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As with any creator who disdains whatever mode currently passes as realism for their own road, Brian De Palma has taken flak. He has been pilloried as a cynical Man Who Knows Too Much, an adolescent technician—the self-parodic, pasty science-fair whiz-kid in Dressed to Kill (1980), building contraptions in his room.
Dressed once incited a civil war in these very pages, where a rave and a pan ran side by side. Pauline Kael, De Palma’s most constant advocate through his divisive ’70s and ’80s, called his sensibility “baroque.” She meant his vulgarian ornateness, which she relished, but his body of work is also, in the best Baroque tradition, buttressed by paradoxes—which make him a pest for both humanists and suspense-film puristws.
Toughened by the scrappy late-’60s NYC underground, De Palma began making commercial thrillers with Sisters (1973). Subsequent regular returns to the genre have been sold as lowest-common-denominator titillations, though ironically were often too conceptual to find an audience (1976’s Carrie being the most noteworthy exception). Each suspenser has two parallel plots: that of the surface narrative and that of the wires-showing construction, De Palma’s booming authorial voice. No mere peacocking, this form is inextricable from his obsessive theme of schizophrenic doubling—elsewhere patterned in (in)famous split diopter lens shots and split-screen effects, which BAM’s 10-film tribute offers opportunity to see in proper scope.
De Palma’s plots are derivative of Hitchcock and Lang, while the films themselves are entirely of their moment. The seemingly inconsequential Body Double (1984) is the essential document of sexual desire in an acquisitive VCR age. Throughout it, we see (and hear) film practiced as the great synthesis-art that it is, incorporating porno and slasher tropes, a Frankie Goes to Hollywood production number, and Pino Donaggio’s aching soap-operatic scoring as Craig Wasson tracks a mystery woman through the Beverly Center mall, just one of the marvelous bits of choreography-to-architecture.
With its villain-as-stage-director, Body Double is at once mindful of its own contrivance and deeply felt. A key moment to understanding De Palma’s heartfelt parodies occurs at the end of Blow Out (1981), when a bereft sound-effects man (John Travolta) immortalizes the death-cry of the woman he failed to save on the soundtrack of the seedy exploitation movie that he’s working on. The movie-within-a-movie is ridiculous, déclassé; the heartbreak is real, piercing.
The rundown on the rest of BAM’s salute: Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is a glam-rock farce of corporate-run youth culture, Obsession (1976) a cinematographic thesaurus by Vilmos Zsigmond; Raising Cain (1992) and Femme Fatale (2002) each offer ravishing, agonzied symphonies of distended time. Anyone seeing them for the first time is to be envied. Likewise anyone seeing them for the hundredth.