L13FC: Brian De Palma

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club and three cheers to my English buddy, Pete, for accepting my invitation to co-host this month’s discussion. We wanted to extend our admiration of Brian De Palma to you and encourage you to respond to everyone’s ideas in a positive way. Please join the conversation. Why is your favorite De Palma film memorable?

Pete’s opinion:

Blow Out. (1981)
I am starting with this film as I like it so much, and think it is grossly underrated. There is some real skill here, and the recurring use of sound and film editing, film techniques within a film. De Palma makes the most of going over the same thing time and again, with subtle changes that show the developments to the viewer, as they are discovered by the character of Jack (John Travolta) on screen. The director also shows his skill for pacing, as we happily wait for the painstaking research to play out before us, then get swept along by the excitement of the finale.
The split screen helps too, building tension, and saving running time in the process. Then there is the theme of ‘the scream’, one that runs through the whole film, and the idea of filming important scenes against the background of real events and large crowds, in vivid colour.
Body Double (1984)
This film stayed with me and is actually a lot better than it feels when you are watching it. The
story is secondary to the real purpose of the film though. That is De Palma playing fast and loose with an unbridled homage to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. For film fans, it becomes a delight to spot the references, many of which are about as subtle as being hit with a cinematic brick. At times it feels like the director has taken the films of the man he admired so much, and inserted them into Body Double in order of preference. They are so blatant, all that is missing is a title sequence appearing ahead of the scene. We have the voyeurism of Rear Window, the close-up collusion of Rope, and the use of the telephone from Dial M For Murder. Throw in some Vertigo and Psycho scene-alikes for good measure, and all we seem to be missing is the seaside scene from Rebecca, and the fairground from Strangers On A Train. But don’t let that put you off. It is a dedicated homage, cranked up for the 1980s.
Carlito’s Way (1993)
If the first choice was innovative, whilst derivative, and the second an outright homage, my third
choice is all about casting, and locations. This modern gangster film is far superior to De Palma’s overblown and out of control Scarface, made 10 years earlier. By this time, the director had grown into making something more serious, and despite using the same lead actor, Al Pacino delivers a fine performance that is a world away from hysterical Tony Montana. A barely recognizable Sean Penn captures the style and greed of the period as the friend and lawyer Carlito rely upon, and smaller roles from Luis Guzman and a testy John Leguziamo are memorable, too. Locations are bitingly authentic, from the run-down cafe early in the film, to the prison barge holding the Mafia boss, and the nightclub owned and run by Carlito. Everything smacks of authenticity, and if any of them were sets, I surely didn’t notice. Even though I knew some just had to be. This is my favourite De Palma film, with its sense of impending doom running all the way through.
Image result for casualties of war sean penn split screen image
Cindy’s thoughts: 
Remember in Casualties of War when the sarge, Sean Pean, was shaving looking into the camera like it were a mirror in front of him while soldiers talked about him without his knowing? I like how De Palma transitioned from the split screen to placing one image, usually a character, in the foreground. It happened later again when Michael J. Fox’s character is being transported via helicopter. It happens in many De Palma films. The trick forces the audience to focus on two stories going on at once.
Image result for carrie split screen image
The split-screen is a trademark technique. Repeating the stars from one film to the next is another trademark. John Travolta. Al Pacino. Melanie Griffith. Sean Penn. Can you sum up Brian De Palma? We know his stories are a parasitical obsession with Hitchcock. His stories are passionate displays for conspiracies and voyeurism. The scores are loud and melodramatic, and I am entertained when I watch them.
Image result for mission impossible one image of cruise hanging mid air
Mission Impossible is the best of the long franchise. Carrie is a horrifying film adaptation, probably the best of Stephen King’s novels.
My favorite De Palma film is The Untouchables. Robert DeNiro was electric as Al Capone. Jim Malone (Sean Connery) as the mentor to Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) was charming and Ennio Morricone‘s score sizzled. The best trick of DePalma for me, however, is his use of contrasts. He takes a beautiful setting–the hill country of Vietnam, the Canadian Rockies, the beauty of architecture, like sweeping stairs and velvet drapes, and inserts a horrifying situation or tragic character, the “humpbacked and crooked”, the two extremes, to create a binary experience. While De Palma films may seem like period pieces from the 80s and 90s and not as great as films from the 60s and 70s, I am nostalgic for them. He filmed on location in interesting places. I miss the  De Palma tricks, the colorful, melodramatic scores, and the corrupted souls fumbling around in the dark with the hope of redemption that rarely comes.
What’s your favorite De Palma scene? 
Thank you, Pete, for co-hosting! Check out Beetley Pete’s blog which can be found HERE.

