In 1983, I moved from southern Illinois to New York City.  That was a big switch, you betcha.

Universal’s Christmas present to the world in 1983 was Brian De Palma’s Scarface.  For those of you too young to remember, the movie was greeted with horror and revulsion, considered profane, obscene, depraved and utterly lacking in any sense of morality, a bad, bad influence on the youth of the day.

Of course now we can look back on it and say, your point?

Scarface was the first movie I saw in New York City, and I wanted to make it a special occasion, so I went uptown (uptown!) to the RKO National in Times Square.  Times Square, of course, is now the home of The Lion King and TRL.  The RKO National is now the ESPN-Zone.

It was different back then.  Before the show, ushers walked up and down the aisles with little megaphones reminding the audience that anyone caught smoking marijuana would be asked to leave.

Plus ca change.

Anyway.  My thoughts, in the order they occurred to me as I watched this rather long movie over a period of three days:

1. Am I crazy, or are the two cops who interrogate Tony at the beginning of the movie looped?  They sound to me an awful lot like Charles Durning and De Palma regular Dennis Franz, but neither of them are credited.

2. That chainsaw scene is still masterful.  As soon as those crane shots come in, you know something really ugly is going to happen.  And guess what?  It does.

3. Robert Loggia, as Frank, the “sensible” gangster, has an impressive collection of modern art.  My favorite is his Giacometti, which he has in his wet bar, and which he has sensibly painted red, I guess to emphasize the aching poverty of spirit that the artist was trying to convey.  Good move, Frank!  That’ll help with its resale value in the go-go ’80s art market!

4. In spite, or because of, Pacino’s full-blown wacko performance, Scarface is De Palma’s warmest, most human movie.  By the time Pacino puts on Michelle Pfeiffer’s hat in the parking lot, you’re totally won over.

5.  Speaking of which, what happens to Michelle Pfeiffer at the end of the movie?  Does she wind up dead in the hallway of an SRO hotel, like Sharon Stone in Casino?

6. This movie is a treasure trove for observers of gangsters, but it’s a washout for ornithologists.  As Tony reclines in his bathtub watching TV, he mistakenly cheers on a flock of flamingos, saying “Come on, pelicans!”

7. Speaking of that bathroom scene, when thatscene came  on back at the RKO National in Times Square, I was stunned, as is everyone who sees the movie, by the design of that place.  The difference was, I thought “Wow, what a stunning critique of American consumerism” and all the people around me gasped and said “Mmmmm, that’s niiiiiccccce.”  Even then, the movie was imprinting on a generation of young gangsters.

8. I love how the “fun” parts of the gangster life, the shootings, power-grabs and posturing, give way to financial headaches and personnel hassles.  Poor, sad gangsters.

9. In a way, it’s the story of a quest for purity.  Tony is happiest when he kills and when he acquires things, the rest of it doesn’t really interest him.  He acquires a wife, but we never see them have sex.  She’s just one more thing that he owns, and now, like his mansion and his staff, he has to maintain her.  Tony killing is Tony pure.  He slouches, gets grumpy and depressed when he has to deal with bankers, haggle over money or fulfill business obligations.

So in a way, once he sheds his business contacts, dumps his wife, kills his best friend and sees his sister shot before his very eyes, it’s like he’s finally happy again.  He wanted the world, but the world, he finds out, is full of compromises and responsibilities.  Now his responsibilities have been taken away and he can have a moment of pure joy and purity before he dies.  In a way, it’s a happy ending.

10. Pacino’s performance has become so legendary that it kind of shifts the whole paradigm.  The first time I watched the movie, I thought “he’s not going to do that through the whole movie, is he?”  But now, after 23 years, the performance has become a classic.  And you could say it’s weird, but you can’t say it’s ill-considered.  Never less than fascinating, it’s a really seamless piece of work, and Pacino disappears here just as thoroughly as he does in, say, The Godfather Part II.
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Blow Out

I liked this movie a lot when it came out.  Saw it two or three times.  Don’t know why it didn’t impress me today.

