By Victor Bruno
A few days ago I was talking to a friend of mine about films. She is not a film freak—God bless her!—, although she enjoys good movies. Halfway through our conversation, I said that the last thing I cared about a movie is about its plot. “If the film is good, you don’t mind plot holes or logics—this isn’t important. Films are about something else”. Then she asked the question that frightens anyone who says that loves films: What makes a good film good?
Answer: I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Now I’m reminded of an article that Jacques Rancière wrote in the year of the rest of our history, 2001, “Politique des auteurs, what is left of it”. In that piece, a good soliloquy on the possible failure of the politique des auteurs, there’s the following except:
From there on: the long history, the long agony of post-cinema, devoted to the mannerism of the effect by which the art signals itself as art […]. Doesn’t this retrospective history forget that retrospection, since about two centuries, has itself become the law of art? The nostalgia for the time when “it worked because we didn’t know how it worked” […][i].
“It worked because we didn’t know how it worked”. This little sentence means so much. In Rancière’s text, it is the key to understand how the legitimation of cinema as an intellectual art wrecked what it had of beautiful and pure. It started to miss the right people—the simple people—and turned this art into an anaerobic pseudo-philosophical science; in other words, academic mumble-jumbo. But the perception of “working because we don’t know how it works” also fits the situation above: I could not answer her straight because I never stopped to think about the constitution, or rather, the construction of a good film in an objective manner. What I notice (and what I would like to think that most of us film critics and good theorists notice) are circumstantial things, that, in the end affect our perception and our judgment about the quality of a film—and it can last the rest of our lives. And I’m not even talking about “how a color was used” or “how the filmmaker composed such a brilliant shot” or “just look to that uninterrupted plus five-minute shot Steadicam shot!” or even “it’s an amazing mix of film-noir with old-school musical films in the vein of Vincente Minnelli!”. Those are, alone, materialistic stuff, just brute matter. Of course, once the film is good you will add to your perception of “good movie” the tracking shot, the compositions, the montage, the colors and the mix of genres. To these things actually mean something they have to contribute to something that is much, much more important, profound and, at long last, truthful and deeper than just their superficial beauty—they have to give us the chills. Otherwise, we are watching just a materialistic film. It’s like Driver: rococo art made in the XXI century. Empty, a film with shapes, but not with form. And what is form? Form is the adjunction of the matter and of the spirit of that matter.
But in hindsight perhaps I can give now an answer by using as an example a filmmaker that spent a whole career making films encompassing beauty (and not an austere beauty, like Robert Bresson’s) and the living colors of Technicolor. Tracking shots? Steadicam? Colors? Passemos a Brian De Palma.
Brian De Palma. Though a filmmaker never adored by the crowds, he directed at least three or four films that are deep rooted in our collective mindset—Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Untouchables and Mission: Impossible. The term “dressed to kill” is now a popular slang in any part of the world. And all of these films (and all of his films) have in such a profound way a struggle within themselves: It’s the struggle of the symmetry.
De Palma’s world is a form—a strong, violent and almost oxygen-less stone in which you perhaps will not survive if you’re not tough enough; if you’re not smart, cold or even bad enough (and your survival is not necessarily in this world: consider that the only relief Carlito Brigante has on Carlito’s Way is when he sees the face of God on a billboard on his deathbed). And this “smart” I’m talking about is not about being a wiseguy, but simply someone who is aware of his or her environment. Which is the right stairway to climb to hide? This column will cover me? When do I shoot? Will they see me if I move now? That’s why architecture is so important in his films—like Otto Preminger, Brian De Palma is a filmmaker that, in a most unexpected move, demands you a little bit of attention to the horizon and to your surroundings. When he gets you to watch a big wide shot of a shopping mall, it’s not only to show off his ability to compose a symmetric composition in which we have characters running in different levels of this building (and chases in shopping malls are a recurring motif in his career). It is rather a small glimpse of this world he is inviting us to see, like a map to a treasure. And when he makes one of those plus five-minute tracking shots, the first thing it is about is a tentative to make us to come to this whirlpool of feelings, anxiety and fear; it is about the clash of people and interests and violence and blood.
But let’s get back to the symmetry. How does it come to reality? When do we detect it in his work? The first thing we have to understand is that it is not only visual, but also thematic and spiritual. Like any good filmmaker, he is concerned about bringing ideas into images. I will use two of his films to try to illustrate a little of this idea. The films are Obsession (1976) and Body Double (1984), made almost a decade apart but with common themes and visual logics.
