One of the biggest conversation starters from this year’s Sundance Festival was Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche, a fake documentary that recounts four men’s attempts to stage the 1969 Moon landing. Playing on one of the biggest conspiracy theories of the past century, the film is as enamored with the possibility of toying with history as it is with the rigorous aestheticism needed to convincingly depict the time period of the 60s.
Employing the same narrative format as Johnson’s previous film, The Dirties, Johnson and his team, including writer and creative partner, Owen Williams, cast themselves in this reproduction of alternate history. The result is a fascinating comedy-thriller, that also serves as a meticulous love letter to both the technology of the time period and cinema’s ability to obscure our perception of time and space.
In time for its expanded limited release, we had an expansive conversation with the director that spanned everything from the untapped potential of the fake documentary format to the creative importance of low-budget filmmaking and the shifting definition of documentary in 2016 after films like Kate Plays Christine.
The Film Stage: You’ve spoken in previous interviews about how you came up with the premise for Operation Avalanche because you wanted to play on one of the biggest events in history, and just find a way to tell the story of an ambitious, delusional filmmaker. But the film is so enamored with myth making and conspiracy theories in general, did you have a personal passion for these subjects before making the film?
Matt Johnson: Conspiracies, definitely yeah. I was interested in the moon landing conspiracy as a very, very young kid. And I loved things like that. At a certain level, my first film is kind of playing with this stuff a little bit. I think those were just the original stories that I heard that I thought were really, really exciting. The “things are not what they seem” style conspiracy. It wasn’t something that I realized I was so into until we started making this movie. But it’s obvious when I think of influences. There’s that movie, F For Fake, that Orson Welles movie, which is a huge influence on this movie. It was very much about what you think is true is not really the truth and the idea of one individual knowing the truth, and slowly letting you know – but also lying to you. All that stuff is wrapped up in the notion of conspiracy that I find very, very appealing. Those stories are tough to ignore for me. My favorite movie when I was growing up was JFK, which is another conspiracy movie and a huge influence on Operation Avalanche. I think if you asked me four years ago, “Are you really into conspiracy theories?” I probably would have said no, but it’s because I would just be in denial of knowing my own subconscious mind.
Was there kind of a shortlist of historical events when you were developing this project, or did you know that you were going to do a film about the Moon landing from the beginning?
No, I knew almost immediately that that’s what we were going to do. It was on the flight home from Utah with my producer after we just premiered The Dirties. And we were like, we need to make another fake documentary right away because we love this language so much. We just loved it, and we did not realize that we were biting off way more than we could chew with this particular project. We made this movie, and figured like it would be so quick and so cheap to do. We did not realize the rabbit hole we were about to enter.
You’ve talked quite a bit previously about how you had to use guerrilla filmmaking techniques [Johnson and his crew filmed inside the real NASA headquarters under the guise of a documentary crew] just because of resources, but what was your philosophy about how you wanted to approach history? Were there some things you thought about where you said, this is too far?
Do you mean in terms of what we were willing to shoot, or what we were willing to do with other real people legally, or in terms of the story we were trying to tell? Because, from a narrative point of view, we were trying to keep it as “realistic” as we could. I mean, as realistic as a movie about faking the moon landing could possibly be. So we were trying to keep that in the real world. But in terms of what we were willing to shoot, I have no ethical boundaries whatsoever when it comes to that kind of stuff. Mostly because, outside of making people really uncomfortable or really doing something to a stranger that is hurtful, I’ll film more or less anything if I think it could make the movie better because you have to think that way. Or at least, one person on set has to think that way, because otherwise, you’re not really going to push it. Later on, we might not use the footage or something might not work for the film, or we can have decisions concerning taste in the editing room. But on set, we’ll shoot just about anything.
With the question I was talking specifically about historical license. I appreciate that tangent though because I was curious about whether there were things that you felt uncomfortable with given the fact that you were in a real place. But I can understand where you’re coming from.
Well, I always felt uncomfortable. There’s a real difference between a ethical comfortability and a physical comfortability because you’re worried that you’re going to get caught, or you’re going to get into trouble, or you’re not going to know what to say. Or god knows, you’re going to be put into an awkward situation. That’s extremely uncomfortable, but I think our whole team understood that this is how the movie was getting made, and we thought that this movie was important on some level, so we were willing to do a lot of corrupted things to make that happen.
Throughout the film, there’s just as much an interest in the granular specifics of audio and video. There’s a few scenes that feel like intentional nods to The Conversation or Blow Out as Owen [Williams] and you are listening in to phone calls or combing through videos frame by frame. Were those ideas baked into the premise from the beginning, or were those things that evolved?
Oh, definitely. You think about it, this is a movie about the aesthetics of film. The Moon landing is so heavily mired in the aesthetics of what kind of images you could create in the 1960s. To avoid the nitty gritty of how those images and sounds are constructed would be…that’s the whole fun of the movie for us as filmmakers. We’re trying to put ourselves in the same technological space of our characters. We all went to film school and learned on a lot of those Nagras and the devices you see used in the movie. That’s the kind of stuff, at least in my experience, I used all that stuff on my undergrad movies. So it was awesome to get to mess with it again. And also that played so much into the thematic space of the created image. How sophisticated is an image? And who creates an image? And what goes into an authentic image vs. an inauthentic image? And characters, people who understand that, can use that knowledge to fool people and make them think that something authentic is inauthentic. For us, we spend so much work trying to get the images looking right. It’s why we did things like trying to put Stanley Kubrick in the movie. We all wanted to do all these tricks, all these little games that make you think that the inauthentic is authentic and vice versa.
What was the biggest difficulty in replicating that feel then?
No individual piece was so difficult that it destroyed us. It was just huge amounts of time, so we spent tons of time in the lab figuring out exactly what film stocks to print to, figuring out what process we had to take with our footage in the lab. We had to grade the footage before it went to 16 mm. It was just all extremely labor-intensive, and then you realize what you want to do. You make your transfers and all of a sudden, you’re sitting there with your negative, and you decide all of a sudden, you want to edit something or make a change. That was hugely difficult because then you had to make the changes on film. It was awful. It was very, very hard.
I think it looks really great. There really is that feel of authenticity. It’s very strange that we’re talking after Blair Witch just came out because i was definitely thinking about the original Blair Witch Project while watching your film. You have had some strong opinions about terms like “found footage,” and you prefer terms like “fake documentary?”
You know, when it’s appropriate. I think there are legitimate found footage films. I think the Blair Witch Project, the original, is a great example of that. But yeah, I find it frustrating that journalists and film critics haven’t figured out how they want to talk about fake documentaries yet. And I think it’s doing such a disservice to audiences, and even to filmmakers in trying to describe their own work. I know I certainly suffer from this in that there is a whole different set of codes that apply to fake documentaries that do not have anything to do with found footage movies. And the media literacy associated with understanding those differences is important and would just be so much cooler if we had clearer and more universal terminology for that style of filmmaking.
I think that’s definitely fair. I’ve definitely seen some writing that treats documentaries or fake documentaries with the same language and toolset that they’re using when they’re critiquing a narrative film, or something that’s created with a complete level of artifice without even trying to be authentic. But I did want to go back to make a baseline definition. You were saying something like Blair Witch Project, but that is also a fake documentary within the internal context of the film, is it not?
