Don’t you just love it when a director commits? Brian de Palma has been making films for more than 50 years. Some are great. Some are flops. But they’re all uniquely de Palma. Other technique–as–theme directors come to mind (Michael Mann, Peter Greenaway). But if you love your false–front hyper–reality with a side of sex and violence—and if you see the system for what it is, including your own, and remember not to take it all too seriously—de Palma’s your guy.
De Palma knows what you want: specificity of experience. The trade–off is certainty, the lie beneath the truth, and the rest is up to you. He pins you to a moment with two weapons of choice: the split–screen and split diopter. Here they are respectively in Sisters (1972) and Carrie (1976).
Of course, this is de Palma behaving: clean lines, clearly divided action, unified narrative even in the split. These techniques and others form the through–line in all his films. My personal favorites are his voyeuristic 80s thrillers including Blow Out and Dressed to Kill. It’s in these films that de Palma’s pin really leaves you wriggling, layering detail on both sides of the frame and dispersing narrative to the point of near breakdown until we come to the central point: when de Palma tells the truth—like Emily Dickinson—he tells it slant, or in his case split. After all, what is “The Truth”? Can we ever really know it and are we always better off when we do?
“…you must look at what is done but also how it is done and imagine the one who makes it”*
Don’t you just love it when an artist lets you in on the secret?
Brian de Palma likes to watch. He’s been telling us that, and why it’s true, from his early short films to De Palma (the 2015 documentary from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow). The documentary’s illustrated cover shows the director lurking outside a window like a peeping tom, caught in the act of looking. Here is the subject, object, and technique of his films.
He comes by it honestly, observing as a young man his physician father’s surgeries and later spying on his compulsive extramarital affairs. De Palma was also a young man of his time. The cultural revolution and political upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s compelled us to see more, to keep an eye on the chaos (much like today). This revolution showed up on screen in the form of the French New Wave, a significant influence on de Palma. A split world needs a unique vision to transform it. In using the split–screen, diopter, and other techniques, de Palma shows you more than you might want to see. These techniques often present:
- Multiple perspectives of the same scene
- Distinct but simultaneous narratives
- Situations static (a single character’s emotional experience) and dynamic (others on the move)
- Perspectives that sometimes complement, sometimes compete
Sounds a lot like life.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell when the screen is actually split. In the following shot from 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit, the characters are actually right next to one another but ultimately worlds apart.
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De Palma also uses the diopter. Its effect is less side–by–side and more dimensional, relying on foreground and background tension to create sometimes separation, sometimes intimacy. The director uses the technique to freeze–frame the emotional states of characters in crisis or at turning points. Their perspectives may differ, but the diopter and diopter–like effects capture the richness of both (as in these scenes from de Palma’s 1980s gangster flicks, The Untouchables, Scarface and Carlito’s Way). De Palma has chosen his visual vocabulary and it is good.
With the diopter and split–screen, like reality itself, the dividing line between perspectives may be thick or slight, distinct or blurred, real or artificial.
“…perceptual experience does not conform with physical fact”
In 1966 Brian de Palma made The Responsive Eye, a short film on a Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) exhibit of the same name. Eye showcased works rooted in an optical illusion where the artist is only a co–creator, engineering effects that only the observer’s eye can produce and interpretations only the mind can provide.
In Blow Out, the witness is Jack Terry (John Travolta), a horror movie audio tech in search of sound effects: footsteps, wind, creaking doors, and ultimately the perfect scream. On assignment one night, he hears, sees and records a car hurtling over a bridge and into a lake. Inside is the now–dead presidential contender McRyan and his companion Sally (Nancy Allen). Jack saves her, learning later she is an escort hired to frame McRyan through incriminating photos taken by her partner Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), lying in wait by that bridge.
Jack learns something more. After repeated replays of his recording—and a pairing of his audio with Manny’s subsequently published photographs—Jack uncovers the truth: the crash came not from a random blow out but a very purposeful gunshot.
