The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
What follows is an excerpt from David Greven's excellent Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin by David Greven. In this chapter of Greven's book, which is now available, he examines the way that Brian De Palma has used the work of Alfred Hitchcock throughout his career, not merely as a source from which to copy but for creative inspiration.
The series of Hitchcockian thrillers directed by Brian De Palma from the early seventies to the mid-eighties, followed by intermittent returns to the genre, constitutes one of the most remarkable projects in the American cinema: an intertextual engagement with the work of one powerful director by another whose own cinematic sensibility emerges through imitation, parody, agonistic competition, and authorial empathy. De Palma’s intertextual relationship to Hitchcock’s films is in deep need of revaluation. Long dismissed as derivative, schlocky, and opportunistic, or hailed as heartless postmodern riffs on cinematic tradition, De Palma’s Hitchcockian thrillers are precisely calibrated and scrupulous critiques of Hitchcock’s key films, extensions of both their own formal innovations and thematic preoccupations. De Palma’s Hitchcockian thrillers use imitation as a way of reconsidering Hitchcock and the nature of the cinematic medium at once; Hitchcock becomes a sign for cinema, a system that De Palma ruthlessly interrogates and takes to its most excessive formal and thematic levels. De Palma’s Hitchcock-centered films turn film viewing itself into the subject of filmmaking. A deconstructionist ahead of his time, De Palma focuses from his early films forward on the very nature of film aesthetics. But he brings a rapturous sensibility to his deconstructionist techniques; he makes deconstruction disorientingly, disturbingly sensual. Little wonder he has been such a difficult filmmaker to peg, or, for many, to like, even though he is, in my view, the greatest director to have emerged from the riveting group of visionaries associated with the New Hollywood.
De Palma’s relationship to Hitchcock, derided for so long, has longstanding precedents. Structurally and stylistically, his engagement with the genre of Hitchcockian suspense is analogous to the classical Roman tragedian Seneca’s revisionary reimagining of Greek tragedy. Seneca’s elaborate variations on Greek tragedy foreground and intensify the physical and emotional violence of the genre. New rivers of blood gush through Seneca’s revisionary tragedies, adding a corporeal intensity to their austerity that is analogous to De Palma’s blood-thriller versions of Hitchcock. Hitchcock has often, and rightly, been called the cinematic Shakespeare. In almost every one of De Palma’s thrillers, an image of a bloody hand—in torment, in protest, in suffering—rises up, a figure from tragedy in its Shakespearean as well as classical form. De Palma’s revisionary Hitchcock recalls as well the agon that antebellum American authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville had with Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Apollonian counterpoint to their Dionysian excessiveness. De Palma is an artist whose Dionysian sensibility—evident from "Dionysius in ’69" (1970), his underground film version of "The Bacchae," to his 2002 Hitchcockian thriller, "Femme Fatale"—combines the comic and the tragic, the controlled and the excessive.
In the cinema, there are no equivalents for De Palma’s intertextual Hitchcock project, though Hitchcock has been endlessly imitated (by Chabrol, Truffaut, Chris Marker, many other New Hollywood directors such as Spielberg, John Carpenter, and others). No other director has ever been so committed to reproducing not only the thematic and generic but also the formal qualities of another director, and no other director has so nakedly exposed the inherently imitative and dependent process of art-making. De Palma’s imitation of Hitchcock, however, allows him to reimagine both the suspense genre and filmmaking technique. His use of the split-screen is unprecedented and unmatched in the American cinema, and represents most acutely the ways in which his own formal innovativeness makes him a singularly important director beyond his Hitchcock agon.
De Palma reassembles Hitchcock tropes into new designs; he critiques them while repurposing them for new visions of the cinema and of genre. His technique, as Terence Rafferty once observed, resembles collage. De Palma’s collage cinema takes disparate strands from the works of other directors and weaves them into new patterns. He seeks to defy, parody, exceed, and radically re-envision the texts he repurposes. The point of the films, in my view, is not to pay homage to directors like Hitchcock, or to the numerous other directors De Palma cites, such as Orson Welles, Michael Powell, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Godard, and even De Palma’s own contemporary, Roman Polanski, only seven years his senior. He is not interested in simple appropriation of available cinematic goods. His cinema, while rigorously controlled even at its most excessive, is chiefly experimental, an ongoing exploration of the nature and most importantly the experience of the cinema. His films foreground critical distance from their source materials, giving them a notably cool, analytical tone, yet they also whip audiences up into states of bewilderment, terror, and ecstasy through their perfervid twists of plot, effect, and form. His favored technique of the split-screen emerges as the aesthetic as well as political code of his films. Fundamentally split off at their cores from their own identities as films, De Palma films look at themselves looking at the cinematic medium while also directing their gaze upon the audience. Self-regarding, metatextual, intertextual, and defiantly poststructuralist, De Palma’s films keep one eye on the cinematic past and one on the shifting, transforming nature of the film medium.
