To Wax Zizekian: On Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible

A Review Essay on Chris Dumas, Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible (London: Intellect, 2012)

[I]t’s not really a book about De Palma, it’s a book about Film Studies as an American institution that uses De Palma as a focal point or case study. I’m definitely not trying to say that De Palma is a Tarkovsky figure or anything like that.
– Chris Dumas, interview [1]

This is US History. I see the globe right there.
– Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

On pages 85 and 86 of Un-American Psycho, author Chris Dumas offers a description of Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary (1967) – the same McBride who shared prime space with Brian De Palma way back in Joseph Gelmis’ epochal interview collection The Film Director as Superstar (1970). Dumas begins by tagging it an “underground” film – although what the scare quotes mean, in this instance, is quite unclear. It’s not an underground film? It’s pretending to be an underground film? It’s a mainstream film? There is no such thing as underground film? Underground culture itself is one big, deluded sham? The scare quotes are repeated (the second of three times) two lines on, as Dumas notes the film’s “founding instance of what would become a common trope” of this sort of cinema, i.e., the main character “is ‘filming his life’”. The psychodynamics of Holzman’s behaviour – choosing cinema over his disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend – are parsed: “Needless to say, this is offered up as a bad choice”. The film’s “formally adventurous” climax is described as “a whimper of defeat: David is alone, abandoned by his girl, his equipment, and his checking account”.  Beginning a sentence as he begins so many, with the phrase “to wax Zizekian …”, Dumas then goes into a riff on the sexual and masturbatory metaphors in the film, concluding: “Does not this confession – of the functionality of metaphor in fantasy, of the essentially idealist nature of the Imaginary – provide an appropriate definition of the cinematic enterprise, especially as it was understood in New York City in 1967?”

Not once in these two pages is there the slightest indication of an awareness that David Holzman’s Diary is, with utter self-consciousness, a comedy – in particular, a satire/extrapolation/staging of certain trends not only in the underground (no scare quotes) cinema (Jonas Mekas’ audiovisual diaries, etc) of the time, but also in cinéma-vérité documentary. And that this intention was made perfectly clear by McBride and his talented collaborators (Lorenzo Mans, L.M. Kit Carson) in 1967 and well beyond, including in the pages of The Film Director as Superstar. In other words, what Dumas takes as purely symptomatic (of “New York City in 1967”) – even deluded (hence, I guess, the critical marks deemed necessary around “underground”) – is nothing of the sort. Dumas’ bullying rhetoric, omnipresent throughout this book – “does not …?” – is the first sign of its many problems.

Un-American Psycho is full of sloppy, careless mistakes. The bibliography lists Tony Conrad as the author of The Hitchcock Murders – Tony Conrad, the “underground” filmmaker, wow! Alas, it’s really that old fogey, Peter Conrad. In a chapter devoted to Godard, James Roy MacBean is described as a once-regular contributor to Film Comment – ah, that would be Film Quarterly. Godard’s films Numéro Deux and Ici et Ailleurs are dated as “early 1970s” – they are 1975 and 1976, respectively. And on and on it goes.

The book is poorly constructed as an argument: surnames (like “Oudart”) are fleetingly dropped – often with a sardonic, know-it-all smirk – in the main text or the footnotes without first names or bibliographic follow-up; key theoretical terms, like “technologization of the gaze” (56), pop up from nowhere, without set-up; odd, inscrutable pronouncements – often of the insufficiently-digested-morsel-of-theory kind – abound, such as the genuflection to Hayden White’s definition of ‘theoretical’ as “to justify a notion of plausibility itself” (40), whatever that means; complicated cultural events, such as the feminist protests against Dressed to Kill (1980) are obsessively alluded to but never even faintly outlined; laboured jokes (such as OEUVRE standing for Obligatory Expository Unmotivated Villainous Rant Ending – come again?) take up a lot of room. Dumas is racing so fast through all this material (which began as his PhD) that, like Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977), he’s got “no time to talk” – or, it seems, to check. (The book is yet another testament to the appalling state of academic publishing, where quality control is increasingly left to those least qualified to do it: the authors themselves.) In general, the book gives off that air – which is well known to many of us in film studies/criticism but does not often make it all the way into book-length print – of knowing just enough about a dozen different film theories to be able to dismiss them all as being ‘not up to the job’ at hand. (So we constantly get offhand verdicts such as: film studies doesn’t get affect or humour or …) What snarky folly.

