Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Raising Cain (1992)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

De Palma Blog-A-Thon: Raising Cain (1992)

by Kevin J. Olson [Kevin Olson is by his own admission, "an all around pop culture nerd who is interested in sharing his arbitrary opinion on film in the already crowded blogosphere." He has an affinity for all things Italian horror. Oh, and he assures you he named his blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies long before the release of Inglourious Basterds.] I think it's safe to call Raising Cain one of Brian De Palma's "lesser" films. By that I mean, start a conversation with any cinephile about the polarizing directors oeuvre, and it's unlikely that this 1992 thriller will be one of the first ten titles mentioned. Written and directed by De Palma, Raising Cain is one of the auteur's most underrated, surprising, and entertaining films. It's a swift 90 minute psychological thriller that owes a lot to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and any of Argento's giallo films. De Palma takes key recognizable images, or moments, from those films and inserts them into his own story about a man named Carter (John Lithgow in a fascinating performance), who may or may not have a twin brother, and an infamous father who was a renowned doctor... before accusations of stealing babies for research resulted in him dying. What follows is one of De Palma's most playful plots; full of interesting allusions and a maniacally gleeful (and pitch perfect) performance by Lithgow. The plot is pretty standard psychological killer stuff. The film opens with Carter talking to a colleague in the car about some of his research involving children. When the conversation turns heated Carter resorts to horrifying acts to get her to go along with his plan. As Carter figures out what to do in the car (which has now pulled off to the side of the road) a figure appears outside of the window. It is Cain, Carter's twin brother. Or, so we think. One of the most ingenious things about Raising Cain is the way De Palma plays with audience in regards to Carter's psyche. Is this really Carter's twin brother? In one brilliantly bizarre scene Cain visits his father, Dr. Nix, in a hotel room where they discuss his "escape" (a great use of words). Are we sure this is even really happening (De Palma shoots the scene in a way that suggests it isn't real)? Well Cain indeed is not real, and we're led to believe that Dr. Nix and two other entities he assumes are also part of Carter's split personalities. DePalma blocks the hotel scene perfectly—like it's out of Caligari or other German Expressionist films—thus giving the scene its much needed uncertain, otherworldly feel... since the scene is essentially taking place in Carter's head. However, we do come to find that Dr. Nix is not dead and that he is just using his son's different personalities to get different jobs done so that he can finish the research he started before his baby thievery was brought to the forefront of the country. As I already mentioned, one of the immensely entertaining things about Raising Cain is the way De Palma plays with the audience. His master and hero Hitchcock would be proud. I have to say that I was never quite sure what was going on until about the 20 minute mark (which I think is around the hotel scene), there the film slows down (as Cain has been put to rest after he disposes the body of Carter's aforementioned colleague) and briefly turns into an interesting domestic thriller. Carter is a weak man, and Lithgow plays him as kind of hapless fool (which is necessary since Cain is needed to be the assured one) who can't seem to please his wife or family. When things heat up between his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) and an acquaintance (Steven Bauer), Carter snaps and is lost forever as Cain "escapes" again, becoming the primary controller of Carter's body. As is typical for a De Palma film, there are countless allusions to great films throughout Raising Cain. Some of the best are a scene where Carter/Cain is trying to dispose of a body in the back seat of a car. He pushes the car into the river only to have the car stop half way. This of course is a nice, almost shot-for-shot, allusion to Psycho where Anthony Perkins is trying to get rid of Janet Leigh's body. Lithgow even manages to conjure up a little Perkins in his facial expressions throughout the film. Another great homage is when Carter/Cain happens upon his wife and her lover in the woods making love. He grabs the man's trench coat, dons black gloves, and pulls a knife as he prepares to kill a woman he has agreed to give a ride home to. This wardrobe is, of course, reminiscent of the "black-gloved killer" look found in all of the gialli by Bava, Argento, Lenzi, and Fulci (and of course, there's more). Another Argento moment comes at the very end of the film, where we think that Carter is dead and everything is safe for Jenny and her daughter. While Jenny explains what happened to one of her friends (acting as the psychiatrist from Psycho who explains the entire plot for those