Watch Closely: Brian de Palma’s Surveillance States, 1965–1984

Watch Closely: Brian de Palma’s Surveillance States, 1965–1984

Multiple dimensions of surveillance combine as a medium in the films of Brian de Palma. The first two decades of his career — spanning roughly from 1965 to 1984 — routinely grapple with the notion of surveillance and counter-surveillance. “Surveillant” and “counter-surveillant” are more appropriate distinctions for De Palma’s oeuvre at that time than the more commonly used “voyeuristic.”

“Voyeurism” carries overt psychosexual connotations and ontologies relative to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, as writing on De Palma so often acknowledges. It is impossible to properly view De Palma’s films made at that time without first understanding precisely where those connotations originate with the director personally, and that is where much of the critical perception and scholarship on De Palma trips up.

By design, a film constitutes a surveillance state in its physical construction via photography and editing and, in the case of De Palma, in its own depiction of objects (in Jean Mitry’s sense of objects, which comprise a film’s content). This “state” is not unlike Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson’s concept of the “surveillant assemblage,” which proposes that the various forms of surveillance will “abstract” bodies from their original contexts and reassemble them elsewhere as “doubles.” Transmogrified, these bodies become manifestations of security, entertainment, and control that the observer targets. Likewise, a film is typically made by shooting takes out of sequence, selecting certain takes over others, and assembling them in a sequential order. Cinema in this sense thus abstracts and displaces its subjects and reassembles them as “doubles.”

Underlying the surveillant assemblage is Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of multiplicity, which distinguishes surveillance of this kind from others. Naturally, the assemblage as a template exists in the shadow of earlier concepts of surveillance: Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975), and Walter Benjamin’s flâneur. Yet these dealt specifically with concrete forms of surveillance: eyewitness observation, a watchtower, video recordings, and so on. By contrast, the assemblage addresses the multiplicity of forms of surveillance that permeate all aspects of public and private life, as well as the design of a film’s image world.

Many of De Palma’s earliest films were documentaries made while a graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, and his earliest narrative films combined fiction and documentary and/or faux documentary footage. Throughout the 1960s, he attended Amos Vogel’s art house theater, Cinema 16, where he submitted his first short films. These shorts address mid-century American social issues, activism, and contemporary art. “Bridge That Gap” (1965), for instance, was financed by the NAACP and follows African Americans in public housing while “Show Me a Strong Town and I’ll Show You a Strong Bank” (1966) depicts a Treasury Department worker conducting surprise inspections. These films are in step with the general character of mid-century American documentaries, for they are shot in a black-and-white 1.33:1 aspect ratio and merely regard what happens as a passive observer.

Conversely, De Palma’s earliest films made in the milieu of 1960s contemporary art movements acknowledge that passive observation can be manipulated, and they reveal the beginnings of De Palma’s specific “assemblage” notion of surveillance in the making and in the content of the films. “Woton’s Wake” (1962) and Dionysus in ‘69 (1970) contain footage of art performances and art happenings, the latter featuring De Palma’s first use of split screen: One camera captures New York ensemble The Performance Group staging Euripides’ The Bacchae while the other captures the audience’s response. It is not merely a device used to portray two POVs simultaneously, however. The film subject is abstracted from a specific site — a stage showcasing a largely improvised act viewed from a removed vantage point — and reassembled via its juxtaposition with the adjacent viewing audience, thus “breaking” and refiguring the viewer’s overall experience.

“The Responsive Eye” (De Palma)

“The Responsive Eye” (1966) contains footage of the 1965 op art exhibit of the same name at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The film does not address the exhibit necessarily in art historical or aesthetic terms but by way of interviews with exhibit attendees who discuss the works mainly in terms of optics and sense perception. These include: curator William C. Seitz, psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, and ophthalmologist Irving H. Leopold. Their comments speak further to De Palma’s early preoccupation with abstraction of objects from their sites. Says Seitz: “One sees ephemeral diamonds of varying reds…which are not in fact painted but created by color dots put in front of the picture, so that your eye fuses an entirely new color, your perceptual experience does not conform with physical facts.” Says Leopold: “Much of what you’re seeing here can be explained on principles of vision, and ideas of vision which have been established way back in the early [and] middle of the 19th century. What we’re dealing with are optical illusions.”