I reclaim De Palma’s explicitly Hitchcockian texts as particularly powerful allegorical treatments of the experience of watching films. Their chief subject is cinema-viewing as a heightened form of voyeurism. While my focus here is on De Palma’s agon with Hitchcock, which defines the better part of his career, it is also true that De Palma, as do many other New Hollywood filmmakers, takes classic Hollywood as his parodistic and satirical subject. (Think of not only the parodic recreation of the “Odessa Steps” sequence from "Battleship Potemkin" in "The Untouchables," but also the critique of "Citizen Kane" in "Phantom of the Paradise"; the opening citation of "Double Indemnity" in "Femme Fatale" and the further noir elaborations of "The Black Dahlia.") As Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik define it, satire “is often confused with parody, but the two are quite different. Where parody...draws on—and highlights—aesthetic conventions, satire draws on—and highlights—social ones.” De Palma films make it clear that parody and satire can function together. They simultaneously parody older aesthetics and satirically draw our attention to their social implications.
While De Palma’s representation of women is indeed a vexed issue in any appraisal of his work, it needs to be considered from a number of perspectives rarely included in critical discussions, none of which I offer as exculpatory, but which are nevertheless a necessary counterbalance to the often simplistic charges of misogyny leveled against the director. First, De Palma’s woman problem is perhaps his most visible inheritance from Hitchcock; critics who accuse De Palma of misogyny often fail to consider what factor his intertextual relationship with Hitchcock might play in his representation of women. Hitchcock has been accused of the same offenses, of course, yet is always reinstalled as the Master of Suspense, and, quite simply, the Master, in critiques of De Palma. The conservative and stately role into which Hitchcock is inserted in these critiques works to confirm De Palma as inferior and misogynistic upstart while alleviating Hitchcock of his own ideological disturbances, although it is also true that Hitchcock has been frequently—and unfairly, to my mind—denounced as misogynistic as well, albeit preponderantly within the realm of academic feminist film theory. De Palma’s prevailing interest in critiquing normative masculinity and male relations, especially within male groups, also gets overlooked, which is a serious obfuscation of the political work of his cinema.
De Palma’s output is so varied at this point that to focus on his Hitchcock agon runs the risk of missing out on a great deal of his achievement. Yet the importance of reconsidering De Palma’s Hitchcockian project lies in the blunt fact that it has never been properly considered in and of itself. Critics who have denigrated De Palma have been content to dismiss him as derivative. Moreover, when they have praised him, it has been for the films that signal an apparent break with Hitchcock, such as "The Untouchables" (1987), "Mission: Impossible" (1996), and, later, "Scarface" (1983), now hailed as a fan-culture breakthrough, especially in the African American community, though it was critically drubbed at the time of its release. While these and other De Palma films certainly have their dazzling strengths, they are not, in my view, nearly as interesting as De Palma’s Hitchcockian efforts.
De Palma’s Hitchcock films replicate many surface elements of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, principally plot structures and suspense set pieces. Yet De Palma uses these more obvious borrowings as a point of departure for the more serious business of investigating and reimagining Hitchcock’s formal and thematic concerns. If Hitchcock often seems to hang his most obsessive personal fixations on thin and often nonsensical plots ("Vertigo" being the chief example), De Palma makes these plots even thinner and more nonsensical. As with Hitchcock, plot becomes a means to an end, a track on which to move along formal, symbolic, and emotional preoccupations. Given the wobbliness of Hitchcock’s own plotting—which is not a criticism of Hitchcock, a director whose brilliance makes such literalminded questions seem especially puny, fodder for types Hitchcock dismissed as “The Plausibles”—it seems particularly simplistic to fault De Palma for availing himself of them. The question of De Palma’s copying of Hitchcock’s suspense techniques, penchant for set pieces, and means of constructing those set pieces presents more of a legitimate challenge. As I will show, while De Palma does indeed quote liberally from Hitchcockian texts, he submits these quotations to close readings. De Palma never cites Hitchcock for his own sake but only in order to consider Hitchcockian effects from a range of new perspectives. Some of Hitchcock’s most perceptive critics give De Palma’s work short shrift. I greatly admire John Orr’s wonderfully fresh readings in Hitchcock and Twentieth-Century Cinema, but he writes casually and disappointingly of De Palma as “sensationalist” and “lurid.” Slavoj Žižek only glancingly mentions De Palma in his essay “Is There a Proper Way to Remake a Hitchcock Film?” De Palma’s must be the least proper way, since his work remains largely ignored by Žižek and others who frequently discuss Hitchcock. No one would discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne at length without bringing up those he influenced, such as Herman Melville and Henry James, yet Hitchcock’s great author cult—however richly deserved—proceeds unimpeded by any consideration of De Palma’s aesthetics.
