Archive for ‘Brian DePalma’

May 14, 2011

all will be revealed

by Megan Abbott

Periodically, my parents go through spring-cleanings, finding odds and ends from my childhood. I live in a small apartment by midwestern standards (by almost any standards other than New York City standards), so I have scant space.

Nearly seventeen years ago, I packed a bunch of boxes in a car with two dear friends and we drove from Detroit to New York City. Ever since, through all manner of life changes, through moves from Brooklyn to Hell’s Kitchen to Queens, I have made promises to my parents that I will collect some of these childhood belongings, if they please-please-please keep them for me.

And my parents are very understanding and occasionally just send me manageable boxes of the various detritus of my upbringing—usually charming madeleines: drawings, much-loved books, odd little miniatures and strange collections I don’t even remember starting, or ending (how did I end up with all those miniature ceramic animals? the boxing monkey figurine?).

A few weeks back, one of these boxes contained a slender volume I had no memory of for a moment. Until I did. It is entitled, The Clue Armchair Detective by Lawrence Treat and illustrated by Georgie Hardie, with the subheading: Can You Solve the Mysteries of Tudor Close? 

Essentially, it’s a game/activity book or, as the cover rather awkwardly poses it, “A Packed File of Mystery Puzzles for All the Family.” And it is one of many tie-in books related to the game Clue, which I’m sure is why my parents bought it for me originally, circa 1983.

It opens with a letter to the reader,telling us we are “cordially invited to help solve the mysterious death of Humphrey Black, found brutally murdered in his house, Tudor Close.”

What follows is a series of more than 25 separate “suspect files,” which are really individual mystery pages where, if you look closely enough, you should be able to solve these individual crimes (theft, vandalism, murder) and, ultimately, the central mystery of who killed Humphrey Black. The answers lie on the last pages.

And as I turned the pages I remembered staring at those puzzles, had this sense memory of which pages captivated me most. It lacks the hauteur of my memories of Clue, and the whole Clue/Agatha Christie/murder at the estate vibe. Not that that’s absent (or that Agatha Christie is all hauteur) but the book is so much weirder than that.

Sheeted corpses, bathtub deaths, yes, but also a mounted fish stuffed with “chips.” Eerie blank-eyed twin brothers. A kidnapped boy who looks stunningly like Bobby Franks. A man in drag with the uncanny stiltedness that sings: Brian De Palma movie. (In fact, an overhead surveillance shot that also recalls De Palma!) Witchcraft. Voodoo. A particularly unnerving scene of a raucous pub brawl, where one lipsticked woman sits, staring fixedly at the ceiling…at what?


It’s funny, touching something your memory effectively erased. I can’t imagine ever remembering this book any other way than touching it. And yet it’s an access point, another tunnel in.

It’s surprising when we are sure we know the touchstones that were important to us as children—the books that stunned and enthralled us, the movies that flutter in our brain.

But I wonder if it’s the things that made less a clear mark, whose connection is more tentative, whose role is less transparent—might they matter more? Might these lost memories or totems—unedited by the parts of ourselves that insist we know ourselves so well—be the things that tell us the most?”

As the letter to the reader closes:

All will be revealed once you read the last answer. If you’ve solved the mystery correctly, give yourself a pat on the back. If not, resolve to do better next time. Then move onto the next case.

Good Luck!

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April 2, 2011

More thoughts on Peeping Tom: fathers, sons, and the maternal gaze

by Sara Gran

I’m not really interested in exploring gender differences too much–I haven’t found gender to be a useful indicator of anything important about a person, like their honesty, loyalty, integrity, bravery, sense of humor, or the desire to stop the car at yard sales and fruit stands. So I’m going to use as many qualifiers as I’m legally allowed to in the following sentince: I have observed that some men, in many cases, have very different psychological relationships with their parents than some women. Most women I know talk about their parents, especially their mothers, pretty much all the time. We talk and talk and talk about our parents and all the ways they screwed us up and everything they did wrong and everything they did right and how much we love them anyway. Or in some cases, don’t.  And then we get over it and do what we want to do. The men I know almost never talk about their parents, especially their fathers. And when they do, it’s usually in a fairly neutural tone. I can’t think of a time when a straight male friend ever said: “My mother’s scarcity issues have really affected my  ability to manifest,” or “my father praised me for my intelligence but their was always an edge to it,” or “my grandfather beat my mother and so she overcompensated by smothering me.”  There are of course exceptions, but most of my male friends, when they talk about their parents at all, say things like, “My father was a banker,” or “my mother did the best she could,” or “it wasn’t my father’s fault.” I’ve never heard a woman say that.