Absolutely, you’re completely right, except the authorial voice of that film is not those characters. Ok, so those protagonists. The people filming that footage may as well be security cameras inasmuch as they…well, that’s not completely true because they’re making active decisions as to how they’re covering things and where they’re pointing the camera. But the author of that movie is not the people filming that footage. The difference is you look at Timmothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man vs. Werner Herzog, who is the author of that movie. There’s a world of difference between those two things.
That definitely makes sense. I just wanted to see specifically where you were coming from when you were saying that. This is the second film where you’ve used this kind of filmmaking style. And you’ve said how you used this for its ease and its budget. But in terms of general philosophy, do you think it’s a style that’s been undervalued as a medium for telling a story?
Yes, but I think that is because it’s sort of birthed from the reality TV movement. The process of making movies like this… although you could have been making movies like this at the dawn of cinema. It’s not like we have any new technology that’s making it easier, but I just think that reality TV has made it so that that language of Handicam narrative storytelling is so much more palatable. And this generation of filmmakers grew up exposed to that in such a major way that it’s starting to become easier. Also, it seems as though this moment in time is very interested in the authentic. And the documentary has so much fake authenticity to it. But I think it’s a critically underused format, but I don’t think it will remain that way. I think a lot of people will start making movies in this style, just because there’s so much untapped territory behind the protagonist-driven narrative movie where the protagonist is also the author. I just think that’s so cool.
Is it something that you would like to continue in your career even after doing two films in this style?
Well, I’m making a television series [Nirvana The Band The Show] right now that is in a somewhat similar style. I say, “somewhat,” because the protagonists are not actually making the movie, but they seem to be somewhat involved in it. And, after that, I’m not sure. I will definitely make a third film with Matt & Owen that is a fake documentary at some point. I’m not sure if I’m going to do it next though.
You and Owen have both been in The Dirties as well as Operation Avalanche? Do you like being in your own films, or is that just something that’s a necessity given your resources? Or, do you like the control that comes with being an actor in your own film?
I think that goes hand-in-hand with it just being a necessity. We talked about trying to do things another way, but it’s impossible – the notion of getting someone to commit that heavily to a role like this, to do insane things like break into NASA with us. I would just never ask someone to do that. I’m not going to ask somebody to drive a car that way, that unsafely, and then at the same time, be so into this character that they’re willing to shoot over the course of a year a completely improvised story that they’re going to keep in their head. It’s not tenable. It would need to be somebody like my brother, or like, who else can I ask for that kind of commitment from? And because the character is sort of an ambitious, foolish filmmaker, it’s just a very good fit for me. We planned the character around my personality. And while it made things easier from a production point of view, it was also a strong character decision. But I’m not sure if i’m going to keep doing that. I think I may just be in this one last movie with Owen, and then that’s it.
It’s interesting too to look at an earlier project this year like Kate Plays Christine, which is already something that’s such a hybrid in terms of being a documentary as well as a narrative film, as well as an exploration of performance itself. I wouldn’t say Operation Avalanche would be…obviously it has the trappings of a documentary, but it’s especially this year, it feels a lot closer to a documentary than a narrative film, which it might be more easily identified?
I know it. And it’s so funny because even from a commercial standpoint..I think a lot of people would think, “Oh yeah, the story is so interesting,” and it’s trying to act like a thriller, and all of these other things. Why not just make it in a traditional way? I don’t resent that because I think it’s a valid question. But if we were to do that, it’s like, all of a sudden we’re giving up so much of what’s so thematically interesting about this form which is, in authorship, the author of something like this complicates it. It really complicates it in the same way that Orson Welles complicates F For Fake just by him being in control of it. I just hope that isn’t lost on the people who like the film.
Can you see yourself going in a direction that would be even more in the vein of documentary. I guess specifically something like what Robert Greene has done? I know that’s a very specific vision. I’m not trying to lump you two together. I’m just speaking generally in terms of your interests, whether you like that fake construct?
Yeah. More than anything, I like it when we can put real human behavior on screen. I like that the most. I think that’s always the most interesting stuff in any of these films or in this television series. The show that we make is much closer to documentary, much, much closer to documentary. When you get a chance to see it, it uses many more of the tropes from reality television and sort of Maysles brothers vérité documentaries. I wouldn’t really say they’re vérité, but they get quite involved. Yes, I think we’re getting further and further from doc, and closer and closer to our own style, but i’m not sure when that will stop. I’m not sure when we’re going to be like, okay, let’s pull this back.
To go back to found footage and the Blair Witch Project, I wonder if there’s going to be a problem with the increasing budgets of found footage films. As these films become more high-tech, there’s a bigger emphasis on monster closets or CGI than the visual immersion…
They were so restricted by money with the Blair Witch Project. It’s almost like you have all the same tricks of these low-budget movies, but the studio pressure of conforming to the same narrative timeline that a big budget Hollywood movie, which is, as you say, naturally at odds with the aesthetic, which is ok. We can’t show anything because we have no money, but I don’t think it will reach a breaking point. I mean, the fact is, it will go as far as audiences will accept it. Whether that means these movies from the script stage, start to completely resemble normal narrative movies, and yet they are presented in a found footage style. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing on its own. What’s bad is if the form stops experimenting and people stop doing new things. Because at the beginning, people were doing found footage because it was a new way to tell stories, and more so than it just being a cheap way to tell stories, it was just exciting and dynamic because people hadn’t seen that formal approach before. Once you do it 10, 20, 30, 500, you just abuse the language for no reason. That is happening already, but hopefully the good ones will maintain a healthy experimentation. I know that we try like hell to do that.
If a big studio came to you, and said, we want this on a much larger scale, would that worry you? If they wanted your sensibility, but they were going to give you a bigger budget. Would that feel like a restriction to you?
I think it’s a problem and I’ll tell you why. The restrictions that you get from not having resources force you to do more. I’ll give you an example. This is something I talked about with this movie. Let’s say, we’re making Operation Avalanche, but we have $20 million dollars rather than one. Why would we break into NASA to film in mission control when for a million dollars or less, we could just build mission control, hire all those actors, and do it in a studio. We wouldn’t need to go through any of the headache and extremely, extremely perilous work we had to do. Like, why would we do that? We just wouldn’t, and then all of a sudden, the things that this form and having these constraints are forcing you to do, which are new and really exciting like shooting that car chase all in one take with no stunt driver for real, we would not be able to do that with $20 million. So while I think that making a really expensive movie is a really exciting idea and something that my friends and I would definitely do. We would not do it in this same way. You’re given a set of tools when you have a low budget, and you decide to do a fake documentary, and one of those tools is the very restrictions that you place on yourself.
Operation Avalanche is now in limited release and expanding.
There’s an alternate version of Brian De Palma’s career where 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit stands as one of the most seminal entries. The last of De Palma’s early-70s comedies, the film is most readily recognized as a prelude to his directorial turning point. Just a year later, he began a string of legacy defining films: Sisters, Obsession, and Carrie.
But this early-period black sheep is more than a mere historical footnote. It’s the transitional fiasco that De Palma needed. Coming after the modest hits of Greetings and Hi, Mom!, this was the big leagues, a chance for the nascent but rising director to work with Hollywood and establish himself as a conjunction of artistic and financial impulses.