Travolta is fine in an intelligent, committed performance.  Lithgow is suitably horrible and creepy.

Nancy Allen, for whatever reason, I didn’t buy as the dumb-as-a-post good-time gal.  I never liked this performance, but I used to go along with it because Pauline Kael liked it, so I figured the problem was me.  I don’t have a problem with larger-than-life De Palma performances in general, I’ve come to enjoy them, but this one left me cold.  I couldn’t bring myself to care about someone who barely seemed there to begin with.

Ideologically, the movie makes complete sense.  A sitting president hires a creepy, amoral thug to frame his rival, and when the framing turns into a murder the thug covers it up by murdering a bunch of innocent women.

In 1981, it seemed outlandish and paranoid, in 2006 is seems more like “What, only one creepy, amoral thug?  Why isn’t there a team?  And why bother to cover anything up?”

Likewise, the sad, despairing aspects of the narrative, the capitalist imperative driving everyone’s decisions, and how Travolta ultimately makes his uneasy peace, are all affecting.

The hallmark scenes of suspense all work well, as well as the scenes of Travolta showing us the tools of the trade in order to piece together his clues.

The problems I had with it today, I think, were logical.

Karp (Karp again!) has a 16mm film of an assassination, which he has sold to a national news magazine, “News Today.”  News Today has run a key section of the film, frame by frame, in black-and-white stills, in their magazine.

Setting aside the notion that the magazine would use up a valuable features section to run a frame-by-frame presentation of an auto accident, the question I have is: didn’t News Today make a copy of the film?  And wouldn’t anyone on the staff of News Today notice the gunshot, which is painfully obvious, even to Chappaquiddick/Watergate-hardened cynics, when you watch the film in color?

Later, it’s revealed that Karp has sold the film “all over the place” and “to every newspaper and magazine in the world,” yet there are no other copies of it, and Karp still has the only one in his seedy motel room with no lock on the door, just waiting to be stolen by the first floozy who comes along with a smile and a bottle of J&B.

Ray of hope: the presidential candidate, it turns out, did not approve the framing and assassination of his rival.  Lithgow is a rogue re-election campaigner.  He’s Donald Segretti with a trick watch and amurderous hatred of women.

Bonus points: spot the C-3PO mask!
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Mission: Impossible

When you look at this movie in comparison to the new movie, the difference ten years has brought is clear.  This is an espionage thriller, about people sneaking around and telling and keeping secrets, putting on masks and pulling switches and double-crosses.  The new movie (and I suppose the 2nd one too) is an action movie, full of kinetic set pieces, chaotic editing and post-Greengrass mise-en-scene.  In comparison, Mission: Impossible is elegant, a little stodgy and, well, sorry, Hitchcockian in its design.

Some DePalmisms that nevertheless show up in this most genre-y of DePalma movies:

*Images on TV/computer screens
*People watching them
*We watch along with the people
*Those images often lie
*1st-person camera
*Shifting point-of-view
*Split-screens (imitation, in this case)
*Unreliable flash-back (Tom recounts one chain of thought, we see the opposite in his thoughts)
*Killing off main characters (and major stars) in the first act (Jon Voight!  Kristen Scott-Thomas!  Emilio Estevez!  Whoever plays the other woman!*)
*Dead people turning out not to be dead after all
*David Koepp
*Long, pointy things (two: one set of pointy things impales Emilio, the other nearly impales Tom)

DePalma, again, shows that he can wring suspense and excitement from things like numbers changing on a readout panel, telephones and beads of sweat.

The train sequence still looks great ten years later.

Relative lack of over-the-top performances.  Everybody’s pretty naturalistic, within the parameters of these kinds of movies.  Notable exception, Henry Czerny’s sneering, snarling, double-plus unctuous bad-guy-or-is-he CIA guy.  When I saw this movie ten years ago I wondered what Czerny was thinking, but now, after a week of watching nothing but DePalma, I’m wondering why the whole cast isn’t like that.