But these men seem far more haunted by their parents, especially their fathers, than my female friends. Many of my male friends seem to be stuck in a kind of living dialogue with their parents, even long after those parents are gone. It sometimes seems as if their choices in life are determined by a reaction to a specter of these parents, a kind of poltergeist created from the very repression of criticism I’m talking about that knocks around and tells them what to do. And I think this possible-maybe-trend (again, there’s no intent to make a sweeping generalization here) is reflected in Peeping Tom. Mark is haunted by his father’s presence–almost literally, as he lives in his father’s house, has his fathers’ books on the shelves, and watches his father on film. But his father is never quite there. In the filmstrips Mark has of him he’s out of focus (Michael Powell himself played the father, creepily enough) and his voice is given a bit of an echo-y, ghostly, quality.  Helen, Mark’s love interest, lives with her mother (or at least in the room across the hall–I was a little unclear on the specifics) in close quarters: her mother is with her nearly all the time and the two are obviously close. But Helen’s mother doesn’t seem to have much of an influence on her. Mark’s father is long gone, but his influence is, obviously, far more strongly felt. And of course, for either gender, dead parents seem to haunt us more than the living. Maybe it’s harder to talk back to the dead.

Interestingly, Helen’s mother is blind. I don’t think a women would have written it that way. There is a strange way a mother has of looking at a daughter sometimes that can cut to the bone. Many woman friends, in our endless conversations about our parents, have described this to me as a kind of judging stare. It’s when a woman is doing something normal and she looks up and her mother is looking at her with that look and suddenly what she’s doing doesn’t seem normal anymore; it seems like what she’s doing is clumsy and wrong and suddenly she is not real and not solid and empty inside. I’ve only ever seen this mentioned in one book, a strange little Jungian book called Descent to The Goddess, which I still haven’t finished. This is a thing between adult women and their mothers, not children. I’m not a mother and I don’t quite get what this look is all about. I’m not sure it’s as bad as it seems. Maybe it’s more of a projection of daughters than a gaze of mothers. But I don’t think a woman writer or filmmaker would have imagined a blind mother; I think she would have made Helen’s mother sighted, and watching, watching, always watching as Helen and Mark’s courtship progressed. And always, always judging, and never finding Helen just quite exactly right.

By the way, I only watched a few seconds of this TED conference video, but it seems to be a real-life Raising Cain/Peeping Tom. Hasn’t this guy ever watched a DePalma movie?!? (“It wasn’t a box!”)

April 1, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club Special Field Trip: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

by Sara Gran
Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan

Image via Wikipedia

Megan and a few other smart folks suggested that to understand DePalma, you’d want to watch Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. So I did. Wow. As most of you know (I’ve realized most of my readers have a much better film education than I do), this is a movie about a filmmaker, warped by a psychologist father with a sharp gaze, who does some very nasty things in his free time. The DePalma influence is pretty obvious: filming, fathers, girls, murder, pornography, psychology, tension, random murderous phallic symbols (in all senses of the term, I think).

Here’s what you don’t know. I’ve been working on a few Unnanounced Media Projects, as I’ve mentioned before. This is pretty common when you’re a writer with some years and sales and/or attention and/or luck under your belt–people hire you to write stuff that hasn’t been officially announced, so you can’t tell anyone about it. (irrelevant but odd: most of these projects never see the light of day, and since the copyright is usually held by whoever hired you, these projects often dissappear into a black hole of never-happened and never-read). These projects could be comic books, films, advertising projects, ghostwriting–you can imagine the rest.

So I’ve been working on one Unannounced Media Project for about six months now, and the work has picked up speed the past few months–just about the time I’ve been immersing myself in Brian DePalma. But I hadn’t seen Peeping Tom until about a week ago. And in my project, I wrote: three characters who had the same professions and perversions of characters in Peeping Tom, three strange and specific items that are seen in Peeping Tom (I’m sure it will be OK if I say one is a jeweled brooch in the shape of an insect, to give an idea of the level of specificity I’m talking about), and a character who shares a not-everyday name with a character in Peeping Tom, and a number of harder-to-name similarities in tone, style, POV, and pace. One scene in particular could have been entirely lifted from Peeping Tom. Except, of course, I’d never seen it.