Dumas, ambivalently playing on some dim nostalgia for the heroic auteurist criticism of the ‘1950s Cahiers’ (whatever the heck he takes that to be: it’s another of the many US books for which Positif – long a provider of appreciative texts on De Palma – has never registered), occasionally chances his arm on a flip verdict or three … and what howlers they are. A footnote on p. 9 informs us that De Palma’s “worst movies are worse than the worst of, say, Welles or Mizoguchi, but are certainly not worse than the worst of say, Chaplin or Bergman”. We learn that, without Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock “would be remembered no more fondly or widely than, say, Otto Preminger” (61). More zanily threadbare film history: “one of the primary errors in Hitchcock criticism is the unconscious tendency to ascribe to Hitchcock in Rear Window the kind of modernist use of the frame that Antonioni introduced six years later, in L’Avventura” (p. 78). And – in a breathtaking display of non-familiarity with an auteur’s work – he deduces that, when one critic lists the positive values of cinema as “logical, realistic, scrupulous, earnest, and funny”, this critic, it must be assumed, “means Jean Renoir” (41). Rules of the Game, anyone?

The mistakes might be small fry, and the bully-nerd opinions might be fluffily dispensable [2] , but they add up, I’m afraid, to a very trustworthy indication of the level, tone and consistency of the book’s main thrust. Here, we need to step back to take stock of what it is, exactly, that Un-American Psycho believes itself to be doing. It is a book with two central subjects, one of which tends to disappear inside the other. The first, disappearing subject is De Palma – and I will instantly declare that I consider him to be a great and highly significant filmmaker. (Dumas thinks something similar, but the nature of that something will be addressed later.) The second, overriding subject is Film Studies itself as a discipline, specifically in its “anglophone [sic] wing” (3) – although the Anglophone world quickly closes down, for Dumas, into America, and furthermore an America conceived in an oddly predatory way.

The geo-politics of Un-American Psycho are resolutely ghastly. (In a telling footnote on p. 46, Dumas tries to foreclose on any reading whatsoever of his book as symptomatic of anything beyond its own conscious, explicit argument – the surest sign that it will be rife with unconscious symptoms of every kind.) Firstly, what is the reach of the Anglophone world for Dumas? As the opening list of references on p. 3 indicates, it is four-parts American and one-part British – an all-too familiar constellation, alas, in US scholarship on cinema. So forget Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and every other place where English is spoken, written and taught. Then things get weirder: once he has slipped gears, without warning and presumably unconsciously, into reducing the Anglophone world to America, suddenly the ‘Americans’ he cites at length include commentators who are British (Wood and Mulvey) and Slovenian (Zizek). Their work circulates in the US academy and their bodies have sometimes landed within the territorial limits, ergo (the logic would seem to run) they are honorary Americans.

But, ah yes, there is also ‘the French’ – the sole, obligatory European reference in this book. Dumas is aware (although he seems faintly puzzled by it) that Carlito’s Way (1993) was voted by Cahiers du cinéma as the best film of its decade, and – in a parenthetical aside that could well have been prompted by a thesis advisor’s admonition – Dumas avers that “The French, in nearly all matters cinematic, are way ahead of the rest of us” (8-9). So far ahead, they rate no bibliographic citation: Dumas maintains his blissful ignorance as to the analytical work on De Palma, published since the mid ‘90s, by Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Luc Lagier, Nicole Brenez, Didier Truffot, Jean-Philippe Trias, Jean-François Buiré, and so many others – even, or especially, when they have carried out the same fieldwork and analyses (e.g., the screen genealogy of Psycho’s shower scene, or the matrixial role of the Zapruder film in De Palma’s œuvre, or the close examination of the director’s substantial pre-Sisters [1973] output) that Dumas himself undertakes as if for the first time.[3] And France – it may need to be pointed out to Dumas – is only one piece of the whole, big, cinephile globe.