Daphne Du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock

Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds.  Daphne Du Maurier’s talent combined the dark passions of love and assigned them to characters of dubious morality. Jealousy, unrequited love, and sexual frustrations are the seeds that haunt her characters. Young pretty females with pluck are trapped in the confines of older men who make them birds in cages. The psychological demise of her villains and the extent to which humans struggle with morality thrilled Alfred Hitchcock. Debauched as a romance writer by her critics and not taken seriously, Alfred Hitchcock saw something more in Daphne’s writing; however, the varied success of their collaborations was frayed with complications.

Image result for images of jamaica inn

First, the books are better than the movies. Daphne Du Maurier apparently lived in Jamaica Inn for three years as she wrote her novel. Located in southwestern Cornwall, the Bodwin Moor, every sense was aroused from her storytelling. Her expertise for putting the reader in the dank bogs and treeless fells and moors with grasses, mist, and wind combined with the rocky coastline and 1820 masted ships crashing into the rocks and drownings and murder–and then add in the spooky hauntings of ancient Druids and the imagination conjures up Vikings who swept in and took charge, maybe stealing the silver at Tintagel? Honestly, where else would one need look to find the ideal setting for suspense? In short, Daphne Du Maurier mastered the art of description and created a stellar gothic tale. What is the story about?

Her dying mother requests twenty-year-old Mary Yellan travel to Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. When she gets there she is dismayed to find that Patience is a nothing more than a doormat, a mumbling, frightened woman who cowers from her truculent husband, a giant with a massive frame and booming voice, Joss Meryln.

The inn is muddy and dark and holds secrets. Lots of them. Mary wants to escape with her aunt, but entanglements and midnight meetings envelop her in mystery. She begrudgingly falls in love with uncle’s dashing little brother, Jem Meryln. It’s a fun read with a melodramatic ending. 4/5.  

British actor Charles Laughton purchased the film rights and appointed Alfred Hitchcock as director. Hitchcock’s creative control was thwarted as Laughton took liberties with the story and created scenes to surround his character. Even beautiful Maureen O’Hara couldn’t save the melodramatic mess that made Daphne Du Maurier cringe when she saw it and Hitchcock groan with disappointment. 2.5/5. I just watched the 2014 version on BBC of Jamaica Inn starred Jessica Brown Findley as Mary Yellan and Matthew McNulty as Jem. Overall, it was disappointing. Casting was great for Mary and Jem. But the bullying Uncle Joss who was towering and blustery in the book was not so in the film. Lean, beady-eyed Sean Harris played the role and his personality didn’t carry that necessary Alpha-dog trait that would keep Mary or his weak wife in fear. The script was the main problem. I’m all for admiring the separateness of the visual text and the reading text but when you start tinkering with Mary’s motivation (Uncle Joss’s wife played by Joanne Whalley did not need protection or saving) and start inserting characters (the vicar’s sister played by Shirley Henderson with the witchy voice) you take away from the necessary characterization of others (the vicar couldn’t have been duller) and if the sway away from the classic is too far, you’ll have a mutated miscarriage on your hands. The only thing done right by the BBC, 3-part series was to film most of it in Cornwall. The beauty of the moors, the gray coastline, along with the dreariness of Jamaica Inn was done well. 3/5. 

