Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Contra De Palma, Contra Girish Part 1: Revenge of the Soulless Director

As you may know, Girish Shambu decided to proclaim that Brian De Palma (and Robert Altman) is the greatest living American director.

I intend to show how trivial and soulless a director De Palma is, and how truly unworthy he is of being called a great director - or even a good one.

Let's start by deconstructing Girish's praise for one of De Palma's (justly) less-well-regarded pieces, Raising Cain. Girish: "the motel sequence with three interacting levels of action at the climax of Raising Cain". Having not seen this particular entry into De Palma's oeuvre since it's initial release, I re-viewed the movie after 14 years.

So, the motel sequence is indeed in Raising Cain - but while Girish's description of it would make it seem at minimal unusually exciting - it's simply not. To understand WHY it's not, we have to try to understand Raising Cain as a whole.

The first problem with Raising Cain is the premise is uninteresting - Raising Cain's a particularly uninspired retread of split personalities, evil psychiatrists, child abuse and cross dressing. But far worse than that is De Palma's total disinterest in the actual characters he's showing on the screen. De Palma treats Carter Nix (the lead character played by John Lithgow) with near-total contempt - he's a boring, fussy stereotype. De Palma apparently believed that Lithgow's "bravura" performance as the split personality- afflicted Nix (in addition, Lithgow plays Carter Nix's evil father as well) carries the film. Let's examine what De Palma does with Carter Nix and an analogous character and performance, James Mason's performance as Ed Avery in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life. Ed Avery, a somewhat boring and fussy schoolteacher, develops a new personality due to taking an experimental medication. De Palma shows near-total contempt for Carter Nix (the primary personality Lithgow plays) - he has essentially no redeeming features - so much so that his wife literally takes roughly a minute to decide to have an affair once she meets an "attractive" man (the Neanderthal grotesque of Steve Bauer). Carter Nix is a cartoon.

Ray, on the other hand, while he shows Ed Avery to have numerous unattractive features, makes us sympathize with Avery's struggle to make a living, his devotion to education and culture and his loving though strained relationship with his family. Ed Avery is a carefully created, multi-dimensional character whom we have a very wide array of feelings toward, even before his transformation.

After the drug begins to change Avery's personality, we begin to see the flaws in his original personality: but these flaws are exaggerations of inherent parts of what was once admirable about Avery (his devotion to family, to culture and so on). These flaws aren't random personality problems Ray dropped down on the character, but inherent difficulties anybody like Avery will encounter in American bourgeoisie suburban culture. We maintain our sympathy for Avery even after he commits atrocities and we feel deeply for his family. Ray doesn't permit us the option of simply sitting in easy judgment on Avery.

Meanwhile, De Palma doesn't even bother to keep the Carter Nix roles even at the level of better cartoons - Nix's various personalities are ALL one-dimensional, cartoonish cardboard stereotypes. There's no reason why they needed to be - Raising Cain is only 4 minutes shorter than Bigger than Life, and Lithgow is a talented enough actor to be able to perform quite subtle roles. Nor are even Carter Nix's various personalities entertaining or new - they're the absolutely predictable nihilistic criminal / abused child / mother-figure stereotypes - as is Lithgow's portrayal of the evil Dr. Nix character. Lithgow might as well have worn fangs and swastikas while playing Dr. Nix - Dr. Nix is no deeper than most characters from lousy video games.

Then, too, while Ray makes us feel the pain and confusion of the Avery family while Ed Avery's personality collapses, Jenny Nix (his wife) and their daughter, are even more trivialized and ignored in Raising Cain. Jenny (played by a stone-faced Lolita Davidovitch) is a character so poorly conceptualized that, at the end of the movie (after going through trauma that would destroy most people), she's as unemotional and cold as at the beginning. De Palma apparently thinks that all of a person's emotional needs are satisfied as long as you can fuck a "hunk" in an Armani suit (or fuck a "babe" in couture threads, as we'll find out in Femme Fatale). The daughter is a convenient urchin who might as well have been played by a robot (or a mop, for that matter). De Palma's worldview here is essentially as deep as run-of-the-mill pornography.

Ok, so the "climax" of the movie is upon us............but we feel no emotions for this collection of cardboard cutouts, stereotypes and plot devices. And we can literally feel De Palma's heavy hand in shoving together all the "pieces" for his climatic ending. The "climax" is lifeless and mechanical. Except that we can predict what's going to happen - and that foreshadowing isn't delicious, but just predictable, trivial and uninspired. De Palma certainly has technique - but the technique is actually harmful to him here because De Palma's facility in technique is trying to do all of the work. Let's think about another director and movie who used a multi-story set to great effect: Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. The motel in De Palma's story is meaningless - it's just a prop, a nothing, a cartoon (without it being actually amusing, as Lewis' set in The Ladies' Man is). Welles, a master of technique without compare in using the Amberson's incredible set, also makes us understand why that set is so important (why the Amberson house is so central to the family, to the town, to their society, to politics, to the future and past). Welles is not just trying to skate by on technique alone but making that technique just one part of his art.


Blogger Hugo said...


I respect your opinion, though I am sorry to tell you this, but I feel I have to; it does not make a particularly strong case against DePalma.

Your first criticism, is not a criticism or an argument against DePalma, it is an expression of personal taste that goes unexplained: "The first problem with Raising Cain is the premise is uninteresting".

Fine. But we need more elaboration. After all, you are explaining why you believe Brian is unworthy of being called a great director. You should be shaking ground and unearthing relevant truths.

A bit further down you mention "De Palma's total disinterest in the actual characters he's showing on the screen." I feel you criticize De Palma's lack of character-development. And if you are looking for that, I am afraid DePalma is not where you should look. Go to our wonderful talent, Mike Nichols, or heck, Cassavetes, or why not, Pialat. DePalma is generally busy with other concerns just as interesting though not as wildly popular. I hope they will make sense to you one day so you can appreciate them.

4:14 PM  

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