Danny Elfman.  I love him, he’s great, one of the great film composers of our day.  And his work here is great.  But DePalma usually uses Italian guys.  Was Elfman his choice?  Or was that the studio saying “Look, he did Batman, he did Dick Tracy, obviously he knows this pop-kitsch stuff, just use him already.”

I have a question about espionage thrillers in general.  People are always blowing shit up in public places, sending cars flying into the air, blasting bridges and hotels and cathedrals, yet everything they’re doing is supposed to be very, very secret.  I like the famous computer break-in sequence because it hinges on that silence and invisibility.  But, I’m wondering, what are spies thinking when they blow up a car in the middle of a public square, or destroy a restaurant to make a getaway, or any one thing James Bond does in any given fifteen minutes of his day?

And, like what happened to the dead people after the first act of the movie ended?  Poor Emilio, he’s gotten his head impaled on top of an elevator, who’s going to go get him and make sure he gets a proper burial?  We’ve already been told how this mission doesn’t exist and how no one must know they’re there, how long before Emilio starts to stink and drip body-juices down into the elevator, and some poor embassy staffer is going to have to go up there and scrape him off the top of the elevator?  How is this supposed to work?

*Her name is, I’m not even kidding, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, and she is the veteran of 40 films, many in Russia.  Impressive, for a woman who, from the looks of her name, is the daughter of The Swedish Chef.
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Carlito’s Way

“Here comes the pain,” says somebody to somebody toward the beginning.  The line would turn up again later as a key moment in Snake Eyes.  Wonder what it means to De Palma, or David Koepp (who wrote both scripts) or if it’s just another unconscious quote.

Pacino as restrained and understated here as he is enormous and overblown in Scarface.  Overall I think I prefer Scarface, and who would not.  But the two movies aren’t very similar, director, star and genre notwithstanding.  Maybe if Tony Montana had somehow survived the shootout at the end of Scarface and had a crooked lawyer, he might end up like Carlito, older and wiser and the type to run around ducking assassins instead of blowing people away with a grenade launcher.

Sean Penn, John Leguizamo and Paul Mazursky cover themselves in glory.
The final subway train-chase, cat-and-mouse in Grand Central and escalator shootout the big De Palma setpiece we’ve been waiting for.
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Femme Fatale

Utterly preposterous and totally heartfelt, excruciatingly dumb and achingly sweet, I feel like this is more like the valentine to humanity that De Palma wanted Mission to Mars to be.

The ending, I see now, is the fullest flowering of his fuzzy fantasy idea, where a dream isn’t always totally a dream.  A grace note in his other movies, here it becomes the hook that drives the entire narrative.

Rebecca Romijn takes time out from the movie to strip down to her black underwear and do Melanie Griffith’s dance from Body Double.  I assume De Palma’s quoting himself, but sometimes I just can’t tell he’s quoting himself of if he just forgot that he’d done that bit before.  Presented with a physical prop like Romijn, I can see how one might forget.

Come to think of it, he quotes himself all over the place here; I just realized that he’s even got the “twin girls, one of whom speaks with a French accent” beat from Sisters.

Antonio Banderas, I never quite realized, is rather short.  But Romijn is in heels, so.

I believe that Bill Gates might one day become United States ambassador to France, but I cannot believe that Bill Gates would fly commercial.
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Body Double

When this movie came out, all anyone could talk about was the nudity, sex and outrageous violence.  That, and the shameless borrowings from Vertigo and Rear Window.

Yeah, it’s got all those things.  But De Palma uses the sex and violence the same way the villain does, as a distraction.

Because while this movie is only serviceable as a murder mystery, it’s brilliant as an art film, a dense, witty, unpredictable, multi-layered fugue on the themes of illusion, perception and reality.

Scenes from movies seem real at first, no matter how obviously fake they are, and scenes of “real life” are shot using obviously fake devices like rear-screen projection.  Characters weave in and out of reality without warning, keeping us constantly on our guard regarding what’s “really happening,” even though we’ve seen by now that “what’s really happening” is quite low on the list of things De Palma is interested in.