It’s only inevitable that even De Palma’s crowd-pleasing comedy scans as commentary about the prison of working with studios. In an impish reversal of the artist’s own circumstances, it follows Donald Beeman (Tom Smothers, one half of the provocative musical comedy duo The Smothers Brothers), a buttoned-up business man who’s deeply unhappy working at a nameless corporation. Much to the chagrin of both his boss (John Astin) and girlfriend, Donald tries to gives up the job security of big business for something far less financially glamorous — the entertainment industry, specifically stand-up magic — only to be looped right back into the rat race.
It’s De Palma’s first studio film, and his distrust of the system couldn’t be any more apparent. And, coming from a director whose films already teemed with anxiety about the present and future, it’s only inevitable that he self-sabotaged his studio film dreams (for the moment). Smothers apparently hated all of the script ideas, while the suits who hired De Palma just as soon fired him, keeping Get to Know Your Rabbit in release limbo for over a year.
The rest is history: De Palma began the next period of his career in New York and the comforts of independent filmmaking. All of these contextual details may sound like Get to Know Your Rabbit is some unsung masterpiece, a hidden gem that was unfairly buried. Maybe there was a good film in here before studio intervention, but this isn’t it. What we get is an awkward, often jarringly unfunny piece of deadpan absurdism that only barely justifies its 90-minute runtime.
The picture’s principal enjoyment may be an oddball Orson Welles, playing a tap-dancing magician who teaches the main character his trade. Welles’ character and performance are filled with such a deep sense of exasperation that it could easily serve as a blanket reaction towards the whole film. Influenced by Monty Python’s brand of satirical extremism and a comedic logic that harkens back to Preston Sturges, this is nonetheless a work that rarely ever feels comfortable in its own skin as a comedy. In hindsight, it’s better viewed as a prototype for De Palma’s future pet themes.
Together with DP John Alonzo, who didn’t re-team with De Palma until Scarface, Get to Know Your Rabbit is unexpectedly filled with compositions whose primarily feeling is dread. Multiple early sequences involving a high-walled apartment feel less calibrated for slapstick than the possibility that an intruder will creep through the door. Take, for example, a long scene that’s shot from an isometric perspective for no apparent reason, or a Touch of Evil-style suspension involving a ticking bomb.
It’s not just the insinuating camera angles, but the film’s repeated excursions into sleaziness played as both comedy and titillation. De Palma had already developed a reputation for raunchiness with his two previous films both received X-ratings before creative finagling. But it’s only a matter of time before that lurid sensuality becomes embedded in his own creative DNA.
To see how De Palma directs scenes like a crowded party that segues into a brassiere fashion show is to peek into the future. This is initially played as a gag about an extremely crowded party in a painfully small room, then soon enough blossoms into a scene juxtaposing attraction and sex appeal. The main character and a mystery woman glide along the floor, blissfully unaware of Vic (Allen Garfield), a garrulous and pushy salesman who treats his craft like art.
The camera’s view is starry-eyed, seemingly headed into De Palma’s expected jagged violence — which never comes. Instead, we just get Vic delivering a monologue and the best line in the whole film: “I hope sometime, some place, I can find a girl who can appreciate a good, medium-priced brassiere.” But the moment is gone, and pleasure has been replaced with reality — one more instance in a filmography of subverted gratification.
Get to Know Your Rabbit will never again feel so in control. It wanders on and on as Donald plays deserted saloons and falls into the arms of Katharine Ross, who’s literally credited as “terrific-looking girl.” It would take another year, with Sisters, before the camera fell into a similar trance and De Palma brought his sensuous worldview to the masses.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
Every week we dive into the cream of the crop when it comes to home releases, including Blu-ray and DVDs, as well as recommended deals of the week. Check out our rundown below and return every Tuesday for the best (or most interesting) films one can take home. Note that if you’re looking to support the site, every purchase you make through the links below helps us and is greatly appreciated.
Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen)
For as accomplished as Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut Blood Simple comes across as to a viewer, like any director, they can’t help but recognize their flaws. That’s not to say their newly restored debut, now available on The Criterion Collection, doesn’t look and sound gorgeous — every bead of sweat dripping down M. Emmet Walsh’s face and every gun blow feels like you’re right there in the sweltering Texas landscape — but there’s an undeniable charm in their recounting of the making of the film. Read our full feature here. – Jordan R.
Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise)
A tale as old as time gets the anniversary Blu-ray treatment this week as Beauty and the Beast celebrates 25 years of enchantment. This Walt Disney Signature Collection edition actually four different versions: alongside the theatrical film, there’s an extended version with the “Human Again” song sequence and a sing-along version, as well as a work-in-progress version available digitally. Along with many more extras, including a sneak peek at next year’s live-action version, it sounds like an essential pick-up. – Jordan R.
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
The first of the horror films producer Val Lewton made for RKO Pictures redefined the genre by leaving its most frightening terrors to its audience’s imagination. Simone Simon stars as a Serbian émigré in Manhattan who believes that, because of an ancient curse, any physical intimacy with the man she loves (Kent Smith) will turn her into a feline predator. Lewton, a consummate producer-auteur who oversaw every aspect of his projects, found an ideal director in Jacques Tourneur, a chiaroscuro stylist adept at keeping viewers off-kilter with startling compositions and psychological innuendo. Together, they eschewed the canned effects of earlier monster movies in favor of shocking with subtle shadows and creative audio cues. One of the studio’s most successful movies of the 1940s, Cat People raised the creature feature to new heights of sophistication and mystery. – Criterion.com
High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
They’ve been home to some of the finest home video releases and now Olive Films is launching their Signature Edition series, kicked off by the classic, nail-biting western High Noon. Featuring a pristine new 4K restoration, also included is a batch of bonus features, most notably a video on the history of the film in narrated by the Anton Yelchin , another on career of producer-turned-director Stanley Kramer, and one about the Black List as it effected screenwriter Carl Foreman. While one wishes the featurette on the editing was a bit more informative and in-depth, it doesn’t take away that this is the definitive edition of a deeply influential classic. – Jordan R.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Nicholas Stoller)
Even in its best moments, Neighbors carried an unwanted whiff of testosterone — a hyperactive frat culture that was softened and still felt out of touch with the unabashed exuberance of the movie. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising corrects that problem so thoroughly that it not only improves on the original; it also becomes one of the most progressive mainstream movies of the last decade. Analogous to last year’s breathtakingly joyful Magic Mike XXL, Neighbors 2 is a celebration of feminist individuality — a parade of women who challenge every convention of the genre (and society) by lifting up instead of punching down. – Michael S. (full review)
Also Arriving This Week
Recommended Deals of the Week
Top Deal: A huge selection of Blu-rays are currently 3 for $19.99 at Amazon.
