Night Visions

Does the voyeur need the exhibitionist or does he want to be her? Brian De Palma’s movies see it both ways

Few psychologists have examined the voyeur — too close to home, perhaps — but research suggests some perverse relationship with exhibitionism. Every ogler risks a return gaze. In Brian De Palma’s 1984 thriller Body Double, hapless actor and cuckold Jake Scully gets invited to look after another man’s modernist house, then to look at the neighbour, Gloria Revelle, dancing naked each night. His deepening obsession leads him to witness her murder, after which, sprawled beneath cable porn, he finds her double — a different woman, performing exactly the same moves. Jake bluffs his way onto Holly Body’s latest shoot, where they mistake him for a stud but cast him as a nerd. Wearing a sweater vest amidst fetishy leather, he whimpers out his come-on: “I like to watch.” The mirror swings behind to reveal a camera crew.

“I certainly wouldn’t go see [my films],” De Palma once told an interviewer. “But there’s a difference between being the marionette and being the puppet master. One is a director because one wants to be the master.” He plans meticulous images, filling in plot and motivation like plaster, but you can only direct a scene with perfect control until it leaves your storyboard, and De Palma has always been self-conscious about the fakeness of the blood, the strings binding the puppet. Like Walker Evans, who hid his Contax in his coat as he rode the subway, releasing the shutter via handheld cable, or Diane Arbus, who fantasized about creeping through the bedrooms of strangers to capture them while they slept, De Palma used to sit in the front row during test screenings and watch the audience, caught between spectator and tableau. No matter how far photography advances, it never satisfies the desire to make images in secret.

De Palma had Catholic parents but Quaker schools, leading him to wonder whether his aesthetic might be a double sacrilege: baroque violence rendered with formalist detachment. That would at least explain why his blasphemies in the new documentary De Palma never go further than “holy mackerel.” Directed by two admiring friends, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, the film tries to make neat chronology of a career spent writhing away from scrutiny. So De Palma talks about his past as a teen science geek, liked more by girls than boys — one dared him to record her sex-ed class. Young Brian gallantly stalked his unfaithful father, trying to catch the surgeon with a nurse. When Baumbach and Paltrow open by quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, they frame an Oedipal scene: De Palma, his movie-daddy, and the impassive blonde.

No matter how far photography advances, it never satisfies the desire to make images in secret

Sometimes a tripod is just a tripod. De Palma proudly refers to Hitchcock’s visual grammar and conceptual narratives, but it’s not mere homage. The elder director was fascinated by psychology, all those kinks underlying human behavior, whereas his successor will invoke it for mechanical reasons: How do we explain why John Lithgow has five different equally hysterical personalities? De Palma’s characters often seem like archetypes that got hacked out with a razor. The familiar picture repeats over and over again, collapsing atop a strange new one; that object piercing the shower curtains turns out to be a plunger. De Palma’s films don’t imitate Hitchcock movies so much as they probe the experience of watching one, the exquisite motions a director manipulates you into. He’s drawn to the sensual extremes of cinema itself.

De Palma has always been an early adopter, disorienting the eye with Steadicams and split lenses; he was digitizing his storyboards by the early ’90s. He exploits new technology to shoot from high, cloistered angles and cramped positions — positions only a voyeur could love. “Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen,” the old Margaret Atwood line goes. “You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” But now you’re also your own exhibitionist. You can offer selective details through frosted screens; you can overlay versions of reality on semi-transparent frames. You can let watchers know that you’re watching yourself be watched.

Body Double revels in its artifice, all those projected backdrops and glassy surfaces, which extends to the plot. Every unbelievable coincidence was engineered by Gloria’s killer, so he buries Holly and Jake alive, aware of the latter’s claustrophobia. Earlier on, Jake describes the trauma underlying his terror: “I was just a little kid … It was this game, everybody was looking for me … They’ll laugh at me for getting stuck behind the freezer.” I’m reminded of a scene from when I was six or seven, changing clothes in a school portable, and glanced up to see an older kid watching me. They ran in through the door, pointing, taunting. Occasionally I wonder: Was my mistake to notice them there at all? As Body Double’s villain leans down to mock our heroes, Jake realizes that he’ll only ever act if he can bear to be looked at, to navigate constricted frames as Holly does, and he rises snarling from the grave, a vampire finally grown hungry.

