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Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma, 2007
Born Brian Russell De Palma
September 11, 1940 (1940-09-11) (age 69)
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
Occupation Film director and Writer
Years active 1960–present
Spouse(s) Nancy Allen (1979-1983)
Gale Anne Hurd (1991-1993)
Darnell Gregorio-De Palma (1995-1997)

Brian Russell De Palma (born September 11, 1940) is an American film director and writer. In a career spanning over forty years, he is probably best known for his suspense and thriller films, including such box office successes as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, Carlito's Way, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, De Palma worked repeatedly with actors Jennifer Salt, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen (his wife from 1979 to 1983), William Finley, Charles Durning, Gerrit Graham, cinematographers Stephen H. Burum and Vilmos Zsigmond (see List of noted film director and cinematographer collaborations), set designer Jack Fisk, and composers Bernard Herrmann and Pino Donaggio. De Palma is credited with fostering the careers of or outright discovering Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, and Margot Kidder.

Contents

Early life

De Palma, whose background is Italian Roman Catholic, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Vivienne (née Muti) and Anthony Frederick De Palma, an orthopedic surgeon.[1] He was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire in various Protestant and Quaker schools. He won a regional science-fair prize for a project titled "An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations".

1960s and early career

Enrolled at Columbia as a physics student, De Palma became enraptured with the filmmaking process after viewing Citizen Kane and Vertigo. De Palma subsequently enrolled at the newly coed Sarah Lawrence College as a graduate student in their theater department in the early 1960s, becoming one of the first male students among a female population. Once there, influences as various as drama teacher Wilford Leach, the Maysles brothers, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol and Alfred Hitchcock impressed upon De Palma the many styles and themes that would shape his own cinema in the coming decades. An early association with discovery Robert De Niro resulted in The Wedding Party, codirected with Leach and producer Cynthia Munroe. The film was shot in 1963 but remained unreleased until 1969, when De Palma's star had risen sufficiently within the Greenwich Village filmmaking scene, though De Niro's remained low enough for the credits to display his name as "Robert Denero". The film is noteworthy for its invocation of silent film techniques and an insistence on the jump-cut for effect. Various small films for the NAACP and The Treasury Department followed.

During this decade, De Palma began making a living producing documentary films, notably The Responsive Eye (1966) about The Responsive Eye op-art exhibit curated by William Seitz for MOMA in 1965. In an interview with Gelmis from 1969, De Palma described the film as "very good and very successful. It's distributed by Pathe Contemporary and makes lots of money. I shot it in four hours, with synched sound. I had two other guys shooting people's reactions to the paintings, and the paintings themselves."[2]

Dionysus in '69 (1969) was De Palma's other major documentary from this period. The film records The Performance Group's performance of Euripdes’ “The Bacchae”, starring, amongst others, De Palma regular William Finley. The play is noted for breaking traditional barriers between performers and audience. The film's most striking quality is its extensive use of the split-screen. De Palma recalls that he was “floored” by this performance upon first sight, and in 1973 recounts how he "began to try and figure out a way to capture it on film. I came up with the idea of split-screen, to be able to show the actual audience involvement, to trace the life of the audience and that of the play as they merge in and out of each other."[3]

De Palma's most significant features from this decade are Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970). Both films star Robert De Niro and espouse a Leftist revolutionary viewpoint common to their era. Greetings was entered into the 19th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won a Silver Bear award.[4] His other major film from this period is the slasher comedy Murder a la Mod. Each of these films contains experiments in narrative and intertextuality, reflecting De Palma's stated intention to become the "American Godard" while integrating several of the themes which permeated Hitchcock's work.

"Greetings" is about three New Yorkers dealing with draft. The film is often considered the first to deal explicitly with the draft. The film is noteworthy for its use of various experimental techniques to convey its narrative in ultimately unconventional ways. Footage will be sped up, rapid cutting will distance the audience from the narrative, and it is difficult to discern with whom the audience must ultimately align. "Greetings" ultimately grossed over $1 million at the box office and cemented De Palma's position as a bankable filmmaker.

After the success of his 1968 breakthrough, De Palma and his producing partner (Charles Hirsch) were given the opportunity by Sigma 3 to make an unofficial sequel of sorts, initially entitled "Son of Greetings", and subsequently released as Hi, Mom!. While "Greetings" accentuated its varied cast, Hi, Mom! focuses on De Niro's character, Jon Rubin, an essential carry-over from the previous film. The film is ultimately significant insofar as it displays the first enunciation of De Palma's style in all its major traits – voyeurism, guilt, and a hyper-consciousness of the medium are all on full display, not just as hallmarks, but built into this formal, material apparatus itself.