In interviews, Scorsese is always talking about “Well, but is it real?”  Something tells me that’s not a phrase that comes up a lot on a De Palma set, although Scorsese and De Palma have a similar discomfort with the demands of genre.  Scorsese is happy to ignore the demands of genre in order to get at the core reality of his characters, and De Palma has grown so unhappy with genre that he seems to deliberately throw silly, hackneyed plot points into his movies almost as if to remind us that we’re not supposed to take any of this as literal truth.  There isn’t “really” a psychiatrist who’s dressing up in women’s clothing to murder people, there isn’t “really” a demented subject of evil psychiactric experiments running around and murdering mothers.  De Palma isn’t interested in suspension of disbelief, he’s interested in suspense for its own sake.  And while that might seem cold, slight or elitist to some, he’s actually doing his best to invite us in to his point of view by creating movies as fiendishly entertaining as this one.

The acting in this is quite good, by the way.  Craig Wasson and Guy Boyd, to pick two, are terrific in this and I’ve never seen them in anything else.  Very strange.

And another great credit crawl.
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In spite of borrowing heavily from Psycho, this turns out to be one of De Palma’s most original movies.

For some reason, it’s never occurred to me before now just how important issues of perception and point-of-view are to De Palma.  It’s not just the voyeuristic camera and the re-tellings of stories from different points of view (although his movies have plenty of both).  In both Raising Cain and Snake Eyes, there are scenes where there are scenes dreamt or recounted by characters, which turn out to be inaccurate, colored by perception or wholly false.  And the rational filmgoer says “But that’s a cheat, that’s not how it happened.”  Well, how do we “know what happened?”  We just saw it on film; but whose point of view was being presented on film?  That is, De Palma doesn’t seem interested in how it happened, he’s interested in what a character has perceived.

There’s a scene in Snake Eyes where Gary Sinise tells Nicolas Cage What Really Happened, and we see it played out on film.  And because of the use of subjective camera, we get the feeling that we’re seeing What Really Happened from Gary’s point of view.  Later, this explanation turns out to be a total fabrication.  Then how could we see his story on film?  Well, what we’re seeing is Nicolas Cage’s perception of what he thinks Gary’s story represents.  That may seem like hair-splitting, but it marks a cinematic conceptual leap that is rather extraordinary.

Similarly, in Raising Cain there’s the rather amazing sequence where Lolita Davidovich wakes up, goes to her bureau, finds that she’s given the wrong clock to her lover, goes to her lover’s hotel to switch the clocks, then wakes up to find that she’s actually in her lover’s bed already, then later wakes up to find that she’s actually still in her own bed.  But later we find out that only part of the dream-within-a-dream is a dream, part of it happened in real life.  So what De Palma showed us was a dream that at least in part recounted a real event.  When people chide De Palma for his use of hackneyed conventions, it’s useful to remember that he also often plays with our perceptions in deep and subtle ways.

Anyway, there’s this rather incredible scene in Act III of Sisters where Jennifer Salt is told the Big Secret That Explains the Whole Movie.  And instead of having the doctor sit calmly and explain it to us (like he does at the end of Psycho), he has the doctor drug Jennifer, tie her down to the bed, hypnotise her and put her through a traumatic fake operation.  Why?  Well I’d hate to spoil things, but let’s say that he wishes to leave her in a state of confusion. 

But as a wild tale of love, loss and medical mishap is told, she undergoes a series of bizarre hallucinations, some of which seem to be almost-literal representations of truth and others which make no sense whatsoever and approach Lynchian levels of weirdness and discomfort.

And it turns out that all of this information is quite useless to Jennifer as a protagonist.

Speaking of which, another neat trick is how the doctor is introduced as The Creepy Guy who’s stalking Margot Kidder, and by the end of the movie we realize that he’s really the Only Sane Man who could have stopped a lot of death and ruined lives, had not certain horrible things happened.
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Raising Cain

When this movie came out, it seemed pretty silly.  Now it seems pretty great.  Funny, weird, effective, creepy, weird.

