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Brian De Palma: Breaking Down the Master’s Technique

Brian De Palma happens to have given life to the mortuary cinema, he has taken the dead forms of classic Hollywood and has brought them back to life with his incredible talent and expertise.

Brian De Palma is considered an integral part of the New Hollywood wave filmmaking. Most of the movies made by De Palma are unusual manifestations of engineering and conception in the thorough dramatics as well as the jolts of visual inspirations. De Palma borrows the narrative energy from Hollywood classics. He does not only love classic films but believes in them and shows that devotion in his films with nearly devout innocence.

Brian De Palma was born on 11th September 1940 in Newark, New Jersey and is of Italian ancestry. He is the youngest amongst three sons of Vivienne and Anthony Federico De Palma, an orthopedic surgeon. Brian De Palma grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. He attended various Quaker and Protestant schools and graduated from the Friends’ Central School. During high school period, Brian used to build computers and also won a regional science-fair prize for a project which was titled An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations.

Brian De Palma attended Columbia as a physics student and became fascinated with the process of filmmaking after he watched Vertigo and Citizen Kane. Followed by that in the early 1960s, he enrolled at the recently coed Sarah Lawrence College as a graduate student in their theatre department which made him the first male student amongst a female population.

Brian De Palma has a career which is spanning over 40 years and is renowned for suspense, crime films and psychological thrillers. He has directed quite successful and popular films like the supernatural horror Carrie, the thriller Blow Out and the erotic crime thriller Dressed to Kill and action spy film Mission: Impossible.

Brian De Palma’s early collaboration with a young Robert De Niro brought about The Wedding Party. This film was co-directed with producer Cynthia Munroe and Leache which was filmed in 1963 but was not released until 1969. De Niro happened to be nobody at the time and the credits also display his name mistakenly as Robert Deniro. The film is worth mentioning for invocation of silent film techniques and the jump-cuts for effects.

De Palma initiated production of documentary films for making a living during the 1960s. The Responsive Eye was a 1966 film regarding the Responsive Eye op-art exhibit which was curated by William Seitz for the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. De Palma said in an interview about the film as a very good and successful. It was shot in four hours with the sound synched. De Palma had two guys who were filming the reactions of people to the paintings and the paintings themselves.

Another major documentary from the same time period is Dionysus (1969). This documentary records the performance of the Euripides’ The Bacchae by The Performance Group. It starred William Finley who had become a De Palma regular along with others. The play is eminent for breaking the traditional barriers between the performers and the audience. The most remarkable quality of this film was the extensive use of split screen which enabled to trace the audience life and that of the play as they gradually merge in and out.

From the same decade De Palma’s most notable features are Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1969). Both of these films star Robert De Niro and promote a Leftist revolutionary concept which was quite common to their era. The footage was sped up to create a distance between the audience from the narrative. Greetings won a Silver Bear award when it was entered into the 19th Berlin International Film Festival. Greetings made $1 million at the box office.

Another significant film from this time period happens to be a slasher comedy, Murder a la Mod. Each of the De Palma’s films made in this era contain experiments in intertextuality and narrative as well which depict De Palma’s intention of becoming the American Godard while incorporating several of the themes which were soaked with Hitchcock’s work.

Followed by the success of 1968 breakthrough, De Palma and his producing partner Charles Hirsch were given a chance to make unofficial sequel of sorts by Sigma 3. Basically tilted as Son of Greetings, it was subsequently released as Hi, Mom! Greetings emphasized on its diverse cast but Hi, Mom! centered on the character of De Niro Jon Rubin, which was an essential leftover from the former film. The film is ultimately substantial as it depicts the first proclamation of De Palma’s style in all of its traits like guilt and ghoulishness.

And these traits surfaced in the “Be Black, Baby” sequence of Hi, Mom! This sequence not only mimics the cinema verite which happened to be the prevailing tradition of the 60s but also provides the audience with a disturbing emotional experience side by side which is described by De Palma as a continuous call to the Brechtian distinction.

De Palma went on to Hollywood in the 1970s where he exhibited his skills on bigger budget films. De Palma left New York for Hollywood at the age of 30 to make Get to Know Your Rabbit which starred Orson Welles and Tommy Smothers. It happened to be a devastating encounter for De Palma as Smothers did not like most of De Palma’s ideas.

After numerous small studio as well as independent films which include Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession and Sisters, De Palma made a small film based on a novel called Carrie. This psychic thriller Carrie was a bid for a blockbuster. The project was small as well as underfunded because of being under the cultural radar during the span of initial months of production as the original source novel by Stephen King had yet to make the bestseller list. De Palma made some crucial changes in the plot which were based on his own interpretations and prediction rather than the selling quality of the novel.

Being the first genuine box-office success, Carrie became a hit. It earned Spacek and Piper Laurie Oscar nominations for their performances. It upholds the horror film element and the shock ending proved to be quite effective. The techniques of split-screen, split diopter and slow motioned shots told the story remarkably in the visual sense rather than via dialogue. The critical success added with the financial success enabled De Palma to go for more personal stuff. De Palma was captivated by a novel The Demolished Man since the 1950s as it appealed to his mathematical background and innovative story telling.

De Palma’s adaptation of The Demolished Man was titled The Fury which happened to be a science fiction psychic thriller which starred Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Amy Irving and Carrie Snodgress. The film was greatly admired by Jean-Luc Godard who also featured a clip in his Histoire(s) du Cinema and Pauline Kael. It boasted quite a budget which was large than Carrie.

De Palma’s gangster films like the Scarface and Carlito’s Way reached the limit of violence and corruption for most of the film goers but also varied immensely from each other both in the content and style of filmmaking illustrating the evolution of De Palma as a filmmaker. Both of the films feature Al Pacino which blossomed into a fruitful working relationship. De Palma directed a music video for a Bruce Springsteen song “Dancing in the Dark” in 1984. The 1980s mark the years of De Palma’s other films such as Dressed to Kill, Body Double and Blow Out.

De Palma directed other kinds of films in the years of 90s and 2000s. De Palma attempted to do dramas as well as few thrillers and science fictions. Some of these movies like Mission: Impossible and Carlito’s Way really worked while some like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars and Raising Cain failed to attain success at the box office. The Bonfire of the Vanities happened to be the biggest box office fail of De Palma as it lost millions.

Another movie Redacted, caused bit of a controversy over the film’s subject of American involvement in Iraq and the atrocities committed there. Receiving limited release in the United States it grossed less than $1 million.

De Palma’s Passion (2012), was chosen to compete at the 69th Venice International Film Festival for the Golden Lion. De Palma was the subject himself in a 2015 documentary film, De Palma.

Brian De Palma is renowned for quoting and referencing the works from other directors in his career. His films fall into two categories: commercial films and psychological thrillers.

His knack for the usage of unique camera angles and compositions are noted by film critics throughout his filmmaking career. He is known to frame the characters against background using canted angle shot quite frequently. His films depict split screen techniques to show two different events occurring at the same time. De Palma uses slow sweeping, tracking shots and panning in his movies. He uses 360-degree camera pan to emphasize the dramatic impact.

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