Eye to Eye


The shrill, incessant whine of the fire alarm started at about four in the morning, and the evacuation of the Toronto hotel got underway. Moving briskly down the snaking fire escape from the sixth floor to the lobby, I recognised the grey-haired guest who was ahead of me - the American film-maker, Brian De Palma. We had met for an interview in New York just the week before.

As we reached the ground floor and made our exit out into the chilly morning air, De Palma explained that he was in Toronto on a private visit, solely to watch movies at the city's annual film festival. Every year, he says, he goes to Toronto, and to the Montreal Film Festival which immediately precedes it, for his annual fix of international cinema, to catch all the many movies from around the world which fail to acquire cinema distribution, even in cosmopolitan New York where De Palma lives.

The great majority of film-makers attend festivals only when they have a new movie to screen, and even then, they whizz in and out, making the obligatory appearance at the premiere of their own movie and putting in a day or two of media interviews. The only other time I can recall a filmmaker spending any length of time watching other people's movies at a festival was the year Quentin Tarantino arrived in Cannes 10 days early for the world premiere of Pulp Fiction and spent all his time watching and talking about movies.

However, De Palma didn't even have a movie showing at Toronto; his latest film, Snake Eyes, was already playing in cinemas across he city. But then, De Palma is a cineaste - as is demonstrated by the cinematic references which abound in his work, some of which is like a shrine to Alfred Hitchcock, whose films he idolises.

Despite the market-driven, assembly-line philosophy which permeates the film industry, De Palma believes there is still a place for film as art today. "There are some very moving and artistic films being made," he said, "but they're certainly very much in the minority compared to what's in the mainstream."

Flashback to our New York interview a week earlier, and De Palma is in less positive humour, making no attempt to disguise his irritation at some of the reviews for his new film, Snake Eyes. The reviews have been "pretty mixed", he says. "But that's been happening to me since the beginning of my career," he adds. "People don't really seem to watch what's going on in front of the screen, and the reviewers basically seem to review things with a herd mentality that flows through the press junket and what's in the press kit."

"The European critics tend to be somewhat different. They're more likely to see what's there on the screen and review that. They seem to have more trained eyes in terms of what visually they respond to, and they're not caught up in the cliches of the media. I guess it's not a great era of great critics, but then again, it's not a great era of great cinema, either."

Nevertheless, the most negative reviews for Snake Eyes positively pale in comparison to the vitriolic response to De Palma's 1991 film of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, a project which attracted an extraordinarily intense level of media scrutiny before, during and after production.

Eight years on, De Palma shrugs dismissively at the memories of it all. "Again it's an example of people not seeing what's on the screen," he says. "They bring these preconceptions of what they think the movie should be and then criticise it harshly because of that. In Europe the film was better received because not so many people there had read the book. It was very much a book of its time. That happens. Some things tend to be very fashionable for a time, but they don't have the quality that makes them endure over the decades."

Now that he has more or less put all that flak behind him, De Palma says he has no regrets about allowing his friend, the then Wall Street Journal critic, Julie Salamon, such a breadth of access to observe and chronicle the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities in her book, The Devil's Candy, one of the most perceptive and illuminating books ever written on the film-making process and all its many problems engendered by corporate power, interference and compromise.

It is also a remarkably revealing book in terms of Brian De Palma himself, particularly in the chapter on his upbringing. "Perhaps it was inevitable," Salamon states, "that De Palma would end up in a high-profile, nasty competitive business like film-making, where one's accomplishments were judged publicly and often harshly - and a regular cycle of rejection and acceptance was an immutable fact of life."

He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in Philadelphia, the third son of an orthopaedic surgeon and his wife. "Brian was a mistake," his mother, Vivienne, frankly tells Salamon in the book. "Brian was a surprise. I didn't really want to have another child. He was a premature baby. He weighed 4 lbs when he was born. I was in labour for three days, too. He just didn't want to be born. He would scream and scream. When he couldn't talk, he would scream. I think he had to do it. It was his way of asking for attention."

Long before he entered the highly competitive world of filmmaking, the young Brian De Palma was constantly competing with his older brothers, Bruce and Bart, for the attention of parents who never properly acknowledged his achievements. "His father attributed Bruce's achievements to his `brilliant mind'," Salamon states, while Brian succeeded, in his father's view, because he was "a contending individual".

Aspects of Brian's teenage life unavoidably re-surfaced in his work as a film-maker. At 17, suspecting his father of having an affair, he set about diligently taping all his father's telephone calls; in De Palma's riveting 1981 movie, Blow Out, John Travolta played a sound recordist who may or may not have witnessed a murder. And then there were the times when Brian's father would bring him along to watch him at work in the operating theatre - which goes some way towards explaining the almost casually blood-splattered nature of some of Brian De Palma's movies, especially his masterpiece, Carrie, in which blood is the unrelenting motif from startling start to shocking finish.

His new film, Snake Eyes, belongs with De Palma's cycle of cynical, paranoid thrillers which have included Blow Out and the 1968 Greetings. Snake Eyes takes place almost entirely within an Atlantic City gambling emporium and boxing arena where the US secretary of defence is shot during a prize fight.

Nicolas Cage plays the tainted local detective on the case, with Gary Sinise as his old friend, a navy commander now highly placed in the department of defence. Snake Eyes evokes Kurosawa's classic, Rashomon, in its viewing of the assassination from multiple perspectives - on a grand scale in this case, given that there are 14,000 witnesses and the complex is dotted with surveillance cameras.

Brian De Palma is one of those film-makers who emerged in the 1960s, along with Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer, much of whose best work is indelibly marked by their disillusionment and cynicism in the aftermath of the John F. Kennedy assassination. De Palma was going on his first date with Jill Claybrugh, who co-starred with Robert De Niro in Greetings, on that fateful day in November 1963, when they saw television footage of the Kennedy assassination in a store window.

"The Kennedy assassination was probably the most investigated murder case in history," he says. "But the more you investigate the more murk you come up with." He cites the amateur footage shot by Abraham Zapruder in Dallas on the day. "The more you blow it up looking for hidden details, the harder it is to make out the picture."

The cynicism of Snake Eyes extends to the point where virtually every significant character in the movie is corrupt on one level or another. "That's the way people are these days," De Palma says matter-of-factly. So he believes that just about anyone can be bought these days? "Possibly," he says. "There doesn't seem to be anything morally wrong with it either. You just seem stupid if you don't take the money!"

He continues: "Having been brought up on the Jersey shore, I've watched Atlantic City evolve from a classy resort town to a casino world, which is a very unusual environment. There are no clocks or windows in the casinos. They represent a completely false reality. You walk into this place and all these lights and people smiling and handing you drinks. It looks like paradise. But in reality you're being robbed blind."

As one has come to expect from a Brian De Palma movie, technical virtuosity and visual style abound in Snake Eyes, most exhilaratingly in the opening 12 minute sequence which consists of one dazzling, apparently continuous steadicam shot following Nic Cage's nervy progress through the bustling boxing arena. "Well, it is cinema," De Palma says drily. "Catch the eye of the viewer and show them something on that big wide screen that uses the elements that are given to us to create these stories.

"I wanted to show the space it all happens in, to have the audience experience that blurred quick vision of what happens during the assassination. So much happens so fast that you have to propel it with a tremendous amount of energy so that they can't take everything in at first. And then you want the audience very much to want to go back to those various points of view to find out what they missed."

He pauses. "I don't take the easy way out."

Snake Eyes is on general release