For a few years I’ve been interested in the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (who I can’t read at all, because I find him impossible to understand, so I just read about), and in particular one book by a Lacanian psychologist named Annie Rogers called The Unsayable–I’ve mentioned it often. This all reminded me of a story from the book: there was a family where the mother had a terrible secret, one she’d never told anyone, from her childhood. Years later she had a teenaged daughter, and the whole family was in therapy with Annie Rogers, and the mother finally confessed her secret. And the daughter burst out that she’d been having dreams about the incident all of her life.

I think it’s kind of incredible how we’re never saying what we think we’re saying, and we’re never hearing what we think we’re hearing. No matter how conscious you are, we seem to be incapable of really understanding the conversation we’re having with each other and with the world around us. And that’s probably for the best. Until you wake one day and realize you’ve been entirely wrong about exactly every second of your life, which happens pretty often and is always a little odd.

March 9, 2011

More thoughts on Raising Cain

by Sara Gran
Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, p...

Carl Jung

I had an experience a week or so ago that I’ve been thinking about a lot: I was taking to a friend when the friend turned to me, with a particular angry look on his face, and proceeded to say something in a very specific kind of pissed off, sputtering tone. The moment passed, my friend’s annoyance passed, and whatever I’d done to cause it apparently passed as well. It wasn’t at all a big deal. But this moment really stuck with me –and in fact kind of shook me up–because I realized I’d experienced this exact same moment, with a different person, about a year before. And that two years ago, I’d had the exact same moment with another friend. Same facial expression, same tone of voice, although entirely unrelated people talking about unrelated topics.  I think there’s some strange psychology at work here–either I am, subconsciously, pushing people to recreate this moment with me, or I am abnormally attracted to people to are attracted to this moment, or, well, who the hell knows? I think we all have experiences like this, although they’re certainly easier to identify in other people than ourselves: the friend who always goes for the unavailable object of desire, the cousin who spoils every good job opportunity.  We have compulsions to repeat ourselves in ways that we don’t understand and don’t usually like. (When we wrote our V.C. Andrews essay Megan explained to me about some of the Freud behind this, but of course I’ve since forgotten it all, so maybe I can persuade her to do it again.)

As a writer, too, my compulsions have become apparent to me (sometimes painfully so!)–those little moments and plot lines and characters that I keep repeating, without meaning to, in my work. I think everyone who makes art in some way knows the feeling–you get a new idea and you go and you do the new idea and you put all this time and effort into it and the when it’s over you realize wait, this wasn’t a new idea! This was the same idea I’ve had for twenty years in a new outfit! I just rewrote The Bird’s Nest AGAIN!

So I was thinking about how this plays into Raising Cain. One thing everyone noticed in the comments that got me thinking was that both within the movie, and within the context of DePalma’s other movies, there’s obviously an amount of repetition here that seems well past the normal boundaries. And I wonder if in some ways he wasn’t playing with this experience, or intentionally diving into it. And–I was about to say “incidentally,” but now I think maybe this is actually the central thing here–I do suspect that’s how we exorcise these repetitive demons–by diving into them, instead of fighting them.

This reminds me of something I’ve read a number of times, although I have no idea if it’s true: James Joyce’s daughter was schizophrenic, and he took her to see Jung. Joyce said to Jung, hey, you’ll understand her, there’s nothing wrong here–she’s just like us, using this ocean of symbols and images to make sense of her world. And Jung said Well, no, it’s not the same thing, and here’s the difference: you’re diving. Your daughter is falling.

So I wonder if DePalma was falling, and decided, wisely, to turn around and dive.

 

March 7, 2011

Raising Cain: Official Brian De Palma film club meeting!

by Sara Gran
Cover of "Raising Cain"

Cover of Raising Cain

Even after two watchings it’s hard to say for sure what was real and what was dreams in this Hitchcock homage (or deconstruction, for lack of a better work). As in many DePalma movies, time is disjointed and not particularly sticky, both in terms of the action and in terms of cause and effect. Clocks are everywhere here, but they confuse more than clarify; likewise childhood events (and the people who inflicted them, supposedly long gone) are front and center. Janet Maslin might have said it best: “Raising Cain is best watched as a series of overlapping scenarios that may or may not be taking place in the real world.” On the second watching, things were far more clear, but I’m not sure if that’s the point. Like my favorite V.C. Andrews novel, My Sweet Audrina, this isn’t a movie interested in plotting things out on a timeline and straightening them about. It’s about throwing a bunch of ideas, images, and obsessions into a pool and diving in.

