The Fury

The FuryBrian De Palma loves pulp. And though he leans on certain tricks of the trade (e.g., split-screen and slow motion; a restless camera and a male gaze), he uses them gracefully. They show that he honors the medium; they’re meant to engage. Mostly he seeks to entertain, and he wants to do more than roll film. He believes in the magic of movies.

So why is he not more popular?

Well, De Palma is his own worst enemy. He’s anti-capitalist and he distrusts Hollywood. Some of this explains the lone-wolf gumption — his decades-long refusal to slow down and “sell out” completely — but there’s no leaving Tinseltown. He’s a working man driven to make money for big studios so he can make flops with more authorial freedom. If he didn’t relish being such an outsider, he’d be allowed to fail more (to a point). If he got off his soapbox, he’d sound less cranky and the ticket-buying public would reward him for it.

He is also tied to genre: in particular, horror and the mystery-thriller. Put De Palma next to Martin Scorsese. Both hail from the counterculture of the East Coast. Both hired Robert De Niro early on. Both are known for prodigious use of the camera and for self-conscious editing1, and some of their most famous work is about gangsters. Yet, with the possible exception of Casualties Of War (1989), De Palma never made a prestige picture. He’s easy prey for snobs. Because he uses the Alfred Hitchcock noir as a platform in several of his B movies (poking fun at their depthless charge), he is often seen as a hack.2 Just as frequently, his style is criticized for upstaging his films when it does not.

Another problem: Educated suspense is wasted on today’s youth. Hollywood caters mostly to young audiences for whom instant gratification is all — so movies are more immediate but they lack imagination. Visionaries exist and technology improves, but overall the storytelling is shot. Don’t get me wrong. Overdrive is fine by itself. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, dir. Paul Greengrass) is suited to this approach: Jason Bourne’s paranoia is justified. We should feel it. However, most films suffer this line of attack. They leave the viewer spent, not seduced. Action lacks geography; shaky cams confuse. Today, getting banged for your buck is SOP. It’s meth without the high.

This, of course, changes the film-going experience. Generally, a matinee at a multiplex costs ten dollars. Once seated you watch ads for TV shows, cars, local businesses, the National Guard. Then the lights dim for twenty minutes of previews. Some of these may be for films that have been released. No matter — you’re getting your money’s worth. At last the movie starts, but the audience won’t quiet. Some are on their cell phones. Many are underage (no surprise there), but why should they be so distracted with themselves? They seem to pay attention to everything but the movie. And the film is its own ad, dressed up to go nowhere fast.

In The Fury, fun is taken seriously and the viewer is drawn in. Each scene is lit from within; a chill humor snakes through. And it looks great: Actors pop out of the darkness; some have warm tones, others are pasty; blood is fire-truck red. There are moments that recall the wide-eyed horror of Carrie (1976), where De Palma’s release of tension was euphoric. In places, Amy Irving moves a bit like Machine Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. She and Andrew Stevens have a line on each other’s mind (you can sense the sexual chemistry), but they don’t meet until the climax. Used as pawns by two father figures (Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes), these telekineticists are good-natured, good-looking teens — until they are stripped of their innocence. Rippling the surface is John Williams’s eeriest score.

By current standards The Fury is small, but the regard for pacing and character is rich. Intact is the dream’s dream. Neither solemn nor slow, the movie climbs to its effects, and the end is worthy of Luis Bunuel or David Cronenberg.

So 90% of everything is crap and good bad films will always be made. Still, Hollywood devolved in adapting to changing times. Crap now is less fun than it was thirty years ago. Movies vie with TV, the internet and video games for attention from consumers. These outlets have been absorbed, too. Seemingly every other film is based on a video game or a TV show, and nothing extraordinary is left to the imagination; anticlimax is all. You can look up a dinosaur’s ass and you can watch a skyscraper fall, and you’ll see it in photo-realistic detail (hi, Cloverdale [2008]). Indeed, movies are more visual than ever, but for those of us who love purity of form, this blitz of images has nothing on the best silent films. For every Dark Knight (2008) or Star Trek (2009) that feels mythic, there are ten flicks that fail to generate character and a sense of awe.

Should Hollywood continue this way, it will self-destruct. It won’t be over, necessarily. If anything, it’ll rise from the ashes. But until then, blandness — in art as in life. There’s no reason to expect any different.

1In the 1970s their beards were prodigious, if not entirely self-conscious.

2He would say that Hitchcock mastered the grammar of the modern thriller — and he’d be right.

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