Sunday, April 1, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.1: Brian De Palma's Murder a la Mod

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

In the era of New Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s, the director was king, and the people that best exemplified the young talent bubbling up in the country were the Movie Brats, a group of film school students with fire in their belly and a desire to buck the system. Of the five directors most commonly identified with the group, Francis Ford Coppola had the earliest breakthrough, with Martin Scorsese serving as his longer lasting counterpart; on the flip side was commercial giant George Lucas, with Steven Spielberg as his still relevant (read: still respected) friend. Together the four conquered the world, found critical and commercial respect, won (or in Lucas’ case, got nominated for) Oscars, and,  to some extent, became part of the system they once tried to overthrow.

Where does the fifth Movie Brat, Brian De Palma, fit in all of this? He made the same early underground films that his friends did and found critical success, but he was never as widely accepted. He’s never been nominated for an Oscar, and some critics revile his work with venom. He’s had a number of commercial hits (Carrie, The Untouchables, Mission: Imposible), but they’re often followed by high profile duds (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars). Yet among his fellow directors and certain cinephiles, De Palma is among the most respected filmmakers alive. His followers are vast- Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Terrence Malick have all been inspired by his work.

As for me? For the longest time, I was a De Palma detractor- I didn’t like Sisters, I didn’t get Scarface, and I dismissed him, as many do, as a Hitchcock-imitator. But De Palma is more than just an imitator- he’s a consummate film fanatic who uses influences from Hitchcock to Antonioni to Godard as a way to express a vision like no other. I’ll be revisiting a number of his films, and watching others for the first time, in this month’s Director Spotlight.

Grade: 51 (C+)

De Palma got his start in theatre and film at Sarah Lawrence College, where he co-directed the 1963 film The Wedding Party (starring a young Robert De Niro, among others). His proper directorial debut, however, is 1968’s Murder a la Mod, recently re-released as a bonus on the Criterion edition of his masterpiece Blow Out. The film shows De Palma establishing his voice as a director immediately, experimenting with French New Wave and European art house filmmaking techniques while also employing Hitchcockian themes. The film is a unique and often striking debut. It is not, however, entirely successful.

The film concerns Karen (Margo Norton), a chic girl currently dating photographer Chris (Jared Martin). Chris has a problem: he’s married, he’s unwilling to have sex with Karen until he’s divorced, and he’s unable to divorce his wife until after he finishes shooting a porn film for a sleazy producer (Ken Burrows, the actual producer of De Palma’s film). The film also follows Karen’s friend Tracy (Andra Akers), who disapproves of her friend’s relationship, and Chris’s associate Otto (William Finley), a man with a sick sense of humor.

Murder a la Mod feels very much like a student film trying to imitate the greats: Chris’ obsession with his work is comparable to that of the protagonist of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The exploration of chic art and fashion of the 60s feels like a tribute to Andy Warhol. De Palma’s film-within-a-film conceit has a Brechtian feeling of constantly reminding the audience of its artificiality, and there are ties here to Antonioni’s Blowup as well (not to mention the photography business). De Palma throws in a Hitchcockian set-piece near the end of the film. Most notably, he makes use of several French New Wave techniques, from sped-up scenes to jump cuts. De Palma is trying to be an American Godard, a fashionable Hitchcock, and a humorous Antonioni.

To his credit, De Palma shows his chops as a director. The film’s striking opening of a model jumping in place for a photographer only to have the man slit her throat shows De Palma’s early willingness to pull the rug out from under the audience. Anyone paying attention might guess that some of the things we see in the film aren’t to be believed- when a character dies, it’s questionable whether or not they’ve really died. De Palma plays with time in a clever way here, constantly backtracking to show how one character’s perspective differs from another. He got better with this by Sisters, at which point he discovered split-screen, but it shows that De Palma’s a rather clever filmmaker.

De Palma also shows strength in evoking a certain time and place even as the story runs a bit thin- his exploration of 60s-era New York would get better with his next film, Greetings, but he has a good sense of the sleazy side of New York, fashion, art, pornography, and, of course, film. There’s two subjects above all else evident throughout De Palma’s work: fascination with film (where the artificial becomes real and the real artificial) and voyeurism. Murder a la Mod understands how thrilling (and often horrifying) it is to watch someone- he makes us complicit in the murderer’s crimes, he lets us know that something is going to happen before the characters realize it, and, in one of his fun Hitchcockian set-pieces he would pepper throughout his career, he shows a woman following the “murderer”…only to reveal that he was watching her the whole time…and that another person was watching both of them.

It’s too bad that the overly-sloppy film only occasionally succeeds. Even at 80 minutes, the film feels awfully thin, with long, dull dialogue scenes taking up much of the time. Most of the actors are terrible (Finley excepted), the comedy isn’t particularly funny (although it certainly shows energy), and the story doesn’t seem to know how to adequately explore all of the themes De Palma brings up. It earns marks as an interesting start, but De Palma’s more assured follow-up, Greetings, would be his real first triumph.

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