not smart enough to initially realize what was going on), her daughter runs off into the woods. After Jenny tracks her down, her daughter asks where her dad is. Jenny's response is that he's not around anymore, but her daughter says "Yes he is," and at the moment Jenny bends down to pick up her daughter we see Carter dressed in drag (in another moment of allusion, this reminds the viewer of De Palma's own Dressed to Kill) standing behind Jenny. This shot was famously used in Argento's 80's giallo, Tenebre (1982). De Palma has used it again since, in his fantastic noirish thriller Femme Fatale (2002). The film's climax is typical De Palma, too: it's perfectly blocked, has a great location, and (of course) is shot in slo-mo. The climax made me think of Carrie (1976) and Carlito's Way (1993) with its adequate usage of slow motion, a device that a lot of filmmakers use ineffectively, but like the split screen, is almost always used to perfection by De Palma. It's not just the look of the film that is one big giant homage to this very specific sub-genre that De Palma obviously loves (he also pays homage to Argento in The Untouchables), but it's the plot, too. In a great call back to these types of movies there is a moment where Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen), a former colleague of Carter and his father, walks into a police station to get the detectives up to speed on Carter's mental history. This is a great scene as Waldheim provides the classic moments of dialogue where through pseudo-scientific reasoning, Carter's illness is sought to be explained and reasoned out. This is a necessary staple for these types of films (it's especially evident in Psycho, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, etc.). However necessary this particular trope is, it's almost always excruciating because it's usually such a convoluted attempt to string together the loose strands of plot. Waldheim's speech is made interesting, though, by De Palma’s camera. In a virtuoso scene, he follows her and the detectives in a conversation as they walk through the multi-storied police building. The fluid camera and tilting shots (Dutch angles) as they walk down the stairs give interest to this rather blasé psychological thriller cliche. It’s a beautiful 4 minute and 50 second tracking shot that also reminds the viewer of the unbroken opening shot of Touch of Evil, with the way De Palma weaves his camera around through the building and in tight places like an elevator. The shot is there for a purpose (just like it is in Touch of Evil), as De Palma knows that his film's structure is not a linear one. This isn't a story that moves easily from point A to point B; no, these kinds of stories move in circles; they are askew plots with jagged turns, and De Palma shoots this long tracking shot accordingly—the shot is not as "smooth" (read: the film's plot) as it seems. And then there's Lithgow's performance. He's playing three different characters, here. All of them filled with nuances and over-the-top greatness that separates them from each other. Lithgow is obviously having a lot of fun bouncing from character to character, and his Cain has to be one of the most underrated of horror villains. It got me thinking about Lithgow and his career. I don't understand how Lithgow did not become a huge star after this movie. His performance shows that he can play crazy without it being too obvious. It's all in the way he stutters as Carter, is so sure of himself when he's Cain, and the wisdom he exudes when he's playing Dr. Nix, their father. It's a brilliant multi-layered performance, and it was sad to look at his bio and notice that he never again received a film role this prominent. Sure, he went on to make his money from 3rd Rock From the Sun and the Shrek films, but never again would he headline a movie. That's a shame because I feel like Lithgow is one of the most underrated actors working today (he was phenomenal in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and I have to admit...I really liked him as the evil Quinlan in Cliffhanger), and should get another chance at being the star of a movie. I began by saying that there is no doubt people think of Raising Cain as a lesser De Palma film. I hope people will revisit this criminally underrated psychological horror film. It's one of the best experiences I've had with De Palma, and for those that read my blog you know that De Palma is a filmmaker I struggle with. There is no doubting his talent, or his eye for a great scene, but sometimes I find his allusions to be less than exhilarating (compared to say a Quentin Tarantino who does the same thing as De Palma, but with an élan that is more exciting). That leads to a general malaise about his films -- a feeling like I am out of the loop when it comes to people I respect (like the man hosting this here blog-a-thon), who rank him highly in their pantheon of great American filmmakers. That being said: I have a found a reason to re-visit some of De Palma's work in the most unlikely of places... Raising Cain. Extra stills, since there is always so much good stuff to look at in a De Palma film:

31 comments:

Adam Zanzie said...

Kevin has seriously made me want to see "Raising Cain" now, but like I told him, it's set to Very Long Wait in my Blockbuster Queue. I do remember that Wal*Mart used to sell the film as part of a horror movie box set, lumped along with trashy movies like "Fear" (1996), but I never ended up buying it, and they don't sell it anymore. Now there are only three De Palma thrillers I still have yet to see: "Raising Cain", "Blow Out", and the still-unreleased "Obsession".

If there's one thing in Kevin's review I disagree with, it's over whether or not De Palma's cinematic allusions are as exciting as Tarantino's. You see, for me, it's the other way around; I feel weird just placing De Palma and Tarantino in the same sentence... because I think De Palma is so much obviously the superior of the two. Haha.

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

One reason why Raising Cain never really got it's due was because of Bonfire of Vanities. The 1992 movie literally became a bonfire for De Palma. Even during best of times, the critics had a tenous relationship with De Palma, i have rarely seen a BDP movie that all critics rate as excellent. And Bonfire of Vanities was something they were waiting for. It flopped, BDP was torn apart, but sadly, the critics seemed to have been blinded in their hatred( barring few like Ebert), as they went about savaging Raising Cain and then Carlito's Way( for me a far superior gangster flick compared to Scarface).

Tony Dayoub said...

Adam,

Personally, I think Raising Cain is one of his best films, as long as the viewer is well-versed in De Palma's filmography already. It's very tongue-in-cheek and self-referential in terms of his style and allusions. It's almost as if he is spoofing himself a la the ZAZ team (Airplane!). So a viewer who hasn't seen other films of his (not saying that's you, Adam) would not get the movie.

Blow Out is probably the movie I would consider to be De Palma's masterpiece. You must see that film. And it is probably Travolta's best performance ever.

As for Obsession, it was released in 2001 on DVD... I have it. But it is now out of print. While not a bad movie by any measure, it stands out to me as his most blatant Hitchcock ripoff, and so I find it difficult to sit through. I've only seen it once, so it may be due for a reassessment.

Scorpius,

That is a pretty fair assessment. And I have to add that Carlito's Way is my personal favorite BDP film for reasons that go beyond just being a De Palma film. Cahiers du Cinema recently named it the best film of the 90s, and I'm not sure I disagree.

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

Blow Out is a classic, too bad it came during the 80's, when such movies were out of place in the milieu. That final shot is haunting.

-- Ratnakar

Adam Zanzie said...

I'm sure "Raising Cain" is a movie I would eat all up. I'm pretty familiar by now with De Palma's tricks and career clues, and he has most definately mastered Hitchcock better than any other filmmaker. Only David Lynch comes close in that respect.

I'm much more embarrassed to have not seen "Blow Out" since, as you say, it's regarded as one of his best (even by Tarantino, if I'm not mistaken). It's a shame that "Obsession" is out of print! It's enticing just thinking about a collaboration between De Palma and Paul Schrader. By the way, has anyone here seen "Home Movies" (1979)? I know it's not a thriller, but that's another one I can't find.

You and Scorpius are right-on about "Carlito's Way". It's probably my *favorite* De Palma film, if not the one that I consider the best of all his works. I thought long and hard about writing and submitting a piece on it; but did you ever read Matt Zoller Seitz's essay on the film? He did such a fantastic job on it already that I decided it wasn't worth it. But I certainly don't want to discourage anyone else from submitting a CW piece to the blogathon!

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

I already have written on Carlito's Way, Tony must have seen it. More than Pacino's performance, it was Sean Penn's act as the sleazy, slimy lawyer that was the standout for me. It was hard for me to recognize Penn in the movie, so much did he slip into that character, frizzy hairstyle and all.

Also Penn came up with another solid performance in BDP's Casualties of War, as a pyschotic soldier in Vietnam. And it beats me how Casualties has never been tagged along with other Vietnam classics like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Deer Hunter. Sure the ending was a bit too Hollywood style, but the rest of the movie was pure dynamite.

-- Ratnakar Sadasyula

Ryan Kelly said...