The American (Blu-ray) – $7.34
Amelie (Blu-ray) – $7.33
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Blu-ray) – $8.19
Beginners (Blu-ray) – $6.25
Bone Tomahawk (Blu-ray) – $9.99
The Brothers Bloom (Blu-ray) – $10.06
The Cabin in the Woods (Blu-ray) – $8.37
Casino (Blu-ray) – $9.49
Cloud Atlas (Blu-ray) – $7.90
Django Unchained (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Far From the Madding Crowd (Blu-ray) – $9.99
Godzilla (Blu-ray) – $10.00
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Greenberg (Blu-ray) – $5.10
Heat (Blu-ray) – $9.96
Holy Motors (Blu-ray) – $10.19
The Informant! (Blu-ray) – $7.90
Inglorious Basterds (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Inherent Vice (Blu-ray) – $10.75
Interstellar (Blu-ray) – $9.99
It Follows (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Jaws (Blu-ray) – $7.88
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Blu-ray) – $9.72
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (Blu-ray) – $9.89
The Lady From Shanghai (Blu-ray) – $8.99
Lincoln (Blu-ray) – $9.94
Looper (Blu-ray) – $7.88
Lost In Translation (Blu-ray) – $9.49
Magnolia (Blu-ray) – $8.49
The Magnificent Seven (Blu-ray) – $7.99
The Man Who Wasn’t There (Blu-ray) – $9.53
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Blu-ray) – $5.26
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Blu-ray) – $8.99
Michael Clayton (Blu-ray) – $9.69
Moneyball (Blu-ray) – $9.99
Nebraska (Blu-ray) – $8.90
Never Let Me Go (Blu-ray) – $7.50
No Country For Old Men (Blu-ray) – $4.96
ParaNorman (Blu-ray) – $8.99
Persepolis (Blu-ray) – $9.90
The Piano (Blu-ray) – $7.34
Pulp Fiction (Blu-ray) – $8.74
Road to Perdition (Blu-ray) – $8.81
The Searchers / Wild Bunch / How the West Was Won (Blu-ray) – $111.38
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Blu-ray) – $6.32
Short Term 12 (Blu-ray) – $9.42
Shutter Island (Blu-ray) – $6.79
A Serious Man (Blu-ray) – $5.61
A Single Man (Blu-ray) – $5.80
Somewhere (Blu-ray) – $5.20
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Blu-ray) – $7.70
There Will Be Blood (Blu-ray) – $5.99
Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy (Blu-ray) – $6.49
To the Wonder (Blu-ray) – $8.48
Volver (Blu-ray) – $5.95
Waltz With Bashir (Blu-ray) – $6.50
Where the Wild Things Are (Blu-ray) – $7.07
The Wolf of Wall Street (Blu-ray) – $9.99
The Wrestler (Blu-ray) – $8.39
What are you picking up this week?
For as accomplished as Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film Blood Simple comes across to any viewer, like any director, they can’t help but recognize their flaws. That’s not to say their newly restored first film, now available on The Criterion Collection, doesn’t look and sound gorgeous — every bead of sweat dripping down M. Emmet Walsh’s face and every gun blow feels like you’re right there in the sweltering Texas landscape — but there’s an undeniable charm in their recounting of the making of the film.
With it being the first time most of the major talent involved was doing their specific job, it was a learning experience through and through, which makes the special features on new release all the more informative and entertaining. The most substantial feature on the disc is a 70-minute discussion with the directors and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld as they take a chronological tour through the film, featuring Telestrator video illustrations, discussing their technical mistakes, but also admitting that much of it lead to a boldness virtually non-existent in the genre at that time.
We’ve rounded up the highlights from the special features below, with much more available on the release.
The Coens pitched Blood Simple as more of a horror/exploitation to investors.
Inspired by their close friend Sam Raimi and how he pulled together the financing for The Evil Dead by going around to business owners in Detroit, they initially pitched the film more as a horror/exploitation movie — traces of which can certainly be seen in the final film — due to being able to make it more cheaply. They also created a sales pitch trailer (which can be seen below) featuring Bruce Campbell, since it was far more difficult to sell an investor just on a script. While collecting $550,000 — including from a urologist, who delivered script notes splattered with blood — as they continued to develop the movie it leaned more towards “hard-boiled fiction,” rather than a typical horror film, partly inspired by high-profile, non-fiction Texas murder stories at the time.
Frances McDormand got the part through her roommate Holly Hunter, who auditioned.
“We were going to a lot of theater in New York, trying to find people who were interesting and might be able to play the parts in the movie,” Joel says. “One of the things that we went and saw was “Crimes of the Heart,” a Beth Henley play that Holly was doing, and we thought Holly was really interesting.” Even though she came into test for the role, the actress was committed to doing another play at the time, but she told her then-roommate, Frances McDormand, to audition, and the rest is history. In fact, one of the reasons she got the part is because she pushed back her audition so she could see her then-boyfriend act in a soap opera. Because “she didn’t seem like she needed it,” it made for the right fit, and that lack of neediness she’s carried through her entire career. The Coens also partly attribute McDormand’s character acting surprised throughout the film because she’s so shocked she got the part, one of her first film credit out of drama school.
Blood Simple is the most colorful film they’ve done, according to the cinematographer.
“I think this is the most colorful film we ever did, either together or separately,” Sonnenfeld says, as he looks at the neon lighting in the bar, which initially came out like “a bad porn” before he printed down the footage. “Most of the production design budget went to neon,” Joel adds. While much of the rest of the Coens’ oeuvre has a distinct overall feel specific to the film, Blood Simple is a bit more scrappy. ”Every movie that we’ve done subsequently there has been a sort of a general palette that sort of begun with the production designer. This one was not done that way,” the director says.
The beauty of unmotivated cinematography.
A considerable amount of the extended discussion on the disc has to do with the “unmotivated” decisions on a technical side, as it pertains both with the lighting and the camera moves. “We were doing everything we did on purpose and we had a plan and we wanted it look very much like the way it looked, and in fact we all got a lot of credit from critics and stuff because it looked not like a handheld, first-time, by-the-seat-of-their-pants movie. It was very anally thought out,” Sonnenfeld says. “What we weren’t doing was going into it thinking, ‘It will look like what it looks like. Who cares? It’s more about the staging, etc.’ We were all interested in the photographic look of the movie and each scene in particular. That was very important to us,” Joel adds.
The trio get a kick out of pointing out various places in which light sources seemingly show up out of random, from a non-existent lamp lighting McDormand’s face to the finale featuring light pouring through the bullet holes from different angles. “The short side of a face is always the side you want to light on,” the cinematographer says. “You always want to light for beauty and not for accuracy.”
Joel also recounts a story after meeting the cinematographer behind Days of Heaven and a number of French New Wave masterpieces: “After the movie was done, I had met in some context Néstor Almendros, who was talking about the scene at the end where the light comes through the bullet holes. He said, ‘Of course you know that light doesn’t behave that way,’ but he loved the scene. He said, ‘I would never do that. I would never get away with that.’ As Ethan was saying, there was some kind of idiotic charm to it that he really liked. So, yeah, we probably would have done it differently, but it probably would have been something else, and not as interesting.”
The Coens were inspired by Stanley Kubrick, The Conformist, and Wim Wenders.
As an extension of their discussion of unmotivated cinematography, they discuss those that most influenced them at the time. From Stanley Kubrick “having no rules” about lighting when it came to Dr. Strangelove to the way the venetian blinds moved in Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro’s The Conformist, they also drew on inspiration from Wim Wenders and Robby Müller in The American Friend. “We were just blown away by the look of that movie,” Sonnenfeld says. “There’s some beautiful and evocative, but unmotivated camera moves in American Friend, which also I remember [influenced us],” Joel adds. “They’re beautiful and they always felt appropriate to what was going on in the scene, even if you didn’t quite know why.”
He goes on to say, “We were definitely not in the camp where every camera move has to be motivated. We weren’t in that strict kind of Puritan mode of the camera only moves if the character is moving or to emphasis something. Sometimes it can move just because it moves because it’s a beautiful time to move the camera or the shot will be beautiful.” “That’s a Storraro and Bertolluci thing also. Also a big Scorsese thing, obviously,” Ethan attributes.
