Blah lust

Brian De Palma's tame, lame 'Passion'

Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams in "Passion"

FILM Despite its intensely collaborative, top-heavy, organizationally complex nature, commercial filmmaking can still be primarily instinctual rather than thoughtful, let alone intellectual. This is not necessarily a good thing. We're accustomed to displays of corporate group-thinking or sheer willful, proud stupidity (hiya, Michael Bay!) in mainstream movies today. But those are exercises of market conformism, whether the makers recognize them as such or not. What about populist filmmakers who go their own way yet grow increasingly dumb and dumber? Should we applaud their auteurist individuality even as all artfulness, taste, and entertainment value rushes toward the drain?

Of course we're talking about Brian De Palma, who at age 73 should deserve more respect — if he hadn't spent decades scuttling it so completely. His new movie is called Passion, and one doubts he thinks its lame third-generation lez-ploitation is any less of a passion project than he's made in the past. That is so, so sad.

It's important to remember that this guy once looked like a prince, as promising as Scorsese, through at least the mid-1970s: clever shorts, avant garde flirtations, exceptionally edgy, and inventive indie comedies (1968's Greetings and 1970's Hi, Mom!), guaranteed future cult classics (1974 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise), and tentative major-studio efforts that misfired yet were stylistically compelling (1972 absurdist Get to Know Your Rabbit, 1976 mystery thriller Obsession). Sisters (1973) — his first explicit Hitchcock homage — was a black-comedy horror knockout undervalued at the time because it was distributed by a minor studio (American International) that didn't know how to sell it up-market.

Then came Carrie (1976), a brilliantly cast, shot, and scored improvement on Stephen King's wobbly debut novel. It's a succubus movie: no matter how many times you've seen it, you can't watch the opening scenes without getting sucked into the whole thing. Its misanthropy could be excused as cunning satire, undercut by the empathy Sissy Spacek's titular figure evoked. (De Palma never gave a leading female actor such sympathetic free rein before or since.) A commercial success nonetheless considered disappointing due to cheesy publicity better suited to a drive-in horror flick, Carrie boosted De Palma to the A list ... where he wanked.

The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992) reprised elements of Carrie and Hitchcock to guiltily-pleasurable but increasingly inane, sexist, baldly derivative ends. He was still capable of pulling off the odd big, splashy action picture — notably 1983's Scarface and 1987's The Untouchables, with Carlito's Way (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996) enjoyable if distant second-placers — while 1989's Casualties of War was a decent stab at serious-issue cinema, dealing with Vietnam War atrocities.

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