“Dressed to Kill” (De Palma)

De Palma films the exhibit in such a way that is, arguably, in accordance with Seitz’s criteria for selecting objects in the show itself: “perceptual abstraction” denudes the images of “conceptual association, habits, and references to previous experience” and “perceptual movement” places the image in a “virtual movement, which always exists in tension with factual mobility.” To that end, De Palma photographs attendees’ faces abstracted by the art objects and uses slow-moving dollies and zooms into the objects’ geometric patterns in order to replicate their sense of “virtual” kinesis. De Palma would recreate much of his own footage from “The Responsive Eye” years later in the museum sequence in Dressed to Kill (1980).

De Palma’s earliest documentaries demonstrate how the common reception of his films — being from the point of view of the stylistic influence of Alfred Hitchcock — is often reductive. When criticism relates the director to Hitchcock, it does so by comparing aesthetic models (De Palma ostensibly cribbing such models from his predecessor), yet “style” in these cases serves to accentuate how the narratives in De Palma’s films are largely arbitrary, often to the extent that scenes will border on camp: Consider the prison escape in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), the car chase in The Fury (1978), the elevator sequence in Dressed to Kill, or the narrative resolutions of Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984). The narrative becomes immaterial when the viewer accepts the film as a larger assemblage of images produced by watching, observing, and following rather than as a straightforward “thriller” derived from mid-century Hollywood films. In discussing his interest in conspiracy theories — particularly those surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 — as the genesis of Blow Out in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De Palma (2015), the director suggests that plot resolution is largely unimportant: “Blow Out gets to somebody trying to find out what actually happened, and my conclusion was even if they could figure out who was on the grassy knoll, no one would care anymore.” Dialogue from Phantom of the Paradise carries the same sensibility: “As long as it sounds good nobody’s gonna care what it’s about. Nobody cares what anything’s about.”

Thomas in “Blow-Up” (Antonioni)

The preoccupation with the artifice of film assemblage appears throughout De Palma’s oeuvre in that he routinely draws the viewer’s attention to it onscreen. In that light, De Palma’s cinema has a greater kinship with that of Michelangelo Antonioni as it pertains to the assemblage, and how that assemblage confounds the viewer’s notions of what is real and fake. De Palma’s first two features, Murder à la Mod and Greetings (both 1968), allude directly to Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Mod opens with a sequence displaying a series of still photographs of a fashion model that eventually reveals the photo session itself ending in what appears to be a murder, not unlike Thomas’ series of photographs in Blow-Up that capture what he believes is either a murder or an attempted murder.

Lloyd in “Greetings” (De Palma)

A scene in Greetings features Lloyd (Gerrit Graham) looking at a photo print of footage of the Kennedy assassination and asking the developer to enlarge the image in hopes that it will reveal a police officer aiming a gun at the president. The developer responds: “I saw Blow-Up. I know how this turns out. You can’t see anything.” Lloyd has the print enlarged anyway and presents it directly to the camera, which in turn zooms in on it in freeze frame, blowing it up further. Direct references to Antonioni perhaps merely reveal De Palma as a member of the American counterculture who read political inferences in Blow-Up, and who transcribed those readings in a superficial and at times comical way: Mod and Greetings occasionally lampoon 1960s counterculture, including a scene in the latter where Lloyd meets a conspiracy theorist in a bookstore who claims to have been in Dallas during the Kennedy assassination, yet as the conversation progresses it becomes clear that the theorist is insane.

Valentina in “La Notte” (Antonioni)

The image of men photographing women — which recurs throughout the first two decades of De Palma’s career — first emerges in Mod and Greetings and also takes its cue ostensibly from the 1960s films of Antonioni. An early scene in Mod features Jennifer Salt seen through the viewfinder of a camera, taking direction from a voice off-camera. Similar shots of women abstracted through a viewfinder appear in Hi, Mom! (1970), Obsession (1976), and Body Double. The end sequence in Greetings intercuts 8mm news footage of a Vietnamese woman performing on camera with footage of a white model disrobing in a bedroom — literally parsing both women from their original contexts and reassembling them into what registers as a single image. These sequences are comparable to various ones of Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s La Notte (1961): The frame not only splits and fragments her image throughout the latter half of the film but also reorients it. For instance, in one sequence, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) observes Valentina (Vitti) playing an improvised game of shuffleboard, though what the viewer initially sees is later revealed to be only her reflection in a window. As in La Notte, what the viewer sees observes in De Palma’s framing of women is largely an abstraction. Said the director in 2015: “I love photographing women. I’m fascinated by the way they move. I love to follow them. I love to make the audience get involved in their dilemmas.”

