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The Visual Opulence of Brian De Palma

Director Brian De Palma is a stylistic auteur who truly uses cinema as a visual art form. By strongly emphasizing the use of groundbreaking and eye-popping visuals as a storytelling device, he explores the meaning of making film with the use of visuals rather than dialogue as a storytelling device. The techniques he uses pushes the boundaries of  typical cinema, and are not used as often in films today. Some of the motifs he frequently uses are slow-motion, split-screen, playing with Point of View, a spinning camera, as well as long dialogue-less scenes with heightened  music that often echo silent films of the past. His brilliant use of slow-motion encompasses the height of tension and fear, drawing out moments that are completely climatic to our characters and the world around them. The techniques De Palma uses are one of the many reasons as to why he is such an inventive and visionary filmmaker.

Carrie 

One of the best scenes and memorable scenes of the film is the climax of the story, the infamous sequence in Stephen King’s book. De Palma uses slow-motion to build the impending doom of what’s to come. The string music rises menacingly. Brian De Palma often plays with point of view, and that motif is prominent in this sequence. During the beginning slow-motion sequence, we see one girl start to catch on to what the prank is going to be. She spies the bucket hanging over the stage, and eventually spots the two pranksters underneath the stage. As she is seeing this, we see the teacher noticing her. This all unfolds like a silent film, these dialogue-less moments of tension serve (especially when accompanied with the use of slow-motion) to truly heighten these heart-pounding and climatic moments. When the music ends, the sound design focuses on only the sound of the bucket. It creates an eerie atmosphere as well as embellishing the sense of embarrassment and shock that both Carrie and the audience is feeling. The use of split-screen also plays with POV, showing the instantaneous effects of Carrie’s telepathy. Instead of seeing her head move and then cutting to a shot of the effect, we see it happen in real time. Carrie looks on one side of the frame, her telepathy causes terror in the other. The terror is overwhelming in this sequence. We see multiple shots on both sides of the split screen and from different angles, embodying the utter chaos that occurs on that horrifying prom night.

Blow Out 

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It is evident that De Palma is a genius at tension-building, such as in Blow Out’s thrilling climatic scene. John Travolta runs in slow-motion through the crowded streets during a Liberty Day parade and celebration. Is he going to save Sally? Pink and purple hued fireworks light up the sky as Sally is taken up to a roof by the perpetrator. There’s a beautiful shot of her screaming and reaching out for Jack against the background of the American flag.  It evokes the heyday of 1930s scream queens, such as Fay Wray in King Kong. The tension builds as it becomes increasingly clear that Jack is going to be too late. The slow-motion starts to speed up as Jack reaches the top of the roof and kills the kidnapper. Jack looks over Sally’s dead body. The following is a dazzling sequence, as Jack holds Sally against a background of sparkling fireworks bursting behind him. The camera spins around them. The technique of a spinning camera is also used in Carrie. In Blow Out, it evokes heartbreak. In Carrie, it shows the ecstasy and joy of Carrie as she dances with her date.

Scarface 

There are many, many memorable and iconic scenes from Scarface. Scarface is De Palma’s most revered in pop culture iconography. De Palma’s exaggerated film style was perfect to create the “Brechtian Opera” that Pacino and producer Martin Bregman sought to create. The finale of Scarface certainly shows the ostentatious style they were going for, with tons of assassins pouring into Tony’s mansion. In fact, screenwriter Oliver Stone was frustrated with the amount of assassins De Palma chose to put in the finale, he felt it was far too overblown and unrealistic. However, another important scene to examine is the chainsaw scene. This scene doesn’t feature any of De Palma’s usual camera flourishes. (The entire film does not make use of any split-screen or slow-motion sequence) It is a moment of high tension that does not use slow-motion or any effects whatsoever, but is still equally effective. The gritty stillness makes it all the more terrifying. De Palma said of this scene, “I wanted to establish a level of violence like nobody had ever sseen before because this is a whole different level of mob interaction, and I wanted to get it over with early in the movie to say, ‘This is what it is- we’re in a whole different world here…’ But ultimately it was all done through suggestion. I always sort of get penalized because I do this stuff very well and though people think there’s a lot of graphic violence, there really isn’t. The fact is that we always panned off the saw as it was about to  cut into Angel…and then you saw the blood hitting Tony’ face.” The fear lies in the unseen for this sequence, as well as tension within the stillness.

The Untouchables

The Untouchables features De Palma’s greatest tension-building sequence. The use of slow-motion pounds our hearts as a gangster shootout takes place at a train station. (De Palma frequently uses subway stations and train stations as points of place for climatic moments, such as Dressed to Kill and especially in Carlito’s Way.) The director again makes use of POV. Kevin Costner stands on top of the stairs, overlooking the entire floor and surrounding upper staircase of the train station. He notices a crying baby in a carriage, with a mother trying to shush him as she balances holding her suitcases. A glance at the clock. He knows the men are arriving soon. He glances at a sailor taking a seat. A man reading a newspaper. The mother continues to juggle comforting the baby, trying to get the carriage up the stairs and holding multiple suitcases. Another glance at the clock, for the woman seems to be taking an infinitely long amount of time. Kevin Costner finally helps her out, trying to move this along, while constantly still on the lookout. He has helped her up the stairs when we cut to a close up of a man with a bandage on his nose. We see the POV of him noticing Costner, then Costner turning and seeing him. He draws out his gun and the slow-motion starts. As Costner turns, the baby carriage starts to fall down the stairs. Again, De Palma plays with the use of sound. The only sounds we hear aside from the score is the thump of the baby carriage, marking how each descent of the stair the baby gets closer and closer to harm. We see the mother scream “My baby!” but we don’t hear her. At the beginning of the scene, a lullaby of baby music played accompanied with strings. This signaled the impending doom, with the baby to be in the center of it all.  De Palma cuts between the shootout and an overhead of the baby carriage, as the baby smiles unbeknownst of the chaos around him.

Body Double

I’m including this film-within-a-film scene mostly due to how cheeky and fun it is. It is evocative of De Palma’s pulp and flashy style. This is the porn that our serious and starving actor protagonist ends up starring in, in order to get closer to Holly Body for investigative purposes. Singer Frankie Goes to Hollywood makes an appearance singing his one hit wonder “Relax”. The porn set is this Rocky Horror/Cruising hybrid. Our protagonist is dressed as a goofy nerd, and he does an awkward little dance to accompany this persona. This sequence really captures the aesthetic of the film and is just a fun little nugget of a scene, it is amusing to see the porn that he ends up starring in.

 

These are not the only recommended films or scenes that illustrate De Palma’s evocative visuals. Other notable sequences found in films such as Snake Eyes, Dressed to Kill, Carlito’s Way, and more. However, they are not readily available on YouTube but I highly suggest you view the films! 

About The Author
Caroline Madden
Caroline Madden
Caroline has a BFA in Acting from Shenandoah Conservatory, and is currently getting an MA in Cinema Studies at Savannah College of Art and Design. She served as the Entertainment Editor and writer for her college newspaper, The 'Doah. She currently also writes at Screenqueens, Bitch Flicks, and her blog. (check out the link below!) You can usually find her listening to Bruce Springsteen or watching movies.

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