Back to the Future
Jeff Reichert on The Wedding Party, Murder a la Mod, and Greetings
Given that Brian De Palma once openly proclaimed his desire to be the “American Godard,” there’s a certain irony to be gleaned from looking at how history has treated the earliest works of both filmmakers. Where today Godard’s first steps from the Nouvelle Vague era often come in double-disc deluxe packaging from the Criterion Collection, replete with reverential essays from top-tier critics, the reissue of De Palma’s first film The Wedding Party features a lengthy cheeseball video intro from producer Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Films fame. Even better, his second feature, Murder a la Mod, comes to us courtesy of reputable purveyor Something Weird and is packaged as a two-fer with the unknown and fantastically titled The Moving Finger sharing (single) disc space.
Do Americans naturally take film art more seriously when it comes with subtitles? (“Do Americans take film for art at all?” being another question entirely.) It’s probably not so simple a dichotomy as that, but there’s something to the idea that pre-existing knowledge of origination and presentation heavily influence audiences—the way a scratchy New Yorker or Janus logo at the head of a print often mutes or entirely forecloses critique of a slightly-above-par film from Russia or Spain.
De Palma’s early films have been so thoroughly overshadowed by his disreputable classics of the Seventies and Eighties that those conversant with works like Sisters, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out may find them something of a surprise even though they do so clearly instate some of the filmmaker’s main themes. As with the films of many a young director (like, say, Godard perhaps) there’s a sense of freedom and experimentation in The Wedding Party, Murder a la Mod, and Greetings, and each loosely exemplifies a different tentpole propping his later filmmaking (though Greetings collapses categories from the earlier two into a glorious mush.) In fact, when Greetings is paired with its nominal sequel, De Palma’s fifth feature, Hi, Mom!, the two make the clearest case possible for De Palma as the truest American inheritor of the Nouvelle Vague spirit, and represent some of the most exciting filmmaking of that generation.
De Palma: Erstwhile Comic
Shot in 1964 but left unreleased until 1969, The Wedding Party’s a grungy, gonzo black-and-white 16mm thing that certainly doesn’t evince much of the cool remove that characterizes later De Palma. Eschewing the more elegant, barely contained chaos of something like Altman’s later A Wedding, The Wedding Party is madcap from start to finish, with liberal use of bumbling jerky sped-up sequences (when you’re not shooting with a great deal of sync sound, you’ve gotta fill the space somehow) and plinking carny organ, almost as though it were the Keystone Kops Get Married. It opens as bridegroom Charlie (Charles Pfluger) and his two pals Alistair (William Finley) and Cecil (Robert Denero [sic]) arrive via ferry for a classically extravagant Long Island wedding. Bride Josephine (Jill Clayburgh) is your average WASP with an immense house situated on an immense piece of property populated by an even larger extended family. Sending three doofuses into battle with the stiff-upper-lip set’s a fairly regular foundation for pre-wedding hijinks comedy, but here, as in most cases, it isn’t without some sure rewards.
As one would expect looking back over his career after 40 years of filmmaking, De Palma, a genre perfectionist, hits most of the necessary notes with aplomb: meeting the family and forgetting all of their names, jitters in the face of increasingly planned milquetoast future (played as Carrie-horrific in one brief moment), a priceless bachelor party sans Charlie, the rehearsal dinner, and a late film run-in with another woman (a cousin of the bride played by Jennifer Salt) that finds Charlie reconsidering his pending nuptials. There’s an essay on Sisters in this issue that argues for De Palma as a comedian and satirist of the highest order, and when The Wedding Party gets injected back into the filmography it’s a little easier to locate the humorous side of a director more known for bloody stabbings. However, it’s in the climax where we find perhaps the most unexpected moment: Charlie’s decided to run off, tries to escape, fails, and is hauled back to the church by Alistair and Cecil. On the steps he runs into his bride, gazes upon her for a moment, rediscovers his love and enters willingly. The Wedding Party is comedy, yes, but there’s more than a little romance on display in its finale—unless, of course, the satire’s buried so deep that De Palma’s left me the fool.
De Palma: Voyeur Extraordinaire
An exercise in technique more than it’s necessarily a film, Murder a la Mod (1967) exhibits De Palma’s first feature-length attempts at high stylization, even though it still sticks with the grainy black-and-white of The Wedding Party. Appropriately enough, it opens with screen tests, the familiar hash marks of a camera viewfinder imprinted over two nervous young women as they are cajoled in succession into removing their clothes by an unseen speaker. Though the voice is later aligned with Jared Martin’s amateur pornographer, Christopher, I couldn’t help but shake the idea that it might have been De Palma himself egging these girls on, as in similar sequences with Mia Kirshner in The Black Dahlia. In Dahlia these sequences are obviously a construct, but the chintziness of Murder complicates matters—could there be some kind of real subterfuge at work? Are these girls really actresses? It’s this past-present echo effect—wherein the blueprint for De Palma’s more famous works is established—that creates the true value of Murder a la Mod.