Which leads me to say: I have great trouble recognising the world – even the academic/intellectual/critical habitus – that this book conjures as its polemical battleground; and a lot depends, for the validity of this book, in accepting its world as real. Let me make this clear: in my 35 years or so as an avid De Palma fan, I have found my intellectual-cinephile sisters and brothers, bound together in their intense love and respect for this director, in every country I have ever visited. And I started from Australia, where, during the 1980s, and indeed right at the very moment of the local release of Body Double (1984), I was reading brilliant pro-De Palma reviews and essays by our greatest feminist brains, Meaghan Morris and Helen Grace, as well as a spirited account of the film from an American art critic (again, a woman: Carol Squiers) commissioned for Art & Text (which featured a stylised graphic of the movie on its cover). Tom Ryan in Lumiere and then Cinema Papers was among the first, notable exegetes of De Palma, right back to Get to Know Your Rabbit in 1972. The film press, the art press, the music press, even the “underground” press in Australia were all full of paeans of praise for De Palma in those years (and again, after a career lull or two, later).

In short, my personal cinephile world (and life) has been defined, at least in part, by the canonical, Pantheon place accorded to De Palma – from the 1970s until now. Of course, there were always those who disliked his films and argued against them, those who judged him to be nothing more than the ‘Hitchcock thief’ (an image of opprobrium that Dumas dwells on, excessively), and those who found his gender politics distasteful or, at least, questionable (eg., Barbara Creed on the role of menstrual blood in Carrie, 1976).

Dumas quotes a lot of anti-De Palma rhetoric in this book (Thomson, Sarris, Stephen Prince, etc). It’s all real, it exists. But does it add up, exclusively, to the academic field known as Film Studies? In a very real sense, Un-American Psycho is a book way, way after its time: it’s essentially about the 1980s, and it would likely have packed an excellent polemical wallop back then, had its author been born early enough. Dressed to Kill and Body Double are, overwhelmingly, its master texts for discussion (with Scarface [1983] rating a few crucial pages in the penultimate chapter), plus (some of) the public, cultural discourses surrounding their release. And there is no doubt that De Palma – De Palma Pure and Impure – was a sore spot for some sectors and circles of culture, in various parts of the world, back then.

But now? Times have moved on, and Dumas seems almost embarrassed by the evidence of a vast seachange in general appreciation of De Palma. In the 21st century – and, in fact, during a long run-up to it – De Palma has been courted by fellow filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach and Bong Joon-ho (whose beautiful tribute to the director in Cahiers Dumas seems unaware of); he has been enshrined by Criterion DVD; and he is worshipped by several dedicated fan sites (which the director himself consults and sometimes contributes to). Scarface has long garnered an enormous cult following that is rather hard to ignore in 2012. Femme Fatale (2002) was greeted by just about every major film magazine I can think of – from El Amante in Argentina and De Filmkrant in Holland to Film Comment in USA – as the director’s testamentary masterpiece. And there is more, much more: the stream of sophisticated articles and analyses on-line in Senses of Cinema (Australia), Transit (Spain), Cinética (Brazil), Reverse Shot (US), by Matt Zoller Seitz on various websites … not to mention (although I cringe to do so) the weekly ravings of Armond White, picking up the Pauline Kael baton on De Palma’s behalf. And that’s a baton which, already, has been on the playing field for quite a while.

Why does Dumas ignore – or, if he fleetingly cites it, instantly downplays the significance of – most of this contemporary film culture around De Palma? Because – as even the blurbs on the back cover have to admit – he is locked in a thoroughly Oedipal battle, Bad Boy vs. Parental Object. The book’s raging ambivalence is odious, and in total bad faith: on the one hand, it pleads its case to “help to lay the groundwork for future De Palma scholarship” (trailblazing which is infinitely easier if you ignore most of the groundwork already laid) and “provide a new context for the consideration of De Palma, and to ‘translate’ his cinema into a technical language and for a discursive community – that of Film Studies – that previously has been unable to speak him” (ditto) (15); on the other hand, it strikes the classic punk-surrealist gesture of blowing a raspberry at the Academic Establishment, and half-hoping/half-fearing that it will render him unemployable (“at the risk of career-jeopardizing frivolity …”, [31]). How daring! But with extracts of the book already in Cinema Journal and Critical Inquiry, you can easily tell which side of this ambivalence Dumas is leaning to.

Dumas, waxing Zizekian as ever (although his Oedipal ambivalence extends so far as to give old Slavoj a prolonged kick in the guts, too), builds his thesis on a provocative idea: that, since every discourse comes into existence and maintains itself through the creation of a Bad Object, then the Bad Object of Film Studies is Brian De Palma. The logic of this argument is elaborate, resting on the assertion that the prime Good Objects of Film Studies are Hitchcock and Godard – I can buy that as a move – and that De Palma as a “quasi-object” (the name of a discursive field, not an individual filmmaker) is thereby produced as not-Hitch and not-JLG. This erasure, it seems, is sinister and total. Even those who should recognise/acknowledge him, in Dumas’ reasoning – such as Zizek himself! – do not. (Of course, in Zizek’s work, David Lynch inhabits the place where De Palma should be: as surely the latter knew when he initially planned to intercut Mulholland Drive [2001] during the opening scene of Femme Fatale. PS: Like Jim McBride, I’m joking.) And wasn’t Redacted (2007) the film-event that Film Studies should have turned its complete attention to – the film “about everything that we claim is important to us” but which “did not register on Film Studies radar at all” (5-6)??

Now, I see some small truth in all this furious polemicising. But Dumas’ blow-up on this grain of truth is monstrous. Overstatement runs riot in this book. (Redacted was, for example, hardly a critically ignored or occluded movie-event in ’07 and beyond: just to stay within the US for Dumas’ easy reference, there was J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum and, from his very own doctoral committee, James Naremore …). In fact, it doesn’t take a Zizekian genius to see that Dumas himself provides a freshly-minted example of exactly the same psycho-logic that he ceaselessly castigates: he, too, is compelled to create the Bad Object, namely Film Studies itself. And, in order to be objectified, Film Studies has to be unified, totalised – geo-politically as well as every other way – in a manner that is extraordinarily silly, and dead wrong. This Film Studies monster exhibits not only unity, but agency: it decides, with One Mind and One Voice, who will be deemed In (Hitch/JLG) and Out (De Palma).

Speaking as an Australian, I am not absolutely certain of this, but: perhaps attendance at too many SCMS conferences promotes this kind of paranoid phantasm of Film Studies personified as a frightful Dr Mabuse? In any event, Dumas’ often hysterical tracking of instances of this fearsome, decision-making agency that is Film Studies USA produces many LOL moments – a previous pro-De Palma book (by Kenneth MacKinnon) received only one positive review, now that has to signal a malign conspiracy! – which end up pointing up the exact opposite reality: that, at base, Film Studies is a completely disorganised, scattered, ad hoc, heterogeneous, international field (the metaphor-image of ‘field’ is itself highly misleading), and not a crack military tank rolling onto tuff turf and steamrolling its hated/feared/wilfully misrecognised ‘opposition’. That is why it becomes absurd when Dumas keeps hammering away at the question ‘why doesn’t Film Studies discuss De Palma?’, as if he is the only American director of note to emerge in the ‘60s or beyond to be overlooked: exactly the same thing could be said of Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Floyd Mutrux, Jim McBride, Elaine May, and a dozen others.

The film history drawn around De Palma in this book is thin and weak. There is no mention of Fritz Lang or Dario Argento, for example; hence no sense that our man inventively works in any kind of tradition other than the monolithic Hitchcock/Godard party-line. But this circle of cultural reference is obliged to be, and stay, weak, thanks to the book’s psycho-logic: if the enemy is Goliath, De Palma has to be the lone, little David. Dumas’ ‘isolation’ of his subject is more total, and totalising, than anything auteurism in its ‘50s prime was ever capable of. So his argument misses out on the opportunity to grasp that some of the intriguing facets of the director’s career that he usefully raises – the art of cultural provocation, the politics of negation, the ever-shifting attempt to locate the points of transgression in popular culture – are, in fact, shared (not identically, of course) with any number of crucial outsider figures, including James Toback, Abel Ferrara, William Friedkin and Larry Clark.