Jennifer Salt in “Murder à la Mod” (De Palma

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s De Palma further assembles film objects in order to conflate the real and the fake, as well as extrapolate his ongoing critique of the assemblage’s desire — desire in the Deleuzean sense wherein an imagined need drives the assembly of surveilled targets. Desire manifests itself in distinct ways, be it as a longing for security in Hi, Mom! and Sisters (1972) or for entertainment in Home Movies (1978) and Body Double.

Hi, Mom! and Sisters both use assemblage to turn the idea of “security footage” on its head. The former is a de facto “sequel” to Greetings about the exploits of Rubin (Robert de Niro), who films the tenants of a nearby building from his apartment window and who eventually becomes involved with an activist performance art group. The latter is (at first glance) a more conventional thriller about journalist Grace (Jennifer Salt), who believes she saw a murder from her apartment window and who begins a campaign of surveillance on her neighbors.

“L’Eclisse” (Antonioni)

The resemblance Hi, Mom! or Sisters bears to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is mostly superficial and derives from comparing the plots of each. De Palma’s use of film assembly has little regard for plotting, however, and he will often use it to address the artifice of filmmaking itself. The penultimate scenes of Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill, for instance, feature a character experiencing a moment of terror that is immediately revealed to the viewer to be a dream, despite earlier dialogue and action that establishes those scenes as taking place while that character is awake — hence the common criticism of several of De Palma’s films as being “frustrating” or “not making any sense.” A sequence early on in Hi, Mom! shows the proprietor of a camera shop demonstrating the zoom, exposure, and focus functions of an 8mm film camera — all in one POV shot through that camera’s viewfinder. A sequence early in Sisters uses split screen to portray parallel courses of action: Grace leading Detective Kelly (Dolph Sweet) up to the apartment where the murder took place, and Danielle and Emil (Margot Kidder and William Finley) in the apartment scrambling to hide the murdered body. Both sides of the split eventually meet at the apartment door, effectively becoming reverse shots of each other. The sequence’s end functions in the same manner as a visual device used early on in Antonioni’s LEclisse (1962), which displays two opponents abstracted and facing each other — the mirror image of Vittoria (Vitti) facing Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) — while the viewer faces both. Further, Antonioni’s LAvventura (1960), La Notte, and Blow-Up all have a narrative structure that De Palma’s film emulates, beginning with one narrative arc and diverting to another halfway through with no resolution to the mysteries that they introduce.

Use of split screen in “Sisters” (De Palma)

Both Hi, Mom! and Sisters further extrapolate the desire for security by exposing the surveillance platforms meant to provide it. Late in Hi, Mom!, Rubin appears in “Be Black, Baby” — a happening filmed in the manner of De Palma’s earliest black-and-white documentaries and seen as such by the viewer — that blurs the line between performance and genuine reactions on the part of the white participants. The partakers are repeatedly threatened by black actors. It is in this environment where participants assume that what is being recorded is being seen or will be seen (as with a security camera), and that the medium exposes certain assumptions inherent in the act of surveilling and being surveilled since most automated security systems are designed to discourage rather than prevent crime. Sisters portrays the police as incompetent and corrupt (mostly through dialogue), including a scene where Grace attempts to accompany Kelly to the murder scene:

Kelly: “And you’re certainly not a cop.”

Grace: “And you’re not one either if you don’t do something about this. Unless of course you’d rather go beat up a few students.”

De Palma complicates Grace’s plight in the film’s climax. Here, she contradicts her own statement after having been kidnapped, drugged, and perhaps hypnotized by Emil, saying: “There was no body because there was no murder.” The viewer sees this presumably from Grace’s point of view, however, through POV shots and a switch from the film’s color stock to 8mm black and white and a fisheye lens, conflating both what she and the viewer sees and what the assemblage portrays as real or fake. Grace’s belief that she witnessed a crime has, by the end, been abstracted and reassembled.

The “Be Black Baby” sequence in “Hi, Mom!” (De Palma)

What distinguishes De Palma’s vision of various forms of security — be it institutional in Hi, Mom! or individual in Sisters — from something like Bentham’s panopticon is the diffused network of observation that Deleuze describes in his 1990 essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” which requires all participants’ complicity in being observed. De Palma acknowledges this in Hi, Mom! with a scene where Rubin reads from Martin Oppenheimer’s 1969 book The Urban Guerrilla, implicitly suggesting that the only way to circumvent surveillance is violence against the surveillance state: “…because all organized revolutionary movements have been thoroughly infiltrated by government agents, the successful acts of sabotage will be carried out by single individuals.” The Fury and Blow Out echo the same sentiment, respectively, in the characters of Mother Knuckles (“If the feds get in your way, shoot ‘em. Just shoot ‘em. It’s all they deserve.”) and Jack, who upon discovering a government cover-up of a political assassination receives no help from the police and must work alone.

