Becoming Visionary: Brian De Palma’s Cinematic Education of the Senses

Eyal Peretz,
Becoming Visionary: Brian De Palma’s Cinematic Education of the Senses.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
ISBN-13: 9 780 80475685 3
US$21.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Stanford University Press)

Strange days

This is a new kind of film book – fittingly enough, in that it dares to grandiosely assert the “birth of a new cinema and a new eye” (p. 62) in the work of its subject, Brian De Palma. Fully assuming what I have elsewhere called the Philosophic Turn in film studies [1] , it is not, in any conventional sense, the analysis of a director’s work – indeed, I would somewhat hesitate (in contrast to the back cover blurb) to describe it as a film book at all.

Eyal Peretz’s frequently stimulating, occasionally baffling exploration of ‘De Palma’s cinematic education of the senses’ (the book’s subtitle) looks not at the entire oeuvre – not even a standard approximation of the entire oeuvre (for many major works do not rate a mention) – but mainly three key films, Carrie (USA 1976), The Fury (USA 1978) and Blow Out (USA 1981), with a Coda devoted to Femme Fatale (France 2002). In those films, it looks at very few, usually short passages (from Carrie, for example, hardly the first two minutes). De Palma is consistently conjured, in a manner that surpasses even the most excessive auteurism, as a kind of Godhead – a visionary, indeed – in that the book eschews any information about the films’ production circumstances, and fails to meaningfully discuss any of his contributors from either cast or crew. Apart from a brief note on paranoid cinema and an obligatory (but original) consideration of the Hitchcock legacy, Peretz does not compare De Palma’s films with other films of their time, or with films by other directors. In terms of its dialogue with the traditions of film criticism – in particular, the many hundreds of articles, in many languages, devoted to De Palma – the book is a startling tabula rasa: in 55 pages – 55 pages! – of densely detailed notes, there is not a single reference to any previous writing on the director.

What takes up those 55 pages – and most of the 164 that precede it, as well as Stanley Cavell’s Foreword (which began as a reader’s report for the publisher, and perhaps should have remained so) – is an in-depth summary, questioning, elaboration and extension of certain ideas mined (often ingeniously) from Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Lacan, Walter Benjamin, and Plato. A passage chosen virtually at random can give the flavour:

What can this mean, how are we to understand the concept of a slice, or a fragment, without a totality? This has to mean three basic things: (1) The slice or the frame, instead of giving us the fragment of a totality, reveals to us that there are only frames or fragments. But if there are only frames, what would the Other be to the frame, the absolute outside? Nothing but the principle of non-totality. The Other, the absolute outside, means first that there is no totality or, in Deleuze’s words, no whole given in advance.(p. 92)

It would be easy – it has already become a reflex in recent, disenchanted cinephile commentaries on the occasional writings on film by contemporary continental philosophers – to complain that Becoming Visionary has seemingly not much to do with the films it discusses, or (a worse charge) that it simply lines up some choice illustrative or allegorical moments from them in order to cue a heavy bout of philosophising. However – once I got past the defensive Cavellian moment on page 6, listing De Palma (after the great-philosopher roll call) as the ‘unlikely hero’ of this adventure – I found myself (almost despite myself) very engaged with this book; this successful diversion of a reader’s preconception is the mark of a good and interesting critical/theoretical work. (Why read something that merely confirms what I already think I know about De Palma, in the language that has already confirmed it?)

If, as I believe, something of the significance and force of De Palma’s work is relatable to its resonance with a particular moment in the film theory of the 1970s and ‘80s, Peretz does us a great service by tracking back (via his philosopher-heroes, and a little suture theory) to those garage days when every instant of a film was brimming with heterogeneity and disequilibrium, haunted eternally by off-spaces and the fractions of darkness (which, confusingly, Peretz calls a white blankness) between each frame – when a painting glimpsed on a wall in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (USA 1941) or the central plot clue panned over with feigned indifference in a De Palma movie seemed to hold the juicy frame-by-frame secrets of Cinema itself, whether classical narrative or avant-garde.