These traits come to the fore in Hi, Mom!'s "Be Black, Baby" sequence. This sequence parodies cinéma vérité, the dominant documentary tradition of the 1960s, while simultaneously providing the audience with a visceral and disturbingly emotional experience. De Palma describes the sequence as a constant invocation of Brectian distanciation: “First of all, I am interested in the medium of film itself, and I am constantly standing outside and making people aware that they are always watching a film. At the same time I am evolving it. In Hi, Mom! for instance, there is a sequence where you are obviously watching a ridiculous documentary and you are told that and you are aware of it, but it still sucks you in. There is a kind of Brechtian alienation idea here: you are aware of what you are watching at the same time that you are emotionally involved with it.”

"Be Black, Baby" was filmed in black and white stock on 16 mm, in low-light conditions that stress the crudity of the direct cinema aesthetic. It is precisely from this crudity that the film itself gains a credibility of “realism.” In an interview with Michael Bliss, De Palma notes “[Be Black, Baby] was rehearsed for almost three weeks... In fact, it's all scripted. But once the thing starts, they just go with the way it's going. I specifically got a very good documentary camera filmmaker (Robert Elfstrom) to just shoot it like a documentary to follow the action.” Furthermore, “I wanted to show in Hi, Mom! how you can really involve an audience. You take an absurd premise – “Be Black, Baby” – and totally involve them and really frighten them at the same time. It's very Brechtian. You suck ‘em in and annihilate ‘em. Then you say, “It's just a movie, right? It's not real.” It's just like television. You’re sucked in all the time, and you’re being lied to in a very documentary-like setting. The “Be Black, Baby” section of Hi, Mom! is probably the most important piece of film I’ve ever done.”

Transition to Hollywood

In 1976, after several small, studio and independent released films that included stand-outs Sisters and Obsession, a small film based on a novel called Carrie was released directed by Brian De Palma. The psychic thriller Carrie is seen by some as De Palma's bid for a blockbuster. In fact, the project was small, underfunded by United Artists, and well under the cultural radar during the early months of production, as Stephen King's source novel had yet to climb the bestseller list. De Palma gravitated toward the project and changed crucial plot elements based upon his own predilections, not the saleability of the novel. The cast was young and relatively new, though the stars Sissy Spacek and John Travolta had gained considerable attention for previous work in, respectively, film and episodic sitcoms. Carrie became a hit, the first genuine box-office success for De Palma. It garnered Spacek and Piper Laurie Oscar nominations for their performances. Preproduction for the film had coincided with the casting process for George Lucas's Star Wars, and many of the actors cast in De Palma's film had been earmarked as contenders for Lucas's, and vice-versa. The "shock ending" finale is effective even while it upholds horror-film convention, its suspense sequences are buttressed by teen comedy tropes, and its use of split-screen, split-diopter and slow motion shots tell the story visually rather than through dialogue.

The financial and critical success of Carrie allowed De Palma to pursue more personal material. The Demolished Man was a novel that had fascinated De Palma since the late 1950s and appealed to his background in mathematics and avant-garde storytelling. Its unconventional unfolding of plot (exemplified in its mathematical layout of dialogue) and its stress on perception have analogs in De Palma's filmmaking. He sought to adapt it on numerous occasions, though the project would carry a substantial price tag, and has yet to appear onscreen (Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report bears striking similarities to De Palma's visual style and some of the themes of The Demolished Man).[citation needed] The result of his experience with adapting The Demolished Man was The Fury, a sci-fi psychic thriller that starred Kirk Douglas, Carrie Snodgress, John Cassavetes and Amy Irving. The film was admired by Jean-Luc Godard, who featured a clip in his mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma, and Pauline Kael who championed both The Fury and De Palma. The film boasted a larger budget than Carrie, though the consensus view at the time was that De Palma was repeating himself, with diminishing returns. As a film it retains De Palma's considerable visual flair, but points more toward his work in mainstream entertainments such as The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible, the thematic complex thrillers for which he is now better known.

For many film-goers, De Palma's gangster films, most notably Scarface and Carlito's Way, pushed the envelope of violence and depravity, and yet greatly vary from one another in both style and content and also illustrate De Palma's evolution as a film-maker. In essence, the excesses of Scarface contrast with the more emotional tragedy of Carlito's Way. Both films feature Al Pacino in what has become a fruitful working relationship.

"Trademarks" and style

Themes

De Palma's films can fall into two categories, his psychological thrillers (Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Raising Cain) and his other commercial films (Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito's Way, and Mission: Impossible). He has often produced "De Palma" films one after the other before going on to direct a different genre, but would always return to his familiar territory. Because of their subject matter and graphic violence De Palma's films (Dressed to Kill, Scarface, Body Double) are often at the center of controversy with the Motion Picture Association of America, film critics and the viewing public.