First of all, a big round of applause for you, Kevin. This is a wonderful piece about a movie I never would have expected to see discussed. I like the film a lot, it's wonderfully over the top, trashy fun. But there are also a lot of psycho/sexual themes that are very typical of De Palma's career, though they're manifesting themselves here in an almost comic fashion. I love what Tony says here about it being De Palma almost spoofing himself. I'm glad this movie gave you a good experience with De Palma, Kevin.

As for the De Palma/Tarantino thing, I'll always fall on the De Palma side, and like Adam have difficulty mentioning them in the same breath. Not because I necessarily think Tarantino is that much 'lesser' an artist, but because Tarantino is as different from De Palma as De Palma is from Hitchcock, though they're film makers that will always be associated with one another, even if only loosely.

Blow Out, much as I like it, is honestly one I don't feel the love for. It's one of De Palma's most heartfelt, emotional thrillers, but it just doesn't get my juices flowing in the way my favorite De Palma's do. My favorite part, actually, is the scene with John Lithgow in the train station (which is what made me realize I needed to see Raising Cain) And, regarding Obsession, yes it is blatant Hitchcock aping, but don't forget Vertigo was unavailable at that time due to copyright issues, and I feel there are enough differences between Obsession and Vertigo to make them different beasts. Vertigo is as much about sexual attraction as it is emotional love, and how physicality ties into the emotional state of being in love, but Obsession strips away the sexuality and makes it strictly about love. I won't give away exactly how it does that, but I think it takes the basic scenario of Vertigo and gives it a different emotional punch.

For all the talk of Hitchcock aping, Obsession and Dressed to Kill are the only movies I can think of that feel like Hitchcock re-makes (but with his own sensibility). Unless I'm forgetting something.

Again, bravissimo, Kevin.

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

Ryan

There is also Body Double, a more,cheesy violent version of Rear Window, with bits of Vertigo thrown in. Again that movie was typical 80's excess- over the top, tongue in cheek.

--Ratnakar Sadasyula

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

Also one more BDP movie which i find again ignored is Snake Eyes, just love the way the camera tracks the stadium, the indoor shots, plot wise not too great, but good performances by Cage and Sinise, with some excellent visuals make it up.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Thanks everyone for the kind words!

Adam:

I'm glad the review wanted to make you see the movie. It really is one of the most entertaining of De Palma's films. I only mention the Tarantino thing because they both seem to be accused of "ripping off" material. I think I like Tarantino's films more than De Palma's, but I'd be an idiot if I thought that Tarantino could exist without De Palma. There is no doubting De Palma's imprint on cinema, and filmmakers like him who use allusions and then flip them, making them their own.

For the longest time I've always felt that De Palma was the cinephile darling because he didn't quite get the credit he deserved back in the day. He was part of that 70's movement of American cinema that included Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Lucas; and I think it's safe to say that out of those names De Palma was probably the least bankable. So, I always felt like the man was little overrated myself just because he wasn't as popular -- HOWEVER, I have been changing my tune on this. It's been a slow process, but like I said in my review, I've found a reason to re-visit these films, and that reason is Raising Cain.

I also have had great conversations with Tony and Ryan and others about De Palma, and that has helped me ease up on my De Palma indifference a bit. I now look forward to revisiting a lot of his films. Go figure.

Thanks for the comments Adam. I hope you see the film soon.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Okay -- I didn't want that comment to be too long, so here's the rest of it.

Tony:

I'm glad you're such a fan of Raising Cain. I decided to go for the more traditional review, here, but you're totally right about how this film seems to be a spoof on all other De Palma films. As I mentioned in my review the film is only 90 minuets, and it just flies by...it really feels like De Palma and his crew, not to mention Lithgow, are just having a lot of fun making something "breezy".

It would be interesting to look at the film again and try to find all of the De Palama references within (I only took the time to point one out), but yes, the film does seem to be more playful with its references.

I haven't seen Obsession...I'm guessing by your comments I should skip it for now?


Ryan:

Thank you so much for the kind words of praise. I had a lot of writing about this movie. As I mentioned in the previous comment I posted I'm looking forward to revisiting some of De Palma's work. So I may be coming to your side on this one, hehe. We'll see.
So far the reaction has been what I was aiming for. I wanted to stay away from being a negative guy on here (which meant staying away from some of De Palma's sacred cows), so I went with a 90 minute horror flick that had a whole lot of Argento references in it. I knew I would at least enjoy it on that level. Plus, it's a film no one talks about when they talk about De Palma. Thanks again, Ryan.


