Brian De Palma’s not so secret love affair

by Christopher Heard

Brian De Palma on the set of Femme Fatale

Brian De Palma on the set of Femme Fatale

When you cover something like the Toronto International Film Festival for thirteen years or so you come to expect the unexpected in terms of the kinds of experiences – but one of the weird little stories that I tend to repeat when discussing my relationship to TIFF came in the 1996 edition.

I was up early and heading to the pair of screens that used to be under the Sheraton Centre Hotel (a past home base for a number of TIFF events) where there was an 8:00 press screening of Michael Winterbottom’s film Jude based on the relentless downbeat Thomas Hardy novel called Jude The Obscure. The film stars Christopher Eccleston whom I was to interview that afternoon (a delightful guy, I asked him a long winded question about his reasons for taking such a depressing role in such a depressing film and whether or not he thought the film spoke to something higher than just that what we were seeing – his answer, “I took the film because I needed the money.”)

As I took my seat and settled in with a coffee and a cinnamon swirl donut (a TIFF ritual for morning screenings) I was immediately bothered by another person wishing me to rise up just after sitting down so he could squeeze by and sit next to me. The man was large, burly almost, wearing khaki pants and what looked to be a fisherman’s vest over a long sleeved shirt.
He apologized for disturbing me and took his seat – he smiled at me and said that he might just have to disturb me again before the film was over because he wasn’t sure that he could sit through the whole depressing thing at this early hour in the morning.

We chatted about the fact that I was covering the festival and needed to no only see the films in their entirety but pay close attention to them because I was speaking with either the actors or the filmmakers sometime during the course of the festival. This man told me that he often ducked into a film, if it grabbed him in the first ten minutes he would watch it all, if not, he was on to the next one. Often times he said he had to duck out half way through one film to catch the first half of another because they were scheduled in such a way that he simply couldn’t see either in their entirety but wanted a taste of both.

It was right around this moment that it suddenly dawned on my why this guy was so familiar to me – something had been niggling at me since the guy started talking – there was something familiar about this guy – was it the gray beard? Was it the voice? Then it dawned on me – this was Brian De Palma I was chatting with. Going into the whole “You’re Brian De Palma, aren’t you?” number was of no interest to me – and the film was about to start anyway – so we just chatted movies and TIFF until it did.

A few days later I was to run into De Palma again, this time the fact that he was the mercurial talent from the lower case list of seventies iconoclastic filmmakers (Coppola, Scorcese, Friedkin – uppercase – De Palma, Lucas, Bogdanovich – lower case) was brought into the conversation. I was standing outside the entrance to the hotel waiting for a cab and chatting with Roger Ebert who was also waiting for a cab – De Palma, who was also in search of a cab stepped up to us and chatted about how much he loved the festival and in fact really loved the city of Toronto and how he came to the festival yearly even though he did not have a film entered just to see films and enjoy the atmosphere – Ebert concurred that he would do the same thing even if he was not booked to do anything publicly during the festival.

I would see De Palma at subsequent TIFFs and as always he was racing between one screening and another in his khaki pants and fisherman’s vest. At the TIFF 2002 edition De Palma had a strange film entered – Femme Fatale with Antonio Banderas – and this year he is back once again with a film that I am very much looking forward to – Redacted.

Redacted tells several different stories of the experience of fighting this current war in Iraq with a thick weave of how the media is playing a significant, even disproportionate role in how the war is being interpreted running through it.

At least twice in his career Brian De Palma has been a lightning rod for controversy – in 1983 when he remade Scarface turning it into a blood soaked Italian opera about drugs and the Cuban exodus of the Carter era De Palma wound up on CNN explaining himself for his violent imagery (“This is not a film about violence, it is about drugs and the loss of our moral fiber,” said De Palma) – then again in 1989 he made a film set in Viet Nam called Casualties of War that remains woefully underrated containing one of numerous startling brilliant performances by Sean Penn – if the film suffered from anything it was the casting of Michael J. Fox in this very tough film – it seemed that audiences just weren’t willing to embrace Fox in anything but the Family Ties/Back to the Future posture.

The point of this remembrance is not just to express an anticipation for a new film from a filmmaker who can be called many things, but uninteresting is never one of them (I have seen a chunk of Redacted and I do believe a stir is about to be caused) but to illustrate one of the powerfully positive things about TIFF – that it is a festival of the people, by the people and for the people – and those people include the guy who lives in his parents basement and lives and breathes films right on up to the guy who makes those very films – all join in and all enjoy the energy and the pageantry of what has become, in my opinion, the preeminent film festival/gathering on earth.

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