“Sisters” (De Palma)

Complicity on the part of every participant in the assemblage — from filmmaker to performer to audience member — comes to the fore in Home Movies and Body Double wherein surveillance abstracts and targets bodies for the viewer’s entertainment. In that light, much of what viewers see in those two films is based on a specific incident from the director’s life. When he was a child, De Palma’s parents separated, his mother accusing his father of infidelity. The young De Palma then began stalking his dad with recording equipment, hoping to find evidence that would confirm his mother’s suspicions. In Home Movies and Body Double, bodies are removed from their sites and reconstituted via photography. These bodily dilemmas are not just presented for the amusement of the observer (who in this case is both the protagonist and the viewer interchangeably) but dissected as such.

Nancy Allen in “Home Movies” (De Palma)

Home Movies — being about the exploits of the Maestro (Kirk Douglas), who teaches filmmaking at the fictional Now College, and Denis (Keith Gordon), who documents the goings-on in his family with an 8mm camera — regularly extracts the bodies it depicts in order to collapse the documentary medium and fictional narrative film. In turn, it questions their function as entertainment. The film opens with what appears to be a faux-documentary-as-instructional-film of the Maestro teaching students at the college (which includes a title card reading, “Everything happened as it happened”). Eventually, the film reveals the documentary as a framing device for Denis’ story, which it calls its “case study.” The film routinely moves between third-person footage of Denis documenting his surroundings (accompanied by his narration), Denis’ first-person footage, and a conflation of the two. An example of this conflation would be a scene (abstracted by slow motion, soft lighting, and romantic music) where Kristina (Nancy Allen) walks toward Denis. The viewer sees the action ostensibly from Denis’ point of view, yet the footage doubles as De Palma merely photographing Nancy Allen, thus making the viewer complicit with Denis in targeting both Kristina/Allen. While such a shot is arguably derived from Hitchcock’s footage of Grace Kelly in Rear Window (1954) or Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), for instance, the sequence’s deadpan quality extrapolates the notion of  men “watching” women by cutting to Denis repeatedly stirring a pot — a gesture resembling male masturbation — as he watches Kristina.

De Palma also addresses audience complicity in a scene where the Maestro intercepts Denis in the act of photographing his father cheating on his mother with a nurse. The Maestro finds Denis in a tree with his camera and tells him: “Look over there. That isn’t real flesh you know. That’s a film of a girl undressing. A film used to trap peeping Toms like you.” The Maestro forces Denis to question how one distinguishes images produced in the lens of a camera from those produced in the lens of one’s eyes, blurring the line between the real and the fake in what the protagonist sees and, by extension, what the viewer sees.

Central to the idea of the assemblage’s provision of targets for the observer’s entertainment is complicity on the part of both the observer and the target, respectively, with watching and being watched. This kind of reading contradicts a common perception of De Palma’s films (or even Hitchcock’s before him) as “voyeuristic,” since the concept of voyeurism usually necessitates that the target is unaware that he or she is being watched. On the contrary, De Palma’s cinema has more in common with exhibitionism — to which the surveillant assemblage is more conducive — than with voyeurism. The protagonist of Body Double, Jake (Craig Wasson), watches Gloria (Deborah Shelton) in her house through a telescope while housesitting in Hollywood Hills. Each night, Gloria dances half-naked in front of her window with the shades open, enticing Jake to watch (“Like clockwork, every night”). The image of Gloria dancing is eventually revealed to the observer (again both the viewer and protagonist interchangeably) to be a construct created by Gloria’s husband Sam (Gregg Henry) to provide a witness for Gloria’s murder at the hands of a grotesque figure referred to only as the “Indian” and thus an alibi for Sam. The woman dancing for Jake was not Gloria but porn actress Holly (Melanie Griffith), who Sam hired to perform in the window.