Ratnakar:

I've only seen Snake Eyes once, but I remember the camera being the star of the show. I always thought it was an uneven film and showed De Palma at his indecisive worst. That opening shot is something else, though.

Adam Zanzie said...

To kill time, I watched the theatrical trailer for "Raising Cain". Even though it doesn't look like major De Palma, it still looks like something that I could totally down one of these days when I'm in the mood for something that's just, you know... fun. I'm chuckling over the clip of Lithgow talking to himself in some sort of "duck" dialect.

"Snake Eyes" is great until the last half hour when the whole thing runs out of juice. It's unfortunate that the studio refused to allow De Palma to shoot that finale of the flood waters crashing through the hotel. But enough about that- I gotta let somebody who's writing on the film for the blogathon do that job for me!

Geoff said...

The trailer for RAISING CAIN is one of my favorite trailers (that and the one for FEMME FATALE)!

Regarding OBSESSION as a "rip-off" of Hitchcock, it is worth considering that part of that film's marketing included promoting it as a respectful homage to Hitchcock. Prior to that, SISTERS was seen as a successful homage to Hitchcock by critics, including Paul Schrader. It wasn't until DRESSED TO KILL, released shortly after Hitchcock died, that De Palma's Hitchcock-themed works were so negatively viewed as derivative.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Tony:

I'm planning on cross-posting this at my blog on Thursday or Friday. Sound good? Let me know.

Anonymous said...

I've always considered DePalma to be one of the greatest technical directors working, but a very hit-and-miss director of films. When he's on, he's absolutely brilliant, but when he's off or simply indulging his passions and idiosyncrasies (as in Raising Cain), he's playing only to his truest fans by way of playing to himself. And there's nothing wrong with that, as I'm an unabashed fan of the Coen Brothers but I willfully accept that not everyone is going to find Barton Fink or The Man Who Wasn't There worth watching once, let alone multiple times.

Nice review. You actually make me want to see this movie again, even though I didn't really like it that much the first time. You're absolutely right that Lithgow is criminally underrated as an actor, but he has a way about him that tends towards a campy intensity that I don't think most directors can see past. It's a stylistic choice he likes to make, but he makes it often.

It does make me wonder though to see so many commentors here disagreeing with your Tarntino connection, as I think you're right on. I can see picking DePalma over Tarantino (they are fundamentally different filmmakers in style and influences) but I can't think of anyone else who comes closer to DePalma or vice versa than Tarantino. And we *are* talking about Raising Cain, which isn't exactly out of the realm of Tarantino's possibilities either.

Tony Dayoub said...

Geoff,

I think times were different when Obsession came out since many of Hitch's key movies were under a moratorium, never mind the absence of home video. So it was easier for De Palma to get away with aping Hitch as much as he did in that film. Besides, for the same reasons listed above, one could even look at it as an affectionate homage.

Seen within the current framework of being able to compare it on demand with any of Hitch's work, I don't think it stands up as well (which coincidentally, also explains the critical drubbing of Dressed to Kill which was released after the advent of home video). But like I said, I'm open to another reassessment.

Kevin,

You may crosspost as soon as you wish. No need to wait after it's posted here.

Anonymous,

De Palma has the edge on Tarantino in one respect. I watch De Palma and I actually believe he has lived a life outside of the movies, i.e. his unique perspectives on a wide range of true events that frame some of his films like the Mariel boatlift in Scarface, the Iraq war in Redacted, the central murder in The Black Dahlia.

With Tarantino, whom I am a huge fan of, I still only feel he makes movies about other movies. Inglourious Basterds may have plenty more to say than it's given credit for, but I still feel he researched WWII and the Holocaust by watching other movies, instead of trying to find primary sources (people) or read books on those subjects. Sadly, I haven't felt like he's lived a life outside of films since I saw Jackie Brown.

Kevin J. Olson said...