Like the optical illusions in de Palma’s MOMA documentary, Jack’s initial perceptual experience doesn’t conform with physical fact. Besides Jack, no one wants to know the truth: not Sally and not McRyan’s operatives. After the accident, an increasingly frustrated Jack tries to convince them their candidate had an escort in his car:
Jack: That’s the truth isn’t it?
Aide: What difference is it to you?
* * *
Dressed to Kill is another masterpiece of murder, surveillance and hidden truth. The film’s opening scenes actually take place in the MOMA. Nearly 15 years after his Responsive Eye documentary, de Palma’s camera captures moving art and layered opticals. Angie Dickinson plays Kate Miller, a sexually frustrated housewife murdered after an afternoon tryst with an anonymous stranger. The murder appears through an open elevator, the killer’s image reflected inside the silver doors and bounced to a mirror mounted in the back.
An escort Liz (once again Nancy Allen**) “sees” the killer, an unknown blonde woman in sunglasses (“Bobbi”), but like Blow Out’s Jack Terry, her perception does not conform with the truth. The real murderer is Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), Kate’s therapist and a man struggling deeply with his transsexual identity. In a later scene, de Palma uses a combined split–screen/diopter effect to suggest there are two characters where there is in fact only one.
Here, I want to be very clear: “truth” is not about whether the perpetrator is a “really” a woman (although in the early ’80s, that would have absolutely been the case). The year 2019 allows a different perspective. And because split personality is involved, there is still the question of who the other victim is: Dr. Elliott or Bobbi.
“…partly you are the victim of it, partly you are the rebel against it”
In one segment of The Responsive Eye, de Palma’s traveling camera captures a perspective shift—a complex work of pointillism that appears to change from 3D to 2D based on the proximity of the observer. Famed art theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolph Arnheim touches on the shift that happens to the witness spectator: “Partly you are the victim of it, partly you are the rebel against it.” Because in a de Palma film, even a documentary, perspective changes everything.
De Palma’s witnesses are both victim and rebel. The more their positions shift relative to their original “seeing,” the harder it is to know what’s real. In Blow Out, a past tragedy drives Jack Terry to become a sound engineer who ultimately records a fateful car accident. Sally too starts as a victim. When she realizes she’s been duped by Manny she rebels, shifting from unwitting participant to truth seeker. The closer Jack and Sally get, the harder it gets to prove the truth as McRyan’s killer steals the incriminating film. Jack tears his studio apart, only to find his sound library—the entirety of his professional life—has been erased. Any hopes of a stable state are gone. De Palma captures that through two other techniques: spinning panoramas and a final overhead shot of Jack surrounded by whirring machines, piles of blank tape and empty cases.
It’s an almost pointillistic vision, like the one at the MOMA. We have detail. We have perspective. But we don’t have the truth, not a way to prove it anyway. Certainty is replaced with shock, disbelief, and betrayal. The obvious detour here is Blow–Up, the 1966 Antonioni film about a photographer who, in developing his film, discovers he’s captured a murder. To uncover the truth, he enlarges the image until there’s no image left, only pixel and shadow. When he returns to the crime scene, the body is gone.
* * *
There’s similar chaos for the victim/rebel characters in Dressed to Kill, culminating in pure over–the–top de Palma. Kate’s marital frustrations lead her to sex with a stranger while Dr. Elliott’s transsexual conflict causes him to construct an entirely separate identify and commit murder. Until this point in the film, de Palma’s use of diopter has been simple, clear and elegant. The following collage shows Kate remembering three items of increasing importance that she has lost during her dream–like afternoon of sexual infidelity: a glove, her underwear, and her wedding ring.
An hour in, the split–screen returns. Nancy Allen’s Liz appears on the right fielding multiple phone calls while Dr. Elliott on the left listens to voicemails from the “killer” that are his own disguised voice. As in Blow Out, de Palma layers in sound to present his split realities. It’s here that all hell breaks loose. Elements from each side of the split are mirrored, literally and figuratively. Elliot and Liz turn on their TVs, a program on transsexualism playing as we see characters’ reflections through various media. With these additions, each narrative essentially triples. Like the MOMA optical art, the layering works against comprehension, not toward it. Apertures of all kinds (splits, diopters, even windows, and doors) let the light in but don’t illuminate.