By nature of the usual De Palma dream logic, that Holly Body porno in Body Double is also a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video. Their frontman, Holly Johnson, leads Jake through the new-wave club in white gloves and formal dress, acting like a butler who just disposed of his master (anything looks more lurid opposite Craig Wasson’s stupefied leer). Johnson sang about desire not with force or bliss or longing but a gasping sneer, the emcee at the orgy. Shoot it in the right direction / Make making it your intention (ooh yeah, ooh yeah). Jake loiters outside a shimmering tinsel portal marked “SLUTS,” glances around awkwardly, then goes behind that green door.

Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” in her 1975 film-studies perennial Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” She described “a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions … by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” The Freudian origins of Mulvey’s theory gave it a monumental essentialism; bell hooks once pointed out how she elided race (a white woman always filled the showgirl role in classical Hollywood, and Hitchcock’s blondes were blondes). Everybody doesn’t peer through or perform for the same gaze. Mulvey has acknowledged these nuances, referring to “an alternative and self-conscious spectatorship,” but her great insight was that hierarchy governs our images too. By decentering the male subject, De Palma’s thrillers show how the eye might be lured, mesmerized, misled or pierced.

De Palma’s earliest films were less precise, and sometimes more revealing: They don’t disguise his fixations as genre. The mercurial black comedy Hi Mom! trails like a disorderly kid after Jean-Luc Godard, through whom De Palma arrived at Brechtian ideas of estrangement — telling a story while displaying the artifice involved, so that viewers might act upon the fiction rather than just receiving it. A woman testing out a movie camera zooms in on the salesman, bearing the device to bare the device: “You twist this like so, and your subject will come closer and closer and closer…” An antic young Robert De Niro stars as Jon Rubin, who films neighbours fucking and tries to contrive porn spying on himself — then as now, the wrong angles will ruin your nude. Later he rehearses the cop’s role for a militant theater troupe, clanging his baton against a ladder with unnerving enthusiasm: “What are you protesting? Let me see your permit. You don’t need a permit?” (During the early 1960s De Palma was shot in the leg by New York police, albeit while drunkenly stealing a scooter.)

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin marveled: “The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested.” De Palma tosses his narratives like a bloody knife into the laps of bystanders, who then feel compelled to solve the crime, to absolve their complicity. He’s always resisting arrest. A long Steadicam shot from Raising Cain (1992) glides with unnatural grace past the walkways, staircases and elevators of a police station, tilting sinuously around a criminal psychologist as she explains the plot; exposition is a maze De Palma dances through. His Battleship Potemkin tribute in The Untouchables — staircase, baby carriage, crossfire — seems alien to the movie around it, a bubble trembling over a gun barrel.

The split screen, De Palma’s favorite technique, concentrates distraction. It suggests the flux of sexual difference, darting between signals, your lens rupturing, your life juxtaposed against itself. Some of these compositions turn slyly dialectical: Passion (2012) places scenes from a Jerome Robbins ballet next to a sinister prowler, the bodies hovering in parallel. But that sequence also misdirects the viewer’s attention at crucial moments, a trick De Palma has used since 1973’s Sisters, his first thriller.

De Palma exploits new technology to shoot from high, cloistered angles and cramped positions — positions only a voyeur could love

Sisters opens with a blind woman entering the wrong change room. A watching man stops her as she begins undressing, and the camera cuts away to reveal that people are watching them too, on the test-your-ethics game show Peeping Toms. The woman turns out to be a Quebecois model/actress named Danielle (Margot Kidder), and she convinces that fellow contestant to take her home with him, away from the ex-husband who’s been following her. After they wake up on the couch together, he learns of her twin Danielle, too late to realize that the other sister’s protective urges are homicidal. A neighbor sees his hand flash scarlet from window to window. Split-screen shots break the aftermath into fragments, that cubist shape of time experienced through security cameras, making everyone’s movements look both frantic and dazed.

The neighbor, Grace (Jennifer Salt), happens to be a journalist, and she tracks down an old documentary about Danielle and Dominique, revealing that the pair were once conjoined. Dominique died during the botched operation meant to give Danielle’s ex Emil Breton a compliantly solitary wife, her personality somehow absorbed by the remaining twin. Investigating a mental hospital, Grace gets drugged by Dr. Breton, who nearly manages to portray her suspicions as symptoms. She hallucinates herself inside that documentary, lying beneath a surgical blade passed around on reverent palms. Thirty years ago the critic Robin Wood argued: “One can define the monster of Sisters as women’s liberation; adding only that the film follows the time-honored horror tradition of making the monster emerge as the most sympathetic character.” The medical system encourages Emil’s urge to discipline anyone complicating gender or anatomy.