Martin Scorsese was on their fantasy cast list.
Speaking of Scorsese, they discussed a dream wish for their cast, which featured the director. “We talked about fantasy-wise, hiring Scorsese to play the Dan Hedaya role,” Sonnenfeld says, ”but we were nervous that whenever we decided to put the camera somewhere, Scorsese would be like shaking his head no. Scorsese was another big influence in terms of you look at Mean Streets and what the camera does in that movie that has nothing to do with what the characters are doing.”
Leave it to Brian De Palma to turn one of the most traumatic events of his adolescence into a film school homework assignment.
Arguably the most personal entry in De Palma’s filmography, Home Movies began as a class project while he was teaching film production at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. Fresh off the supernatural successes of Carrie and The Fury, he tasked his students with the challenge of creating a low-budget film using highly personal stories from his own teenage years. As De Palma bluntly states in the documentary De Palma, “99% of film students are going nowhere” after graduation. At least these students would get hands-on training and earn a feature film credit. More importantly, De Palma would get the opportunity to revisit his early days of guerilla filmmaking and indulge some of his usual obsessions (erotic surveillance, films within films) while poking fun at some of the successes and missteps on his early cinematic CV.
Home Movies begins with a hand-drawn animated credit sequence introducing us to the major characters, all thinly veiled cartoon facsimiles of De Palma’s own family. There’s the father, Dr. Byrd (Vincent Gardenia), a surgeon and serial philanderer. There’s Mrs. Byrd (Mary Davenport), the depressive wife obsessed with her husband’s infidelities. There’s the brother, Denis Byrd (De Palma stalwart Gerrit Graham), a self-absorbed cult leader. There’s his fiancé, Kristina (De Palma’s then-wife Nancy Allen), a loopy free spirit. Finally, there’s the younger brother, Denis Byrd (Keith Gordon as the surrogate De Palma), a shy voyeur who records everything with his 16mm camera. To quote De Palma on this coterie of extreme personalities: “I was living in a family of egotists.”
Post-credits, Home Movies quickly veers into metatextual waters, the instructional film-within-a-film that will provide a frame for the rest of this narrative. A professor simply referred to as The Maestro (Kirk Douglas, on loan from The Fury) is teaching a class on “Star Therapy.” Part Stanislavski, part Sigmund Freud, part Joseph Campbell, The Maestro acts as director, motivational speaker, and occasional psychologist, imploring his students to seize the starring role in their own lives. As his object lesson, he uses 16mm footage of the ineffectual Denis Byrd, a former student who has, by Denis’s voiceover admission, become “an extra in his own life.”
A smash cut later, and the film is now Denis’s story — the film-within-the-film-within-the-film. What follows is his film school self-portrait offered up to the audience as an extended family therapy session. It’s catharsis through farce, personal trauma mined for laughs, all of it deriving from De Palma’s outsourced family history. Scenes from James’s upcoming engagement are juxtaposed with sequences of his parents’ imploding marriage. Dr. Byrd gives adult James aggressive, slapstick physical exams that border on child abuse. Later, at their engagement announcement dinner, he luridly offers James’s new fiancé a free “private exam” as a wedding present.
Brother James is too self-involved to notice. He’s a health food nut who espouses a way of living called Spartanetics, a hypermasculine twist on Dianetics. He trains a group of impressionable young males (“Those Who Know”) in clean living and routinely interrogates Kristina about her numerous past boyfriends. He requires her to pass a rigorous pre-marriage “Temptation Marathon” during which she must resist sex, alcohol, smoking, and fast food. There’s an extended physical comedy scene where Graham crawls on the floor like a bloodhound and sniffs out the rogue scent of a greasy hamburger she ate earlier that day.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Byrd is making humorous suicide attempts with sleeping pills, despairing over her husband’s unabashed lechery. Hoping to catch him in the act, she enlists Denis in a peeping-tom mission. Though he’s busy swooning over his brother’s bride-to-be in windswept, slow-motion shots hinting at those De Palma would later bring to melodramatic perfection in Body Double, Denis begins to spy on his father with a 16mm film camera. He hides in a tree across from his office and dons shoe polish blackface so as not to be identified, a scene echoing De Palma’s similar usage of provocative racial iconography in Hi, Mom! Through his viewfinder, he catches his father cavorting with a nurse and breaks in on their lovemaking with the aid of cartoonishly bigoted cop.
Needless to say, this scene unfolds in a manner more Laurel and Hardy than the real life inciting incident. According to interviews, a young De Palma actually took photographs of his father and a nurse entering and leaving his office with a still camera. Later, he broke in through a window, confronted his father with a knife, and demanded to see where the nurse was hidden. That real-life anecdote reads more as a horror movie than Home Movies‘ slapstick treatment, and De Palma would revisit it again the same year in more typical Hitchcockian fashion with Dressed to Kill.
Eventually, Denis gets a chance to “become the star of his own life” when he follows Kristina to a biker’s bordello during her Temptation Marathon. When she refuses to have sex with one of the bikers, Denis bursts in and pulls her away from a potential date rape. Passive voyeur becomes active rescuer, a recurring motif De Palma mines later with similar peeper protagonists in Blow Out, Body Double and Femme Fatale. Because of Denis’ “heroic” act, Kristina finally sleeps with him — or so we presume. In an uncharacteristic display of restraint, De Palma allows their tryst to occur entirely off-screen. One can only assume this curious ellipsis has something to do with Home Movies being a school project.
But the film is by no means asexual, an aspect most evident in Home Movies’ potentially problematic rendering of Kristina’s character. Nancy Allen plays her as an agreeable eccentric and bears the brunt of this film’s absurdity. She’s had many lovers in her past, went “professional” at one point, and has a tortured history with a rabbit hand puppet named “Bunny” with whom she engaged in a live sex act. (A cheeky nod to De Palma’s own Get To Know Your Rabbit fiasco, perhaps.) She now uses the rabbit as a therapy doll / ventriloquist’s dummy and imbues it with an aggressive male personality. After Denis saves her from the biker bordello, Kristina gets blitzed on Mrs. Byrd’s sleeping pills and busts up her own engagement party, Bunny tossing out photographs from her showgirl past.
Once again, Denis plays would-be savior and rushes her to his father’s office to have her stomach pumped. Instead, Dr. Byrd uses her inebriated state as an opportunity for more lechery. Denis watches from afar, replaying the film’s earlier sexual surveillance scene, but with his own love interest now the subject. Kristina flees, only to have a gun-toting James appear and force her into the line of an oncoming car. She appears to die in a slow-motion car accident echoing a similar sequence played for suspense in The Fury. Only later do we learn that Kristina was hit (safely) by an ambulance.
Apart from recycling several of De Palma’s favorite thematic obsessions, Home Movies also finds him deploying a few of his preferred technical tricks. Despite the 16mm frame being a tight 1.33:1 squeeze, the film features at least two noticeable split-diopter shots. The sweeping Steadicam long-takes that would become the hallmark of De Palma’s later career are absent, but Home Movies does utilize undercranking for fast-motion comic effect, as in his earlier experimental movies. For fans of his big-budget blockbuster efforts, there’s also a self-destructing audiotape message that, in hindsight, plays like a pre-Mission: Impossible Easter egg.
