The Review/ Feature/
Brian De Palma Let Me Dream in VHS
Sex, death, blood, boobs, shower scenes = friendship
“The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen.” — Pauline Kael, Trash, Art, and the Movies
Watching Bergman movies alone when you’re in Grade 10 is a head-splitting experience. At least, that’s how my friend Mikey recently put it when I asked him why he decided to invite me over to his house one weekend more than 20 years ago. At the all-boys private high school in Toronto I attended, I was a Carrie-like freak without psychic powers. My right eyetooth was impacted in the roof of my mouth; I would occasionally stick a grape on it and dance like a chicken. I was allowed one pop a week, on Friday nights, which my parents would dispense to my brother, younger sister and I, while we watched a family movie, (Harvey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or, if my parents were feeling adventurous, Strictly Ballroom). This became known throughout my school as “Pop Friday.” As the kids in my class taunted me, I carried my plump, green-blazered body through the halls. I had no friends.
Mikey had a few friends, but he spent most of his time golfing, reading Kafka and studying to get the top marks in our class. He had round wireframe glasses and a mullet. He was obsessed with Mickey Rourke. He said he thought I was an intellectual, because I liked Woody Allen and had heard of Thomas Mann. He was going to introduce me to “foreign film,” by which he meant movies with subtitles. Aside from a few bits of nudity on The French Channel, I’d never seen one before. My favourite movies at that time were Tombstone, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lost Horizon and Manhattan.
That first night, we watched Through a Glass Darkly. There were a few references to Ingmar Bergman in Woody Allen, but aside from that, the only thing I knew about the Swedish director came from SCTV.
This sketch sums up my vague idea of “foreign films” at the time: ponderous, obscure and full of unhappiness. In many ways, Through a Glass Darkly lived up to these expectations. Sven Nykvist’s images were beautiful to look at, but this was also the slowest movie I’d ever seen. I sensed there was something to it I wasn’t quite getting.
Mikey guided me as best he could, pointing out the implied incest between the brother (Lars Passgard) and sister (Harriet Andersson). This hint of illicit sex sparked my interest, but at the end of the film when Mikey asked what I thought it meant to have God represented as a spider, I had no idea what to say. I wasn’t used to looking for symbols in movies. I suddenly felt as if I was in the midst of a math test I’d neglected to study for (a common experience in those years), and was bound to fail.
he next morning, when Mikey’s mom asked me if I’d like to have a shower, I said: “I don’t like to get naked at other people’s houses.” She just looked at me. Silence. My face turned red. Then, Mikey’s shoulders began to shake and he let out his suppressed, throaty whisper of a laugh, like Ernie from Sesame Street about to explode. A beautiful friendship had begun.
The notion of foreign cinema as sacrosanct high art was soon challenged by our high-school discovery of Pauline Kael. In her reviews and criticism for the New Yorker, Kael reveled in film as a popular art-form. “Movies are our cheap and easy expression,” she wrote, “the sullen art of displaced persons.” She was famous for taking down the sorts of wholesome movies that other critics elevated as respectable, and that I’d grown up on. She dismissed Bergman by saying she’d done her share of soul-searching, and it wasn’t that tough.
No one wrote about movies like Kael did. Her prose was at once, authoritative and anti-authoritarian, cool, smart and casually hilarious. Her passion was infectious, even when she trashed the films we loved. Mikey spent weeks stewing over her pan of 8 ½, highlighting her criticisms and trying to understand them. Her review of Raging Bull turned my insides cold with doubt. What if she was right? We kept watching foreign movies, but gravitated to the filmmakers Kael championed (Louis Malle, Bernardo Bertollucci, Satyajit Ray) and increasingly solely to a single decade of American Cinema: the 1970s.
Because she was so persuasive, Mikey tried to make it a rule not to read Kael’s reviews before seeing the movies, but this wasn’t always possible to stick to. We tracked down every obscure movie she praised. We didn’t know any girls but we did know the location of several kickass video stores.
Amongst them, Suspect Video, Bay Street Video, and the aptly-named Art and Trash. One thing that struck me immediately about these places was how they categorized their films according to director, rather than simply genre: Altman, Demme, De Palma, Varda, Kieślowski. The plastic video sleeves lined up in front of each of these names indicated entire worlds to discover. In the absence of romantic possibilities, it felt good to love something, and to not have to do so alone. Mikey would recite his favourite bits of dialogue from Heathers to the guys (and occasionally, girls) behind the rental counters, but I was too shy to even meet their gaze.
These grungy clerks seemed impossibly hip. They’d seen everything. We’d grab a bunch of movies, head back to Mikey’s suburban basement and turn down the lights, secure in the knowledge that the only thing we had to worry about for the next several hours was to listen for the pizza guy at the door, and the possibility of Mikey’s aging schnauzer (inexplicably named “Mickey,” though not after Rourke) taking a dump behind the couch in a fit of jealousy over my presence.