Evil twins have more fun. In his study The Double, the psychoanalyst Otto Rank argued that doppelgangers often serve as a “bad self,” the splinter persona responsible for each forbidden urge. The sadistic executive played by Rachel McAdams in Passion invites lovers to wear a mask stylized after her own face. No character spends much time having sex per se. The perverse intimacies of jealousy get them off: They all want each other, or to kill each other, or to be each other. No wonder so many people fantasize about their double — about knowing what it looks like from the outside.

Body Double was a calculated provocation after several years of controversial films, none more so than 1980’s Dressed to Kill. De Palma roleplays with Hitchcock’s Psycho, presenting the human condition as unfulfilled horniness. The New York City housewife Kate (Angie Dickinson) visits psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) to process her selfish husband and sexual frustration: “I moaned with pleasure at his touch,” she deadpans. “Isn’t that what every man wants?” The shrink gently dodges her come-on, and Kate goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she glimpses and seduces another stranger over 10 famously silent minutes — it’s cruising, an understanding reached through glances alone. The next scene is famous for different reasons.

As Kate leaves her partner’s apartment, a mysterious blonde corners her in the elevator, holds out a razor, and slashes it deep. The sequence doesn’t shock with mere gore (more suggestive than graphic). What disturbs me are its moments of beauty, revealed by glinting light: that ruby-engraved razor; Kate’s arm reaching with agonizing poise towards a savior; the astonishing shot where her would-be rescuer looks up, sees the killer in the mirror, and time slows down, distends, as if each character were pausing to examine their reflection. Distance collapses abjectly to nothing. Formalism is always amoral, but De Palma traps you inside cruel style, like a brooch pinned through your skin. In his romp all over Hitchcock’s Psycho, De Palma also homages its prejudices: Kate’s killer is the doctor, violently repressing a hatred of their own gender. Both films apprehend transness as a kind of exotic personality disorder. The initial screenplay began with a different shower scene: a man shaving all the hair off his body.

“They have this wonderful term for it,” De Palma said back when Dressed to Kill came out. “Gender discomfort.” He went on: “I was at a dinner party, and I asked, quite innocently, ‘Wouldn’t it be terrific to dress up in women’s clothes and go out and see how people related to you?’ And everyone looked at me like I was a lunatic.” If I go out in the world wearing lipstick or eyeshadow, let alone a dress, I get read at times as some inchoate creature. A jumble of bones, assembled by guesswork. Would you rather be visible or legible?

Unlike Silence of the Lambs, which renders queerness monstrous while pretending not to gawk, De Palma is an unashamed voyeur. For most of Dressed to Kill, Dr. Elliott hardly even appears as Bobbi — she’s only black gloves, faint photographs, the voice on an answering machine. And who’s that ghost haunting? Liz and Dr. Elliott both watch an actual episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show with the actual trans woman Nancy Hunt, who had a wife before coming out but a husband afterwards, and mischievously explains: “I’ve always been devoutly heterosexual.” Phil stumbles over the key line of the film: “I don’t want to say ‘normal,’ I guess that’s a prejudicial way to put it.” A word like “normal” grinds apart on the tongue of the pervert. When Dr. Elliott visits Bellevue mental hospital, De Palma shoots from such extreme low angles that it forces the spectator into a patient’s perspective. Discomfort, that wonderful term.

People read their desires onto old media, too. The most sublime shot in De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) may be its very first one, just somebody watching Double Indemnity in their hotel room, whose reflection blurs through Barbara Stanwyck as if they were the image’s penumbra. Adapting James Ellroy’s novel for The Black Dahlia (2006), which was based on Elizabeth Short’s unsolved 1940s killing, De Palma grows palpably disdainful of every macho noir trope — like my friend Tessa recently told me, nothing about his aesthetic is manly. A few characters go to see The Man Who Laughs, whose star, Conrad Veidt, inspired the Joker; others duplicate his rictus with dental tools, with paint, and finally with a knife. By the time De Palma garlands murders along a marble staircase, we’ve reached the horrific extravagance of some prestige giallo movie. The remaining villain is so theatrical she confesses on a balcony. Fiona Shaw delivers that speech as grotesque camp, jabbing her cheeks to imitate the mutilated Dahlia: a parody of obscenity.

