Let me set a scene here…
The summer of 1998. I was finished with high school and preparing to start my first year as a student in USC’s film program, having spent the whole last year taking film and television production courses and preparing for it. I was familiar at this point with the visual language of cinema and was often disillusioned with what was offered for entertainment. Like every generation before and after me, Hollywood movies felt empty and shallow while the films showing at the independent cinemas were either pretentious crap (Shakespere in Love) or just disappointing (despite it’s cult following and the love I have for the Coens, The Big Lebowski just never did it for me). The summer of 1998 was especially rough with terrible things like Godzilla (that unspeakable Emmerich version), Deep Impact, Armageddon, Lost in Space, The Avengers, Can’t Hardly Wait, and Ever After. Sure there were high moments such as Saving Private Ryan and There’s Something About Mary did charm me, even movies that looked great to me and catered to my interests such as Halloween H20 or The Negotiator just felt like let downs. So August of that year I was feeling disillusioned with cinema and perhaps regretting all that money already paid towards an education in cinema. I spent more and more time watching television, classic movies on TCM and AMC – back when movies were good, not the crap in multiplexes and independent theaters in 1998. Then, after watching that lifeless remake of The Parent Trap, I wandered in and watched this movie, Snake Eyes, with little expectation. “Oh look, here’s some thriller with that dude from that shitty Con Air movie and Lieutenant Dan. Let’s see how bad this sucks.”
That’s when everything changed.
The film starts with a long 20 minute steadicam shot that sets up everything and introduces us to all the characters and it’s a wonderful moment. The story centers around a political assassination that occurs during a major boxing event and during this opening sequence, the entire build-up, the fight (which we don’t see a single frame of during this opening) and the assassination, I was sold. The style of the movie and the way this narrative was unfolding visually grabbed me and held me.
It didn’t stop there. This had some of the most creatively visual things I’d ever seen before. At this point the only Brian De Palma movies I’d seen were Carrie several years earlier and Mission Impossible (which doesn’t really feel like a De Palma movie). Watching it years later the visual tricks on display in Snake Eyes are common for the director but they were new to me – I had never seen anything like this EVER. The film’s opening – that long stedicam, we see several more times though other characters’ points of view, and by that I mean actual POV shots – it’s a beautiful and a perfect example of the most basic tenet of film theory: “Show, Don’t Tell.” There’s a moment when the characters are looking for a woman in a hotel and the camera slowly goes over every room, showing us what’s going on inside in all of them before settling on the room we’re looking for. It was a level of voyeurism and film fetishism I’d never experienced and it stuck with me. A handful of di-optic shots throughout and that excellent use of splitscreen (which is so rarely used outside of De Palma movies) just added to this visual feast. It’s not a hyperbole when I say that sitting in that theater watching Snake Eyes was like having sex for the first time – a brand new, wonderful experience that would stick with me forever. Hell, it was like I’d never seen a movie before.
I’ll acknowledge that the film was not very well received by critics then or now and mostly because of the story, that David Koepp’s screenplay just gets ridiculous in its third act. It does, but I was so in love with this visual style and all these things that were new to me I didn’t care. Really, ANYTHING could have happened in that third act – A giant squid could have popped out of the water and eaten people and I’d have bought it because I was so enamored with the visual narrative. I can completely understand and do agree with the criticisms offered about this movie and if I’d encountered Snake Eyes a decade later I would have said the same thing as them, giving the movie a lukewarm review. Years later I would go back and learn more about Brian De Palma and see those same things like the split-screen and di-optic shots and sweeping 360 degree shots used in all of his movies and if you look at the whole of his career Snake Eyes does not rank as highly or is as fondly remembered as The Untouchables, Dressed to Kill or Sisters. Visually, Blow Out is an even greater feast for the cinephile than Snake Eyes but I didn’t know that in 1998. However this movie happened to come at just the right moment of my life to capture my interest, to see the potential of what film can be and what can be done with a visual narrative.
You never forget the first person you have sex with; it doesn’t matter what they looked like or if they had some vile personality or the circumstances were far less than ideal the experience sticks with you forever. There will most likely be more rewarding experiences in your life but they won’t erase the memory of that first time. For me, that’s what watching Snake Eyes was like – I had finally found a movie that liked movies as much as I did and it was fucking magical. I was a naïve cinematic child, but after that summer I went to film school an adult. I know that Snake Eyes is a film far from perfect, I’m not ignorant of its faults. I have to record a podcast later this week looking at the work of Brian De Palma with friends that aren’t fans of Snake Eyes and for good reason. I’m not going to blindly defend the movie – but I won’t deny that this flick holds a special place for me.
Snake Eyes showed me that the landscape of mainstream cinema is not the hollow wasteland that I felt it was – there were always going to be creative artists trying new things. I learned that day that for every over-marketed product like Armageddon or vapid and expensive remake like Godzilla or pretensions saccharine like Shakespere in Love, there would always be a filmmakers that want to do more that don’t want to simply make a product. Every single year there is a glut of shitty movies or empty big budget mainstream movies – but there are those diamonds in the rough, those movies where a filmmaker speaks with their voice. Even in this era when you have so many blog posts and mainstream critics talking about how cinema is dead and how things like comic book flicks have killed movies – there are still those artists out there. Just this year alone, 2015 has given us those big movies where a filmmaker wanted to do more. For every Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7 or San Andreas we had a unique viewing experience like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Mad Max: Fury Road, and It Follows. Those are just the few movies this year that worked for me – may not have worked as well for others. My point is that one should never just give up on movies because there IS something out there for you, often when you don’t expect it. No matter how bad you think the current state of cinema is, you’ll find your Snake Eyes.