Monday, April 9, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.10: Brian De Palma's Home Movies

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.

Grade: 35 (C-)

Brian De Palma’s two big-budget movies, Carrie and The Fury, brought him more attention, but De Palma was distressed that there wasn’t a viable American independent movie scene. The director went back to his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, and embarked on an experiment/course exercise with a group of aspiring young filmmakers. Their project, 1979’s Home Movies, would serve as a training course in low-budget filmmaking and (hopefully) prove that a film made for virtually nothing could be a hit. The film was a failure, artistically and commercially speaking, but if nothing else, it shows De Palma’s willingness to experiment while at the top of his game, and it remains one of his most personal movies.

Denis Byrd (Keith Gordon) is a geeky young man whose home life is in shambles. His father (Vincent Gardenia) is a lecherous old doctor who cheats on his mother. His mother (Mary Davenport) has been driven to suicide attempts through her knowledge of his affairs, but she has no actual proof he’s cheated, so she would have a hard time divorcing him. Denis’ brother James (Gerrit Graham) is a health-nut who practices “Spartanetics”, an attempt to reach Spartan levels of manliness. James demands that his girlfriend Christina (Nancy Allen), a formerly sexually active girl, goes on a strict diet of healthy food and stays away from sex (even though James is clearly a closeted homosexual). To top it all off, Denis is in love with Christina. But he’s only a “bit player” in his life, and a film director/professor known only as The Maestro (Kirk Douglas) tries to teach him to take charge in his “movie” and teach him the basics of moviemaking. Now Denis has to make a film, get the girl, and prove his father is cheating on his mother.

If nothing else, Home Movies further proves De Palma’s skill as a technical director- even on a low budget with a mostly student crew, he frames his shots exceptionally in order to tell a story visually. Allen’s entrance in the film is visually dynamic, and we immediately know what effect she’ll have on Denis. De Palma uses split-diopter to dole out information in the foreground and background, whether it’s Denis’ realization that he can catch his father cheating or the final scene, in which Denis and Christina meet up and get together once and for all in a romantic train station scene. Home Movies also shows De Palma returning to his cinema verite/Richard Lester/Jean-Luc Godard inspired early days of filmmaking, where his fly-on-the-wall style makes everything seem like it’s really happening (even when he’s breaking the fourth wall to show that it’s all artificial). There’s even a conscious throwback to Hi, Mom!’s revolutionary “Be Black, Baby” sequence, albeit in an infinitely less ingenious/funny way.

The Hitchcockian influences creep in as well, mostly in De Palma’s preferred theme of voyeurism. The first sequence in which Denis spies on his father and a nurse making hanky-panky is straight out of Rear Window (complete with photography obsession). When he gets bored watching them, he finds another window to look in. Other scenes show both Denis and James spying on Christina, with their intentions showing the key differences between the two- Denis wants to protect Christina from the lunacy around her, whereas James wants to control her. Rear Window isn’t the only Hitchcock film referenced, however- there’s a bit about split-personality that plays like a loony version of Psycho, another De Palma favorite.

What makes Home Movies an interesting film, at least in theory, is how much of De Palma’s personal life is in the film. Kirk Douglas’ filmmaker/professor might be the most obvious comparison- he sees everything as a movie (like De Palma), and his attempt to teach young filmmakers the basics of moviemaking directly parallel’s the De Palma’s reason for making Home Movies. But there’s an even more personal storyline: the bits about the Denis spying on his cheating father? De Palma really did that, and his father was also a surgeon. Gordon had a better role in De Palma’s next film, Dressed to Kill, but in both films he’s an effective De Palma surrogate: intelligent, intellectually curious, obsessed with voyeurism, a burgeoning filmmaker, and with a greater respect for women than many of the people around him. Gordon’s sweet-natured relationship with Allen is the most effective element of the film, and it’s significant that the De Palma surrogate in both Home Movies and Dressed to Kill has a more open-minded and empathetic view of women than the characters around him. It’s another strike against the simplistic “De Palma is a misogynist” mindset that too many filmgoers use.

Here’s the problem, though: Home Movies is agonizingly, eye-gougingly unfunny. It’s a bit of a shock that the writer-director behind Hi, Mom! and Greetings could fail so miserably at making another comedy in the same fashion, but here’s what Home Movies has in store: unfunny crotch-punch jokes, unfunny suicide attempts, unfunny blackface moments (meant to be a throwback to Hi, Mom!, but it doesn’t work), unfunny bits of Kirk Douglas teaching the basics of moviemaking, and most notable, everything involving Gerrit Graham. Graham throws himself into the role, but he hasn’t been given anything even modestly chuckle-inducing to do. The other actors don’t’ fare too much better. Even an actress as underrated as Nancy Allen is mostly at sea with the comedy scenes. De Palma’s students wrote a good deal of the material. It’s admirable that he gave them their shot, but it doesn’t work.

Regardless, it’s an admirable failure and a noble effort on everyone’s part. De Palma didn’t start the student-filmmaking revolution he’d hoped, but an independent filmmaking movement was on its way, with the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson among the filmmakers who would make their films their way and find great success over the next two decades. He just had to wait a few more years for it to get started.

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