With Tarantino, whom I am a huge fan of, I still only feel he makes movies about other movies. Inglourious Basterds may have plenty more to say than it's given credit for, but I still feel he researched WWII and the Holocaust by watching other movies, instead of trying to find primary sources (people) or read books on those subjects. Sadly, I haven't felt like he's lived a life outside of films since I saw Jackie Brown.

Great point, Tony. As I recall he even has Robert Forester's character walk out of a movie where you can hear the final song that plays over Jackie Brown. It's a pretty nuanced meta moment, but I think it's safe to say that Max Cherry could have been walking out of his own movie. Even his characters are never supposed to feel like anything other than movie characters.

Some would argue that this is why Tarantino's seem cold. His characters aren't relatable. I like what you say specifically about QT's possible means of research for Inglourious Basterds being nothing more than him watching more movies. I think that's a safe bet.

Both QT and De Palma will always be referential filmmakers who make pastiche films, and even though I like QT more, you're absolutely right that De Palma at least seems to be coming at his work with some experience that reaches beyond his many allusions.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Anon:

I'm glad this review sparked some new interest in this film for you. I hope you give it another shot. Thanks for the kind words.

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

Honestly not sure if comparisons help, but one way i feel is that BDP has a more varied ouevre compared to QT.

BDP has attempted on everything war dramas( Casualties of War), old school cops n robbers tale( Untouchables), gangster dramas( Scarface, Carlito's Way), sci fi(Mission to Mars), noir( The Black Dahlia).

QT on the other hand still is in referencing other flicks, for example the killing of Nazis in a theater in IB is taken straight from climax of Dirty Dozen, where Nazi officers and their families are burnt to death in a basement. For me most of QT's movies hae become an exercise in "Spot the movie reference", something BDP is equally prone to, just that he spreads it over other genres.

That said QT is still one of my favorites, very few directors can get you interested over a discussion on Hamburgers. But it remains to be seen how QT would tackle a Casualties of War or Carlito's Way kinda flick.

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

One area where QT gets it right over BDP is in the casting department, he gets the right persons for the right roles, and the best of actors. Be it Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, IB, Kill Bill, every actor seems to fit in their roles to a T. I am not sure how many directors again would have thought of turning Uma Thurman into an avenging angel kinda role, and pull it off.

BDP on the other hand goofs up with some spectacular miscasting. Case in point Black Dahlia, the reason why L.A.Confidential worked, was apart from the direction and writing, the powerhouse cast of Kevin Spacey, Russel Crowe, Guy Pearce all actors capable of chewing up the scenery on their own. Josh Hartnett on the other hand just doesn't measure up any where close.

Again in Carlito's Way, Penelope Ann Miller, really did not gel into the role of a stripper, too sweet, too cute, one reason why Scarface worked was Michelle Pfeiffer fitted the "icy cold hearted bitch" role perfectly.

Kevin J. Olson said...

QT on the other hand still is in referencing other flicks, for example the killing of Nazis in a theater in IB is taken straight from climax of Dirty Dozen, where Nazi officers and their families are burnt to death in a basement. For me most of QT's movies hae become an exercise in "Spot the movie reference", something BDP is equally prone to, just that he spreads it over other genres.

Interesting. I think you're short-changing QT a bit, there. I'm not saying you don't like the man, because you've stated you do (plus that's neither here nor there), but I think that there is something to be said about how we "spot the reference" in Tarantino's films -- it's up to us to be able to deconstruct those references and see how they help us better understand Tarantino's work.

Look, Tarantino undoubtedly works within the realm of postmodernism, which lends itself to pastiche and playfulness...it's what that movement is all about; however, that doesn't lessen what the man is trying to say with his work. Is he a profound director? I don't know, but he's an incredibly intelligent one. His Jack Rabbit Slims segment from Pulp Fiction is one of the best representations of what Jean Baudrillard called the 'simulacrum'. Everything in that scene, and the way his characters behave, is a copy of the original. Same with Resevior Dogs. These people act the way they act based on movies, and I think that's QT's commentary on America. I don't think he's saying anything damning about it, because he makes his movies that way, but the depth of that discussion is there, lurking in all of his films.