Incredible first-act curtain, a dream within a dream within a dream.  Or is it?  And which parts?

Visual motif: Time.  And by time I mean clocks.  And by clocks I mean clock hands.  And by clock hands I mean long pointy things.

With Snake Eyes, shares a fear of drowning, head-butting and impalement.  Lots of impalement.

Tiny knives.

Wonderful long take where Frances Sternhagen explains things as she and two detectives walk through some offices, down a hall, into an elevator, out into another hall, down some stairs, through a lobby and into a morgue.  That’s how you do exposition.

Lithgow, who is varying degrees of silly thought most of the movie, is actually pretty convincing as the old Norweigian guy.

“Jesus, stop, you’re going to kill somebody with that sundial!”
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Snake Eyes

Sometimes one has to make a conceptual leap in order to enjoy a filmmaker’s work. I didn’t enjoy Barry Lyndon for years, until I noticed that Kubrick was copying certain compositions directly from paintings from the era he was depicting. Once I understood that he was making a movie, a 20th-century art form, of a story from the 18th century, using the images and rhythms that people of that time would have understood, the movie suddenly became hugely interesting, sweeping and involving on the level of The Shining or Clockwork Orange, and is now one of my favorite Kubrick films.

In the case of Snake Eyes, I find that once I give up the notion that I’m watching a movie about human beings, with any connection to logic, it similarly becomes quite enjoyable. I don’t mean that as a snarky comment.  It’s just that if you’re expecting a conventional thriller on the level of, say, The Bourne Identity (a movie I love), you’re bound to be disappointed.  You wouldn’t expect a conventional gangster picture from Godard or a conventional noir from Truffaut, yet when DePalma plays with genre even a little bit people sigh and roll their eyes.

Pure DePalma, the movie is about a handful of suspenseful situations that DePalma can use to weave his magic spell of dread, bitterness and cynicism.  It begins with a stunning, 12-minute take that follows Nicolas Cage around the main set.  Not just a show-offy trick (like, say, the impressive 5-minute take at the beginning of Bonfire of the Vanities), the take offers an encapsulation of the entire narrative, the moment that we’re going to spend the rest of the movie scrutinizing from different points of view, some authentic and some not.  Hugely skillful in his manipulation of our sensibilities, DePalma puts key events at the edge of the frame or even out of frame (hey Paramount, this DVD is the crappiest transfer I’ve seen since 1941), things that only make sense when we see them again from another point of view.

There are two long expository scenes, one where Nicolas Cage literally stops the movie in the middle of a hair’s-breadth chase scene to say “Let’s sit down and talk for a second,” and the other where The Bond Villain Explains The Whole Conspiracy To The Protagonist At Gunpoint, and you can sense DePalma unhappy with having to include these scenes at all.  He knows he has to or else the movie won’t make any sense, but he shoots them in completely straightforward ways, this from a director who otherwise doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “straightforward.”  It’s like he’s saying “okay, fine, you need this scene?  Fine.  You sit and watch the two actors explain the story, I’m going out back for a smoke.”

My favorite credit crawl, second only to Seven.

While the ending hinges on an absurd confluence of coincidental events, I give DePalma credit for not making the ending as happy as he could have.  It’s also worth noting that the conspiracy theory that the movie hinges on, which seemed silly and baroquely implausible to me ten years ago now sounds sober, well-reasoned and straightforward by today’s political standards.

I would very much like to see DePalma go whole hog and make an entire movie in one take, like Hitchcock tried in Rope, but with a story on this scale.  Snake Eyes practically plays out in real time anyway, I don’t know why he didn’t try it here.

BONUS WEIRDNESS: Nicolas Cage plays a character named Rick Santorum, and there is a Richard Santorum thanked in the end credits.  Likewise, Gary Sinise plays a character named Kevin Dunne, and there is a scene where he is interviewed by another actor whose real name is Kevin Dunn.
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