When finally edited together at the end, the “home movies” Denis records throughout the film become something like the Byrd Family Zapruder reel, scenes of family celebrations intercut with surveillance footage exposing Dr. Byrd’s heinous sexual acts. The film ends with a horror movie sting à la Carrie, now played for laughs. A young girl comes across the tossed hand puppet Bunny beneath a tree. She picks it up, puts it on, and, in a throaty rasp, the rabbit offers to take her to Hollywood. Considering De Palma’s contentious, prodigious studio output that would come in the remainder of the ’80s, it may be a more ominous ending than a bloody hand reaching from a grave.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
When a few hundred films stop by the 41st Toronto International Film Festival, it’s certainly impossible to cover everything, but we were able to catch over 120 features — and, with that, it’s time to conclude our experience, following the festival’s own award winners. We’ve rounded up our top 20 films seen during the festival, followed by a list of the complete coverage.
Stay tuned over the next months (or years) as we bring updates on films as they make their way to screens. Note that we didn’t include films screened at other festivals in our “best of” round-up, but you can see Venice, Cannes, Berlin, and Sundance wrap-ups at those links, which feature some of the most-praised films of the festival, including La La Land, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women, Elle, Things to Come, Nocturnal Animals, and many more.
One can also click here for a link to all of our coverage, including news, trailers, reviews, and much more. As always, thanks for reading, and let us know what you’re most looking forward to in the comments below.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James)
Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism. – Michael S. (full review)
A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)
When your author and illustrator both win Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for the same book, you can bet Hollywood will come knocking. Even though the production is a joint effort between Britain (the majority of its cast) and Spain (The Orphanage director J.A. Bayona), it was Focus Features who scooped up the rights to Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. The decision was a no-brainer even without the accolades as it is a fairy tale proving a welcome return to storybook ilk of my own childhood. Dark enough to receive a PG-13 rating, it’s also profoundly moving in teaching someone that age (or a bit younger) a lesson in mortality. And just because the topic is difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be unapologetically honest. – Jared M. (full review)
Boys in the Trees (Nicholas Verso)
We’ve all lost friends whether from naturally parting ways or an avoidable blow-up proving petty in hindsight. Age advances and tastes evolve — we don’t often think much of the phenomenon because they find peers more attuned to who they’ve become just like you. But sometimes the severed relationship carries with it pangs of guilt. Maybe the fracture was triggered by lame excuses like the concept of survival of the fittest, you joining your oppressors in order to stop being oppressed. Perhaps you cut loose the person you once said you’d do anything for in a way that transforms them into your enemy. And as graduation approaches with a clean break from the immaturity you’ve grown to resent, that guilt eats away at your conscience in search of relief. – Jared M. (full review)
Clair Obscur (Yesim Ustaoglu)
Life for a woman like Elmas (Ecem Uzun) in Turkey is a living nightmare. An eighteen-year old all but sold to a willing husband (Serkan Keskin‘s Koca) much older than she to clean his house, give her mother-in-law (Sema Poyraz‘s Kaynana) across the hall insulin shots, and — marriage or not — get raped every night, she’s gradually losing her sense of identity and mind. She’s so young and unversed in the world that she makes a game out of folding the sheets atop their bed to see whether a coin will slide from one end to the other without hitting a fold. Elmas’ sole release is watching her neighbor in the adjacent building dance to pop music while sneaking a cigarette on the balcony when no one is looking. – Jared M. (full review)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
A fair question to ask: why The Sun King now? Perhaps American icons are always ripe for deconstruction as, after all, we have the world’s greatest (or rather dwindling) superpower shoved down our throats seemingly everyday. Yet, on the subject of Louis XIV, having to ascribe any current European crisis to the need to resurrect one of France’s greatest kings seems foolhardy. But The Death of Louis XIV succeeds just enough on the pure terms of a formalist exercise, with mostly static shots in a series of rooms lit by candlelight as historical context seems to somewhat recede into the dark. – Ethan V. (full review)
The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec)
Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path is so beguiling that we, the audience, have to take comfort in pointing out its one clear structural point: it’s split into two halves, each about a different couple in separate time periods. Our first is Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson) and Theres (Miriam Jakob), who we see arriving on vacation in Greece in 1984; the film is quick to divert our attention to a protest about the nation’s place in the European Union, and here already feeling the weight of democracy and mythology. A young, attractive couple (easily the film’s liveliest sequence is when they busk “In the Jungle”), circumstances suddenly drive them apart when Kenneth’s parents in England fall sick and Theres gets a teaching job back in Germany. – Ethan V. (full review)
Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
TIFF’s Colin Geddes was correct when introducing Ben Wheatley’s bottle episode of a film Free Fire with the words: “This will wake you up.” The gunfire alone risks perforating your eardrums as John Denver blares from a 1978-era van’s eight-track, but I think it’s the surprising wealth of comedy that ultimately gets the blood pumping and synapses triggering. Wheatley and wife/writer Amy Jump’s latest isn’t for everyone — fair warning to Hardcore Henry detractors, Sharlto Copley refuses to quit his shtick — but those willing to break free from a desire for plot complexity will undoubtedly be entertained. This is low-brow Reservoir Dogs, extreme genre action meant to energize you with an insane cast of characters hell-bent on killing each other on principle. Although that briefcase of money is appealing too. – Jared M. (full review)
Into the Inferno (Werner Herzog)
Volcanoes are perfect for Werner Herzog. There’s a reason he keeps coming back to them, from La Soufriere to Encounters at the End of the World. They are violent representatives of the Earth’s complete indifference to those who walk its surface – as Herzog calls them, “crawling roaches, retarded reptiles, and vapid humans.” Most of this grand sphere is magma, and life ekes by on a thin crust floating on its surface, occasionally disrupted when the magma breaks out. Finally, Herzog has made a documentary entirely about volcanoes. Into the Inferno is a world tour of how humans confront geology’s most ruthless caprices. – Dan S. (full review)
Jesús (Fernando Guzzoni)
Adolescent hijinks turn tragic on multiple fronts in Fernando Guzzoni‘s Jesús despite my not being sure there was going to be a solid point to the film until mid-way through. Everything previous merely sat as a slice of life for the titular character, a normal everyday Chilean punk named Jesús (Nicolás Durán) with too much autonomy and not enough direction. He’s practically raising himself after the death of his mother, Dad (Alejandro Goic‘s Héctor) constantly out of town working. So the eighteen-year old roams the streets dancing with a Korean Pop band for kicks, breaking into parks at night to drink and do whippits, or cruising for girls at parties to earn a blowjob. He means well most times, but his malleability when drunk inevitably spells trouble. – Jared M. (full review)
Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)
Before William Oldroyd‘s first foray on the silver screen with Lady Macbeth, he was an experienced theater director, which clearly has aided his adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The gothic allure of this period piece about a woman forced into marriage and deciding to take things into her own hands is both refreshing and captivating, and make no mistake: there is nothing theatrical or stiff about the film. – Jordan R. (full review)
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
What’s it like to be a young boy on the drug-filled streets of Miami without friends, without family, without hope? As cliques begin to feign superiority by ganging up on the weak to prove themselves hard enough for what’s coming, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) — or “Little” as they call him — can do nothing but struggle to survive. So who would have thought the one man to show kindness would be the king of the very drug holes his bullies seek to rise up within? In a city where masculinity is cracking skulls, calling names, and pulling guns, Juan (Mahershala Ali) gives a sweet smile and helping hand to a runt in need. This isn’t a play for recruitment either. It’s a beautifully honest moment of human compassion. – Jared M. (full review)
Femme Fatale is a bubbling cocktail of Double Indemnity meets To Catch a Thief meets Vertigo meets The Double Life of Véronique that kicks you in the head real good right at the first sip and is so smooth going down that, by the time you notice you’re drunk, it’s too late to care, and there goes willowy Rebecca Romijn, a nesting doll shedding an archetype. The opening twenty minutes, a jewel theft set at the 1999 Cannes premiere of East/West, are what one might call “pure cinema” — which is to say they are series of hyperkinetic moments strung together through the rhythms of music and editing that could not be captured by any medium other than cinema, or any other filmmaker other than Brian De Palma.