A telescopic view in “Body Double” (De Palma)

Body Double confronts the viewer not just with his or her own complicity with surveillance but also with the target’s complicity with being surveilled. This suggests to the viewer that the target not only knows that he or she is being watched but also enjoys it. In the film, Jake watches a video interview with an unnamed porn actress who, when asked about being an exhibitionist, states: “I just get so excited when I know they’re all out there watching.” Because the film eventually reveals that Sam paid Holly to perform in the window for Jake, it establishes a dynamic not just of who watches and who is watched but also their awareness of each other. Yet in assuming — as Jake and the viewer do at first — that it was actually Gloria and not Holly dancing in the window, half-dressed and on display for anyone to see, the film suggests that Gloria is aware of strangers watching her. In a scene where Jake follows Gloria to a shopping mall, the viewer sees her enter a changing room of a boutique, though she doesn’t close the curtain completely, allowing Jake and the viewer to see her try on underwear.

De Palma constructs the telescope scenes to suggest as much. The use of music in the scene where Jake watches Holly-as-Gloria dancing in the window is at once an instance of diegesis and non-diegesis that underscores the viewer’s complicity with watching. As Jake watches, the viewer hears music scored by Pino Donaggio that Jake ostensibly does not hear and is intended to highlight his (and by extension the viewer’s) excitement at seeing something one shouldn’t see. At the same time, however, Jake could just as well be able to hear the music, and Holly-as-Gloria could just as well be dancing to the same music; the sequence would have the same effect regardless.

The film’s plot necessitates that Jake becomes enamored with the image that he creates of Gloria and infiltrates the porn film industry in order to find Holly and solve Gloria’s murder. Yet numerous sequences throughout Body Double use the plot arbitrarily in order to draw the viewer’s attention to the artifice onscreen, often in such a way that the assemblage makes no distinction between pornography and “legitimate” filmmaking.

Even though the film will later reveal Gloria’s dance as artifice, Body Double still portrays her character as comprised largely of affectations: she is stone-faced and speaks breathlessly with a vocal fry. A sequence where Gloria finally confronts Jake, who has been following her all over Long Beach, is filmed as a fantasy sequence. Despite their never having met each other, upon their first encounter they immediately embrace. The camera rotates around them while the viewer sees the beach rotate behind them in what is obviously rear projection. Narratively and visually, the scene takes place apropos of nothing that has happened before and is interchangeable with the sexual digressions of softcore pornography.

A sequence where Jake performs in a porno with Holly is filmed as a music video set to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The shot of the two having sex is intercut with footage from the aforementioned scene between Gloria and Jake, which is not dissimilar to the end sequence of Greetings. De Palma’s deliberate breaking down and reconstitution of these scenes form a commentary on the commercial film industry as a whole, in which “legitimate” filmmaking routinely distinguished itself from pornography. Body Double makes no distinction, suggesting instead that all who participate in the act of surveillance — on either end — are compromised and exploited in doing so. The reconstituted body in De Palma’s film (ostensibly being “legitimate” filmmaking in that it is financed and distributed by a large studio) functions no differently than a body seen in pornography: to titillate and arouse the viewer. The film’s subject becomes clear through assemblage: Mainstream films use sex and sexuality in the same manner as exploitation films.

By framing De Palma’s films in this way, one of course further abstracts them from their contexts. For instance, De Palma made Body Double in part as a response to the negative critical reception of his previous film, Scarface (1983). The surveillant assemblage almost by necessity conflates actual events on a set with the viewer’s image of what’s real. Thus the performance of “Be Black, Baby” in Hi, Mom! takes on a new dimension for the viewer and the participant when made aware of the performers not being actors but radical activists who are not acting at all, and the obvious theatricality of the dried red blood in Carrie becomes reconstituted for the viewer with the knowledge that De Palma’s father was a surgeon who once cut off a patient’s leg and gave it to him.

Actors who do not seem to be acting, blood that seems too red, bodies and objects displaced and reproduced all comprise an abstracted surveillance state in De Palma’s films, performing for the viewer Seitz’s virtual movement “…which always exists in tension with factual mobility.” By that rationale, the virtual movements that exist today — in which text and image can be easily altered, and in which our information is extracted and sold by algorithms of corporate entities and social media — situate De Palma as a prescient filmmaker. At the same time, both structure and subject in the films evoke a power relation between themselves and the audience. The viewer is complicit with bodies and objects abstracted and reassembled, and with the “frustration” of seeing them often refusing to organize themselves as narrative. That frustration originates in both an audience’s ideologies regarding narrative film and in the director’s early experiments with the medium. In other words, the viewer enjoys being toyed with, and the director obliges.

About The Author

Henri de Corinth

‘Henri de Corinth’ is a nom de plume that I stole from Alain Robbe-Grillet (who in turn stole it from Goethe). I divide my time between New York City and Washington DC. I’m a historian and linguist by training.

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