To Peretz, nothing that happens in a De Palma film – no gesture, line of dialogue, bit of behaviour, camera angle or scene transition – is natural, obvious or common-sensical; on the contrary, all is ‘strange’, bizarre, in urgent need of interpretation. The word strange appears multiple times on many pages; indeed, this book could have been subtitled (with a nod to Raymond Durgnat) The Strange Case of Brian De Palma. Becoming Visionary launches itself from where the best De Palma criticism wisely begins: from the sense that everything in these films is grandly unreal, illogical, unbelievable, risible, grotesque, a live-action cartoon. So much for the stuffy old business of character psychologies (and believable performances), dramatic/comic themes and coherent, and fictive-world meanings! Peretz is more riveted by the falling softball that inaugurates the deepest action and logic of a story (in Carrie), or the sudden apparition of a big toe (Bataillian, bien sur – in The Fury) that is merely the first of a string of breaks or interruptions (on every level of the cinematic apparatus) which crack open the coherent shell of a diegesis and open up to something else: an Outside or Beyond that, however, is not metaphysical (that would be a kind of sin in Peretz’s argument) but somehow immanent – immanent to the filmic frame itself.

In the richly paradoxical turn of phrase common in the book – almost impossible to summarise but fairly easy to follow from moment to moment, a bit like a De Palma film at its most baroque – we arrive at something like this: that the frame is a limitation but also an openness, an opening to the world and the future as something yet to be decided, never given as whole in advance (an opening that Peretz also calls ‘new thinking’); that the opening in question is not to a Truth or a light (De Palma is not Spielberg) but precisely a blankness, a blindness. Talk of vision and blindness leads the author, logically, to a whole raft of fictive looks, gazes, attitudes and postures: the look of the witness, the paranoid look, the look that sees its grandest visions once the eyelids are closed … and, on this terrain, Peretz manages to say much that will not be terribly familiar to students of le regard in cinema. The fine distinctions he makes, the diagrams or relations he sketches in prose, are always arresting and thought-provoking – even if they rarely lead to something we might recognise as close textual analysis (the mixture of high philosophy and cinephilia, here, is nothing like we find in Nicole Brenez or Jean-Baptiste Thoret, both De Palma fanatics, both obsessed with frame reproduction and figural analysis – and neither cited in those 55 pages of notes). But, at a meta-analytic level, the emphasis on strangeness has an almost rhapsodic effect on the reader: suddenly, I started to believe, all films should be regarded as weird and cryptic, intricate demonstrations of some hyper-logic far beyond their banal, visible reference points. Along this line of flight, Peretz is no William D. Routt [2] but he is inspiring all the same.

There is an ambiguity or contradiction here – and in much writing that partakes of the Philosophic Turn – that never quite breaks the calm surface of the argument. As Peretz writes about cinema in the manner of Deleuze or Rancière or Agamben, there are only Great Directors: the canonical list of usual suspects (Hitchcock, Renoir, Murnau) to which he begs our indulgence to add De Palma. That’s fair enough within its own frame (and I agree with the polemic, too). But isn’t much that Peretz discusses – off-frames, the interval between photograms – absolutely constitutive of cinema as a medium or apparatus, and hence, logically, just as evident in the worst films ever made as in the best? Maybe even more evident there? Naturally, Peretz keeps trying to persuade us that, in De Palma, we get not just evidence of what is of philosophical import in cinema, but an extreme, super-intelligent, rigorous (the word insists in this text) extension of or elaboration on it. But to maintain this fragile logic necessitates (and here, Peretz dutifully obliges) cutting off De Palma’s films (especially the three-plus-one he centrally discusses) from all those others they pillage and influence in a fast feedback loop: all those Italian horror movies, paranoid thrillers, found-footage mash-ups … It’s easy to herald a new cinema and a new eye when you have no competition.

Of course, there are excesses in this book – how on earth could there not be, given its willingness to embrace all that is strange? When Peretz glides past most considerations of identity or gender politics – apart from the rhyming of Father and Frame in The Fury (but not Mother and Frame in Carrie?) – in order to assert that the real meaning of an adolescent girl’s first horrifying menstruation is that it reveals “the body as period” (p. 32), i.e., “the discovery of an exposed vulnerability that is the opening of language as relation before any specific meaning” (p. 33), it is hard to keep one’s eyes from rolling uncontrollably. Similarly, Peretz’s working definition of horror (no abject or return-of-repressed here, which is no bad thing, really) – horror as the primal opening or openness to difference or the Outside or somesuch – seems to touch too few of the hair-raising or deliberately revolting affects in De Palma’s cinema. But, finally, so what? In psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true (Adorno said it, and Norman O. Brown remade it) [3] – and that goes double for De Palma at his wildest, and triple forBecoming Visionary at its most earnest.

Adrian Martin,
Monash University, Australia.


[1] Adrian Martin, ‘Death 24x a second’, Cineaste, Vol 32 No 1 (December 2006), pp. 75-76.
[2] See William D. Routt, ‘Lois Weber, or the exigency of writing’, Screening the Past, no. 12 (March 2001).
[3]See Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphoses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

Created on: Thursday, 11 September 2008

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →