I have a friend in Chapel Hill, the photographer and radio commentator John Rosenthal, with whom I enjoy discussing movies on the occasions, unfortunately rare of late, when we find ourselves in the same city with a few hours to spare. There is for me, however, a downside to these conversations that’s become so predictable it’s almost comical. If the talk goes on long enough, I know that John will eventually bring up Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and, for the umpteenth time in as many years, reprove me for admiring a movie that he finds ridiculous and utterly worthless.
This has become more than a simple aesthetic disagreement. Harking back to 1981, when, after giving Blow Out a favorable review I received a letter from John (whom I barely knew at the time) expressing his profound incredulity and complete disagreement, the difference of opinion has evolved into a ritual of sorts, imbued with a symbolic significance which far exceeds that of any single movie. In a way, it serves to remind us–and especially him, since left to my own devices I would never breathe another word about Blow Out–that, whatever bonds of taste we may share and cherish, beneath them looms a yawning schism of taste, a veritable Grand Canyon of cinephilic dispute. Can this divide ever be breached? Doubtless not. We are left to stare at it, to contemplate our intellectual friendship in terms of it, and, at best, to continue to “agree to disagree”–a silly expression perhaps coined by a photographer who had run out of cogent arguments.
I bring this up not to belabor the brilliance of Blow Out–a great film for those with eyes to see–but rather to point out that such chasms of disagreement are rare but important landmarks in our film-going experience, however socially uncomfortable they may sometimes be, and that Brian De Palma is likely the source of more of them than any filmmaker in history. I seriously believe this. Just last week a cinephile friend calling from Paris revealed that in a year-end critics poll of the legendary film journal Cahiers du Cinema, De Palma’s Carlito’s Way tied at No. 1 in the race for best film of the 1990s. I practically fell out of my chair when I heard that. Carlito’s Way the best film of the past decade?! We know the French are crazy–but that crazy? Incroyable.
The irony of my defending Blow Out, you see, is that I am generally a De Palma detractor, which means that in New York I’ve spent a fair amount of time in argument with that Stalinist cadre of critics identified by The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane (in a recent review of exceeding obtuseness) as the “Worshipful Company of Brian De Palma Apologists.” Some of these critics are otherwise pretty intelligent, but on the subject of De Palma they are worse than foaming-at-the-mouth irrational; they are virtually French. They love everything this largely bogus filmmaker does, and apart from Blow Out, I’ve mostly loathed it. Until now.
Will I spend the next two decades in defense of Mission to Mars to Rosenthal or some impious surrogate? Probably. I can feel the pull of that pitiless polemical whirlpool even now. But let’s start at the beginning. I went to Mission to Mars expecting it to be another De Palmaesque piece of overblown, misanthropic rubbish. I’d heard a rumor that it had been screened for students at New York University and they heckled it uproariously and walked out in droves. That sounded about right, I thought. Yet my own experience of the movie was just the opposite: two hours of steadily mounting admiration and amazed intoxication. I couldn’t believe it. At the same time, however, the frequent groans and cackles I heard from other critics let me know my feelings were far from universal. Mission to Mars, it appeared, was not to be a De Palma triumph–there’s never been such a thing, unless you count Carrie or the overrated Dressed to Kill–it was to be yet another De Palma imbroglio.
Unfortunately, my sense of the largely scornful critical attitude toward the movie proved correct. Critics dumped on Mission to Mars like Vesuvius dumped on Pompeii; the volume of vitriol even prompted an article or two online. As it happens, the public seems not to have agreed; in its first two weeks, the film pulled in more than $40 million at the box office. Of course, that doesn’t prove anything in particular. Except, perhaps, that the catalytic divisiveness that De Palma inspires still reigns mainly among critics and cinephiles.
So let me be plain as to how I see those on the other side of the debate this time. I can understand individual opinions against Mission to Mars, much as I still understand Rosenthal’s uncomprehending dismissal of Blow Out; no movie is everyone’s cup of chamomile, after all. But the general critical reaction seems to me to indicate several unhealthy things that combine into a depressing picture of the present degraded and degrading state of American film criticism. Beyond the herdlike instinct it betrays, and the jejune and fatuous tendency to smirk in superiority at anything that’s supposedly corny or old-hat, there’s the patent inability to understand what’s onscreen in terms of the link between authorial feeling and visual articulation. Ultimately, the derision visited on De Palma’s film makes me worry that the most valuable definition of cinema we have is being lost, because smug, trend-happy, ill-educated critics–not the public, necessarily–no longer understand it.