Sex and death are inextricably linked in many of De Palma’s films, and it all starts here. Naive Karen (Margo Norton) desperately wants to help Christopher, a true “photo artist” who only works the porno beat to raise enough money to divorce his wife. She’s posed nude for him from time to time—“I’m not a child” she tells concerned friend Tracey (Andra Akers), and when Tracey pulls grandma’s jewels out of the bank, Karen sees a way to finance Christopher’s freedom. All too grateful, Christopher beds her on his porn set (a walleyed long shot where he turns off the lighting equipment arrayed around the mattress on the floor is particularly portentous) and soon after the girl’s been killed with an ice pick. In the eye, naturally. The rest of the film replays the events surrounding the murder from each character’s perspective (split screen makes an appearance)—and by the end some of the film’s exuberant energy’s worn off through repetition. However, if you’re really looking for “classic” De Palma in chrysalis, start here. Also of note: though he appeared in The Wedding Party, Murder a la Mod’s our first run-in with the real, really creepy William Finley, who’s still making appearances for the filmmaker.
De Palma: The Political Animal
If you saw Greetings (1969), then went on and watched Dressed to Kill, you might think them the work of two completely different filmmakers. By his third feature, De Palma had upgraded to color, but the work is still gritty, improvisatory, and reliant on lengthy stationary set-ups, far from the ornate precision of his late Seventies work. Greetings follows three friends through a series of New York-based sketches that bear only tenuous relation to each other; if not for the film’s intense forward velocity, all the raw materials would certainly fall apart. Paul (Jonathan Warden) is trying to dodge the draft while testing the waters of computer dating; Jon (Robert De Niro) is giving “amateur” filmmaking a shot; and Lloyd (Gerrit Graham) is a JFK conspiracy nut trying to ferret out the truth of the assassination. The three are introduced in a lengthy, bravura sequence where Lloyd and Jon provide increasingly ridiculous draft-dodging advice as they shift venues: from a clothing store to a zoo, a random apartment, a public bathroom and finally a bar. The first half-hour neatly captures a sense of early twenties aimlessness, where hanging out—wherever—is an end in itself; it’s jovial and feels at times not unlike Godard’s Band of Outsiders.
Even though the “Greetings” theme song, a jangly Byrdsian creation, quickly negates the gravity of the opening LBJ Vietnam clip, the war hangs heavily over the film. (Hearing a president speak in 1968 about fighting terror abroad to help secure the homeland gave me chills.) “I’m not saying you never had it so good, but that is the case isn’t it?” says LBJ, and the three draft-concerned friends do their best to prove him right. The sight of a young mustachioed Robert De Niro gallivanting through Central Park and goosestepping through the Lower East Side trying to figure out just how great of an actor he might one day become should be enough to warm the heart of even the most hardened cinephile. And De Palma himself is no slouch here, taking time to skewer the art world, tenuous race relations, JFK conspiracy nuts, the dating scene, radical liberalism, and the city of New York’s own innate pretensions.
Paul manages to dodge the draft by playing gay, but Jon’s not so lucky. His plan to pose as an extremist arch-conservative with bloodlust only rendered him more worthy of the military, forcing him to abandoned his burgeoning “Peepers and the Peep” avant-porn masterwork (by film’s end he’s already hooked up with smut peddler Alan Garfield, who will bankroll the very same project in Hi, Mom!). Even if the film loses a bit of steam mid-way through, Greetings’ coup de grace comes in an obviously staged Vietnam by way of Long Island where a newsman hooks up with a rifleman on the front line—none other than Jon Rubin. In the course of the interview Jon captures a young Vietnamese girl, seats her in front of the news camera and begins restaging his “Peepers” film as De Palma intercuts footage from the original taken in a Manhattan bedroom, effectively thumbing his nose at his audience, and the political priorities of the day. Cue LBJ, cut, cue “Greetings” theme, and FIN.
You’d almost never know it by the way he’s sublimated these early impulses throughout the course of his career, especially in the “total cinema” formalism of his Eighties thrillers, but the would-be master of suspense was once a freewheeling indie filmmaker running around New York with a limited crew and small budget doing exciting sketch work in a series of barely hinged cheapies. It’s interesting to consider what might have happened had De Palma continued along the path set by Greetings and the even wilder Hi, Mom! (Would he have run off to become a Swiss videomaker like his one-time idol?) It might certainly have spared us his late Eighties/early Nineties career nadir, but then we might well have lost his late Seventies/early Eighties hot streak. As much as these three odd films are certainly De Palma, I doubt him to be a filmmaker really interested in a lifetime of interrogating images from outside the vision factory. Though it may seem unlikely and unclear, there’s a progression here, one capped by Hi, Mom!, marking a definitive “period” of experimentation that provided a more than solid launching pad for the elaborate works to follow. Brian De Palma’s career has proven the old adage “you can never go home again” wrong—The Wedding Party, Murder a la Mod, and Greetings show that he’s somehow managed to make continual trips back to the beginning over the entirety of his 40-year career.