There’s a lot in here from my favorite Hitchcocks, and some other favorites as well–Carter (John Lithgow), a child psychologist, has multiple personalities due to childhood abuse (Psycho). But in this case, the abuse was intentional–Carter’s father, the Norwegian Dr. Nix, was a child psychologist (Spellound) at an “institute for child development” (Oh, DePalma and his institutes!). Dr. Nix intentionally tortured his children into developing split personalities. Now Carter lives in the Bay Area (Vertigo), where he’s a stay at home dad in a nice suburban community (Orson Wells’ The Stranger), until–well, until all kinds of stuff happens. Carter’s father, Dr. Nix, who may or may not be dead, needs more children for his experiments, so Carter and his multiples/siblings/aspects go about taking some, which means killing their parents. Meanwhile, Carter’s wife Jenny runs into an old flame, Jack. In a long sequence that drifts in and out of dreams, hallucinations, and reality (Nightmare on Elm Street), Jenny and Jack make love in various places (or don’t), Carter catches them (or seems to), and Carter kills Jenny (or doesn’t).

The attention here is on Carter and his father–but I found myself most interested in two minor characters. The first was Carter’s own daughter, Amy. Carter has a video-camera baby-monitor set-up via which he can watch Amy, and we can watch him watching Amy. Remember, Carter was tortured by his father into developing multiple personalities, and now his father wants Amy to experiment on. Watching Carter and Amy through the video monitor is creepy and terrifying because of what could happen–but nothing really does. Carter, as far as we see him, is a great dad. And in the end, the personality that rises to the top of Carter’s psyche is the mysterious Margo–a Kali-ish kind of mother figure who will (and does) kill to protect children. What exactly did happen to Amy–did Margo and Carter protect her, or did the other personalities have their way with her?

The other character who really entranced me here was Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Spellbound again), a  doctor who’d worked with Carter’s father. In a beautiful long tracking shot, Dr. Waldheim explains the story of Dr. Nix to two policemen as they walk through a municipal building to the morgue, veering off into wrong turns at every chance.  I can’t say what it was about her, or her character, or the story–but somehow, in some sense, she was the lynchpin that made this all come together.

I also want to say this: for reasons I don’t understand, the near-to-final scene of John Lithgow, in an elevator, wearing a wig, a trenchcoat, and no shoes, holding up a bag of groceries to cover his face, is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why John Lithgow’s feet are so terrifying but trust me, they are.

February 27, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club: earn your RAISING CAIN badge

by Sara Gran

I have Raising Cain burning a hole in its little red envelope! If you’re playing along at home,we’ll be discussing that soon. Megan hasn’t announced her first pick yet but I’m really, really hoping it’s Body Double, a movie that has a strange hold on my psyche (that house! that music! Frankie Goes to Hollywood!). You know, 90% of the reason I love having this blog is because I know I’m going to get read something by Megan two or three times per week. The other 10%? I get to talk about Brian DePalma!

February 18, 2011

Brian DePalma Film Club: The Fury

by Sara Gran
Cover of "The Fury"

Cover of The Fury

The Brian DePalma film club officially commences NOW (!!), with a discussion of a strange little gem from the seventies, THE FURY. As per our previous discussion, a lot of DePalma’s best and worst is on display here; the interest in supernatural abilities, the Hitchcockian psychosexual stuff, the fascination with power/powerlessness. Amy Irving (Gillian), surreally beautiful as a teenager with psychic abilities, is psychically linked to Robin, a teenager who also has strong abilities.  Robin is kind-of sort-of kidnapped by a government agency that wants to use his powers for evil. And so Robin’s father (Kirk Douglas)  goes to look for him and et cetera and …well, let’s cut to the chase: DePalma’s strong suit in general, and in this movie in particular, is not a cohesive well-thought out plot. So let’s just say there’s two young, attractive, highly sexual/sexualized psychic teens both preyed on and protected by a cadre of older, not wiser, folks.

A few recurring DePalma interests are exalted here. One is telekinesis. This was made after Carrie, and it feels a bit like–well, I’ll call it a second-course movie. Writers & filmmakers, I think you’ll recognize this feeling: you write a book (or whatever) on, say, mourning doves. And you think you’ve explored mourning doves from every angle, but when you’re done, somehow, you’re still just not done with the doves. You’ve got doves on the mind. So, even though you swore it’s the last thing you would ever do, you write another book about doves. (Does that make sense to anyone but me?) This is not at all a bad thing. Some of our best work is the second course! Regardless, DePalma’s interest in the supernatural seems focused on its use as a tool of power, rather than as a tool of, say spiritual enlightenment.

