Brian De Palma
Posted on 30 October 2005
Source Fox DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Arriving on the heels of his own wildly popular and critically-acclaimed Carrie, Brian De Palma’s The Fury was bound to disappoint. Almost a sequel to the former film (if you define “sequel” pretty loosely), it trod the same thematic and stylistic ground with perhaps slightly diminished returns. But when assessed as a film in its own right, The Fury is actually pretty awesome. I mean, how many films feature an independent filmmaking icon’s head exploding?
Jim Knipfel of the New York Press recently examined a retrospective of silent films playing at the Museum of the Moving Image by stating:
A century ago, right after the invention of motion pictures, every film was an avant-garde film. People were seeing what they could do with these devices for the very first time.
If you agree with Knipfel’s assessment, then no rules existed, and so no subject matter or technique was off limits. Audiences also had to be prepared for anything, because viewing motion pictures was as new an experience as making them. It’s thrilling to think that avant-garde filmmaking could not be divided into its own movement because everything being made was an experiment in trying to get a handle on the medium. It’s also frightening to think that as a moviegoer, walking into a theatre truly meant walking into darkness, having no idea what was about to unfold on screen. After all, from the benefit of more than a hundred years of remove, it’s easy to take for granted the tropes and norms that have become deeply entrenched in popular American moviemaking and going, many of which are designed to separate, or at least buffer us, from the potentially visceral experience of seeing a film for the first time.
Understandably, by 1978, the release year of Brian De Palma’s The Fury, norms and rules predominated both American moviemaking and moviegoing, to the general evolutionary benefit of the medium, as well as for the general comfort of the moviegoing masses. It was in this climate that De Palma’s film received several lashings from film critics, as well as a famously staunch rave from perennial De Palma defender Pauline Kael. A seemingly myopic film designed to intentionally bend genre rules and audience expectations in the process, The Fury has gained little love in the nearly three decades since its release. Armond White, however, has taken up The Fury’s cause, declaring it a “quintessential” example of De Palma’s pop/avant-garde aesthetic, and an example of “everything the medium (of film) is capable of.” White regards the unified dismissal of The Fury by both critics and audiences alike as an example of how viewers, when encountering an unexpected cinematic experience, typically refuse to shift gears and alter their expectations. Because De Palma’s film is heavily influenced by experimentation in both technique and narrative execution, White considers audience frustration with The Fury a reflection of not being able to watch a popular Hollywood film within the context of an art cinema comprehension. Like Sam Fuller, who Martin Scorsese declared as the litmus test of true cinematic love, White considers De Palma the litmus test filmmaker of his generation, stating that, “anybody who can’t see the wit and impressive morality of The Fury really has no business in this profession, and I absolutely do believe that anybody who can’t see it in The Fury doesn’t really like movies.”
Kael and especially White’s charmingly enthusiastic, if slightly hyperbolic assessment, makes an important case for the The Fury’s significance. But in defending the film with such stridency, White has forced a seriousness, and dare I say a snobbery, onto De Palma’s film that goes against the uniquely playful tone employed by the director which makes The Fury such an astonishing work in the first place. I consider De Palma to be a consciously unsnobbish filmmaker, frequently working to break down the divide between American and European cinema, classic narratives and art cinema, and audience expectation in regards to execution and formal experiment (though some may argue the opposite, claiming that De Palma’s experiments simply shut every type of viewer out equally). In this sense, De Palma is an inclusive director, who uses the potential for gathering a substantial audience to his work as a means of breaking down barriers of exclusivity and privileged awareness. No matter how many films you’ve watched before encountering The Fury, anyone opened to the experience of watching this film for the first time will find themselves on a leveled playing field, scrambling to make sense of what’s unfolding before them. The Fury is not an easily identifiable movie, at times seeming discomposed and confused. In creating such a work, De Palma asks the audience to release their own composure while watching the film, as well. And even though most viewers have refused, I find it bothersome and inaccurate, not to mention ironic, when De Palma is held up as a primary example of a director who’s audience is divided by those who simply “get it” and those who don’t, especially considering that his career has been devoted to achieving the contrary. Most audience members may not be willing to make themselves a part of De Palma’s experiments, but that does not mean everyone isn’t invited to the party.
The Fury is meant to be a celebratory work, blowing the medium apart at the seams, encouraging the viewer to leave past considerations and expectations at the theatre door. It’s designed to invoke a strong, and strongly confused, reaction, and that really is the point. As popular as the medium of film is, rarely is it associated with outbursts of celebratory expression, except perhaps at film festivals or in certain cultural circumstances. Typically, filmgoing is a collective, but quiet experience. Audience reactions for the most part have become as scripted as the story on screen—or so it seems; I can’t really guess what’s going on in other viewers’ heads, and I assume that’s what people pay for: an experience that is unifying, but ultimately predictable. But in 1978, De Palma was attempting to return viewers to an experience of not knowing similar to Knipfel’s description of moviegoing at the dawn of the medium. With an established history of the medium already behind him, though, De Palma had no choice but to find just the right balance between an acknowledged presentation of the genre tropes and narrative/cultural constructs he was working from, and the seemingly disparate moviegoing expectations involved when mixing art cinema, avant-garde experimentation, and popular Hollywood technique.