Both films are primarily about the perception of the truth and truth itself (and here the term “truth” stands for reality itself). De Palma’s camera is the mediator, the howling beast on the borderline that separates the deception from the ecstasy of the discovery. De Palma is interested in halves. In short, dichotomy: past and future; truth and lie; damnation and forgiveness; me and you; life and death.
Of course, the most obvious feature he presents to display this interest in halves is the split-screen. Unlike some say, the split-screen is not a “fetishist” interest that he has; it is not a gimmick. There are, of course, things that it is: It is a heritage from Alfred Hitchcock (the viewer knows everything in advance and thus he suffers more than the unaware character of the film). But it is, also, a spiritualist approach to the symmetry. When the screen is parted in two diametric halves, De Palma is trying to put the viewer in an omniscient position, a place in which we can receive all the information the film has on hand. We assume two perspectives: the one of the victim and the one of the hero (and/or of the villain). When the screen is in a single piece, the maximum the film can present to us is a medley of feelings, emotions and interests (as presented in the long takes), but it lacks a fundamental feature in a Brian De Palma picture: organization. The greatest struggle of a DePalmian character is to understand what he is living and the situation he is in and in order to do it he has to organize the facts and the feelings he is experiencing.
But until he gets to the organization (and it does not mean you will survive in this world), the character still have to discover what is truth and what is deception. These are the themes of Obsession and Body Double. Early on the former we get what perhaps is the best shot of the career of Brian De Palma: with the left and the right sides of the screen separated by a wall, on the former we see Cliff Robertson’s character reaching for a gun and on the latter we see John Lithgow’s character trying to get information from a little kid who may or may not know anything about the kidnapping of Robertson’s daughter and wife.
Of course, De Palma is not Wes Anderson: the screen is not split pin-point on the middle. Of course, later in his career he would be more demanding about the way he symmetrically splits his screen (more pronouncedly in Blow Out with the split diopter). But right now it doesn’t matter—it is a split screen. We have to different actions happening in two different places. Both are acts of violence—Robertson’s mind is going to crack and he is considering to kill someone; Lithgow is making pressure on a young kid. But there is a third layer, the layer that separates truth and lie: Lithgow is not interested at all in helping his friend—the truth is that he wants to drive Cliff Robertson crazy and he wants his money. So there you have it: the borderline of reality and deception. Truth and lie. Friendship and betrayal. Good intentions and bad acts. (And it’s a brilliant use of CinemaScope, don’t you agree?)
This obsession about dividing lines is always returning in his filmography. And using the hook that the friendship theme sweetly offered me, I’ll jump to Body Double. How does Craig Wasson end up taking care of his friend’s ultramodern house? Because one day he came early from work (because he got fired) and caught his wife cheating on him. The sequence (that is constantly shifting from his point of view to his face with the camera perpetually moving) plays with our (and his) perception of reality through sounds and empty spaces: first, we see his face and we see him walking through the house; reverse shot (his point of view—that is, the symmetry of a space and the reverse space, unseen to us before), he is bursting in a sweet manner through empty corridors and rooms, with his wife’s laughter floats in the air like a menace, coming and going on the soundtrack. We think—although we know it is not true—she may be with a friend on the telephone or something like that. But it is not the case. So, when Wasson opens the door and let the truth be seen… oh! heartbreaks! But by hearing her laughter and by letting us see through Wasson’s eyes, De Palma places us on the line between what we think is obvious and this obviousness itself.
So far we have been covering how Brian De Palma covers symmetry in visual manners: playing with the architecture of places and with the scheme of shot–reverse shot. Now we will get things more skin deep.
Obsession and Body Double in their heart feature a character—a woman—that is catalyst of every action of the movie. They also inhabit the line of truth and lie, and it is aggravated when we notice that they have no idea about who they are. In Obsession, Geneviève Bujold’s character Sandra is the striking image of Cliff Robertson’s late wife Elizabeth, and it sends him back to a whirlpool of lost futures and bad moves. He flirts with her not because he loves her, but because it is a chance for him to make up with his failures and, perhaps, give him a relief in his consciousness. That is the difference between shape and form. What Robertson knows about Bujold is her shape, and when he glances at her he does not see Sandra, but Elizabeth. He cannot even discern present from past. He sees something else. What he sees is just a shape, a mold, something that is empty and you can fill it with whatever you want and it will get the mold of your object of desire.
