Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Friday, November 9, 2012
Nothing Simple About Any Of This
It’s not Brian De Palma’s fault. It’s just a coincidence. After all, much of what happens in life is made up of coincidences. Earlier this year on the night of his birthday I decided to take a look at my Criterion DVD of SISTERS, his early film from 1973. As things would have it Brian De Palma’s birthday is also September 11th and this really isn’t the place to discuss all the feelings that date brings up but there is an unusual moment early on in this particular film where Margot Kidder and Lisle Wilson are taking the ferry out to Staten Island where her apartment mysteriously is located (“Isn’t Staten Island in New York?” she innocently asks him). We pause to linger for a moment as they cross in the dead of night gazing at the World Trade Center, looking as unreal in the night fog as it always did as Bernard Herrmann’s eerily romantic score plays on the soundtrack, one of those moments that certainly plays different now than it did at one time. And there’s not a thing we can do about it. I could point out that this isn’t even the only De Palma film to have some kind of WTC connection—the famous Steadicam shot at the start of BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES filmed right around there, Windows on the World was used as a setting in DRESSED TO KILL and the lobby was even going to be featured in the climax of CARLITO’S WAY before the February ’93 bombing forced that production to change plans. This is all true but there’s not very much to gain from pointing out all this either. Maybe films don’t affect real life very much but real life certainly affects the films, how we forever see them. That’s just the way it is.
As for the present, there’s a new Brian De Palma film out there in the world, a remake of the French thriller LOVE CRIME entitled PASSION. I assume that at some point in the future, hopefully in 2013, I will see it. I do not know when. I only know that as a longtime fan of the director I hope for the best so if you have seen it already and are negative about the whole thing, well, let me find out for myself. Maybe I’m a defender of the guy but that doesn’t mean I’m saying he’s infallible. For a long time now I’ve stalled on writing a BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES piece because whatever would be said (not very good) doesn’t go much against what the film’s general reputation is and what would be the point of doing that? Still, for me Brian De Palma’s best films live, they remain vibrant, within every ounce of whatever illogic that is going on within them they make me want to burst out into song from how glorious they are. An early example of homage coming from the New Hollywood, SISTERS came as his style was still developing so for a few reasons it’s not quite as potent or memorable as some of his later films would be but so much is already right there, bursting full born from the womb of his madness—stabs at social commentary, the staging of certain moments within the frame, the offhand humor, the music, the actors, the fearlessness at getting the ever-elusive answers to what should by all logic be right in front of you. Some may disagree, which is fine, but SISTERS really isn’t a masterwork. And yet it’s clear now that it’s very much the work of someone who would go on to make a few.
When Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) and Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) have a meet cute appearing on the hidden camera game show “Peeping Toms” she kindly helps herself to coming along with him to the dinner he’s won at Manhattan’s exotic African Room. While there she is accosted by her ex-husband Emil (William Finley) and even after getting thrown out he even turns up outside Danielle’s Staten Island apartment when Phillip takes her home, along with the deluxe set of cutlery that she won on the show. After spending the night, Phillip discovers that it’s not only Danielle’s birthday but also that of her twin sister Dominique in the next room. Clearly a nice guy, Phillip goes out to pick up Danielle’s much-needed prescription after which he takes a few minutes to pick up a birthday cake to bring home to the twins…but what happens in the apartment next is witnessed by local reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) who is determined to prove what has happened and what is really going on in the building across her courtyard.
The subject of Hitchcock in relation to SISTERS is unavoidable whether we’re talking about PSYCHO or REAR WINDOW or ROPE or certain other films and it was no doubt obvious at the time of release, just as even Hitchcock himself was taking his dabblings with sex and violence further that he ever had before with the previous year’s FRENZY. We’ve long since gotten used to shocking twists that kill off presumed lead characters early on by now the schematics of the SISTERS plotline doesn’t feel as daring as it once might have and the details aren’t as crystalized as they would feel in some of De Palma’s later films such as how the staging of the murder makes it unclear just how much Grace is really able to witness. Plus on a basic screenwriting level the lack of a McGuffin equivalent to PSYCHO’s $40,000 that tracks the whole way through makes the switch at the half-hour mark almost feel like the film is restarting more than it would otherwise. When the film hits the climax soon after the hour mark it feels like not much in the way of plot has actually happened but, of course, maybe this doesn’t matter very much at all and in some ways makes everything all the more off kilter, more experimental, all the more willing to go in directions that wouldn’t be expected. It’s the showiest scenes in SISTERS that make the most impression whether the shock of the murder that things have been carefully built up to or the extended post-murder section largely presented in split screen, a pair of twins itself, where we’re not following the plot so much as the carefully composed process of what’s happening in each half affecting our own interpretation of what is going on down to the climax which isn’t a climax of plot so much as a climax of complete and total delirium, finally crashing into a brick wall that doesn’t allow anything to be resolved because sometimes in life nothing can ever be.
