Analyzing a debut feature is often times like finding an old photo of an acne-ridden and brace-faced friend: both images may be embarrassing relics of the past, but they still manage to reveal a developmental stage of unrealized potential. In looking at Brian De Palma’s first feature, Murder à la Mod, De Palma’s talent is evident, but is still in its nascent stage. He exposes his future interests and obsessions, but is unable to avoid clunky elements and a clichéd student-film aesthetic.
Author Jose Gallegos
While growing up, my mother always warned me to “never judge a book by its cover.” In spite of this clichéd mantra, I grew up learning that people will always have preconceived judgments. Even in film, the name of an actor, writer, or director can add a lot of connotations to a movie. For instance, the names Terrence Malick and Robert Bresson evoke thoughts of transcendentalism and high art, while the name M. Night Shyamalan might evoke cheesy plot twists and schlocky characters. But when a film is associated with a name like Brian De Palma, there are two general reactions: “Oh yeah, he directed that!” and “He directed that?” These two responses succinctly summarize De Palma’s directorial career, which boasts a wealth of iconic characters, suspenseful homages, cult classics, and forgettable mediocrity.
Failure is a necessary part of life. It helps you determine where your strengths and weaknesses lie, as well as allowing you to improve wherever you may be lacking. Unfortunately, when those failures are projected in 35mm and on a big screen, they become less a means of improvement, and more of a sign that you have lost your talent. With Jacques Demy, the director of such films as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), and Donkey Skin (1970), a stinker like A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973) is enough to prove that when he fails, he can fail hard!
Idolatry can transform an obscure director into a deified artist, making everything that he/she touches turn into gold. Unfortunately, this transformation can also place impossible expectations on top of a director’s shoulders. For example, Pedro Almodóvar’s consistent output of well-crafted characters and complex narratives has created an expectation that Almodóvar’s latest films will be as brilliant as the last ones. This broad generalization whitewashes some of Almodóvar’s misfires – Kika (1993) and Broken Embraces (2009) immediately come to mind – but the fact remains that Almodóvar’s filmography has continued to generate a great deal of dedicated fanaticism. Unfortunately,
“Film as art or film as entertainment” is an age-old question like the chicken and the egg: there is no ready answer, but there are those who try to give their opinions. Though it seems clichéd to make such a statement, there are certain cinephiles who get bogged down by clearly defining how art and entertainment differ. The response to this is simple: there doesn’t have to be any boundaries unless you self-impose them. Films can be both mainstream and subversive, but it is the subversion that tends to get the moniker of “film art.” Subversion manages to flip the mainstream on its head, yielding something that can expose societal flaws and disconnections from reality. Yet is this art? In examining this question, I look to Yorgos Lanthimos and his recent film, Alps (2011). Having created an international splash with the gripping Dogtooth (2009), Lanthimos retraces similar territory with Alps, a film that follows the same themes of fabricated societies and the influence of art and mainstream culture on our identities.
Michael Haneke needs no explanation for his work. His confrontational films, which explore the themes of violent intrusions upon domesticity, create haunting worlds that are both stylized and realistic. Although his upcoming feature, Amour (2012) departs (slightly) from this blatantly violent tone, the film is no less frank of its depiction of intrusion upon a couple’s happiness.
The dichotomy created between drama and comedy is an outmoded notion. The belief that the two are exclusive of one another only purports the theory that film art is stagnant. The reality is that film art, in all its forms, has developed through a constant blurring of categorical lines. Drama and comedy are not mutually exclusive, but they contain elements of one another. However, despite these advances in genre blending, the outmoded dichotomy does hold one grain of truth: some filmmakers find comfort in one area or the other. Certain filmmakers find their niche in dramatic or comedic works because they believe those categories help create their best work, but it takes a talented filmmaker to step out of this comfort zone and find a proper balance between drama and comedy. The Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh, knows what that dramatic/comedic balance is, as evidenced by his debut feature, In Bruges (2008). Yet it is his upcoming sophomore feature, Seven Psychopaths (2012), that cements his talent in creating scathing black comedies.
When asking film lovers to name some of their favorite directors, the lists tend to overlap. Kubrick, Bergman, Coppola, Fellini, Hitchcock, and Welles all have their entries, along with another revered director: Martin Scorsese. The avid cinephile and brilliant director has drawn admiration from generations of film lovers, not only because his characters are iconic, but also because his films are well-crafted. His fans return to watch the repeated themes of urban crime, machismo, and violence. His characters, which range from disaffected taxi drivers to self-destructive boxers, have engrained themselves into American mythology. Yet one of his most interesting films does not revolve around a Travis Bickle or a Henry Hill, but instead around the story of a timid waitress named Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) who attempts to find someplace for herself. Although Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) marks a vast departure from Scorsese’s signature style, it is a welcome change of pace that further cements Scorsese’s reputation as a master filmmaker.
No director has been as influential on European New Wave cinemas as Jean-Luc Godard. The iconoclast auteur, armed with a wealth of cultural and philosophical knowledge, created masterpieces that not only presented anarchist sensibilities, but also constructed art that drew upon a large index of cultural citations/connotations. Godard’s 60s period left an indelible mark on French cinema, creating a new language for film lovers and filmmakers alike. Yet Godard’s career has eclipsed since he ended his ties with the New Wave. His experimentations with the Dziga Vertov group, as well as his forays into video, have transformed his works from upbeat films into dry and inaccessible pieces. Godard has no intention of renouncing his experimentations, which is evidenced by his recent film, the aptly titled Film Socialisme (2010).
Having only directed three films between 1990 and 1998, Stillman’s small film canon exhibited a talented and impressive voice in independent cinema. He opened brilliantly in 1990 with Metropolitan, a film that follows the last alums of the New York debutante ball scene. In 1994, he expanded his filmography with Barcelona, a tale of two Americans who introduce their polarizing politics into a post-Francoist Spain. Then in 1998, Stillman directed The Last Days of Disco, which, like its title, explores the lives of club hoppers who are confronted with the end of the Disco era. With these three studies of cultures/groups on the verge of disappearance, Stillman carved a name and a style for himself. However, with his latest feature, Damsels in Distress, the director’s voice has become more muffled, proving that Stillman is no longer the voice of a generation.