These “special twilights”* represent our search for clarity as viewers and humans in general. To shadow box reality means we must sometimes decide to decide and let the chips fall. De Palma does this by converting film to mixed media—layering different ways of looking into shot, plot, and scene. Mirrors, video equipment, audio mics and wires, binoculars. He might remind you of Cronenberg, who loves to show his “instruments” and was also a science nerd before he turned to filmmaking. De Palma is stylized but in his particular hall of mirrors, he also loves to show you how the sausage is made.
“…the brightest part of the picture is what is happening to you, not what is going on in the canvas”
To commit to understanding—to follow the path wherever it leads—is to challenge the dark. You may lose. When Sally commits to finding the truth, she attracts the attention of McRyan’s assassin (John Lithgow) who kills her during Philadelphia’s Liberty Parade. Wired so Jack could follow her, Sally dies in Jack’s arms against a blinding fireworks display, her screams captured on his mobile audio. Jack’s search for the perfect movie scream comes full circle and is brutally fulfilled, becoming part of the horror film we saw when Blow Out opened. “Now that’s a scream!” his producer yells. “Yeah, it’s a good scream,” Jack repeats over and over, the brightest part of this particular picture being what is going on inside him.
* * *
In Dressed to Kill, the “brightness” of Kate and Dr. Elliott are dimmed by the sexual conflicts that kill them both. Kate’s frustration leads to anonymous sex with a man with multiple STDs. Elliott murders her moments after. And in a scene reminiscent of Psycho, we learn that Elliott kills because he cannot accept his true self. Dressed to Kill isn’t the first film to link sexual identity conflicts with homicidal tendencies. De Palma and others (Paul Verhoeven, knife + heart’s Yann Gonzalez, and even Alfred Hitchcock) enjoy their psychosexual templates.
“…the concern is always with the same things: how to make art and how to make people look at it and learn something about their own lives”
Don’t you just love it when an artist is derivative?
The De Palma documentary opens with his memory of seeing Vertigo, its impact clearly palpable decades later. I’ll bet you have a film experience like that, most definitely a live one, and that’s powerful stuff. Some say BDP’s got too much Hitch in his cock. But be kind. Artists wear their influences in public, and heaven forbid one human should literally compel another to create. Trace a line from de Palma back to Hitchcock, Murnau, Shakespeare, the Greeks, the Persians and beyond, and you’ll end up in the same place: how fearfully and wonderfully we hath been wrought. And isn’t that the point?
Which source is the most legitimate is akin to this essay’s central question: what is “The Truth,” can we ever really know it, and are we always better off when we do? Some argue that all art is a lie because it’s not real life. Curious phrase real life. Do you know what that is? If all art derivative, so are the very acts of thinking and meaning–making. They are both based on initial perception and perception is not reality—counter to that most bullshit of all phrases—no matter what anyone tries to tell you. We’re all looking through a dirty lens and the only way to tell to the truth may in fact be to tell it slant (split).
* * *
We are all artists. To live is to translate experience through our own unique visions. Life and art are echo chambers of memory, love, anger, joy and enough original fire to keep it all going. To see and be seen beyond our naturally limited perspectives is to wrestle with chaos. To know that and keep trying is where the light comes in.
In photos and interviews, Brian de Palma seems always to be smirking—the expression of a man who’s in on the secret and really hopes you are too. Maybe it’s his contemplative Quaker upbringing, the understanding that art is never a solo creation, or the realization that, at any given moment, everything you thought you knew could turn out to be a lie. Either way, that famous quote from Flannery O’Conner comes to mind but with one slight change: Only when we are [un]certain in our beliefs, can we see the comic side of the universe.
* All subhead quotes from de Palma’s 1966 documentary The Responsive Eye
** De Palma’s then–wife, whom he loved to cinematically stalk through the New York subway.