The opening CANDID CAMERA-like TV show PEEPING TOMS (probably not many more people get that reference now than they did then) that opens the film lays out exactly what we’re going to see—what we choose to focus our gaze on, what we turn away from even if it’s right in front of us—that’s what the film ultimately is about. Phillip chose not to keep watching Danielle when in front of that hidden camera but he’s very happy to gaze at her when she strips down for him in real life (giving us a nice glimpse at crazy hot early 70s Margot Kidder, incidentally). Throughout the film images seem to comment on other images, culminating in the madness it all builds to. Even the primary setting of Staten Island (a place which is very much in the news now after Hurricane Sandy but that’s just a coincidence too) that sits apart from Manhattan where the recently built twin towers sit oh so prevalent seeming not just a beacon from the city but also strangely representative of the mysterious twins that Grace is investigating. The process of how she learns things is strangely matter-of-fact all things considered, essentially given most of her information by watching a film within this film, provided to her by the helpful editor at Life Magazine played by Barnard Hughes and it’s what it all builds to in her discoveries, leading to the ultra-zoom into Grace’s eye revealing her ultimate nightmare it’s not a revelation of plot but rather a surreal Felliniesque landscape, total madness with every shriek ringing out in the Bernard Herrmann score.
All things considered, I’m not even sure what the climax is supposed to be a climax to. It’s a dream with imagery that comes not only from the film-within-the-film Grace was shown but also from the lunacy of the movie itself as well as the forever unspoken insecurities of the more-or-less lead, appearing uneasy next to the more glamorous Margot Kidder until she’s safely back in her childhood bedroom totally lost from any sort of reason. Nothing makes sense because people don’t (can’t) make sense, so everything can’t all be cleared up Freudian-style a la MARNIE or via Simon Oakland’s endless explanation in PSYCHO. Unlike Hitchcock as his most formal, logic has nothing to do with it. The famous final shot, which gets people to throw up their hands as much as anything also seems somewhat out of PSYCHO as well only this one reveals a character who doesn’t quite know the significance of what he’s looking at, waiting for someone who will never come, watching, forever watching, ultimately seeing nothing and everything all at once. There was no body because there was no murder. It’s all very simple. It’s all madness. De Palma knew it then. It’s still that way now.
The nature of the plot means that there isn’t quite a lead—Margot Kidder certainly has screen presence, shaky French accent aside and expresses total vivaciousness while being just off kilter enough that we can still believe in whatever madness lies within. Jennifer Salt more than holds the screen when she comes to the forefront—her anger seems totally believable and, frankly, if I ever met the actress I’d almost expect her to act just like Grace Collier—and it’s interesting to compare her determined nature with the more confident presence of Kidder. Even their personal environment adds to their performances--compared with the total blankness of Danielle’s anonymous apartment is Grace’s bedroom at her local childhood home, still covered with posters from her teenage years. Wilson expresses a casual likable nature almost immediately from his patient response to his prize on the game show and it’s the supporting performances that stand out even more and where the greatest eccentricities come to the forefront—Charles Durning as private detective Joseph Larch insisting that he knows the right way to do things, William Finley (best known for playing Winslow Leach in De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) as mysterious doctor Emil Breton, Barnard Hughes and his absent-minded curiosity as Life editor Arthur McLennen, Salt’s real-life mother Mary Davenport playing her onscreen mother as well, the abrasive weariness of Dolph Sweet as the investigating police detective as well as an early appearance by Olympia Dukakis as one of the bakery employees who beams as she moves into frame to give the correct names on the cake as if trying to upstage her coworker.
SISTERS is the rare De Palma film that came out so long ago I have no recollection of how it was received so maybe because of this the film has always seemed that much more enigmatic to me. In some ways I’m not even sure how to place it in context with those other films outside of just the director getting started on what was going to be the rest of his career. So what do I respond to? The gazing. The split screen. The Herrmann score. Margot Kidder stripping down. William Finley glancing up at the TV camera as it pans past him in the audience of PEEPING TOMS. The endless way the movie holds on the frame during the first murder scene. The African Room. What Jennifer Salt’s Grace Collier is defiantly insisting on at the very end. That music box-like theme as the ‘Happy Birthday’ greeting is carefully written out on that cake, later on heard again as we view that absurd final shot. Memories of the World Trade Center, still there as character travel back and forth to Staten Island, insistent there in the reality of this movie and gazing back at me as I stand there at a point in my youth that now feels like very long ago. And there’s not a thing I can do about that. There’s not a thing anyone can do about it.