The Technology, the Art, and the Ethics of Watching: Talking With Brian De Palma at Toronto

The Technology, the Art, and the Ethics of Watching: Talking With Brian De Palma


"I suffer from the fact that people have so many preconceptions about the kinds of movies I make," Brian De Palma lamented, "that they don't really look at what's on the screen." At the time, the 72 year-old New Jersey-born filmmaker was talking about how his reputation as a cynic made it impossible for some to see his sincere attempt in the 2000 sci-fi oddity Mission to Mars to replicate the sense of "awe" astronauts get when they visit space. "The exploration of space fascinated me when I was in high school: going to the moon was all we thought about," De Palma said, in a recent conversation during the Toronto International Film Festival. "I'm fascinated by this technology. And what you discover when you talk to people that have done these missions is that they're extremely idealistic, they're extremely awed. They've seen things we've never seen. And their reaction is that of, how can I say? Awe."

The way that De Palma sought to achieve such an ecstatic effect is intriguing: like the hard science fiction sub-genre of literature that inspired it, De Palma's film is primarily concerned with the mechanics and terrestrial procedures that allow the film's astronaut protagonists to see and experience more. Seeing better through technology is a recurring thematic concern for De Palma, from Passion, his most recent thriller, to the 1974 black comedy/cult musical Phantom of the Paradise, and even earlier. For instance, in films like Phantom of the Paradise, where cutting-edge technology is represented by the bulky recording machinery in the Phantom's studio, technology is impossibly big. However, more recently, in films like Passion and De Palma's provocative 2007 war drama Redacted, technology is tiny, and it’s everywhere. 

"That's what inspired me about Redacted, the way that the soldiers were communicating, either with their loved ones or in their diaries," De Palma explained. "Everyone has these digital cameras and now they're getting smaller. Everyone’s phone's going to get a camera that's even better, and we're going to see this stuff all over the place. So, I don't know. Am I a big investigator of this? Absolutely. I'm fascinated by all the new forms that pop up on YouTube, all these video forms. Plus, all the surveillance cameras that are around all the time. Everything's being watched by somebody."

This is just as true of Passion, a remake of the 2010 French thriller Love Crime in which two business colleagues, played by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace, use various cameras to implicate each other in convoluted schemes. In a key scene, one of these two characters has a meltdown in a parking garage, and the other uses surveillance camera footage to publicly humiliate her at a company party. To De Palma, the surveillance camera is inherently cinematic, an extension of the point-of-view shot.

"What's unique to cinema is that you shoot the point-of-view shot," De Palma suggested. "The audience is getting the same information as the character is getting. We're seeing what the character is seeing. And then, in Hitchcock, you cut back as he's smiling or leering–it depends on how you react to visual information that's being presented to you. But the fact is: the point-of-view shot is a unique tool of cinema. So when we start moving into surveillance cameras, that's an extension of the point-of-view shot. And much of cinema is about watching. Watching people do things, following people—which is what we do when we're sitting around. We're looking over here, we're looking over there. We're living a point-of-view shot."

The fact that De Palma sees this as an extension of human nature speaks to the amoral nature of voyeurism and watching in his films. In Passion, McAdams and Rapace's dueling anti-heroines photograph themselves using camera phones and are in turn furtively filmed by each other using those same miniature phones. This creates an interesting power dynamic: according to De Palma, if the voyeur's subject knows that they're being watched, there is nothing to implicate the viewer in whatever act they are looking at. "It's like a keyhole that everyone's looking through," De Palma explained. "If everyone's looking through it–otherwise it's on the internet. I don't know, you have a kind of anonymous complicit-ness. Who's looking at it? The world's looking at it. So because I'm part of the world looking, does that make me part of the crime? I think it's more to do with exhibitionism. I think anyone that's taking a photograph of themselves or a video for themselves is posing for the camera. If they're posing for the camera, they want to be seen. So anybody looking is hardly complicit, they're basically fulfilling what the exhibitionist wants to do: expose themselves."

This is an important distinction, given that Rapace's character in Passion is one of the two subjects of a sex tape filmed without her knowledge and then circulated. Funnily enough, De Palma did not have to give his game cast members detailed instructions on how to film this touchy scene. "In the [sex tape] they made in the hotel room in London, I just gave them a camera and said, 'Go in there and make a sex tape,'" De Palma shrugged. "I just gave them the camera and closed the door. And for when they got into bed, I said, 'Make sure the camera goes here, because that's what we're going to use to show when [Christine] humiliates [Isabelle].' They did five or six takes, with one wild thing after the other. And Noomi is quite aware of being photographed. They're posing for the camera together, but they're making a sex tape together."

He continued: "And if you've ever looked at sex tapes, both participants—in the ones I've seen—seem to be aware of the camera. They don't say, 'No, no, don't do that,' they're sort of passively aware that the camera is there. Well, as I found when I was editing the movie, it makes Noomi more sympathetic if she's not. She's not aware that she's being photographed. He's making the video, like a guy that takes a girl into a bedroom and has a hidden camera somewhere. And that to me made her more empathetic, as she's a victim of this sex tape."

The fact that this violation could only be caught on film because of the small size of the camera filming Rapace's character is a vital detail. But the fact that cameras are now almost invisible does not mean that voyeurism is now exclusively the province of camera phones. Again, De Palma insists that all roads lead back to the point-of-view shot. When asked if the way that his films treat sex and violence as spectacle spoke to the fact that cinema, as a medium, could best represent the id, De Palma’s response was impatient but insistent.

"You're pointing to things that are intrinsic to the cinematic form. You're pointing to the point-of-view shot, you're talking about violence, so you're talking about images that are quickly cut together that exist in no other art form except cinema. So you're talking about unique building blocks of cinema. So when you say, 'Can this be considered exploitative,' or 'excessive,' or whatever other pejorative you want to use, the fact remains: these are colors in the palette of the filmmaker."

With that in mind, it makes sense that De Palma is not anti-3D so much as he opposes the constant abuse of the technology. De Palma's innovative aesthetic takes the Eisenstein-ian concept of montage as the collision of individual shots with each other to its logical conclusion: the collision and juxtaposition of moving people and objects on separate visual planes within a single shot. But he considers 3D, as used in films like Avatar ("Cameron knows what he's doing with it."), to be "just another technique, and you'd better know how to use it." "But to shoot everything in 3D is debasing the form," De Palma added.

But to return momentarily to Mars: it's also not surprising that De Palma is fascinated by the recent Mars photos from the Curiosity rover. To him, these photographs represent the apex of what technology can allow us to see. He added that he can't imagine a future where the act of looking wasn't dependent on the limits of the technology we use. "What happens is that you discover things the technology reveals," De Palma said. "You just have to be attuned to see—it's like Curiosity, wandering around on Mars. It's fascinating to me, because we're seeing images that we would never see any other way. It's so awe-inspiring."

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

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