Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hallucinatory Suspense: Brian De Palma's The Fury

Brian De Palma is hands down the most disreputable great American director. Sam Peckinpah got his due after he died; the movies that earned him the sobriquet “Bloody Sam” – not meant as a compliment – are now recognized as the work of a genius. But De Palma has always worked very differently from Peckinpah, burrowing slyly beneath the bristling, profane surface of pop. When he found his style in the late seventies and early eighties in movies like Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, his brash, dirty humor and his fascination with the tools of film exploitation alienated people (critics more than audiences: Carrie and Dressed to Kill were big hits) who couldn’t see that he was using those tools as a starting-off point. They missed it even when he announced his intentions at the outset of Blow Out: filming a parody of a sexy teen horror movie, a more sexually explicit version of something like Halloween, to fake out audiences and then cutting it off to segue into a political conspiracy thriller with the film-within-the-film’s sound man (John Travolta) as the protagonist. I think Blow Out is a masterpiece, but it wasn’t just misunderstood when it came out in 1981; it was willfully misunderstood. When I wrote in The Stanford Daily that it was one of the best political movies ever made by an American, I got incredulous letters from readers who denied there was a shred of politics in it – even though it’s about the assassination of a gubernatorial candidate, it contains allusions to Chappaquiddick and a character modeled on G. Gordon Liddy, it climaxes on an invented Philadelphia holiday called Liberty Day, and it’s color-coded in red, white and blue

You’d think that in an era when Quentin Tarantino and Sam Raimi are taken seriously as filmmakers, De Palma might catch a break for his pop sensibility, but Tarantino and Raimi don’t operate in the most dangerous area of violence, where it intersects with sexuality. Even Hitchcock didn’t. Except in Vertigo, which is a romantic melodrama – a genre De Palma essayed only once, in Obsession, and couldn’t get into – the sexual material in his movies is only there to play with us, lure us in so he can swap it for violence: Robert Walker coming on to Farley Granger in the opening scene of Strangers on a Train, Tony Perkins peeping at Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho. (Spielberg takes a leaf from Hitchcock’s book, of course, in the opening of Jaws, where we’re led to think that the wasted kid on the beach is going to get laid in the water by the girl with the come-hither eyes, but the only orgasm is the bloody thrashing in the water as she’s scissored by the shark.) De Palma’s bravado in taking Hitchcock tropes into the truly forbidden places Hitchcock wasn’t interested in – the way he riffs on the Psycho shower scene as a way of exploring adolescent sexuality in the opening minutes of Carrie and middle-aged sexual longing and disappointment in the first scene of Dressed to Kill – branded him as everything from a misogynist to a plagiarist. It was fruitless to point out that artists have always built on each other’s work and that there are fewer portraits of female sexuality more sympathetic than these two pictures. In 1987, when he filmed David Rabe’s dramatization of the Daniel Lang New Yorker article, “Casualties of War,” about the rape and murder of a Vietnamese teenager by some American G.I.s, he came up with perhaps the most compassionate and devastating movie ever made about what happens to women in a war zone. His detractors, apparently confusing the film with its subject matter, called it pornographic.

director Brian De Palma
Of the four early De Palmas mentioned above, The Fury is the only one that barely mentions sex, but it shares with Carrie, which it followed (in 1978), the theme of adolescent angst, coded in horror-movie narrative elements. These movies, which are about teens with telekinetic powers, inspired the premise of Joss Whedon’s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the traumas of adolescence are presented through supernatural metaphors. Buffy sleeps with her boy friend, a vampire with a soul, and the next morning she finds out that he’s turned into a vicious killer because of a gypsy curse – and every seventeen-year-old who ever lost her virginity to some guy who behaved like a prick the next day understands exactly what she’s going through. Carrie, ostracized by the mean girls at school because of her awkwardness and because her nutty religious-fanatic mother has kept her ignorant about sex, is freaked out by the weird things her body is suddenly able to do. (When she gets control over it, she turns it against everyone who’s humiliated her; her triumph is indistinguishable from her tragedy.) Those adolescent hang-ups that never completely desert us were the great subject of these early De Palmas: the fear of losing a parent (Dressed to Kill), of not being able to protect the people you love (The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out), or, in Carrie, of being different from others in frightening, mysterious ways. That’s the way Robin Sandza (Andrew Stevens), the boy with extraordinary powers, feels at the beginning of The Fury, he confides to his father, Peter (Kirk Douglas) – moments before Peter, an operative for an organization referred to as “the agency,” is shot down in front of him by Arabs on an Israeli beach and killed, or so Robin is led to believe by Peter’s alleged best friend, Childress (John Cassavetes), who ordered the hit. That’s the way Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) feels when she discovers she has those same powers and they’re so powerful that anyone near her when she goes into one of her telekinetic trances – which link her psychically to Robin – starts to bleed.

It’s that identifiable core of adolescent terror and confusion that gives The Fury so much depth of feeling. You could dismiss the story, which is out of a John Ferris novel (Ferris did the adaptation), as schlocky, but it may be the most emotional horror movie ever made. In other words, it works at cross-purposes to exploitation horror movies (like The Exorcist, which predates it by half a decade) that are powered by sadistic impulses and don’t demonstrate any real feeling for their suffering characters.