Another recurring DePalma image on display here is, hmm, let’s call him the Very Very Bad Man. Maybe someone can help me with this, but someone wrote something (that’s the part I need help with!) about David Lynch and noted that in nearly every Lynch film there’s  a man who is completely insane and entirely out-of-control, and derives oodles of power from such. Think of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, or Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway (“I’m sorry about that, Pete, but tailgating is one thing I cannot tolerate”).   DePalma’s films often have a man–the Very Very Bad Man–who could be related to those men, although he is a bit more controlled and takes less of a center stage: John Lithgow in Blow Out, “The Indian” in Body Double. In The Fury the Very Very Bad Man is a skinny, sleazy little character who works for the institute and helps them ensnare the lovely Amy Irving. He only shows up for a few scenes but you can practically smell his evil through the screen. But these two men are related, I think–cousins, if not brothers.

Another recurring theme here is the use of sex as a weapon and a tool of control. In any DePalma movie, is there ever an expression of sexuality that isn’t evil (well, maybe at the end of Body Double)? Robin’s handler at his special institute uses sex to control and confine Robin. But–and this is another DePalma theme–in the end, Robin is pushed too far. His father finally finds him, but the sweet boy his father has worked the whole film to rescue is gone. Robin has become a monster–manipulative in the psychological sense, in that he brattily insists on getting his way, but also literally, as he uses his powers to send people flying around the house.  It’s a big cheesy, corny, predicable–and deeply heartbreaking–finale. The special effects are, by today’s standards, silly and distracting, and Robin himself has become a bit of a cliche. But that’s exactly what’s so heartbreaking–Robin was brought to life so beautifully early in the film, and his relationship with his father was so real and honest, that the tragedy of Robin is exactly that–that he has turned into a cliche, a selfish little brat who cares about no one but himself. And ultimately, I think that’s the point.

Incidentally, there’s a lot of great actors in this film: John Cassavettes as a bad guy (Roger Ebert: “Cassavetes always makes a suitably hateful villain (he plays the bad guys as if they’re distracted by inner thoughts of even worse things they could be doing).”), Denis Franz as an ill-fated cop partnered with, drumrole Bill’s partner from Henderson’s Home Plus from Big Love (A stupendous bit of star-spotting by my boyfriend, by the way!).

All in all, an interesting bridge between seventies DePalma and eighties DePalma. I think next up will be ladies’ choice–and since Megan’s the only lady around here (ba-dum-DUM), that means her!

What did you think? His best or his worst or neither? Share your thoughts below and newcomers, don’t hesitate to jump in!

February 13, 2011

The Brian DePalma Film Club

by Sara Gran
phantom of the paradise

I hereby bring to order the first meeting of the Semi-Official Abbott Gran Medicine Show Brian DePalma Movie Club.

I love Brian DePalma. But the first thing I want to say about Brian DePalma, just to get this out of the way, is that he’s made some abysmally awful movies. In addition to brilliant little nightmares like Blow-Out and Body Double, it’s true he’s also responsible for Phantom of the Paradise, a movie so awful it’s hard to believe it’s real. I mean, if you were to watch in a theatre with friends and drugs it might be good-awful, but if you try to watch it home like a regular movie it’s just so awful you’ll think you took drugs. Bad ones. And of course there’s the big Hollywood mistakes like The Black Dahlia.

That doesn’t make him a lesser filmmaker to me. Instead, to me, it makes him a brave and admirable artist. You can’t make art/entertainment that matters unless you’re willing to take risks. And when you take risks, by definition, you sometimes fail. It takes courage to do that, and I admire courage. I also know, from experience of working in the arts for nearly twenty years now, that a willingness to fail is the only way you come to create anything worthwhile. I respect and learn from Brian DePalma, with a few incredibly shitty movies under his belt, about a thousand times more than Steven Spielberg, who has delivered us a lifetime of mediocrity and safety (thanks, Steven!).

I will start with THE FURY, which I have at home now from Netflix and will watch over the weekend. Unfortunately it looks like some of his best films are hard to come by on DVD, but we will soldier on nonetheless. Film Club Members, we will meet up one day here next week to discuss the Furyand the awesomeness of DePalma in general. Decoder rings and badges to follow. Any takers?