One of the biggest knocks on postmodernism (especially in literature) is that it's too playful and doesn't really say anything. Despite the movements nihilistic tendencies there is actually a lot more to it than that. Often times postmodernism is asking you to look to the past to better understand the future. So I think it's safe to say that QT is saying that we need to look to the past to better understand his films, and the way we watch movies in general.

I also think QT makes a lot of comments about his fellow filmmakers. There's a great scene in Jackie Brown where Odell is talking to someone (I think it's DeNiro's character) and he mentions how all of the gangsters he sells guns to want to the worst guns, and they want two of them. Why? Because they saw it in The Killer and thought it looked cool. So instead of going for quality, they merely want to ape what looks neat and go for the lesser gun.

That could be construed as QT saying something about the fellow filmmakers who make films that are style (or allusions) over substance.

But then again who knows...he's friends with Eli Roth, so...

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

Kevin, sorry if that came out as "short changing", never intended it that way. For me QT will still be one of my role models as far as "direction" is concerned. Was just giving my thoughts on it.

Actually the reason why i admire QT is the way he makes scenes that would have looked mundane in any other movie, appear intelligent, in depth. QT for me is one of the best when it comes to character setup, the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs again, beyond the quotes about "tipping" and QT's jibes about "Like a Virgin", he leads us on to every character, their motivations, their thought process.

My take is that QT's movies have come with a kind of standard template- emphasis on dialogue, cranked up characters, references to other movies, violent gory action. Was wondering how it would be if QT were to direct an anti war Vietnam drama or sci fi flick, just my thoughts.

Regarding the "style over substance" allusion, could be refering to his old pal Tony Scott, i think.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Yeah -- I didn't mean for my "short changed" comment to come across that way. I understood right away from your comment that you were at Tarantino admirer.

I like what you say about the way he sets up his characters. And you could be correct about the Tony Scott thing.

Anyway. This is a thread for De Palma and Raising Cain. So I'll quit talking about Tarantino now, hehe.

Scorpius Maximus Indicus said...

Carlito's Way reminds me of the pool room sequence, one of the best action scenes in movies. Again the set up, Pacino walking into the pool room, chatting up with the guys, but observing, what i love is the way BDP brings into focus the small things, a crack in the door, a window slightly open, Pacino's tense face as he surveys, we know we are being led on to something. And then Pacino, trying to take a cue, glancing around, seeing some 1 in the shadows. And the shootout. I would rate this on par with the Odessa steps shootout in Untouchables.
-- Ratnakar

HarryMoseby said...

I think it's underrated, too, and am also eager now to check it out again. One of the reasons it aggravated viewers is (once again) they really had to pay attention in order for DePalma to successfully play with their expectations. You think you're one step ahead of the movie but DePalma's one step ahead of you - which was a real kick at the time but a point at which a lot of people likely threw in the towel. DePalma was too smart for his own good, which may explain Black Dahlia.

Discman said...

I overlooked this post when commenting in the "Mission to Mars" blogathon post on this site, where I referenced "Raising Cain" as a De Palma highlight.

At the time, one reviewer made the point that De Palma had made yet another homage to one of his favorite filmmakers: himself. And so he had.

As a big fan, I say in return: Isn't that great? Who better to reference when your skills and techniques are so astounding? Indulgent, sure, but intensely satisfying on a visual level -- and with DePalma, the visuals reign. He has his thematic obsessions, but they're laid out through his technique.

When a filmmaker makes a film that sums up his thematice/artistic obsessions to that point in his career, the film is often hailed as a masterpiece (see "Vertigo"). When DePalma made that sort of movie with "Raising Cain," it was treated as, at best, a passing amusement. I guess a film can't have a sense of fun but has to be heavy and serious to get the critical props it deserves.

Or maybe I'm being too hard. It takes time, sometimes, to realize a masterpiece. Sometimes they're identified only in retrospect. Or maybe certain elements of the film just don't amount to anything substantial enough to qualify as masterful -- I'm thinking of the hokey dialogue and central relationship/affair in "Raising Cain," which may be too moody and arch for critics to take seriously. If so, the film's reputation may never rise above "technically masterful." But let's at least give it that.