Who or what is the De Palma that this book champions? (A desperately wishfully-thinking blurb on the back states that the director “has undoubtedly been waiting a long time for this book”. Oh yeah.) Dumas is direct on this point: De Palma is, first and foremost, a satirist. (Although, as we have seen, De Palma is only ‘won’ as a satirist at the expense of making David Holzman’s Diary into a non-satire!) The comedic aspect of the director’s work is emphasised throughout, including in its splendid cover photo – indeed, the lengthy Acknowledgments credit De Palma with giving the author “the greatest laugh I ever had at the movies” (xiii). This is all well and good: I, too, find De Palma’s work very funny, and this aspect may well not have received its full due across worldwide scholarship/critique on this filmmaker. But is that all there is to De Palma?

Dumas is, once again, guilty of what he so often accuses others of doing: once he has erected his “De Palma system”, he can only exclude those films (and there are quite a few) that don’t fit it – such as Obsession (1976), in my opinion one of De Palma’s greatest and most powerful works, which just does “not work” for Dumas because (to wax you-know-how) “it cannot be said … to have located the central theoretical issue in Vertigo (that la femme n’existe pas)”, something which “he – or his cinema – had certainly figured out by the time he made Body Double” (59). Talk about a blind spot! [4]

In an interview/discussion with Jonathan Haynes, Dumas’ compatriot in the San Francisco Brian De Palma Theory Collective, a decent question is put: “Early on in the book, you ask the ‘Great Director’ question [i.e., is De Palma a great director?], and then you don’t actually answer it”. Actually, I was left wondering by this book, often, whether Dumas thinks De Palma is even a good (let alone Great) director – and what that valuation would exactly mean to him. There is a richly suggestive passage worth quoting at length, where Dumas worries away at what he calls the “dissonance” – somewhat akin to what Robin Wood sensed in the “incoherent texts” of ‘70s/’80s American cinema – of Blow Out:

It is plagued with strange tonal shifts, narrative inconsistencies and attenuations, and conceptual gestures that look like (and could be) mistakes: much of Pino Donaggio’s score, especially the thudding cop-show disco music during the chase through Liberty Day Parade; Nancy Allen’s anti-sympathy-generating performance as the gum-chewing embodiment of masculinist cliché (J. Hoberman calls her a “one-woman distanciation effect”); the obvious “breakaway bottle” that gets used on the head of Dennis Franz – indeed, Dennis Franz’s entire performance as well as the whole conception of his character; the set of plot mechanisms that allow for the creation of a perfectly sync-sound Zapruder film out of a copy of Newsweek and a quarter-inch Nagra tape; the low comedy of the screamer auditions (“Okay, switch places – you scream, and you pull her hair”) juxtaposed with the high tragedy of Nancy Allen’s death under a sky blazing with fireworks. In many ways one is perhaps led to ask: what are we meant to take seriously? Are there any parts of this narrative that we are not meant to take seriously, and if so, how do we know which is which (or which is determinant)? What does “take seriously” mean? (180)

Now, I ask you: is the person capable of writing this painfully inadequate account of the aesthetics of Blow Out really the right guy to be ‘rehabilitating’ De Palma? [5] Actually, it is a question not only of Blow Out here, but of pop cinema – maybe just cinema, period – in general. Dumas reveals in this passage how cringingly normative his evaluation/appreciation of films truly is. Look at what he finds dissonant: sudden mood changes, modes of stylised acting (which De Palma wields with great precision), artifices or contrivances of plotting, stereotype and cliché, juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy … Let’s pray he never turns his attention to Johnny Guitar or, indeed, most films by Jean “earnest” Renoir. Or, let’s face it, most films.