Kirk Douglas in The Fury

Behind the credits, John Williams’s unsettling, baroque musical score throbs with operatic intensity. The best work of Williams’s career, it goes along with the dark, hallucinatory tones of Richard Kline’s cinematography. The movie begins like a spy thriller, but De Palma, typically, is deliberately misleading us. What he wants us to focus on is the strong and loving father-son bond (Robin’s mother is dead), underscored by their friendly swimming and wrestling competitions, that Childress cuts off. Peter talks to his son about the potential for good in his psychic talent and promises they’ll always be together, but as the movie goes on both of those ideas become perverted. Robin, kidnapped by Childress, the dark, monstrous father figure who imposes himself between him and his real father, is corrupted by the agency, pumped up on steroids, experimented on, forced to watch footage of Peter’s (he thinks) murder to manipulate his emotions, and so his power turns evil. And though Peter devotes his life to searching for his son, his vanishing from Robin’s life, through no fault of his own – the fact that he can’t fulfill his promise – is part of what destroys the boy. By the time they’re reunited at the end of the picture, Robin has become so twisted by anger that he turns on Peter, like an abducted and abused child who can’t forgive.

Fiona Lewis & John Cassavetes
It’s a year later, in Chicago, that we meet Gillian, who, like Robin in the opening scene, looks like a typical, attractive teen in a bathing suit. They’re psychic twins. She gets extra-sensory messages from a man (Bill Finley) Peter has hired to locate someone who might help him find his son. This scene, which is De Palma’s homage to the opening sequence of Coppola’s The Conversation, reveals a complicated spy network: the wire from the pay phone on which the psychic calls Peter runs to a van where Childress’s men, who are trying to track Peter down to finish the job on him, are listening in. Just as Robin has two fathers in the movie, Gillian has two mothers. Her real one (Joyce Easton), affectionate but preoccupied with her career (there’s no dad in sight), leaves the film as soon as Gillian moves into the Paragon Institute, where teenagers with her gifts are taught to use them. At this point Hester (Carrie Snodgress), the nurse who takes charge of her – and who is Peter’s lover – moves into the maternal role. We first meet Hester when Dr. Lindstrom (Carol Rossen), who works side by side with the Paragon’s director, Dr. McKeever (Charles Durning), addresses Gillian’s high-school class about biofeedback, and Hester shows the kids how to turn your mind into a blank so that your brain waves can make a toy train stop and go. The scene becomes both funny and frightening – the trademark De Palma combo – when Lindstrom picks Gillian at random to try the exercise, and her brain waves at “alpha” (passive state) are so potent that the train leaps around the track, past the list of biofeedback levels (De Palma’s little joke: she leaves the ordinary capabilities of the human mind far behind). Then she starts to get visions – of a bloodied corpse whose murder, we later find out, is linked to Robin and hasn’t occurred yet – from Robin’s point of view, as though she were inside his head. Her distress forces the train off the track, and the scene becomes unnerving. Like Robin, Gillian has a power that can be used for either good or evil. We get a small taste of the latter when the class bully (Hilary Thompson), who likes to pick on Gillian, rags on her for her ability to read minds and Gillian gets her revenge by actually reading hers and revealing that she’s pregnant. Gillian ends up at Paragon, where she hopes she won’t feel like such a freak. Robin spent some time there, too, as she later discovers, but McKeever was unable to protect him from Childress. Only McKeever knows that the agency watches over Paragon and plucks its rarest specimens for its own nefarious purposes.

Andrew Stevens' eyes in The Fury

De Palma’s imagery and Irving’s immensely likeable performance emphasize that Gillian is still a kid, reminding us how much she needs a kindred spirit who will understand what she’s going through. Gillian’s “gift” is a curse in her view: it isolates her from everyone else and makes her feel tainted, and destructive to anyone she cares about. When she learns – from Peter, who has Hester kidnap her to keep her out of Childress’s hands – that there’s another teenager like her, she longs for a connection with him, but that promised bond is denied her. And, like Robin, she loses everyone who’s important to her: first Hester, who is accidentally killed during the escape from Paragon, and then Peter, who becomes, briefly, her next parental figure. Robin’s still just a kid, too. When Susan Charles (Fiona Lewis), the doctor Childress has put in charge of him – and given to him as a lover, to satisfy his sexual urges – takes him on a holiday, he walks around with a stuffed animal he won at an arcade. But when he sees her in a bar with a couple of Childress’s men, he throws the prize away and acts out like a deprived child. This child is crazed, though, and out of control, and he can do astonishing and fearful things. His rage, provoked by his jealousy of Susan and a glimpse of a pair of Arabs on a Ferris wheel who remind him of the men who shot his dad, dismantles the ride with his brain and causes violence and havoc. On a metaphorical level, this scene – which builds inventively and nastily on the merry-go-round climax of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train – is about the way the agency has perverted Robin’s childhood: he turns the innocent childhood image of an amusement-park ride into a death trap.