Carrie was the first Brian De Palma movie we watched together. It scared the shit out of me. I identified with Carrie, but I’d never seen such naked cruelty before, in life or in art. In the opening scene, the camera dollies in steamy slow-motion through the locale I most longed to see: a locker room full of teenage girls undressing. As I sat beside Mikey on the couch, I was thankful for the blanket on my lap.
Gradually, along with the romantic, innocent score, we move towards Carrie (played by Sissy Spacek) soaping her naked body in the shower. Then the soap falls to the floor, and the blood of Carrie’s first period begins to run down her leg. The slow-motion ends. Carrie is confused. No one has told her about this yet. She instinctively moves towards the other girls, reaching out for help with her blood-covered hands. Instead of coming to her aid, they pelt her with towels, pads, and tampons, shouting: “Plug it up! Plug it up!” If this was what teenage girls are like, I remember thinking, it’s no wonder I’m so terrified of them.
The other girls at Carrie’s high school, the normal ones, the cool ones, were too cruel to fantasize about. They’d have never given me a second glance. The one I both desired, and identified with, was Carrie. If I had been there, a part of that world, could I have shown her kindness, helped her learn to use her powers for good so that she could avert her fate? Would she have talked to me? Could Carrie have been my girlfriend? We might have eased each other’s loneliness for a while, at least until her mother got between us. These were the sorts of responses to movies that I started opening up to Mikey about, and which he always found hilarious.
In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s new documentary, De Palma (opening today at TIFF Bell Lightbox), the film’s subject refers to Vertigo as the ultimate example of Hitchcock “creating a romantic illusion, then killing it.” Vertigo, as Mikey would remind me time and again, was “the crucial reference point for De Palma’s oeuvre.” If the opening of Carrie is a perfect example of De Palma setting his audience up with a romantic illusion, only to tear it to pieces a moment later, the next De Palma film Mikey introduced me to went even further.
Dressed to Kill again opens with a shower scene that set my adolescent loins ablaze, then made me feel frightened and uncomfortable at having been aroused. The same sensual steam: this time a man and a woman stand in a bathroom. The man shaves by the mirror with a straight razor, while the woman (Angie Dickinson) watches him longingly from the shower, slowly caressing her body, circling her breasts and reaching down between her legs. This time, De Palma ruptures the illusion by having a man sneak up behind the woman, cover her mouth with his hand, and begin to rape her. Seconds later, he ruptures it again by showing us it was all a dream.
De Palma’s films depict people devastated by their obsessions. As teenagers, we could relate to the feeling of possessing bodies and desires beyond our control, of trying to uncover a mystery that involved both the external world and the internal one. Would you be able to handle what you found out about yourself and the world, without it tearing you apart? In De Palma, the terror and beauty of the search was made literal; it was right up there on the split-screen. One of mine and Mikey’s favourite parts of Dressed to Kill (spoiler alert) was when the whiz-kid played by Keith Gordon listens in on a conversation between a police detective (Dennis Franz) and a psychiatrist (Michael Caine) about the murder of his mother the night before. He’s forced to hear about how a stranger went down on his mom in the back of a taxicab the afternoon before she was killed.
“Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them,” Kael wrote in what could stand as her critical credo. Pauline Kael was bound to love Brian De Palma. As newly christened “Paulettes,” so were me and Mikey. His films were just so wildly unhinged. They were filled with an idiosyncratic vitality, much like Mikey himself, who could be seen rollerblading backwards down his street after meeting me at the bus stop, pondering aloud: “Seriously, if Mickey died, would I still rent ‘5 for 5’ this weekend? No, but really, would I?”
I caught Body Double alone in my parents’ basement late one night on CityTV. While I missed Mikey’s commentary and laughter, the fact that I was home alone meant that I could hit record during Melanie Griffith’s scenes, adding to a compilation tape I kept for “special purposes.” (Also included: runway clips from Fashion Television, Phoebe Cates swimming naked underwater in the 1982 film Paradise, and several shots of Laurie Laughlin from Full House — always challenging to masturbate to, given the constant presence of Uncle Jesse.)
By turns erotic, hilarious and disgustingly gruesome, Body Double seemed fully adult, the first De Palma movie that made me question whether or not I should actually be watching it. After all, my parents were sleeping only two floors above. What if one of them came downstairs? Like many of the De Palma characters who come to ruin, I continued to watch. Among other things I learned about that night was something called “fist-fucking.” The concept had never occurred to me before, but now it was lodged in my brain as a fact.
Body Double also reminded me that in some ways, De Palma’s movies were bad. They both creaked and sang, danced and fell flat, but they were always alive, and often astounding. John Lithgow’s character in Blow Out, for example (the next De Palma movie Mikey and I watched) is preposterous, but the rest of the film is a masterpiece. These were far from the movies we watched just to laugh at. We could often hardly believe the beauty and absurdity we were seeing, and that those two qualities could occur in such proximity.
