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Brian De Palma's never-say-die brio

September 24, 2006|Peter Rainer | Special to The Times

"NOTHING stays buried forever," says a cop in the new Brian De Palma thriller "The Black Dahlia." This basic rule of homicide investigation also applies to De Palma's career. One of his very first movies was called "Murder a la Mod," and the murders have continued almost unabated ever since. So have the exhumations.

In De Palma's House of Pain, corpses have a way of springing back to life, if only in fever dreams. In "Carrie," Sissy Spacek's blood-soaked prom queen exerts her revenge from beyond the grave -- or, to be more exact, from inside it. At the end of "Blow Out," Nancy Allen's throttled death scream, recorded on a surveillance tape, pulls apart the psyche of the man who failed to save her, a sound recordist for cheapie horror movies played by John Travolta. At the end of "Casualties of War," a slaughtered Vietnamese girl, or her look-alike, beckons Michael J. Fox's Pfc. Eriksson, the man who failed to save her. In movie after movie, De Palma keeps returning to the scene of the crime -- he digs up his obsessions and buries them and hauls them up again.

At 66, De Palma has been at it a long time, since the mid-'60s. While the other major directors of his generation -- Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola -- have ranged high and low, De Palma keeps hitting the same groove. Like Hitchcock, to whom he has often been compared, and not always favorably, his name represents a brand.

For all that, the dread he parlays has never quite devolved into shtick because, even in a film as roundly slammed and wildly unsatisfactory as "The Black Dahlia," there are moments when his ecstatic love of filmmaking comes through. But his ardor can be a mixed blessing. De Palma's technique alone can hold you, but sometimes we must ask: Technique in the service of what?

In the mid-'80s he said in an interview, "I don't start with an idea about content. I start with a visual image." In the same interview he said, "I'm interested in motion, sometimes violent motions, because they work aesthetically in film."

But surely this patter about pure cinema is a decoy. A sports film, for example, offers abundant opportunities for dynamic movement, and yet De Palma has never attempted one of those. As a rule, things really get rolling for him when his camera tracks are slicked with fresh blood. The fact that the blood most often belongs to women, who are perceived as prey, or that sex is often the lure for violence in his films, fouls the air.



IN "Dressed to Kill," probably his most controversial movie, an unhappily married woman played by Angie Dickinson has a hot tryst with a dark stranger and gets sliced to death in an elevator for her troubles. The camerawork throughout all this is -- no other word for it -- gorgeous. It's an emblematic sequence for De Palma and the sickest of jokes: Sex, even good sex, can only end badly.

Despite the super-sophistication of his technique, in essence De Palma's movies express, at least for men in the audience, how sex was experienced as an adolescent. An early adolescent. They capture the rage and mortification, the guilt, the tingle of voyeurism. In "Carrie," the slo-mo glide through the girls' locker room that opens the movie is every boy's porno fantasia.

One of the most unnerving things about De Palma's films, even more than their eruptive, gargoyle terror, is the suggestion that these adolescent anxieties are naggingly ever-present. The tyranny of sexual desire, woman as the Other -- for most men, these fears still fly. And because De Palma came of age as an artist in a consciousness-raising era when the women's movement was in full swing, he has always been the whipping boy of those who flaunt their liberal bona fides. It was predictable that "Femme Fatale," his most recent movie before "The Black Dahlia," would be cheered by his detractors, many of whom believe he is the ungodly creation of his greatest champion, Pauline Kael. Aside from being his best movie in years, it also showcased a rare species for De Palma -- the sexually in-control female hero, the pansexual praying mantis.

Equally unnerving in his movies is the cackle often underscoring the terrors. In a De Palma movie, the worst-possible-case scenario is almost always the only scenario, and there's a kind of ghastly comic justice in that. Carrie isn't just humiliated at her prom, she's doused in pig's blood. In return, she incinerates her classmates.

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