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One of the most lingering questions among moviegoers is what exactly to do about Brian De Palma. Detractors used to dismiss him as a talented recycler who riffed on the films of great authors (Alfred Hitchcock most obviously and consistently) without reaching the nuance or depth of these authors. Admirers chose him as one of the most gifted stylists of his generation – each time the peer of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who came into the film industry at the same time. From that point of view, he’s also a serious artist who has preserved classic Hollywood traditions even though he slyly played them.
The 2016 documentary “De Palma,” now airing on Netflix, has given the impression that it fixes the problem. The director spoke to fellow filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, just as Hitchcock had done with François Truffaut, and walked his career film by film. No one who saw the documentary could doubt De Palma’s sincerity, the scope of his work or, in particular, his mastery of cinematic language. De Palma turned 80 this month, and at this point it seems indisputable to rank him as one of the living masters of cinematic form.
What recent reviews haven’t fixed, however, is a meaner tiff among De Palma fans over the ‘right’ way to enjoy De Palma. Did you like “The Untouchables” (1987) and think it’s one of his best? Pity. If you talk to a De Palma fanatic, “The Untouchables” was a commercial effort, written by David Mamet, and to see it as superior to a “Psycho” pastiche written by De Palma as “Dressed to Kill” (1980) c is to miss its originality.
My own enthusiasms, as Robert De Niro’s Al Capone might call them, have varied wildly over time, from skepticism to appreciation and return. But if even die-hard De Palma-watchers sometimes get tested for their taste, where does that leave newcomers? I suggest that a good compromise is to start with a De Palma classic from his 1970s to 1980s freewheeling period, “Blow Out”, and continue with one of his best studio efforts, “Carlito’s Way “. Aficionados may yell at this one as insufficiently pure quality. (David Koepp, not De Palma, wrote the script, which plays it mostly straight.) But in “De Palma,” the director himself remembers watching “Carlito’s Way” and thinking, “I can’t make a better picture than this one. “
“Blow Out” (1981): play it on Amazon prime until September 30 or Tubi; rent or buy on Google Play or iTunes.
“Carlito’s Way” (1993): broadcast it on Peacock; rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes or Vudu.
Part of what makes ‘Blow Out’ quintessentially De Palma is that he wears his influences with pride – but also recombines them to make him fully the director. The basic premise is consciously indebted to Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (1966), which concerns a photographer who accidentally captures evidence of a murder. But De Palma’s film uses the setup to create a thriller, something Antonioni’s study of London swing disaffection flatly refused to be.
“Blow Out” centers on a man in the film’s sound, Jack (John Travolta), who unwittingly records sound that could prove that a fatal car crash was a political assassination. Antonioni is only the most superficial influence. De Palma borrowed the car crash on the deck of the Chappaquiddick scandal involving Ted Kennedy. Jack examines the individual footage from the murder scene as if analyzing the footage of Zapruder, which is the subject of a scream. De Palma cited Watergate agent G. Gordon Liddy as the inspiration for the villain (John Lithgow), who has gone way beyond his tenure in killing and goes to great lengths to cover his tracks.
While the film has something to say about what at the time was recent American history and the ability of audiences to turn a blind eye to corruption, on many levels “Blow Out” is a film about films and l apparent contradiction they contain.
On the one hand, movies offer the promise of capturing the truth. Jack, who recorded the accident while making audio of the blast of the wind for a horror film, is increasingly looking to the cinema to prove his case. He cuts still photos of the accident from a magazine and animates them, synchronizes them with the audio he recorded to create a mini-documentary about the crime scene.
On the other hand, films are inherently constructs, with the ability to fabricate. “Blow Out” has already lied to us when it opens with an elaborate pretense: a sequence from the point of view of a slasher stalking female students that turns out to be a movie within the movie. (This footage represented De Palma’s first use of the Steadicam, which was then a new device, and a tool he has used since then to extraordinary effect.) The footage ends with the stalker about to assassinate a woman taking pitiful cry; cut to the screening room, where we learn that Jack didn’t bother to dub the actress. The search for a believable fake cry frames the film. In the final irony, he’ll hear that perfect cry in real life.
De Palma, who has repeatedly extracted Hitchcock’s “back window”, plays ingenious tricks with a point of view. It frequently shows events from different angles or illustrates simultaneity with shared screens. The first time we see the car crash, we watch Jack, as De Palma subtly tunes us in to the sounds (a howling owl, a couple’s joke, a closing noise that turns out to be a tourniquet thread. killer’s wristwatch) that we’ll have to recognize later. We’ll see the accident again, but never quite the same: When Jack first plays his audio, we watch the footage from his perspective, as he associates the sounds with the images in his mind.
Few filmmakers are so adept at leading viewers through the geography of a sequence. My favorite example is in the last 20 minutes of “Carlito’s Way,” which is quite simply one of the most exciting chases ever filmed.
Reformed criminal Carlito (Al Pacino) plans to escape by train to Miami with his girlfriend, Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), avoiding the mobsters who want him dead – and showed up at his Harlem club just as he’s about to escape. Sneaking through a sign in the ground, he must take a subway from 125th Street to Grand Central Terminal, while avoiding his pursuers.
De Palma did not stop there, but continued to exploit the various complications offered by the scenario. When the metro is held up at the 125th, it is not by Carlito’s pursuers but by rowdy strangers just trying to catch the train. Officers who board at a later stop offer cover to Carlito.
But the sequence reveals all its virtuosity when Carlito arrives at Grand Central. De Palma, in a Steadicam shot that lasts over two minutes, follows Carlito and his potential killers around an escalator and across two floors, while keeping everyone’s placement crystal clear and the mechanics of the suspense moving. It’s such a complex plan, so full of moving parts, that it’s hard to put it into words. As always, De Palma pushes purely cinematic tools to their limits.