low-budget horror movie calledCoed Frenzy. Made as a kind of parody ofHalloween(according to Steadicam operator Garrett Brown),² the scene is deliberately bad,...

  18. CHAPTER 15 Scarface (1983)
    (pp. 156-165)

    Following the poor performance ofBlow Outat the box office, De Palma decided to switch genres, explaining, “I’d just made a very difficult, very unsuccessful picture,Blow Out. I kind of wanted to move into a different world. I was hoping to make a more commercial picture by making a gangster picture. I’d never done one before.”¹ Besides, he added, “I get tired of making these Brian De Palma movies. You get tired of your own obsessions, the betrayals, the voyeurism, the twisted sexuality. I’ve made a lot of movies like this, so you’re glad to get out there...

  19. CHAPTER 16 Body Double (1984)
    (pp. 166-180)

    Body Doublebegins with Jake (Craig Wasson) attempting to act his part as a vampire in a low-budget horror movie. Lying in his coffin, he bares his fangs but then freezes, unable to bite or to rise from his resting place due to an attack of claustrophobia. The film’s director, Rubin (Dennis Franz), and his male assistant are witnesses to Jake’s inadequacy. Later, in drama class, Jake relives a time from his childhood when, while playing a game of Sardine with his two older brothers, he ended up jammed behind a freezer and unable to move. “They’ll laugh at me...

  20. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  21. CHAPTER 17 Wise Guys (1986)
    (pp. 181-183)

    As a gangster comedy,Wise Guysis best appreciated as a happy alternative toScarface, a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which things that went wrong in that film—and in De Palma’s life—now go miraculously right. Harry (Danny DeVito) and Moe (Joe Piscopo) are small-time mobsters who live side by side in houses under a New Jersey expressway. Moe thinks that everyone has forgotten his birthday, even his own mother, and we recall that the lack of birthday celebrations in the De Palma household was a sore point for De Palma himself, who wondered about his mother, “How could she...

  22. CHAPTER 18 The Untouchables (1987)
    (pp. 184-193)

    Set in Prohibition-era Chicago,The Untouchablesshows Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his handpicked band of incorruptible men—veteran cop Malone (Sean Connery), rookie Stone (Andy Garcia), and accountant Wallace (Charles Martin Smith)—pitted against mob kingpin Al Capone (Robert De Niro). But sometimes, as De Palma has indicated, the film may seem less like “a gangster movie” and “more like aMagnificent Seven”¹ (the John Sturges Western). According to location manager Eric Schwab, De Palma told him that “this is a Western. Good guys. Bad guys.”² Hence, the rather improbable scene set in a Western landscape where...

  23. CHAPTER 19 Casualties of War (1989)
    (pp. 194-204)

    Based on an actual 1966 incident first reported in a 1969 New Yorker article, Casualties of War tells the story of a squad of American soldiers during the Vietnam War who kidnap, rape, and murder a Vietnamese peasant girl, Oahn (Thuy Thu Le). Of the five-man squad—Meserve (Sean Penn), Clark (Don Harvey), Hatcher (John C. Reilly), Diaz (John Leguizamo), and Eriksson (Michael J. Fox)—only Eriksson refuses to participate in the rape and murder, and it is he who brings charges against the men in the end.

    Early in the film, during a night patrol, a mortar explosion causes...

  24. CHAPTER 20 The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
    (pp. 205-210)

    The Bonfire of the Vanitiesrecounts the fall of Wall Street bond broker Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks). Pulling in millions, ensconced in a posh Park Avenue apartment, Sherman thinks he is “impervious, untouchable, insulated by wealth and power—a Master of the Universe.” But after one wrong turn into a Bronx ghetto results in his Mercedes accidentally backing over a black youth, Sherman finds himself the object of an onslaught by reporters, politicians, and the police. In one scene, an overhead shot shows Sherman reigning supreme as a Wall Street power broker: seated at his desk, he has his shoes...

  25. CHAPTER 21 Raising Cain (1992)
    (pp. 211-220)

    Carter (John Lithgow) is a child psychologist who is taking time off from his practice in order to remain at home and observe the growth of his daughter, Amy. De Palma has said that “I got the idea because a friend of mine, a child psychologist, had a little girl and got obsessed with her and decided to quit his job and stay home and study her and write a book about it.”¹ But De Palma himself had recently become a father for the first time, and he filmed Raising Cain within a five-minute radius of his house in northern...

  26. CHAPTER 22 Carlito’s Way (1993)
    (pp. 221-228)

    When first approached about makingCarlito’s Way, De Palma had doubts about directing another film starring Al Pacino as a Latino gangster. However, he was eventually persuaded to do the film: “What I liked about it was it was completely different fromScarface. Where Tony Montana is cold, calculating and willing to do anything to rise to the top, Carlito is at the other end of the spectrum: he’s trying to reform. He slowly gets dragged back into the game.”¹ The new film’s many references toScarfacehelp the viewer mark the differences separating them. When Carlito returns to the...