There’s an overhead shot depicting Elizabeth Short’s autopsy that swoops gracefully down to look up at the men inspecting her, moving from death to life. She returns your gaze

De Palma talks about his own movies like criminal evidence: “Every mistake is right up there on the screen, Everything you didn’t solve. Every shortcut you took. You will look at it for the rest of your life.” The Black Dahlia conjures Elizabeth Short in the B-movie auditions screened by an increasingly obsessive police detective. De Palma implicates himself to voice the creepy-avuncular director: “Do you think you’re capable of playing sadness?” Mia Kirshner makes this specter the film’s most vivid character, cheerfully intense and weary of indulging fantasies. Sadness is a note she knows how to hit. There’s an overhead shot of Short’s autopsy that swoops gracefully down to look up at the men inspecting her, moving from detachment to empathy, from death to life. In those screen tests her eyes stare somewhere beyond the lens. She returns your gaze.

In the city windows never fully close. Riding the subway you yield to a mutual voyeurism, everybody glancing at their thoughts, looks, exchanges and selves. It feels humanizing, unlike the imagined panopticon, a prison designed so that its inmates can always be seen; but that metaphor has become obsolete. Surveillance reaches the molecular level of data. On her recent album, Hopelessness, Anohni sings for a perpetrator to go with these violations: “I know you love me, daddy, because you’re always watching me / Protecting me from evil / Protecting me from terrorism.” Voyeurism is the rare fetish that seeks something immaterial — to isolate sex from the body, with all its shame. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the humbled god demands.

“Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly,” Walter Benjamin wrote. “Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the 10th of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.” De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) takes place in that exploded landscape; it isolates the political thriller’s barbed clockwork fragments. The opening shot is a heavy-breathing first-person view familiar from countless slasher movies (and many De Palma movies), which jumps outside itself to the editing room of Coed Frenzy. Suffering from temporary pride, the sound technician Jack Terry (John Travolta) decides to replace some cheap library effects, along with a rather limp scream. He takes his audio equipment to the nearest bridge, capturing owls, wind, squabbling couples, and the burst tire of a car that turns jaggedly through the guardrail.

Jack saves from the wreck a woman named Sally (Nancy Allen again), who was hired to draw out the driver — Pennsylvania’s governor, a leading presidential candidate. Amidst the ambient noise of that recording, just before the crash, they can make out a gunshot. As politicians mourn the freak accident, Jack constructs his own version of reality, piecing together photos and audio to create a Zapruder-like film document. In Blow Out heartbeats are a meter on your mixing console; thunderstorms are generated by reels of tape. Liberating each sound from its source, technology exposes a tension between the senses. (The strange temporalities of surveillance footage: are you watching the present or the past?) At one point the assassin, Burke (John Lithgow again), tries to destroy any evidence by erasing Jack’s effects library. De Palma pans around the room in decaying helixes, away from the frantic Travolta, past all his helpless equipment, accompanied only by shuddering electronic surf. It’s a nightmare of dissociation.

Long before the internet, De Palma understood how surveillance can turn into a mutual performance. Burke explains to his panicked masters that he’s murdering random people to brand his work as mere serial killing — a story the media would much rather pursue than Jack’s conspiracies. When a reporter expresses an interest in Jack’s evidence, he sends Sally out to meet him, but the reporter is Burke in disguise. Jack pursues them throughout Philadelphia, a chase choreographed by the disembodied noises in his earpiece, but even after he stabs the operative with his own weapon, Sally is already gone.

The final scene returns to Jack’s editing room, where he solved the problem of Coed Frenzy by dubbing in Sally’s dying cry. His producer loves it. As they loop that slivered agony over and over, the sound technician covers his ears. The pleasure of not-seeing, familiar to any horror fan, becomes here a tragic image. “It’s a good scream,” Jack mutters. “Good scream.” When the lights came up at a recent Blow Out screening, I was struck by nervous laughter going around the theater. It was that noise people sometimes make after stumbling in the wrong door. None of us knew where to look.

Chris Randle is one of those Canadian writers living in New York. He has contributed to Hazlitt, the Guardian, Pitchfork, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications.