Chris Dumas: Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma And The Political Invisible
- Chris Dumas
If Vertigo’s unseating of Citizen Kane from the recent Sight & Sound “Best Movie Ever” poll speaks to anything, it’s the long process of reclamation that can expand a film’s life indefinitely. Unlike Welles’ instantly canonized masterpiece, Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller was largely ignored upon its original theatrical run. Yet over the decades, Vertigo’s richness seems to have revealed itself, helped in large part by the sweeping recuperation of Hitchcock as more than just a workmanlike director of light capers and studio thrillers. Hitchcock’s Films (a 1965 book by British-Canadian critic Robin Wood) and François Truffaut’s Hitchcock interviews collection, Hitchcock/Truffaut, helped circulate the notion of Hitchcock as the film artist of the 20th century, and of Vertigo as more than “just” a film about obsession and mistaken identity.
Un-American Psycho is a comparable work, organized in large part around salvaging the reputation of Brian De Palma, another filmmaker whose name is commonly (and usually negatively) mentioned in the same breath as Hitchcock’s. Debut author Chris Dumas proceeds from the position that De Palma has been widely scolded (or worse, ignored) throughout his career. While early films like Greetings and Hi, Mom! were strongly of a piece with the aesthetic and political revolutions of the so-called New Hollywood of the late ’60s and early ’70s, they’re rarely mentioned in surveys of the era. (In his bestselling oral history of the period, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind mentions De Palma only in passing, as if it’s just assumed that he’s not as worthy of study as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.)
Likewise, De Palma’s turn to mannered formalism with films like Sisters (a feature-length re-jigging of Psycho), Phantom Of The Paradise (Hitchcock by way of Dario Argento by way of Mad magazine), and Obsession (decried by Andrew Sarris as “more of a critical essay on Vertigo than a film in its own right”) saw him written off as a cine-literate movie brat, shamelessly aping Hitchcock. Later, Dressed To Kill, Scarface, and Body Double had De Palma decried as ghoulish, gory, and misogynist, plainly serving up sex and murder á la mode. Even Saturday Night Live took its shots, with a fake trailer for The Clams: a De Palma-directed Birds knockoff. (“Once a year, Brian De Palma picks the bones of a dead director and gives his wife a job!” jibed the fake ad copy.) In a 2006 New York Times article, A.O. Scott noted that just saying the words “Brian De Palma” (or Mission To Mars) in a room full of cinephiles will cause lines to be drawn in the sand, allegiances formed, and insults volleyed back and forth.
Granted, De Palma has long had his defenders. Pauline Kael raved about The Fury and Blow Out; her vindication of De Palma was one of the many arrows flung in her critical crossfire with Sarris. Anticipating The Black Dahlia’s release, Slant published an online symposium reassessing De Palma’s back catalog. (Its reward was The Black Dahlia, which couldn’t be successfully salvaged without a mutated breed of hyper-contrarian De Palma advocates.) And here at The A.V. Club, Noel Murray and Scott Tobias gave De Palma’s films the exhaustive Primer treatment, providing many of them with the sorts of critical fair shakes they rarely received upon original release, including a sober defense of his widely knocked Iraq war polemic, Redacted.
Un-American Psycho rewards the efforts of such stalwart backers. It aims not only to rebuild De Palma’s reputation, but to situate him as perhaps the foremost filmmaker of what Dumas terms “the Hitchcock century.” This idea of the Hitchcock century is key to Dumas’ understanding of both Hitchcock and De Palma. For Dumas, Hitchcock’s films crucially shaped the way America came to understand itself in the late 20th century, “provid[ing] the frame within which America, in some way, understood itself.” Not only can we not look at a shower scene the same way after Psycho, we can’t look at showers the same way. For Dumas, De Palma’s stylistic and thematic Hitchcock imitations are really the calling cards of a filmmaker who thinks (and even sees) in terms defined by Hitchcock’s films, and by the idea of “Hitchcock.” The variations of Psycho’s pivotal shower scene that reappear with wink-nudge frequency in De Palma’s movies (Blow Out, Phantom, and Dressed To Kill, to name a few) speaks to De Palma’s self-conscious use of Hitchcock.
As an academic text, Un-American Psycho gets a bit muddled in places by scholarly twaddle: by Dumas’ ongoing critique of college film-studies programs and his obnoxious tendency to wax Žižekian (and worse, to actually use the phrase “to wax Žižekian…” before invoking the ideas of critical theorist, Hitchcock buff, and “academic rock star” Slavoj Žižek). Still, this can be charitably attributed to Dumas having to situate his book within a field that has produced too little work on this important filmmaker, and his obligation to test his ideas’ critical soundness without recourse to other scholarly work. The lapses into academic-ese bog down parts of his book, especially in the early chapters, but for the most part, Dumas is concerned with De Palma’s films themselves. And moreover, the dearth of academic material on De Palma means this book engages more (in a dynamic, rigorous manner) with critical and popular reactions to his work.
Though it takes Dumas some 140 pages to build to it, his greatest insight is shrewd. He locates De Palma’s frustration with the production of his 1972 studio comedy Get To Know Your Rabbit as his “primal scene”—a trauma that sets the tone for the stylized attitudes of disappointment (with both the New Hollywood and the New Left) and resulting cynicism that marked almost all his subsequent work. This picture of De Palma can be seen most poignantly in two of his characters: the comically naïve Winslow Leach (William Finley), Phantom Of The Paradise’s maudlin songwriter, who literally sells his soul to Paul Williams’ Mephistophelean record tycoon; and John Travolta’s tragic recording engineer in Blow Out, whose own idealism explodes in time with a flashy “Liberty Day” fireworks display lighting up De Palma’s hometown of Philadelphia.
From here, Dumas puts forward the idea that De Palma’s copping of Hitchcock’s style and thematic tics are part of a subversive political program that’s indebted more to Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s pictures. Contra Audre Lourde’s famous assertion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” De Palma dresses up his politics of dissatisfaction in the style that has come to define technical mastery in American cinema.
That idea stands in stark contrast to the existing notion of De Palma, as (among other things) a failed New Hollywood revolutionary, who abandoned the halfway-radical Godardian aesthetics that marked early features like Greetings and its sort-of sequel, Hi, Mom! It also explains one of the best, nastiest jokes in De Palma’s oeuvre—his mawkish ode to the Odessa-steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in The Untouchables. Where Eisenstein aimed to awaken the audience through quick-cut rhythmic montage, generating new meanings through the combative juxtaposition of images, De Palma structures a similar sequence as a skillful series of slo-mo shots that have Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia attempting to secure a runaway baby carriage while putting down half a dozen of Al Capone’s goons on the steps of Chicago’s Union Station. It’s a sneering gag in what’s likely De Palma’s most brashly cynical movie: Not only are the radical aesthetics of Soviet montage (earlier cribbed by filmmakers like Arthur Penn and Dennis Hopper) wholly ineffectual in a Hollywood context, but who cares about a pile of dead gangsters when some cherubic baby’s at stake?
A scene like this—seemingly one of the style-for-style’s sake bits De Palma’s critics use against him—reveals the lively contradictions that, according to Dumas, animate even De Palma’s most bloated films. Moreover, it illustrates one of the great strengths of Dumas’ theorizing. A lot of academic or pseudo-academic books overlay innocuous pop-culture with byzantine theory in a game of professional one-upmanship. They tend to overdetermine the meaning of a given film, novel, or other pop object. De Palma’s films, on the contrary, seem to both justify and reward the close reading Dumas affords them.
Dumas isn’t just using the director, or his films, instrumentally to advance his own far-out theories. Instead, he’s situating them within contexts and critical conversations that seem entirely suitable. Dumas is giving De Palma his due. And in so doing, he’s arming the next generation of hardened De Palma defenders with some seriously heavy artillery.