Whenever I try and put into words why I love Brian De Palma, I always seem to struggle. Much of De Palma’s appeal lies in his visual command. His ability to convey emotion and suspense with camerawork and editing is really quite stunning. Not only can he make you experience a moment in real time to jaw-dropping effect, but by embracing the possibilities of cinematic language he can enhance and sustain that moment solely through his technique. De Palma’s oevure is full of sequences that can only be described as pure cinema. They are electric, virtuoso moments of directorial authority so audacious and thrilling that the feeling they evoke cannot be replicated by any other art form. In the same way a guitar solo gives one member of a band his moment in the spotlight, these sequences in De Palma’s films allow him to step forward and show what he’s made of as a filmmaker. Everything else takes a back seat as De Palma singlehandedly takes the reigns on music, camerawork, editing and performance. In those sequences, you see a real director at work.
I watched Brian De Palma’s Carrie last night. It’s not a film I watch often but one I frequently find myself thinking about. It’s interesting in that it is the one De Palma film widely regarded as a classic that feels most in tune with his more personal work. I like Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible as much as the next person but they feel like paycheck moves – great slabs of accessible entertainment given the De Palma spit-shine. Pauline Kael called Scarface “a De Palma movie for people who don’t like De Palma movies” and I totally agree with her. The “De Palma movies” she is referencing are films like Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Blow Out, Body Double and Dressed to Kill, films that are troubled, uncompromising and to the untrained eye, overtly camp, inherently trashy and excessively technical. Those films, even the weaker ones, are blessed with a cinematic pulse. For movie-lovers and genre-fans, they are especially satisfying for all the ways they embrace the visceral possibilities of cinema and exploit it’s gratuitous voyeurism. Now, while it was certainly a film he made for the money, Carrie never feels like anything other than a red-hot De Palma movie.
When I got to the prom scene during my rewatch of Carrie last night, I yet again found myself left totally breathless by De Palma’s approach. In a mere eleven minutes you’ve got an impressive tracking shot, a flurry of suspense-inducing cross-cutting, slow motion, avante-garde sound design and then a split-screen bloodbath! It’s one of the greatest examples of seeing a dream slowly transform into a nightmare right in front of your eyes. IT’S SO VISUAL. It sums up everything that is great about De Palma’s cinema and represents a style of filmmaking that is seriously becoming lost and forgotten. I think the reason these sequences are so renowned by moviegoers and increasingly influential on budding filmmakers today is because there really isn’t anyone around making genre films on this level. It’s like opera, so grand and unapologetic yet it never feels overdone despite being so excessive. The thing that’s so endearing about De Palma is his fearlessness. He is never afraid to push things right up to the edge. He always goes all in, pushing the audience as far as they can go, sometimes even further than they’re used to. At the same time though, his films never seem to aspire to be anything other than entertaining and fun. There’s no pretensions in De Palma’s work and I’m always grateful for that. Carrie is one of those movies that just completely works, never more so than in this scene. Hit play and watch a real director at work.