Romijn plays Laure, a master thief who steals a beautiful piece of jewelry (which serves as an elaborate snake-like top, with diamonds covering the nipples) from Veronica (Rie Rasmussen) during a steamy bathroom scene while everyone at Cannes — save some frazzled body / jewel guards who are growing increasingly agitated by the length of Veronica’s powder room visit — are paying attention to the premiere of East/West. Laure then betrays her fellow thieves and has to go into hiding, lest those she double-crossed decide to take revenge — which, of course, they do. Luckily for her, it turns out Laure has a suicidal brunette doppelgänger, Lily, whose identity she assumes after Lily takes her own life. Laure-as-Lily goes to the United States and has a meet-cute on the plane with Watts (Peter Coyote), who eventually becomes the American ambassador to France, bringing Lily back into the country she last inhabited as Laure.
Laure’s return to France is Nicolas’ (Antonio Banderas) cue to enter the story as a photographer. Nicolas has been contracted to take a photo of the camera-shy ambassador’s wife and whose happenstance involvement in the capturing of an image — much like John Travolta’s just happening to have been at the wrong place at the right time to capture a sound in Blow Out — sucks him into a rather unsavory mess and Laure/Lily’s gradual transmutation of identity. The photographic image is extremely potent in Femme Fatale as sound is likewise in Blow Out; De Palma loves to imbue cinema’s essential elements with striking gravitas.
To give away more of the plot would be cruel and take away from the wicked, velvety pleasure of observing this film’s sinewy twists. To step away from the specifics of the film itself, it is worth making note of the context of its existence within De Palma’s ’00s career. De Palma made four films in that decade: Mission to Mars (2000), Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006) and Redacted (2007). As disparate as these works are, the gradual evolution of the worldview expressed from one to the other makes for a stingingly accurate portrait of what it was like to be living in the United States in the early 21st century. From the curiosity and hopefulness of Mission to Mars to the growing cynicism of Femme Fatale, whose last few minutes save the film from dissolving in a pool of acid it has spent nearly 2 hours neatly collecting. And then there’s the sordid messy madness of The Black Dahila, which gives way to the ultimate human abasement and malignancy shown in Redacted, which is so dire in its bleakness it’s a wonder De Palma didn’t just turn his back on the world after making it.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
Brian De Palma’s screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities was panned by critics and audiences alike in the months and years following its 1990 release, but it doesn’t deserve this kind of flak. In telling the story of a Wall Street bigwig (Tom Hanks) whose life gets upended after his mistress runs over a black teenager in the South Bronx, the movie offers a wicked satire of racial politics in America that deserves to be mentioned alongside Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which hit theaters just 17 months earlier. Granted, Lee’s classic emerges the markedly superior film because, unlike The Bonfire of the Vanities, its characters transcend their function as caricatures to become nuanced individuals. Still, De Palma’s confident, hilarious polemic is a formidable achievement, hitting places that hurt in 1990 and, sadly, continue to hurt today. That the film feels like it was made for the 2016 moment is a depressing testament to the state of race relations in America, but it is also precisely this continued relevancy that makes Bonfire necessary viewing.
Out of all the accusations the film makes against the American people, the most heated one is that of shameless opportunism. A hit-and-run sends a guy into a coma, and though the outspoken public appears to rally behind him in a sincere gesture of racial solidarity, everyone has ulterior agendas. Black preacher Reverend Bacon (John Hancock), a major figure in the fight against institutional racism, is shown creating blatant propaganda in order to strengthen support for his cause and, presumably, his position of leadership within it. Bronx District Attorney Abe Weiss (F. Murray Abraham), on the other hand, is seeking reelection, and he knows that the majority of his potential voters are people of color. As such, not only does he make it a point to publicly sympathize with the anti-racism outrage, but he sets out with the specific intention of incarcerating a white person just to demonstrate his so-called racial nonpartisanship in administering justice. Even the film’s narrator (Bruce Willis) is shown piggybacking off of circumstances for his own gain. He is the reporter who broke word of the hit-and-run, and so every turn of the screw makes his story hotter and his acclaim as a journalist greater. Like Ryan Gosling’s suave schmuck from The Big Short, which bears more than a little resemblance to De Palma’s film, Willis’ journalist shares the viewer’s enlightened perspective on the film’s events and yet takes the low road, anyway. Such is the depth of this film’s cynicism, the extent of its refusal to compromise the bleakness of its vision.
Some satire is subtle in its magnifications of reality. The Bonfire of the Vanities takes a different, more boisterous route, fitting De Palma’s florid directorial tendencies like a glove. Scenes turn to farce to convey the moral absurdity of the characters’ actions, whether in Abe’s wild gesticulations or in the way we are introduced to the Reverend via a very Spike Lee-esque, low-angle shot that imparts onto him the exaggeratedly looming presence of a cartoon villain. De Palma’s cinematographic stylizations, so generative of suspense in Sisters and operatic in Scarface, here serve a different but no less meaningful purpose. The camerawork is sometimes highly precise in its satirical function, such as when a dolly zoom is used to parody the experience of white fear. At other points, the cinematography creates the more abstract impression that the camera is emulating this film’s plot-level zaniness. Often, De Palma appears to be channeling the story’s ludicrous energy by way of his trademark visual acrobatics — weird camera angles, split diopter shots, long takes, etc. — which, in turn, intensify the energy that gave rise to them.
As the story moves from crime to investigation to eventual trial, the accumulation of ridiculous incidents ensures that the barbed humor tickles in addition to stinging. For all its scathing commentary on American society, The Bonfire of the Vanities is also simply a lot of fun to watch. Playing Sherman McCoy, Hanks nails the deer-in-the-headlights look of a guy whose fortunes have turned faster than the stock market he regularly exploits. His increasing gracelessness is a great asset to the film’s comedic momentum, allowing us to experience both the pity and the pleasure of seeing a well-to-do ivory tower-type encounter the brutal messiness of the real world for the first time. (The humble Hanks who is buffeted by extraordinary circumstances resembles the one we recognize from today’s screens. Seeing the guy play a pompous Wall Street hotshot feels so against-type that additional comedy can be found simply in beholding the forgotten versatility of the young actor.) The rest of this film’s expansive ensemble cast admirably contribute to the escalating lunacy of the whole package, from Jed Kramer as a fidgety Jewish lawyer seeking upward mobility to Morgan Freeman as the only ethical character in the mix: a judge trying, with great exasperation, to anchor law and order in a city that is rapidly becoming unmoored.