De Palma is known for quoting and referencing other director's work throughout his career. Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation plots were used for the basis of Blow Out. The Untouchables' finale shoot out in the train station is a clear borrow from the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin. The main plot from Rear Window was used for Body Double while Vertigo was used as the basis for Obsession. Dressed to Kill was a note-for-note homage to Hitchcock's Psycho, including such moments as the surprise death of the lead actress and the exposition scene by the psychiatrist at the end.

Camera shots

Film critics have often noted De Palma's trend for camera tricks, good and bad, throughout his career. He often frames characters against the background using a canted angle shot. Split-screen techniques have been used to show two separate events happening simultaneously. To emphasize the dramatic impact of a certain scene De Palma has employed a 360-degree camera pan. Slow sweeping, panning and tracking shots are often used throughout his films. Split focus shots are used to emphasize the foreground person/object before focusing on the background person/object.

Significant collaborations

De Palma has collaborated with many of the same actors and crew members throughout his career. Robert De Niro starred in The Wedding Party, Greetings, Hi, Mom!, and The Untouchables. Nancy Allen had acting roles in Carrie, Home Movies, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. Other actors that De Palma has worked with on more than one occasion include Jennifer Salt (The Wedding Party, Hi, Mom!, and Sisters), Charles Durning (Hi, Mom!, Sisters, and The Fury), Al Pacino (Scarface and Carlito's Way), John Lithgow (Obsession, Blow Out and Raising Cain), Sean Penn (Casualties of War and Carlito's Way), Amy Irving (Carrie, The Fury and Casualties of War (uncredited voice-over)), and John Travolta (Carrie, Blow Out).

De Palma has used the same screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and composers throughout his career. Screenwriter David Koepp has worked with him on Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible, and Snake Eyes. His choice of cinematographers has included Vilmos Zsigmond (Obsession, Blow Out, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Black Dahlia) and Stephen H. Burum (Body Double, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Raising Cain, Carlito's Way, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars). Composers that De Palma has worked with included Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Home Movies, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double, Raising Cain) and Ennio Morricone (The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Mission to Mars and Capone Rising). Editors of De Palma's choice have included Bill Pankow (Body Double, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Carlito's Way, Snake Eyes, The Black Dahlia, Redacted) and Paul Hirsch (Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Raising Cain, Mission to Mars).

Legacy

De Palma is often cited as a leading member of the New Hollywood generation of film directors, a distinct pedigree who either emerged from film schools or are overtly cine-literate. His contemporaries include Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, John Milius, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg. His artistry in directing and use of cinematography and suspense in several of his films has often been compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.[5]

De Palma has encouraged and fostered the filmmaking careers of directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Mark Romanek and Keith Gordon. Tarantino said - during interview with de Palma, that Blow Out is one of his all time favourite films, and that after watching Scarface he knew how to make his own film. Terrence Malick credits seeing De Palma's early films on college campus tours as a validation of independent film, and subsequently switched his attention from philosophy to filmmaking.

In his review of Femme Fatale, Roger Ebert wrote about the director: "De Palma deserves more honor as a director. Consider also these titles: Sisters, Blow Out, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Carrie, Scarface, Wise Guys, Casualties of War, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible. Yes, there are a few failures along the way (Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, The Bonfire of the Vanities), but look at the range here, and reflect that these movies contain treasure for those who admire the craft as well as the story, who sense the glee with which De Palma manipulates images and characters for the simple joy of being good at it. It's not just that he sometimes works in the style of Hitchcock, but that he has the nerve to."[6]

Filmography

* Listed in order of release date

Feature films

Directed by De Palma
Co-directed by De Palma

Short films

  • Icarus (1960)
  • 660124: The Story of an IBM Card (1961)
  • Woton's Wake (1962)
  • Jennifer (1964)
  • Bridge That Gap (1965)
  • Show Me a Strong Town and I'll Show You a Strong Bank (1966)

Documentary films

  • The Responsive Eye (1966)

Bibliography

References

  1. ^ http://www.filmreference.com/film/80/Brian-De-Palma.html
  2. ^ Gelmis, Joseph (1970). The Film Director as Superstar. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc.. pp. 24. 
  3. ^ Knapp, Lawrence (2003). Brian De Palma Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 26. 
  4. ^ "Berlinale 1969: Prize Winners". berlinale.de. http://www.berlinale.de/en/archiv/jahresarchive/1969/03_preistraeger_1969/03_Preistraeger_1969.html. Retrieved 2010-03-06. 
  5. ^ Rainier, Peter. "The Director's Craft: The death-deifying De Palma". Los Angeles Times Calendar. http://www.calendarlive.com/movies/cl-ca-depalma24sep24,0,6512079.story. Retrieved 2007-12-26. 
  6. ^ Roger Ebert's review of Femme Fatale (2002)

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