What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

May 30, 2016 Issue

Is Brian De Palma a great director? Richard Brody, in his "Blood Relatives," a review of De Palma’s 1973 thriller, Sisters, in this week’s issue, thinks so. He writes, “No great director has built a career with as overt and obsessive a relation to a cinematic forebear as Brian De Palma has in regard to Alfred Hitchcock.” But in his "The Brian De Palma Conundrum," posted two days ago on, he appears to have reconsidered his position, saying, “I think that he’s a director who’s more often fascinating than great.”

Pauline Kael was a fan of De Palma’s work. His movies are the subject of some of her most brilliant reviews, e.g., “The Curse” (The New Yorker, November 23, 1976), “Shivers” (The New Yorker, March 20, 1978), “Master Spy, Master Seducer” (The New Yorker, August 4, 1980), and “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Gadgeteer” (The New Yorker, July 27, 1981) – all of which are included in her superb 1994 collection For Keeps. My favorite is “Master Spy, Master Seducer,” a review of Dressed to Kill, containing a detailed description of that film’s bravura Metropolitan Museum sequence, in which the camera darts from gallery to gallery following the Angie Dickinson character and the man-with-her-glove in a whirling cat-and-mouse courtship game. Kael writes, “With almost no words, this loveplay edged by the man’s contemptuous assurance goes through so many permutations that it suggests a speeded-up seduction out of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – a hundred pages turned into a visual scherzo.”

In his “Blood Relatives,” Brody stresses De Palma’s “cinephilic devotion” to Hitchcock and others (such as Stanley Kubrick and Michelangelo Antonioni). In “The Brian De Palma Conundrum,” he criticizes such devotion, asserting that “De Palma’s peculiar fealty to the history of cinema—his overt dependence upon the films of Alfred Hitchcock and his plethora of references to other classic filmmakers (from Howard Hawks and Stanley Kubrick to Michelangelo Antonioni and Sergei Eisenstein)—results in zombie-like movies.” He says, “De Palma is the creator of a mortuary cinema, in which the dead forms of classic Hollywood are brought back to life through his exertion of an amazingly exacting talent—yet at the cost of his personality.” Kael has a different take. In “Master Spy, Master Seducer,” she writes,

Over the years, De Palma has developed as an artist by moving further into his material, getting to deeper levels of erotic comedy and funnier levels of violation. If he has learned a great deal from Hitchcock (and Welles and Godard and Polanski and Scorsese and many others), he has altered its nature with a funky sensuousness all his own.

Interestingly, Kael panned Sisters (“The crudeness of this movie – its zero on atmosphere –  obviously works for some people, but you probably have to be highly impressionable, with a very active, very gaudy fantasy life, to fall for it,” she says in Reeling). Brody calls it “exemplary.” He writes,

Though De Palma’s own images can’t rival Hitchcock’s in shot-by-shot psychological power, the intricate multiple-perspective split-screen sequences of “Sisters” offer a dense and elaborate counterpoint that conjures a sense of psychological dislocation and information overload belonging to De Palma’s own generation and times.

Brody’s descriptions of Sisters don’t make it sound crude – quite the opposite. So who’s right – Kael or Brody? I suspect Brody is overpraising this film. But I’ll withhold final judgment until I see Sisters myself.

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