As the director himself puts it in the new documentary De Palma: “I’m driven by unrealistic ideas.” The sense that life and art are full of mistakes, and that both great and terrible things can spring from them, is one of the film’s revelations. Another is the realization that contemporary movies are nowhere near as messy and fun as they once were.
I would argue that De Palma never made a perfect film, but perhaps the closest he came was Scarface. Kael entitled her New Yorker review: “A De Palma Movie For People Who Don’t Like De Palma Movies.” Mikey called it the point “where our love of De Palma intersects with the greater world.”
By our final year of high-school, we had a whole group of guys that came out with us to see Scarface at a late-night Friday screening at the Uptown Theatre. Afterwards, as the credits rolled and we were still absorbing the insane, tragic splendor of what we’d just witnessed, a guy near the front of the theatre stood up and yelled: “That’s the greatest fucking movie ever made!” Then he smashed his jumbo pop onto the floor and stomped out. It was good to be young and alive in the 1990s.
My all-time favourite De Palma movie, though, is Phantom of the Paradise. During frosh week at Queen’s University (where I’d gone to study English and Film), amidst the terror and delight of seeing real girls in every direction, I bonded with a young man from Cape Breton over our shared affinity for '70s movies, and De Palma in particular. Charles urged me to see Phantom of the Paradise as soon as humanly possible. I couldn’t find it in Kingston, but the next time I came back to Toronto, Mikey and I smoked a joint and put it on. It shattered us. I’ve never heard Mikey laugh so hard in his entire life. A joyously grotesque genre mash-up containing a moving and clever set of songs by Muppets’ songwriter Paul Williams (who co-stars along with William Finley and Jessica Harper), Phantom remains as bizarre and wonderful as any movie I’ve ever seen.
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Mikey stayed in Toronto to study the humanities. He was toying with becoming the next great translator of Thomas Mann, but he was also entering the most challenging and painful phase of his life. Over the phone, he would relate stories of non-drug induced hallucinations as petrifying as anything De Palma ever shot. He knew that something wasn’t right; he was having trouble distinguishing between hallucination and reality. In the midst of the pro-drome phase of what would turn out to be schizophrenia, he was working on a familial theory of Hollywood method acting that began with Brando and culminated with Mickey Rourke’s performance in Johnny Handsome. Someone must have been telling lies about Mikey, because one day, without having done anything wrong, the screenplay for the movie Angel Heart fell out a window and landed on his head.
Multiple De Palma movies (Sisters, Dressed To Kill, Raising Cain) feature stereotypical portraits of “schizophrenics” as knife-wielding maniacs. Mental illness can seem pretty entertaining in the movies, until you start experiencing it for yourself. So can gore. When I was in second-year university, my 14 year-old sister Kristen became ill with meningitis. She slipped into a coma, and a little over a week later, she was dead. The blood that came out of her throat as they pulled out the feeding tubes wasn’t the corn syrup-red of Carrie and Dressed to Kill. It was a brown, bloody bile. When it landed on my mom’s arm, she screamed. Her scream sounded nothing like the “good scream” John Travolta finally records at the end of Blow Out.
I no longer watch horror movies or thrillers very much. When I watch De Palma movies today, it’s the cinematograpy and the scores that get me most, and Nancy Allen’s performances. For a few years there, after my sister died, it became difficult to reach the place where, in the words of Winslow Leach, I could:
Dream a bit of style
Dream a bunch of friends
Dream each other’s smile
And dream it never ends . . .
If De Palma’s movies hinge on fantasy and desire, looking back, I realize so did our lives during those Kael and De Palma-tinged years. We were driven by romantic illusions, unrealistic ideas: that we were going to be great artists, that our lives would suddenly become amazing when we went to university. Over and over again, we delved into fictional worlds in the hope that they would not only teach us something, but would also transform us. We were seeking comfort and thrills and escape, to be transported out of our adolescent insecurities; we were also seeking a way out of loneliness. At the very least, we emerged from each of those viewing experiences with a little more knowledge about the nature of art and trash. And with every movie, we forged a deeper bond. Gradually, both Mikey and I emerged from the difficulties of our early twenties. When I finally made a few films of my own, Mikey became my muse.
When he got into collecting DVDs in the early 2000s, Mikey passed the best of his VHS collection (including eight Mickey Rourke “classics”) on to me. Eventually, I handed them down to my youngest sister, Kathryn. She’s 20 now, and spent her adolescence devouring those movies, sometimes packing them into a duffle bag and taking them over to a friend’s place for the weekend. I’ll close with the words Kathryn tells me that she thinks to herself every time she slips a copy of Mean Streets, Days of Heaven, Dog Day Afternoon, or Sisters into my parents’ old VCR:
Thank you, Mikey.