Tuesday, November 8, 2011
In Order To Study Them
At the time he made RAISING CAIN Brian De Palma had just come off the now-legendary flop of THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITITES, a huge disaster both critically and commercially of the sort that some director’s careers don’t always recover from. Over two decades later that film’s reputation hasn’t improved very much and as for me the only reason I keep putting off writing about it is because the prospect of doing that seems kind of depressing. I bring up its relationship to RAISING CAIN not because it feels like there are any direct thematic links between the two films but because getting essentially nailed to the cross for his adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel could have maybe caused Brian De Palma to view the world as maybe a little more insane than he had ever done before. Even now, the film feels like a case of somebody throwing up their hands and saying, “Don’t try to figure anything out. It’s all fucking crazy anyway.” As the movie begins it seems like it’s going to be well, normal, following an opening credit sequence of what appears to be a father tucking in his baby girl with what seems at first is just a normal scene with two normal people having a normal conversation. That’s the way it seems…for maybe about ninety seconds, if that, after which the movie goes immediately off the deep end, never to return. And at that point you need to make the choice to either go along for the ride or not. RAISING CAIN opened on August 7, 1992 (same day as UNFORGIVEN, for those interested in such things) and it was also the day where I think my life was forever changed in a chaos theory-sort of way that probably still affects me somewhat even now. I don’t want to get into the details. I’m not going to say her name. But now that I go over the events of that particular day in my head it’s entirely possible that this film even plays a small role in all that. Does that make any sense? Absolutely not. But it does remind me of how few things in this life ever really do. There may not even be any way to adequately write about RAISING CAIN in a rational way. Guess I’ll still try.
A plot? You want a plot? Sheesh. Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow) who has chosen to put his practice on hold in order to focus all his attention on raising his baby daughter Amy. Wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), a doctor who is continuing to work, is becoming unnerved by how much attention he’s placing on Amy’s early development but finds her attention soon turning to the sudden return of Jack Dante (Steven Bauer), the husband of a woman who died while under Jenny’s care and who she also had an affair with. When Carter discovers what Jenny and Jack are up to he goes mad…not too far a trip of course since unbeknownst to Jenny he’s already in cahoots with brother Cain (also Lithgow) and his elderly father (yes, also Lithgow), a renowned child psychologist believed to be dead but is attempting to continue his work by having Carter kidnap small children for his own nefarious means. But is Carter’s father really alive or just part of his madness? Is all this, in fact, only going on in Carter’s mind? Why am I asking you?
When I wrote about the plot of FEMME FATALE earlier this year I thought that merely trying to summarize it was going to be extremely difficult but in fact the way that film seems to deliberately lay out its narrative in separate blocks made it surprisingly easy. RAISING CAIN, on the other hand, feels like kaleidoscopic madness almost from the word go with only small concessions to straightforward narrative, little attention of any sort paid to rationale and maybe a vague sense at best of who the film’s lead character might actually be—the argument could even be made that this is a film where the protagonist essentially disappears from the story over twenty minutes before the end. There are oodles of thematic layers to read into it from the passing down of madness from one generation to the next (shades of PEEPING TOM), the willful emasculation of men who have allowed themselves to be overshadowed by the women in their lives (PSYCHO, obviously) along with the guilt and paranoia brought on by adultery within the deadening air of suburbia. Such elements are all over the place and yet the film never seems to settle down enough to explore any of these concepts on a serious basis in a way that could be considered definitive subtext. By jumping into the film seemingly after the narrative has begun almost seems to take it all as a given, a world where everything has already gone mad and no attempt to understand where that comes from can do anything to prevent the insanity from overtaking it all.
The production does feel relatively small-scale but you can feel De Palma (who also has sole screenplay credit) working through the frenzy of its various sections with his camera swirling everywhere whether it’s flashbacks in dreams, flashbacks out of dreams or his careful framing of all this madness. He even eschews the expected split-screen twin effects as Lithgow plays scenes with himself in a way that only adds to the mystery of what is real and what isn’t, with sly touches I can’t imagine coming from any other director such as a bit when the camera pans over to someone who isn’t really there so naturally all we see is…nothing. And the dream logic that occurs seems absolutely right during the appropriate section of the film—what other possible reason would there be for someone to go out in the dead of night? De Palma also seems to take pleasure out of how much he can play with expectations such as an extra twist on the old PSYCHO bit of a car that may not make it all the way down into the swamp or the Simon Oakland-level multiple scenes of massive exposition that finally come near the halfway point, first from someone we’ve never met and never will again (the character in question is still given a detailed backstory) then coming courtesy of the excellent Frances Sternhagen as a doctor who arrives to inform the police of everything they need to know in an absurdly long Steadicam shot following the characters involved down multiple flights (love the tilting as they walk down those stairs), all the way into an elevator and out again. It’s turned into even more of a joke by how cops Gregg Henry and Tom Bower are trying to get the woman to follow along with them, where the camera is supposed to be going, with it all building to an equally absurd jolt at the end of the shot. The single take lasts over four minutes and it feels almost impossible to ever stop watching it.