Here is Dumas’ cagey/chummy response to his pal’s question cited above, about whether De Palma is or is not a great/good director: “Right. Very sneaky of me! Well, but it’s because I’m not sure of my answer, and also because it’s not an important question, at least in terms of the discipline of Film Studies, or maybe I should say it’s a loaded question”. Such rhetorical contortions in such bad faith, a veritable demonstration of Jacques Lacan’s motto: “Look, the main thing is that I don’t come a cropper!” The value of De Palma for Dumas seems to be, ultimately, that this filmmaker gives him something to write about. And it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of film studies that such a thing happened. But this book is, on all levels and every moment, a failure and, worse, a missed opportunity. De Palma and ‘the invisible political’? I’m still waiting for the full-blooded discussion of that, which doesn’t lose itself in the labyrinthine byways of fruitless, look-at-me, Oedipal polemic.

There is one good thing here: a series of nine screenshots appearing between pages 66 and 69. Page one gives us a column-gallery of faces: Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Jerry Lewis.  Page two contains the wonderfully garish cover image of William Finley (RIP) between grabs from Greetings (1968) and Body Double; the final page caps off with more Body Double plus Raising Cain (1992). The theme or motif here is the ‘return of the camera’s gaze’, and Dumas’ agreeable point – worked over like a mugging in the text – is that, in cinema generally (and certainly in De Palma), this gaze can take many forms and modes, and is not automatically or necessarily (start reflexly bashing ‘Mulvey 1975’, etc, at this point) a subversion of the dominant patriarchal apparatus, blah blah. But you don’t need the text on this: the pictures say it, perfectly. It would have made for a great Tumblr page. And that page would have been a better and much more successful contribution to the study of Brian De Palma, as well as the study of film, than the tortuous whole of Un-American Psycho.


[1] Jonathan Haynes, “Chris Dumas”, http://www.vetoxa.com/uap/UAP-interview.html

[2] Further pearls of Dumas’ cinephilic wisdom from Haynes’ interview: “I can say without hesitation that John Ford is the most disastrously overrated director of all time … Well, but seriously! John Ford never made an interesting film, not one … They’re always talking about Clint Eastwood as if he’s the reincarnation of classical filmmaking, which means that he’s just as dull and tedious as John Ford. Talk about overrated! God, I hate Clint Eastwood, and Michael Mann too. Heroic virility cinema”. Truffaut too: “Terrible director. Vastly overrated.”

[3] For a sampling of these and other analysts, see the following magazine issues: Admiranda, no. 11/12 (1996); Génériques, nos. 4 & 5 (1996); L’art du cinéma, no. 35/36/37 (2001/2); Cinergon, nos. 19 & 20 (2010). French books on De Palma include Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Visions fantastiques: Mission Impossible de Brian De Palma (Paris: Dreamland, 1999) and Luc Lagier, Les mille yeux de Brian De Palma (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2008). Thoret’s 26 secondes: L’Amérique éclaboussée (Paris: Rouge Profond, 2003) contains a lengthy discussion of the JFK assassination and the Zapruder film in relation to De Palma’s work.

[4] A superb analysis of Obsession is offered by Alain Bergala, “Le temps nié (Apothéose d’imaginaire)”, in Jacques Aumont (ed.), Les voyages du spectateur. De l’imaginaire au cinéma (Paris: Éditions Léo Scheer/Cinémathèque françasie, 2004), pp. 207-220.

[5] Happily for me, on the day (15 August) I finished this review, the blog of Olivier Père (Director of the Locarno Film Festival) posted an entry that began: “Released today in Paris in a new print, Blow Out is without doubt Brian De Palma’s finest film, his masterpiece, alongside Phantom of the Paradise […] It is one long ‘bravura sequence’ […] De Palma’s style has only a superficial relationship to Hitchcock; he’s clearly fascinated by the mix of sophistication and triviality that we find in Robert Aldrich …” (my translation). See http://olivierpere.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/blow-out-de-brian-de-palma/

 

About the Author


Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is Associate Professor at Monash University and Visiting Professor of Film Studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt, during 2013-4. His recent book Last Day Every Day will soon appear in a Portuguese translation from punctum books. He is Co-Editor of the online film journal LOLA, and writes regular columns for Caiman and Filmkrant.