Finally, I'll raise a point here that I raised at Dennis Cozzalio's site a few years ago, when the release of "The Black Dahlia" led to a deluge of online reassessments of DePalma's films. We simply cannot keep talking about DePalma's visual style *without* talking about his cinematographers. They do DePalma's bidding, no doubt, but I've often wondered how much input they have into the look of the director's films. For instance, I, too, really like "Carlito's Way," but think of that as a Stephen Burum film as much as a DePalma film. Two nights ago, I was wowed by "Femme Fatale" and a little surprised to see that it was filmed by Theirry Arbogast, who, I don't think, had worked before with DePalma, or has worked with him since. But the visuals are great in "Femme Fatale." Not Burham-great, but great! :)
Well, I'm rambling on. Best to stop now and see if anyone has something to add. I'm enjoying the blogathon.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Discman:

It definitely took me awhile to give Raising Cain a shot, but I had a feeling I would like it because I heard about how referential it was to one of my favorite directors, Dario Argento. You're right, too, in that it is definitely a self-reflexive film by De Palma. Perhaps his most self-referential. I think that some of these "lesser" films by De Palma will continue to age well. I was a big fan of The Black Dahlia when I saw it in the theater...I really felt like I had to defend the man to my friends after we were done seeing the movie...and I that was at a time when I thought very little of De Palma...but I loved that movie.

You raise an interesting point in regards to cinematographers. I had the chance to listen to Vilmos Zsigmond at a film festival here in Salem. He stated that working with De Palma was a dream because he's such a visual director -- and that there were never any conflicts because he respects his DP's so much. It was an interesting insight from one of our best cinematographers.

Great comments all around, Discman.

Alexander Coleman said...

This is a truly great review, Kevin. You have encapsulated what makes De Palma such an interesting and simultaneously often quite frustrating filmmaker. Raising Cain, for all of its flaws, however, always gives me something of a thrill, based solely on the filmmaking. The tracking shots in particular stand out.

John Lithgow is quite a presence, and I agree with you that he should have become a bigger movie star after this film. However, I fear that his look was "wrong"; he is a bit strange-looking, and not classically of the "handsome leading man" staple. I've always found him fascinating, however, even when he's hamming it up or playing a limited character (I like Obsession but you can tell his character is up to no good approximately one second after he appears). In any event, great piece.

jim emerson said...

Let's not forget the climactic set-piece of "Raising Cain," which is one of my favorites for its mathematical (as well as melodramatic) precision. An elevator, a couple levels of motel catwalks, a baby carriage, a little girl, a thunderstorm, a bag of oranges, a knife, a gun and a pickup truck in reverse with some dangerously pointed cargo. Add slow-mo and you don't even need split screen because the multiple levels of action (reflecting the multiple Lithgows) do that for you!

Kevin J. Olson said...

Alexander:

Always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, De Palma can be maddening at times, but I think that stems from the fact that there's no denying his brilliance when it comes to constructing a shot. Raising Cain is one of those forgotten movies that people slough off because of its genre, its lead actor, and because it kind of just came and went upon its release. But it's probably De Palma's most cerebral film, and it's great (as so many others have pointed out already) how he begins to allude to his own films throughout.

I like what you have to say about Lithgow, too. He doesn't have the conventional leading man look, but he makes interesting decisions throughout the film as Carter/Cain that make me believe, given another shot, he could headline any movie. I just wish someone would give him a role as juicy as this one was for him.

Thanks as always for your thoughts, Alexander.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Jim:

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my piece. I appreciate it. I tacked a couple of the stills of the climactic ending onto the end of my post, and you're exactly right that the "mathmatical precision" is something to behold.

I love the way De Palma plays with our knowledge of horror conventions when he clearly shows us the truck backing up (I'm thinking of The Omen, here...I'm sure there are others) with all the pointy goodies in the back, and then does nothing with it. I also love it when Steven Bauer is approaching the scene and (as you point out)you see the multiple levels of the motel representing the multiple levels of action...and Lithgow's mind.

The climax in Raising Cain really is one of his best. When the man's not using split screen to perfection, he's utilizing slow-mo better than anyone else I can think of.

Great addition to the discussion, Jim. I really appreciate you stopping by and adding such great stuff.