Information is tossed out and plot points that have been carefully built up over multiple scenes, like Carter trying to frame Steven Bauer’s character for the crimes, lead to nothing with the tension getting diffused even before we realize it. Even the murder scenes are pretty much glossed over as if De Palma is admitting he doesn’t have any new ideas of how to stage these things so he just leaps forward to the next section of delirium instead. Interestingly for this director there’s no sign of any Nancy Allen equivalent in panties and garters—even with an adultery storyline and female lead who at this point was maybe best known for playing stripper Blaze Starr in a previous film this excursion into suburbia and allegedly ‘normal’ life is actually one of the more sexless films that De Palma has ever made, maybe another example of how he’s going against expectations—just about the closest it ever gets to something happening between two consenting adults is interrupted by the screaming of a child and it almost feels like Davidovich is being driven batty by all that beige clothing she’s wearing and baby strollers she’s surrounded with, her long legs underneath notwithstanding. When she’s earnestly told by a friend (played by Mel Harris of THIRTYSOMETHING which itself feels like an odd joke although it seems strange to imagine De Palma ever watching that show) that she’s married to the ‘perfect man’ it seems like the comment is more about his qualifications as a father and stay-at-home husband than anything. The passion has been drained out of this world, along with any sort of reason. It’s never even all that clear what anyone sees in Lithgow’s Carter to ever think of him as perfect (even the hairpiece worn by the star adds to his strangeness) but of course there’s little to gain from pointing out how the movie isn’t paying much attention to realism.
The climax set in the parking lot of a motel features a truck precariously containing a sundial that takes an eternity to back its way out (“You’re gonna kill somebody with that sundial!” an offscreen voice yells), a certain bewigged individual in an elevator out of DRESSED TO KILL and, for no real reason, a couple of drunken yahoos across the way shouting at what’s going on because…I’m really not sure. Are they meant to represent the audience, wondering what the fuck is going on over the course of this film’s 91 minutes? Is anything about the plot really resolved in the end? Except for the natural ticking clock brought on by the potential fate of a few missing children was there even much of an actual plot anyway? As has been noticed by others before now the famous final shot replicates a certain trick that can be traced to Argento, particularly the end of TENEBRAE, and De Palma himself has repeated it on several other occasions by now. More to the point it’s an intriguing mirror of the moment early on when Lolita Davidovich’s Jenny is introduced. I suppose on a thematic level it’s a comment on the male half finally being forever subsumed by the maternal instincts within or maybe an acknowledgment that all this madness is an eternal cycle and no studies or scheduled quality time are going to be able to do anything about those small children endlessly crying out for their mommy. On a narrative level, it’s essentially the equivalent of Brian De Palma saying, “Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” Which I suppose is what you need to do sometimes, whether in filmmaking or just life itself. I’ve written before of how some of the director’s later thrillers play as attempts to move beyond the cynicism and slaughtered lambs of his earlier work but RAISING CAIN feels like it came at a point before he was able to come up with those solutions. Or maybe at that point he just thought that finding such answers wasn’t going to be possible in a world where a director gets vilified for trying to make a movie. RAISING CAIN is an attempt to get back to what he maybe does best after BONFIRE, yes, but in doing it he’s also looking for a slightly different path back towards being the filmmaker he is. Maybe doesn’t arrive there in that final shot but it does show him on the way. I guess that I sort of love every second of RAISING CAIN’s lunacy even if it’s tough to rank the film alongside his best work—after all, it’s an experiment, a goof, although not in the sense that it feels like De Palma is just trying to toss this one off. Clearly he means every second of every shot he’s setting up and he doesn’t know any other way to do it.
As much as part of the film seems designed around John Lithgow’s facial ticks when he’s placed in the dead center of the frame, maybe because of the inherent archness of the material this is an odd case where an actor is essentially playing five characters in a film yet it doesn’t all seem centered around him. De Palma’s the star, not Lithgow (hey, the poster did blare “De Mented. De Ranged. De Ceptive. De Palma.” after all), but there’s never a point where I don’t hugely enjoy watching the gears shift in his performance as he moves from one persona to another. The earnestness of Lolita Davidovich’s sexual yearning is undeniably odd and at times it’s tough to tell exactly how to read her combined with the character’s actions—she’s either underplaying the part or overplaying it. Maybe both, which would make as much sense as anything. Of course, there’s not a gesture an actor makes in RAISING CAIN which doesn’t seem a part of what De Palma wants it to be. Even Bauer, playing essentially a colorless stiff seems totally right for what he’s supposed to bring to it in the true John-Gavin-as-Sam-Loomis spirit. Frances Sternhagen is just terrific as the bewigged Dr. Waldheim who thinks she looks like a transvestite, and very funny as well, digging into each piece of the puzzle she endlessly reels off with just the right pop to the words while the unforgettable pairing of Gregg Henry and Tom Bower as the investigating cops are so entertaining, particularly with all those gestures they each make during the Steadicam shot, that I wish De Palma had used them in these parts again in another movie. It’s always clear that the actors (Gabrielle Carteris, then of BEVERLY HILLS 90210, turns up in a small role) are pitched at exactly as he wants them to be with an undeniable intensity adding to the dreamlike feel. It even struck me after watching the opening scene involving John Lithgow and Teri Austin multiple times that rarely have I ever seen an actor who has been directed to behave as if they’re really driving as Austin seems to, with the actress playing the scene by simultaneously focusing her eyes on the road and silently registering just how crazy what Lithgow’s saying is. It adds undeniably to the immediate odd hold the movie is able to achieve, a sort of intensity that never quite goes away the whole way through.
Unlike a few of De Palma’s other films I’m not sure I was totally onboard with all this on that opening day long ago but after watching it countless times over the years the total insanity it projects is infectious. Maybe the film shouldn’t be thought of as anything but Brian De Palma displaying his tools for an hour and a half regardless, working on his audience the way only he knows how and staying with me in ways that I’m still surprised by. I’m even tempted to say that the music by Pino Donaggio is the least distinctive of any of his De Palma scores—which maybe it is—and yet the way the main theme recurs, also used as the song heard on a certain alarm clock is something that I find impossible to get out of my head after every time I see the film yet again. The madness lingers and I suppose that’s the way it should be. If it’s impossible to look at the film with rational eyes, I suppose I could say that about my vivid memories of that day long ago as well since that madness seems so connected to it. And maybe every day since.