  27. CHAPTER 23 Mission: Impossible (1996)
    (pp. 229-241)

    The Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is a team of covert CIA spies. Under orders from their boss Kittridge (Henry Czerny), IMF leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) gathers the team, which consists of his wife, Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), Ethan (Tom Cruise), Jack (Emilio Estevez), Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), and Hannah (Ingeborga Dapkunaite). Their mission is to prevent a diplomat, Golitsyn, from stealing “the NOC list,” which contains the names of undercover U.S. agents, from an embassy in Prague. However, unbeknownst to Ethan, Jim is actually a traitor to his country and the team, for he is using them to steal the...

  28. CHAPTER 24 Snake Eyes (1998)
    (pp. 242-248)

    Snake Eyeshas Atlantic City police detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) seated ringside at a casino boxing match when the U.S. secretary of defense, sitting behind him, is shot by a sniper. Rick then undertakes an investigation, interrogating witnesses and studying video footage from the casino’s many surveillance cameras to determine whether there might have been a conspiracy behind the assassination. Here we have another film rooted in De Palma’s obsession with the John F. Kennedy assassination and the far-reaching inquiry to which it gave rise.

    However, by tracking De Palma’s treatment of this topic over the course of several...

  29. CHAPTER 25 Mission to Mars (2000)
    (pp. 249-256)

    Married astronauts Jim (Gary Sinise) and Maggie (Kim Delaney) have trained for years to be co-commanders of the first manned spaceflight to Mars, but they drop out of the rotation when she falls ill and he devotes himself to caring for her during her final months. Instead, Luke (Don Cheadle) leads the mission, but a tornado on the planet’s surface kills all of his crew and leaves Luke stranded on Mars. A rescue mission is mounted, manned by Woody (Tim Robbins), his wife, Terri (Connie Nielsen), Phil (Jerry O’Connell), and Jim. However, micro-meteorites puncture their ship’s hull, and although an...

  30. CHAPTER 26 Femme Fatale (2002)
    (pp. 257-269)

    On a television set, we see a scene from Billy Wilder’sDouble Indemnityfeaturing Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis. Reflected in the TV screen over Phyllis is our film’s lead character, Laure, who is watching the movie in her hotel room. Over Laure, we see the opening credit for the actress playing her—Rebecca Romijn-Stamos—in the movie thatweare watching. Then, as Phyllis pulls a gun and shoots Neff (Fred MacMurray) in the film-within-a-film, we see the title credit for our film,Femme Fatale. This Brechtian opening emphasizes the connection between a person’s character and movie characters. We recall...

  31. CHAPTER 27 The Black Dahlia (2006)
    (pp. 270-280)

    With the possible exception of its somewhat hopeful ending, The Black Dahlia shows De Palma plunging back into the nightmarish world of film noir. It could be that the death of his father, which occurred shortly before filming began, brought on a return of troubling family memories in the director’s mind. We know that De Palma considered his father to be a commanding, even overbearing figure who was often rather cold and distant—traits which the son traced back to Anthony’s traumatic witnessing of horribly injured bodies on the battlefield during World War II. Anthony, who was the son of...

  32. CHAPTER 28 Redacted (2007)
    (pp. 281-285)

    Based on an actual 2006 incident,Redactedtells the story of a squad of American soldiers during the Iraq War who rape and murder an Iraqi girl named Farah (Zahra Zubaidi). The correspondences between this film andCasualties of Warare remarkable. In each case, the troops do not know why they are fighting their war and they have trouble distinguishing friend from foe. An African-American officer—Brownie inCasualties, Sweet (Ty Jones) inRedacted—warns an inexperienced soldier not to accept fruit from the local children. Brownie is later shot down by a sniper, and Sweet is blown up...

  33. CHAPTER 29 Passion (2012)
    (pp. 286-300)

    Passioncan serve as asummaof De Palma’s work, incorporating so many elements from his prior films that it constitutes a kind of career retrospective in itself. In the Berlin office of a global advertising agency, Christine (Rachel McAdams) is an executive and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) is her assistant. Christine says that she once had a twin sister who died under strange circumstances when they were young and for whose death Christine felt that she was blamed. (The theme of female twins or doubles was explored inSisters,Femme Fatale, andThe Black Dahlia.) Isabelle creates an ad involving...

  34. Afterword
    (pp. 301-304)

    De Palma’s films continue to alternate between dreams and nightmares. However, after an earlier emphasis on male rivalry (Scarface,Raising Cain,Mission: Impossible) and heroic failure (Blow Out,Casualties of War,Carlito’s Way), some of his most recent films have imagined ways of overcoming past trauma. InThe Black Dahlia, De Palma comes to an understanding of the flaws of his brother Bruce by viewing them as the result of their father’s negative influence—the same father who was himself traumatized by his wartime experiences.Mission to Marsrepresents De Palma’s attempt to reconcile with Bruce and to recognize the...

  35. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 305-308)
  36. Notes
    (pp. 309-330)
  37. Bibliography
    (pp. 331-340)
  38. INDEX
    (pp. 341-348)