In Body Double things are a little more complicated. Craig Wasson’s character was betrayed by his wife. We discover he has claustrophobia and had drinking problems. One day he meets a man (played by Gregg Henry) that takes mercy on him and offers a home to stay (because the house he lived in was propriety of his ex-wife and he is a failed second-rate actor). His new friend informs Wasson that this house has a nice view: the brunette girl next door makes daily an erotic dance every night at the same time—“Like clockwork”. What we do not know (yet) is Wasson is an obsessive voyeur: he will stalk the lady during daytime and will discover she is being followed (also) by a creeping Indian guy. At a beach, the Indian guy steals the lady’s purse—Wasson chases him, they enter in a tunnel, Wasson’s claustrophobia kicks in and he loses track of him. The lady also takes mercy on him and they passionately kiss at the beach. The camera rotates around them like Hitchcock did in Vertigo. Later, the lady is killed but Wasson finds out that it wasn’t her who was dancing on the window: it was a blonde porn actress played by Melanie Griffith, under a black wig, serving as a body double for the lady Wasson stalk.
The difference between one film and another is that for most of the former picture we actually do not know we are in the midst of a plot, of a betrayal and deception. It is a paranoid thriller under the façade of a romantic movie with redemption as its driving theme. In Body Double, it isn’t the case. We already know, since the beginning, that we universe of sick people, who live in sin and lies. Of course, they don’t like it and expect for moments of liberation[ii]. The lady Wasson was stalking finds a redemptive moment (through flesh) when she lets herself be seduced on the beach and feels the mouth and hands of the hero of the film touching her lips, breasts, arms, limbs… Melanie Griffith, a girl that sells her body for money, thinks she found a man with good heart when Wasson visits her at a porn film set as a producer in disguise. She is going to have sex with him (because she really, really liked him) but when she finds out who he is, she gives up and holds him as a sick person. Once again, we have the perception of the image of someone (its mold, its shape) and the true being of this person (its true form). De Palma is a master playing with these perceptions of form, hiding and unfolding it. Melanie Griffith is not the only body double in this film: Gregg Henry is Sam Bouchard and the Indian guy, he pretends to be Craig Wasson’s friend but verily, verily he’s the greatest enemy unto him. And of course, when our hero disguises himself as porn actor and producer, he is a body double of himself. In Obsession, we have yet another body double beyond Sandra standing in as Cliff Robertson’s late wife and current obsession: John Lithgow is a body double of himself—he’s both Robertson’s friend and nemesis. Years later, this crash of personalities and personas would tear up in harsh manner in a film so misunderstood that it’s almost heresy to speak about: 1992’s Raising Cain.
I have short time and space to continue this meditation on the pictures of Brian De Palma. This is only a sketch about this thematic of symmetry in his film. There is much, much more, and just like it is with De Palma’s heroes, I’m yet to organize my thinking about it.
But now something comes to my mind. What I’ve written here perhaps is enough to describe what makes a good film good. At least a good film from Brian De Palma. When one discovers a thematic and how a good auteur deals with this thematic, finds the clues, the modus operandi, the pieces of the puzzle that forms the career of a filmmaker; how a good director transforms the text on the screenplay into moving images (and another theme in his career is to move). But what really matters—and I hope I made it clear here—is that the pieces, physical pieces, of a movie are nothing without the spirituality that forms it. What is a body without a soul? Of course, when we are dealing with a good filmmaker, with an excellent auteur, the physical matter, the brute matter as I said in the beginning, is easily held as something from another world, but even if we were to make a breakdown of, say, Some Came Running, we would still have first to see how Minnelli constructed the desires and the failures, the longings and the anguish of his characters, the drinking thematic, the arrogance of some and the humility of others, to describe how he display it in his mix of pastel and full blasting colors and in his brilliant composition of CinemaScope. And speaking about CinemaScope, have you noticed how almost all of De Palma’s masterpieces were shot in 2.35:1 but contradictorily Body Double was shot in 1.85:1? It is because of the space, and forms, and profundity, and composition, split diopter… but in the midst of it, truth.
[i] Jacques Rancière. “Politique des auteurs, what is left of it”. Cahiers du cinema #559 July–August 2001. Available at http://www.diagonalthoughts.com/?p=2085
[ii] It is important to remember that Brian De Palma comes from an Italian-American background, son of Catholic father and mother, raised as a Presbyterian and attended a Quaker school; Obsession was written by Calvinist Paul Schrader, so we are talking about filmmakers that have deep in their hearts and minds the concept of sin and very drawn notions of Good and Evil. Actually, the way betrayal takes place in De Palma’s films is remindful of a part from the epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans: “…and by good words and fair speeches [they] deceive the hearts of the simple.” (Rom 16:18 KJV)