De Palma’s film is a pop-philosophical outer space thriller that shares elements with 2001 (the incomparable), Close Encounters, The Abyss, Contact and so on. In the days before Star Wars and Star Trek thoroughly ruined classic movie sci-fi with the treacly outlook of television, this kind of film was a solid genre staple; had it been made in 1965 or ’73, it would have taken for what it is, rather than regarded as a silly, hootable fossil. Of course, now that sci-fi has been codified as meaning only vapid kiddie fantasy (Star Wars) or dystopian-noir violence dramas (The Matrix), any movie that involves space travel, cosmic speculation and wonder and complex, grown-up emotions is bound to seem a throwback to the moldly genres of yesteryear. Mission to Mars also stands accused by its detractors of featuring numerous instances of cornball dialogue and creaky, clunky exposition.
And so it does. In fact, it is guilty on both counts, of being 1) a foursquare genre piece and 2) sprinkled with various verbal and narrative awkwardnesses. But so what? The exact same can be said of various movies now considered masterpieces, such as–to cite a figure often associated with De Palma–most of Hitchcock’s films. Those were “just” genre pictures that, to boot, were filled with things like fakey sets and unrealistic plot twists. As I tried to suggest here last week, American critics in 1954 considered Rear Window anything but a work of art. That changed, a decade or more later, when modernist criticism made the case that movies’ most profound and characteristic meanings came not from “serious” themes or handsome looks, but from personal expression through the subtleties of style, usually within the confines of genre.
Starring Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Jerry O’Connell and Connie Nielsen as astronauts struggling to reach the surface of Mars and the decimated remnants of a stranded crew, the film starts off languorously, at a backyard barbeque on an Earth that’s supposed to be the year 2020 but feels more like the 1960s. That De Palma here takes such time sketching in the milieu and the emotional connections between the characters, especially those regarding marriage and children, struck me as curiously quaint and sentimental, especially for a director whose approach to narrative and people is usually so sleek and mechanical. I remained more perplexed than enchanted until a key scene in outer space when the crew, stranded outside their spacecraft and trying to reach another amid the inky depths of space, tumbles toward Mars.
This passage is surely one of the most astonishing sequences in any recent American movie, and in fact points toward qualities that have been the essentials of American film art in a line that stretches back through Hitchcock to Griffith. Put simply, it’s a tour de force of visual storytelling that orchestrates every formal element–composition within the frame, movement, editing: the tensile interactions of time and space–into an enveloping ballet of outer experience and inner emotion. Suddenly you see why De Palma has spent such time with the characters before: His sci-fi action play is not about spaceships and monsters but about the things that make us human, including love and loss. Of course, if you’re stupid enough to have already decided that the movie is beneath you, then you won’t have the patience and open-mindedness to allow it the chance to weave the spell that produces this exquisite payoff, which in turn launches the film toward Mars and its dazzling climax.
In a way, it’s almost as if De Palma intentionally built in all the creaky lines of dialogue and other corniness for which the film is scorned, simply to separate the real cinephiles from today’s equivalents of those critics who sniffed at Rear Window‘s lack of realism and sophistication 45 years ago. In fact, though, I doubt he could have imagined that so many current critics are so completely immune to the history, dynamics and real glories of cinema.
The irony, of course, is that those critics are displaying a kind of facile cynicism not unlike that which De Palma himself has often been guilty. All too frequently in the last two decades, his movies have been hard-bitten exercises in style without heart or real thematic vision. Mission to Mars is one instance where–apparently inspired by the greatest of themes: the nature and destiny of humankind–he rises to the occasion and puts it all together in a meaningful, organic, genuinely emotional way. The scene in outer space cited above is alone enough to elevate this movie to a level of classicism that today, alas, seems increasingly endangered. Indeed, to paraphrase the film’s sci-fi gist, the reception that’s greeted Mission to Mars suggests that humanity may survive but that cinema, the highest order of filmmaking, is in peril of extinction.