Rebecca (1941) was another frustrating project for Alfred Hitchcock. Producer David O. Selznick fought with Hitch about script changes and alterations to the ending to abide by Hollywood code laws but ruined the moral demise of the villain that Hitchcock wanted to amplify.  Book: 5/5. Movie: 4/5. Despite the 2 Oscar wins for Best Picture and Cinematography, Hitchcock’s second adaptation with a Du Maurier’s story left a bad taste in his mouth. You can read more about their seven-year relationship, Selznick the egomaniac vs. Hitchcock the persnickety in this 1999 Variety article found here:

Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood

The Birds (1963) Selznick was distracted in New York and left Hitchcock alone with arguably his best film. What’s so good about it? The inclusion of a nail-biting soundtrack? The evilness of the birds and the sing-song innocence of children at the schoolyard? The attack of the city, from the birds perspective, from areal shots down to the intimate attack of Melanie in the phone booth? The shocking discovery at the neighbor’s farm? The fantastic cast? Or trying to figure out the theme of jealousy exemplified by the strange love dynamic between Mitch Brenner’s family?

Image result for images of the birds movie tippi and rod

One aspect of The Birds that intrigues me is Hitchcock’s obsession with beauty and what constitutes femininity and masculinity. As Melanie Daniels, Tippi Hedren is the cool, quintessential perfection of beauty. The bird plays a bird. Why, even the name “Melanie” is melodious, bird-like. Her counterpart is Rod Taylor who plays the character Mitch Brenner. Physically perfect as the broad-shouldered, square-chinned, capable, strong idea of masculinity, Mitch (the name sounds like a rock) is surrounded by females who peck at him, crowd around him fluttering, and expect much from him. All the females in the story want intimacy with Mitch. Except for the one woman who is a man in disguise, Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist. Sounding like the manly professor, sitting in men’s clothes, posing in manly positions at the diner, she is the absence of feminity. She studies the birds but she is not one of them. 5.5 

Daphne Du Maurier’s short story was unlike the film. Her short story was about a farmer named Nat Hocken who protected his family from the flock of birds that attacked and invaded the family’s cottage. Alfred Hitchcock took her story and ran away with it to create a multi-layered psychological thriller that’s unlike any other.

What’s your favorite scene, book or film, of Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds? 

 

Are You Not Entertained? Elvis, Foo Fighters, and John Coltrane

Here are some recent music documentaries that enthralled me.

This year, HBO released Elvis Presley: The Searcher in two parts totaling three hours of exploration of the complicated man behind the music and his checkered history. To those of us who listened to his records as they were released and have seen his corny films and watched many tributes to him, this doc might not provide enough insights that you didn’t already know. To those who barely remember him or have only heard the name but not his story, this is a fine documentary showcasing his influences in Memphis, his devotion to his mother, his suffocating relationship with the Colonel, his love for Gospel, and his rise to iconic stature with the outrageous costumes and over-the-top shows in the 1970s. I preferred part one and how his stamp of individuality helped black music to air on white radio. It was not a conscious civil rights decision on Presley’s part, but his voice and songs sounded black; his popularity soared and endorsed subliminally the acceptance of blacks in a white world. From the eyes of a social historian, it was a refreshing revisit of King of Rock and Roll and his importance in time. 4.5/5.

Foo Fighters Back and Forth (2011) by James Moll. My son and I listened to them on road trips in the 1990s. He bought me their albums through the 2000s and the 2010s. I’m going to see them in October when they play in Phoenix. So, with so much emotional baggage attached to the group, can I be objective about the musicianship and lyrics by the leader of the band, Dave Grohl? Why, yes I can. Especially Dave Grohl’s songs of heartbreak. He’s my age, and as he gets older, his albums get softer, and I like that, too. If you were never a fan in the first place, I doubt you would care about Grohl and his band or the background behind their albums. If you like their songs, you’ll enjoy the documentary. It’s a subjective thing. 5/5.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary (2017) directed by John Scheinfeld is a remarkable documentary regarding the life and music of the legendary saxophonist. I didn’t know a lot about Coltrane other than listening to Giant Steps (1960) and A Love Supreme (1965). His childhood and troubles were foreign to me. His relationship with Miles Davis and how those in the industry who knew and played with Coltrane was fascinating. In particular, how do you explain the creative genius of the man? Color imagery to explain how he thought outside the box was a clever touch. Coltrane was magical. He takes one chord and maximizes the notes via improvisation. I’m not a musician, just a lover of it, so when those that know claim he invented a new language of music, I’m sitting forward to understand how. This documentary did that. 4.5/5. 

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