Visually garrulous and verbally unobtrusive, Ivan’s Childhood is perhaps the platonic ideal of the director-is-born image, a fully-formed debut for the ages. A film riddled with the ideas that would eventually molt into Tarkovsky’s future six feature films, a diminutive career (seven including this film) by any standards, Ivan’s Childhood lays the groundwork for Tarkovsky’s unmooring of the cinematic consciousness into realms both indescribably beautiful and thoughtfully revelatory. Then again, “eventually” doesn’t do justice to Ivan’s impossible grandeur and fractured intimacy; on its own terms, had the greatest director of the last fifty years not pursued a career in film at all and absconded from sight leaving only this singular mark of his trespass on our earthly realm, he would still be one of the definitive directors of the second half of the twentieth century. Continue reading
Another of Brian De Palma’s swirling, gliding art-house exploitation films with a tempestuous relationship with the female form, Femme Fatale is perhaps Brian De Palma’s most swaggering embracement and censure of the genre-cinema project. De Palma’s film derives oxygen from cinema history – Euro-thrillers and film noirs most of all – much as his protagonist Laurie (Rebecca Romijn) draws energy from the stereotypes of women in classic cinema: using them for air only to douse them in a ferocious breath of fire. Continue reading
A full-throated assemblage of directorly misconduct, Snake Eyes is a devious, delightful marriage of form and content that discovers visual subterfuge around every corner. Dancing in similar company with more overtly sense-refracting films from the same era – your Fight Clubs and every other 15 year old film connoisseur’s favorite new discoveries – Snake Eyes trounces every one of them as a perceptual study in visual economics and attention-grabbing camera movement.
In both of those other films, the “perceive life anew” narrative mechanics are only ever that – narrative mechanics – with the films curiously avoiding their god’s gift to questions of perception: the cameras that film the images, the lenses that are sensations and visions of life and are inherently limited by the demarcations of their own perceptions. In contrast, the wonderfully tactile Snake Eyes embodies its theme of differing perspectives with Rashomon-like control of the frame: the perception of the camera, the shots and the camera swerves and the edits, are the film’s theme, De Palma’s formal lenses for analyzing the incompleteness of any one lens to glimpse the whole truth around it. More than any film from the years around it, Snake Eyes feels like a eulogy to and a recrimination of the assumption that a camera can tell all without constantly reinvestigating itself. Continue reading
Fritz Lang’s infatuation with obsession, subterfuge, and the gossamer veil of social order are not precisely fascinating food for critical thought in 2016, but the progression of his fears might be. His customary debut to the big leagues of artistic cinema, 1922’s Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler, is stupendous cinema, but it is sometimes assumed as the sarcophagus of his career, a film he more or less copied and only advanced a handful of times. Formally, the assumption is obviously incorrect; the advent of sound and Lang’s almost unstoppably innate understanding of how to inlay sound into his medium as a complement and commentator on the visual realm ensures that Lang was never formally stable or complete in the silent era. But what is often undervalued is how Lang began investigating his own image of a petrified world right from the get-go, transforming the horror of a man controlling the world in Mabuse into a vision of a world-as-thieves-den so robbed of humanity that any one human exerting dominance over it seemed almost passé and innocent in comparison.
By M, Lang’s first sound film, Mabuse had become a lie, a ruse, a figment of our imaginations embodied in a pasty, baby-faced child-man who was daringly and emphatically not the most damaging threat to Germany and the audience’s soul. The individual maestro behind the screen of our lives was now not an individual we could blame, but a cop-out, an excuse, a person to push blame onto to obfuscate and pacify our inner nightmares about our own souls. The moral rot was the populace itself, easing its crestfallen nature by looking for a singular entity to criminalize and thereby alleviate the social burden on the public as a whole. On the eve of Nazism, the statement was frighteningly apt and rebellious because it questioned the very Enlightenment values that, when corrupted, undergirdered not only Nazism but capitalism more broadly; if Nazism was a way to shift blame to social minorities, Lang posited, then it was only the nastiest and most direct manifestation of the latent nature of Western governance to interpret social rot as the failure of certain individuals. The solution to the anxiety and entropy running away with the mind was tethering the anxiety to certain “others”, stabilizing fear by linking it to a specific cause we can all unite in the harmony of blame. Continue reading
Less serrated than the frenzied, madcap pop-art exclamations of his youthful, more uninhibited days, Brian De Palma’s self-consciously mature 1981 effort is undoubtedly a work of its time, and a statement of De Palma stretching out, if not always to great effect. This update and inversion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s scintillatingly deconstructive Blow Up is an embodiment of the ennui-encrusted political halitosis of life in 1981, a scabrous redressing of the Reagan administration’s proposition of oncoming better times. Perhaps it was less De Palma maturing than adapting, having spent a cynical decade throwing the proverbial stylistic excrement at the fan in a flurry of toxic pent-up frustration and demented fun. Now, with the early ‘80s calling for a re-flourishing propaganda and jingoism, the ever-malleable, ever-angry, ever-anti-establishment De Palma swerves and gives them paranoia and an existential void. It’s not unlike the director, rejecting not only the times but his own cinematic past just to stir the shit; it is what he does best, but his best had been better before. Continue reading
Tacky and tricky, Body Double is director Brian De Palma’s bilious libido unhinged in a startling excoriation of his own cinematic oeuvre wrapped up in an even harsher smack to his critics’ and his audience’s faces, delivered as only the director could have: an audience-hating follow-up to his proper entry in the A-list with the distended, over-exerted Scarface. Admittedly, that earlier film still exhibits inlaid flickers of vigor and self-consciously absurdist, artificial “macho” dialogue designed to excoriate the idea of either gangster romanticism of subdued, “thoughtful” critiques of the former. But it is the follow-up Body Double that more dramatically and viciously works out our ability to sympathize with the screen or to even accept it as anything other than curated, controlled meaning. De Palma had already worked with John Travolta and Al Pacino, both ironically on the eve of their declines (one commercial and the other artistic), but it is Body Double that captures the platonic ideal of those two phallus-swinging actors walking down a New Jersey boardwalk like they own the place. Right before De Palma runs up and kicks them in the junk, but that’s the De Palma way: taking your self-confidence and smacking it around self-confidently. Continue reading
Another short series about a director, this one in honor of the recently released De Palma, a documentary that continues, but hopefully doesn’t climax, the decade long reinvestigation of one of modern cinema’s most misunderstood directors.
Hitchcockian in the primordial sense, 1976’s Obsession finds Brian De Palma joining the more poetic and certainly less lurid Robert Bresson as the only director who can go round to round with Hitch for monomaniacally erecting dominance over every tick, subsuming each actorly movement, and exerting force over every camera quaver by subsuming it under his jurisdiction. With its rehashed and delirium-caked Vertigo update where a New Orleans businessman (Cliff Robertson) discovers his inner-Hitchcock 18 years after his wife and daughter’s death, even the disjunctive lunacy of the film’s depiction of him courting a new woman to dress and behave like his deceased wife feels like an expression of the histrionic lunatic-fringe that is male obsession. Continue reading