In the preposterousness of its situations and the one-note eccentricity of its characters, The Bonfire of the Vanities anticipates many works from the Coen brothers, while the mockery it makes of political institutions has the farcical flavor of classics such as Dr. Strangelove. This is all to say that De Palma’s film is full of the same comedic DNA that brought so many other movies acclaim, thus making its own disrepute that much more puzzling. Bonfire may not be De Palma’s finest, but its humor and its clear-eyed critique of American society deserve more recognition than they’ve received.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
After decades of serving as a provocateur and ostentatious cinematic stylist, one could forgive Brian De Palma for deciding to settle down and just make some movies. Not films, not experiments, not stylistic exercises — just movies. Every great artist is entitled to a fallow period, and who could blame De Palma for indulging in that after everything he’s contributed to cinema’s landscape? As it turns out, we may never have to learn; by all evidence, he will never, ever allow himself this fallow period.
The most eminent proof of that fact comes in the form of De Palma’s 2012 psychodrama Passion. At a glance, the film appears as though it will be a simple story, a basic rundown of familiar thriller tropes with a dash of lesbian erotica thrown in for kicks. A throwback to a time when all you needed to have a hit movie was a promise of nudity and a passable mystery. It even stars two “it” girls of the time, Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, making it feel even more safe and appealing.
For a while, it even plays that way. The opening act of Passion is your standard office-intrigue story, our two leads handling their parts with just a touch of melodrama and arch performance. As partners at an advertising agency, they’re stuck trying to come up with a campaign to sell a new cell phone. The job is slowly defeating them when Isabelle (Rapace) comes up with an amazing idea that she creates with her loyal assistant. The idea is a hit, and everything seems to be going swell until Christine (McAdams) takes credit. Thus, the stage is set for… nothing you could ever reasonably expect.
Here is where De Palma, formerly so sedate and conventional, throws off his cape to reveal the cinematic mad genius underneath. The first act’s rote dramatics melt away, leaving behind a mad dancing skeleton that begs to be witnessed. In line with Isabelle’s deteriorating sense of security and mental stability, the film morphs into an elaborate and expert exhibition of neo-noir and Old Hollywood tropes, both stylistic and thematic. Canted angles, deep shadows, split screens. What began as a tired retread of ’90s-style potboilers becomes what only De Palma can make: a stirring melange of modern edge and classical styling.
This is the power of De Palma and the thing that makes him, for all the world, one of the most interesting American directors. Most of what he does is nothing that hasn’t been done before. He’s using techniques that have permeated the history of cinema from the very beginning. But he employs these tricks with so much skill and nonchalance in execution that their very being within a movie becomes bold. Unlike Tarantino, who trucks in homage that verges on parody (to great effect), De Palma works entirely in earnest creation. He isn’t doing these things to signal his cinematic bona fides, but to more eloquently get across his point. The point, in this case, being that Isabelle has completely broken mentally.
Passion‘s mounting dream logic is almost Lynchian, bizarre things occurring and resolving with seemingly no impact on narrative. The bafflement of the audience rises with the paranoia and franticness of the protagonist. It’s an operatic, arch transposition of mental state onto aesthetic presentation. It is, as previously stated, Lynchian in narrative, but more akin to Irving Rapper in terms of tone and aesthetic, making it at once seemingly more accessible while also forging an even deeper wedge between the film and a more modern audience.
This is the type of magic that only De Palma can make. It can’t be much of a surprise that, at the time of its release, Passion‘s reception was what could charitably be described as “lukewarm at best.” The setup is a barely dressed-up cliché, and the reversal of that somnambulant premise into the madness that follows would turn off anyone who readily signed up for a simple plot willingly and happily. It is a movie bait-and-switch that repels those who might enjoy what it becomes and alienates those who thought they knew what they were getting.
Passion is the perfect argument for continuing to follow a director throughout their career and even into territory in which you might not hope to tread. Fallow periods, lazy stories — for a real artist, such as De Palma, these things don’t exist, and their stultifying impression is the perfect veil behind which to hide a spectacularly entertaining piece of work.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
Manic, messy, and experimental, The Wedding Party serves as a 90-minute preamble, both technically and thematically, to the next decade of Brian De Palma’s young career. Co-directed with two others (Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe), the film was shot in 1963, only to be released in 1969, after both De Palma and Robert De Niro’s stars were on the rise. Leach was a theater professor at Sarah Lawrence, De Palma and Munroe two of his students. Fellow student Jill Clayburgh stars as Josephine, the bride-to-be, while Charles Pfluger plays Charlie, the impending groom. Jennifer Salt — who would go on to star in Murder à la Mod, Hi, Mom! and Sisters — also appears as Phoebe, friend of the bride.
Not too long after Charlie docks on the upscale island where the wedding is to take place and meets Josephine’s whole, judgmental family, his two groomsmen, Cecil (De Niro) and Alistair (William Finley, another De Palma regular), do their damnedest to convince the young man to run. Shot in black-and-white, many of the stylistic choices are cut from the cloth of the French New Wave, a crucial source of inspiration for De Palma. Plenty of ADR scenes of dialogue over sped-up frames and jump-cutting serve to springboard the sparse narrative, which takes place over this wedding weekend. Title cards consisting of quotations from “The Compleat Bridegroom” serve as winking bookmarks. This gag is most successful before an inspired sequence in which the decidedly anti-marriage Cecil and Alistair leave for “The Stag Party” while Charlie remains trapped at the family house. By the time the groomsmen return to the house, they are convinced that marriage is the right move. It’s a lovely set-up that allows for some genuine laughs later on, when Charlie is the one trying to run and the guys are trying to get him to stay. “Every great man knows how to suffer,” Alistair says, arguing that in order for Charlie to become a great artist he needs to get married and suffer a little bit. “Bergman knows how to suffer. Fellini knows how to suffer. Even Hitchcock knows how to suffer.” Little successes like this are peppered throughout The Wedding Party without ever congealing into anything very memorable.
Both Finley and De Niro stand out from the troupe (Clayburgh’s barely in the thing), while De Palma himself, in the documentary De Palma, quite plainly states that it was on this set that he realized he knew more about making movies than Leach, his mentor. And for as amateurish as The Wedding Party plays in general, the auteur’s early touch cannot be denied. These characters are less like living, breathing humans and more like personified, thinly veiled ideas about social expectation and obligation — religious, political, and otherwise. Too much of the running time is spent discussing what the movie’s about rather than simply being what it’s about. There’s an obvious and liberally minded interest in the class system here and the absurdities and stereotypes inherent, but it doesn’t amount to much. Smarter and more radical takes on these topics would come from De Palma in the form of Greetings, Hi, Mom!, Get To Know Your Rabbit, and even Home Movies. In these later films, De Palma excels in the role of provocateur, something he was either unable (given the co-directors) or unwilling to fully explore in The Wedding Party.
Extended comedy sequences — this film features one in which a drunk and doubtful Charlie attempts to seduce Celeste (Judy Thomas) at his own wedding reception — tightened up (and got funnier) in later works as the director grew more comfortable with his vision. Still, other choices here prove to be benchmarks for repetition, especially De Palma’s early penchant for supporting characters that are both racially charged (a not-too-funny Indian ex-boyfriend) and viciously on-the-nose (the preachy, concerned celebrant). There’s also the stylistic flourishes, mentioned earlier, that populate the frame, foreshadowing more interesting, daring visuals to come.
As a piece of entertainment, The Wedding Party does not offer much on its own. As a piece of cinephilia, especially for those deep into this very De Palma summer, it is the sometimes-fascinating origin story of a great artist.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.