Ways of Seeing

Watched two film documentaries — SIDE BY SIDE and DE PALMA.

Christopher Kenneally’s SIDE BY SIDE (2012) is the better show, exploring the pros and cons of digital vs. film. Hosted by the affable Keanu Reeves, it’s a;ready wondrously dated: they’re talking about digital “largely” taking over from film in the next ten years. The budget seems to have been impressive — whenever they want a clip, there it is, whenever they want to talk to somebody, there they are. Great cinematographers and editors, several of them no longer with us (Michael Ballhaus, Vilmos Zsigmond, Anne V. Coates), top directors on both sides of the debate (Lucas, Lynch, Nolan, Cameron, Soderbergh, Scorsese), key figures and early adopters of digital shooting (Von Trier, Anthony Dod Mantle), all contribute engaging bits, and Keanu is so likeable he can get away with saying “Yeah, but it looks like shit.”

The most worrying thing covered is the issue of storage — digital files on drives are potentially MORE vulnerable to being lost than silver nitrate ever was. Someone cheerfully says this problem will be solved if we want to solve it, and since we have to, we will. But in the history of cinema, we’ve ALWAYS solved our preservation problems too late, and substantial amounts of important work has slipped through the cracks/crevasses.

Overall, a very relaxed, enjoyable experience — educational and interesting. It might trigger some more blog posts from me…

DE PALMA (2016), from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, would benefit from other voices. The directors are occasionally heard asking questions, but De Palma dominates so utterly that we never learn, for instance, why the documentarists are interested in him. He just takes us through his career, film by film, and we learn that BDP thinks all of his movies are good, even WISE GUYS and BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES — he admits the late Tom Wolfe’s book is better, but he has a solution: “Just don’t read the book.”

We open with VERTIGO and De Palma talking about how the movie shows the film director at work. And one thinks, Uh-oh. I’m not convinced we’re supposed to take the film as an instructional video, and Jimmy Stewart’s make-over of Kim Novak as a lesson in how to do it, which Brian is basically saying we should and he does. BDP has undoubtedly learned from Hitchcock, but has he learned the right things?

Fascinating to watch De Palma with Scorsese on Dick Cavett in the seventies (which I can no longer locate on YouTube). In those days, De Palma was an ebullient, goofy guy, and Scorsese was intense, detached, aloof. De Palma was clean-shaven and Scorsese had a beard. Today, De Palma is a growling, surly bear in a beard, and Scorsese is clean-shaven, charming, avuncular. Does this say something about the psychological effect of beards, or the psychological meaning of beards? Of the effect of forty years of De Palma being beaten up critically for his bravura depiction of graphic violence, and Scorsese being lauded critically for his (admittedly very different) bravura depiction of graphic violence?

DE PALMA could work as the gruff maestro explaining his rules of filmmaking — he’s good at this, and his rules make sense, though of course they aren’t everybody’s rules. Or it could work as a psychological exploration of the peculiar obsessions driving his cinema — De Palma is happy to supply all the clues, including the personal stuff about bugging the girl’s sex ed class when he was a schoolboy, and stalking his father’s mistress, and so on. We definitely get material that helps bring his work into focus. And these twin prongs of the movie do work in parallel, to an extent. But De Palma isn’t remotely interested in discussing meaning — understandably, I guess, since throughout his career these discussions have come back to accusations of misogyny, exploitation, which are perhaps harder to bear than the stylistic conversations which always come back to ripping off Hitchcock.

The solution to De Palma’s reluctance to delve deep and actually think about what his films are exploring — ironically, he wants to be considered an artist, but resists anyone finding anything to think about in his work, beyond the level of “cool Steadicam shot!” — would be to talk to someone else. Scorsese might have been helpful, but he’s not really one for deep analysis either — his appreciations of cinema are strongest when focussed on technical achievement. I think whoever you got, it would be helpful if they were female. Misogyny is the rampant bull elephant in the room. Two guys are making a documentary about a third guy, and THIS is their closing image ~

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6 Responses to “Ways of Seeing”

  1. DePalma is technically skillful but has very few actual ideas. “Scarface” has become inordinately popular in recent years, but my fave is “The Fury.”

    He’s right about no reading “Bonfire of the Vanities” Nothing by Wolfe is worth reading. But it doesn’t excuse DePalma’s film version.

  2. While De Palma talks about Hitchcock his heart is really in the tradition of the “giallo” as “Dressed to kill” makes obvious. In this same line his supremely silly “Body Double” is well worth examining in detail

  3. You know he was set to do Cruising at one point, and a scene he planned found its way into Dressed to Kill — Angie’s gallery pick-up.

    De Palma’s work is full of tropes — hand-held, extended subjective camera, splitscreen, slomo — that Hitchcock basically never used, so the Hitchcock idolatry must be, at least subconsciously, a smokescreen for something. I suspect De Palma is trying to hide behind Psycho and say, Hey, the master killed women, why can’t I?

    The thing is, I don’t think his kinks make his work bad, but they do mean that examining them would be the way to find the most interest in his movies.

  4. I love The Fury too, and also Femme Fatale, and yeah I don’t think Hitchcock is the main point of reference for De Palma, anymore than Bergman is on Woody Allen. I think De Palma is in the baroque mould, he prefers to elaborate and raise to excess while working within the familiar, tending to cynicism or nihilism. The Mission Impossible film which I saw as a kid is a good example. I found it hard to follow when I saw it at a time when I didn’t know who De Palma was, but it’s such a playful bizarre exercise where in the first half it’s not clear who the protagonist is (at least if you come in cold and watch on TV, and are small enough to not know or care who Tom Cruise is), who the villains are, and what the McGuffin is…and ultimately that baroque play undercuts any purpose or heroic endeavour, which otherwise becomes a purely right-wing glorification of intelligence agencies, which is what all spy movies are.

    And De Palma, this isn’t emphasized often, is also a more political film-maker than Hitchcock, and for that matter Scorsese. He’s not as sharp as Altman was as a political film-maker working in mainstream narrative film-making but he does have that voice, and he’s more lucid and ironic than Oliver Stone is, even if he does tap into the “paranoid style”.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Not particularly conversant with either director, but found myself recalling an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show”: Goober, the successor to Gomer Pyle, comes home from a hunting trip with a beard. The barber persuades him to keep it, and he goes from affable hick to increasingly insufferable intellectual. He shaves it off and reverts to jes’ folks goofiness so Andy and the rest will like him again.

  6. I think Casualties of War is a pretty good political film, one of the few about Vietnam that sees it as a tragedy for Vietnam rather than America. Other than that there’s certainly cynicism but I struggle to see much political real satire, even in Blow Out or Scarface. Snake Eyes, maybe? Interesting to learn that it originally ended with a biblical-scale levee-bursting flood killing everybody.

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