In swinging the doors of the medium open, De Palma has appropriately created a film about struggled release. The characters in The Fury fight to contain what’s inside them, frequently unable to share or control the extent to which their powers will be felt by others. The thrills in this film are always just slightly off: traditionally composed scenes are accented by moments of oddness. Twists are built into scenes throughout, as opposed to a building of tension towards one grand finale twist. By the time the film ends, its twist is so over the top that it may be the most disappointing — for those who value traditional payoffs — twist ending imaginable. No one sees this ending coming, and no one could. Whereas most twist endings congratulate the viewer for staying with the story and reward the viewer with a 20/20 hindsight of logical buildup, De Palma blows the viewers expectations apart (along with John Cassavetes, narrative expectation, audience expectation, and the confined expectations of the medium and the genres he’s working in). De Palma accomplishes his goal: The Fury’s protagonist, Gillian Bellaver, is released from her psychic confinement, and in an ideal world, audiences are released too, freed from a century’s worth of cinematic rules and constrictions, free to experience filmgoing as genre hopping, genre destroying fun. Art in the cinema no longer has to be serious says The Fury, nor does it have to compartmentalized.
Even an assessment of The Fury through labeling, such as “art cinema” and “avant-garde,” misses the point, though. Filmmakers like De Palma and Sam Fuller have repeatedly railed against labeling in their filmmaking, doing so by marrying past audience expectations in newly disaffected ways. One need not put their art cinema goggles on to view The Fury “properly,” because there is no one proper way to view The Fury. That’s simply trading one security blanket of expectation for another. Yes, De Palma has incorporated avant-garde and art cinema technique into a popular Hollywood film. But he’s done so in order to acknowledge, and by extension minimize, a cinematically versed viewer’s ability to fall back on self-reflexiveness. Should an avant-garde or art cinema viewing experience become overwhelming, the viewer can depend on genre consistency, program notes, audience conformities of laughter, and the safe setting of a revival house theatre surrounding to guide their viewing experience back into familiarity. Conversely, audiences wishing for a purely escapist experience might not be open to bold forms of original expression, unless such originality is born out of a desire to pull the viewer even further down an escapist path. The Fury falls somewhere in the middle. It was intentionally made as a popular film to be released in “regular” cinemas, but with few of the easily recognizable turns of a standard suspense thriller/horror film.
It’s difficult to know when to laugh while watching The Fury, or whether to laugh at all. It’s also difficult to know when to be scared, shocked, or confused. And even though a variety of emotions should make their way into one’s experience of watching the film, it’s De Palma’s slippery blending of genre and his refusal to package one set of expectations within the context or framing device of another (is this an art film framed as popular escapism, or popular escapism presented through the avant-garde, or is it a reassessment of all three, or…) that will leave the audience with a stockpile of moods and moments, but not necessarily a distinct recollection of narrative chronology or the confident sense of familiarity typically associated with one’s experience of having just seen a film.
In the years between the birth of cinema and De Palma’s late-seventies experiment, the primary option for rejecting a work remained the same (and continues to this day): you could simply walk out on the film as it was playing. Many critics did walk out on The Fury, if not literally, then after the fact while reviewing the film. Not giving De Palma’s film a chance seems to indicate that as an experiment, The Fury proved a failure. Personally, I don’t think that’s the case. When assessing a work of art, the work itself should always remain priority. On the other hand, I don’t think a dislike for The Fury indicates a lack of sophistication or understanding of the medium of cinema. It’s contrary to claim a medium so complex that only astute participants will understand it, and then in turn reduce a medium’s potency to one or two key filmmakers. And what if a person’s not understanding a director is based in complexity? I myself appreciate only a fraction of De Palma’s work, and yet this is what makes him an intriguing filmmaker with an inexhaustible body of work. The Fury “experiment” may have failed for now, but I have a feeling De Palma’s film will stand the test of time better than most expect.
The last word goes to Pauline Kael, who while discussing Orson Welles’ Falstaff could have just as easily been reviewing The Fury:
What makes movies a great popular art form is that certain artists can, at moments in their lives, reach out and unify the audience — educated and uneducated — in a shared response. The tragedy in the history of movies is that those who have this capacity are usually prevented from doing so. The mass audience gets its big empty movies full of meaningless action; the arthouse audience gets its studies of small action and large inaction loaded with meaning.