Amy Irving in The Fury
De Palma is a surrealist, though his version of surrealism has such an intimate connection with realism that it isn’t like anyone else’s (David Lynch’s, for example). Pauline Kael wrote of Blow Out, “It’s hallucinatory, and it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability, but you’ll never make the mistake of thinking it’s only a dream” – and that’s equally true of scenes in The Fury, like a car chase that winds up in the lake. The sequence is clouded in mist, but the images are crystal clear at first; then the colors are muted by the thick fog, which the cars’ headlights pierce like spaceship lights. The landscape, with its strange texture and flashing lights – like Christmas-tree decorations, almost – that seem to drift off into nowhere, is like a fantasyland. At the end one of the cars suddenly tumbles off the pier into the drink, our last visual signal disappearing without a trace, and afterwards we can’t be sure what we really saw. De Palma works the way Lynch does, or Charles Laughton in the great Night of the Hunter, making imagistic connections.

Gillian's hallucination
The Fury contains a number of motifs: blood, which sometimes works with the motif of broken glass; duality; images of spying; images of circular, useless motion, which generally culminate in disaster. And then there are Gillian’s visions, linking her to Robin, which echo the horror-movie genre De Palma’s working in (and transcending). When she stands on the staircase at Paragon, gripping McKeever’s hand, while the vision of Robin’s attempted escape from the institute plays out all around her, she looks like a terrified kid at a horror movie, holding on to a parent for dear life. This movie-within-a-movie motif is taken to a further level when, this time gripping Lindstrom’s hand, she “becomes” Robin chained to an operating table during one of the agency’s cruel and debilitating experiments on him. (This is the scene where he’s made to watch footage of Peter’s shooting – the scene De Palma’s movie started with.) What happens during Gillian’s visions is that the movie inside her head becomes 3D. De Palma loves to use foreground and background in tension with each other: in these sequences, Gillian is in the foreground while her visions flash behind her. The scene where Hester overhears Childress and McKeever and realizes that Gillian’s in danger is shot the same way, with Hester in extreme foreground and the room containing the men behind her, like a screen. De Palma is employing a split-focus diopter here, which is an extension of that weird expressionistic kind of deep focus that Orson Welles invented in Citizen Kane: it allows him to bifurcate the frame so that half of it comes eerily close to us while the other half remains remote, on another plane.

Gillian's escape from Paragon
All of the motifs come into play in the movie’s most dazzling showpiece sequence, the escape from Paragon/Hester’s death. Hester plays a unique role in Gillian’s life, not only because she walks into it just as Mrs. Bellaver leaves it, but because she’s able to cross a line no one else can: when Gillian touches her, she doesn’t bleed. That’s why De Palma films her death in agonizing slow motion, to give full value to the character’s passing out of life. (This is an idea he must have borrowed from Peckinpah.) And she means so much to both Gillian and Peter that we need to feel what they feel as they watch her die. The scene is like the kind of nightmare most of us have occasionally, where we watch someone we care about get hurt and we’re powerless to do anything to stop it, and consequently we feel responsible – that we’ve somehow betrayed a loved one. These are the dream images that linger when we wake up and may haunt us afterwards, and they’re the ones we identify most closely with De Palma, who, it’s not too much to say, is obsessed with them. You find them in Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Mission to Mars.

Robin betrayed
The Fury is, finally, about betrayal – the theme that underlies the spying motif. Childress betrays both Peter and Robin; the agency Peter works for betrays him, trying to kill him off to steal his son from him; Gillian feels betrayed by her body and mind, which remove her from the people she loves (she feels she can only do them harm). Robin’s drug-induced paranoia makes him think Susan is betraying him by sleeping with other men and also by bringing on another teenager with even greater powers than he has (he can sense Gillian’s approach). He’s wrong about her infidelities, and she doesn’t know about Gillian, but of course she is betraying him: she works for his tormentor, Childress. Susan genuinely cares for Robin but like McKeever she’s a betrayer against her own will. (McKeever tries to save Gillian from Childress by lying about her gifts to him and trying to get her back to her mother, but Childress sees through his ploy.) Robin punishes Susan, in a scene that suggests a horror-movie variation on Jacobean tragedy – violence inextricably mixed with lunatic romantic passion. And, as I’ve said, when Robin finally sees Peter again, alive, he feels his father has betrayed him, and inadvertently he has, since Robin’s lost his soul by the time Peter gets to him. Childress betrays Gillian, but the final act of betrayal belongs to her, and like Carrie’s vengeance on the whole school it’s a horrifying triumph.

Paragon is like a haunted house for Gillian; that’s one way, but not the only way, in which The Fury is a Gothic. I assume that’s why De Palma quotes William Wyler’s 1939 film of Wuthering Heights in the scene where Peter and Gillian infiltrate the estate where Childress is holding Robin and his dogs hunt them down. It’s easy to make fun of the narrative, but visually the movie is brilliantly worked through. Kael once said, referring to Casualties of War, then when you experience filmmaking so sophisticated that it’s almost subliminal, it makes you a little crazy, and I think that’s often true of De Palma’s movies. God knows it’s true of The Fury. And it’s not just technique – it’s the way his technique is drenched in feeling. The combination makes you weak at the knees.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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