“Perhaps,” writes Žižek, “more than the direct ‘homages’ to Hitchcock of De Palma and others, the scenes that announce such a proper remake are to be found in unexpected places, like the one in the hotel room, the place of crime, in Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Conversation": Coppola is certainly not a Hitchcockian, yet the investigator inspects the room with a Hitchcockian gaze, like Lila and Sam do with Marion’s room, moving from the main bedroom to the bathroom and focusing there on the toilet and the shower.” As he continues, “What makes this miniremake of a scene so effective is that Coppola suspends the prohibition operative in "Psycho": the threat does explode; the camera does show the danger hanging in the air in "Psycho," the chaotic bloody mess erupting from the toilet.” Without knocking Coppola’s 1974 film, let me say that I do not believe that the most ingenious or resonant way of remaking Hitchcock is necessarily to keep one’s borrowings skillfully hidden, in the “unexpected” places of the films of a director who is “certainly not a Hitchcockian.” Yet at the same time, what Žižek seems to praise is the explicitness that Coppola brings to the Hitchcockian template: the disgorging of the Real, the toilet’s outpouring of the blood, gore, and mayhem kept simmering beneath the hygienic sheen of Hitchcock’s bathroom surfaces.
One might ask, how is the making explicit of tensions beneath, though just barely, the Hitchcockian surface different from what De Palma does in his films, which are certainly “explosive,” as the bravura climax of "The Fury" evinces? At the end of this 1978 gothic-espionage-telekinetic-teen thriller, the heroine, Gillian (Amy Irving) annihilates, finally, the horrible, cold, manipulative, dead-armed villain Childress (John Cassavetes). She does not simply kill him; through the force of her psychokinetic wrath, she literally blows his body to smithereens. To the rousing sounds of John Williams’s perversely celebratory, Herrmann-esque score, Childress’s decapitated head careens to one side of the screen and his dismembered limbs to the other as apocalyptic clouds of blood, gore, and smoke engulf the screen itself. De Palma reveals his fearless and fecund relationship to the cinematic past, making mincemeat of his predecessors and of oedipal fears at once. To return to Žižek, it’s as if this truly supreme explosiveness is invisible to the theorist, who can only perceive a lesser, if undeniably, chilling explosiveness that is still very much embedded within the fabric of the diegesis. De Palma’s explosiveness explodes the diegesis, whereas Coppola’s, while heightening and intensifying it, firmly preserves it.
De Palma’s in-your-face Hitchcockianism is one aspect of his style. Often, though, his Hitchcock references are rearticulated and reordered to the extent that they are unrecognizable as such. Hitchcock’s jokes become De Palma tragedies, his tragedies De Palma jokes. Hitchcock’s playful fi reworks scene in the delicious "To Catch a Thief" (1955) ironizes Grace Kelly’s ostensible display of her jewels, glittering on her far more lusciously displayed breasts, to the titular cat thief played by Cary Grant. The metaphorical display of orgasmic, explosive sexuality in the fireworks both intensifies and parodies the sexual tension in Kelly and Grant’s banter. Fireworks in De Palma’s 1981 "Blow Out" provide the backdrop for Jack Terry’s (John Travolta) harrowing inability to rescue Sally Bedina (Nancy Allen), a woman he has put into peril in the first place. As the Liberty Day fireworks explode behind them in nighttime Philadelphia, Jack holds murdered Sally’s lifeless body against his own. Conversely, the wrenching scene in "Rear Window" in which James Stewart’s Jeff watches, in helpless panic from across the courtyard, the murderer Thorwald’s discovery of Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly again) in his apartment (he threatens her, knocking the lights out and plunging the whole scene into terrifying darkness), becomes in De Palma’s "Body Double" a harrowing but also perversely humorous murder scene (the infamous power drill one) that the hapless hero (Craig Wasson) can do little to circumvent. The constant relay between terror and humor in De Palma refracts that in Hitchcock and takes the relay to a new level of postmodern play. But it does more than that—whereas in Hitchcock the humor very strategically alleviates the terror, it is the very relationship between terror and humor that becomes the drama of the De Palma film. The tension between the two modes is never more fully sustained or thematized than in "Dressed to Kill" (1980), a film that also draws out another underlying tension in Hitchcock, adumbrated in "Psycho": the emergence of pornography within the form of mainstream cinematic narrative.
De Palma was one of the first film directors to treat Hitchcock as an established film grammar, a genre unto himself. By treating Hitchcock as a school rather than merely as a predecessor or competitor whose works could provide an example for commercial success, De Palma forced audiences to reconsider and relive the traumas and implications of Hitchcock’s cinema. The “proper” way to use a predecessor is, apparently, to evoke certain effects and instances of technique, but not to dwell on them. Steven Spielberg’s "Jaws" (1975) famously opens with a highly effective and disturbing variation on Psycho’s shower-murder sequence—the skinny-dipping girl’s nighttime swim and murderous attack from the shark—but then proceeds to camouflage all of its borrowings from Hitchcock. If Spielberg makes use of Hitchcock, he does so only sparingly, such as, to give another example, his evocation of the Mount Rushmore sequence in "North by Northwest" in his "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), when the hero and his female ally try to scale Devil’s Mountain surreptitiously. De Palma’s use of Hitchcock certainly isn’t sparing; it’s the whole meal. He recreates Hitchcock’s major effects and then languorously, disturbingly distends them. In so doing, De Palma solicits criticism, but he also forces us to rethink Hitchcock and the work of the cinematic past generally. De Palma’s metatextual meditations are not ends to themselves but, instead, tethered to much larger political and social concerns. And these concerns are with the gendered and sexual logic of patriarchy and what happens to individuals when they attempt to challenge and, much more threateningly, break free of the social order.