FILM / Watching us, watching him: The first big film of 1994 is by Brian De Palma. To some, that means nasty, brutish and short on originality. To others, it means thrillingly stylish. Does either view do the man justice? And does he care?

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THE TRIAL of Brian De Palma has been long, bitter and public - a show trial of an alleged show-off director. Every sort of expert has taken the stand - critics (film and literary), other journalists, politicians, psychologists, feminists. It's an open and shut case - open for over 20 years, but closed in the minds of most of those trying it. Supporters hail him as a genius; detractors portray him as a monster. His reputation is highest at home in America, and near its nadir in Britain. The most influential postwar film writer, Pauline Kael, set the tone for a generation of rhapsodic American critics. Martin Amis, profiling De Palma in 1984, seemed to conclude that the emperor, like most of his leading ladies, had no clothes.

The Case for the Prosecution: the accused is a violent and habitual offender against public decency and cinematic logic. A misogynist and a pervert, a thief and a fraud, he steals old masters (chiefly Hitchcocks), and passes them off as his own. The Case for the Defence: our client is misunderstood and maligned by a society blind to his satiric wit, virtuoso technique and parodic style. A visual pioneer and rare radical spirit, he is a great film-maker.

THE DEFENDANT is not in plaintive mood. It's early, but the interview grind, part of a European tour, is already under way in De Palma's London hotel suite. He has the truculent demeanour of a man about to be lynched on a trumped-up charge. He appears to have prepared for his morning on the gallows with a night on the tiles. 'He's hung over and in a very bad mood,' his publicist tells us. Thick-set and bearded, wearing cords and a cumbrous jacket, he looks like the proverbial sore-headed bear.

He's aching for a hit that won't quite come. His new film, Carlito's Way, is a slick switch back into mainstream gangsterism in the manner of The Untouchables (1987), but without the same dividend at the bank: it's done only steady business in America. Not quite enough for a man who made one of Hollywood's biggest flops, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and had his profligacy pinpointed in a book, The Devil's Candy by Julie Salamon. More fuel to the interrogators who often go for him with the maniacal zeal of his characters. He has to field the same loaded questions over and over. ('There's always the one about violence. What am I supposed to say? That I'm for it? There's no right answer.') Much of the flak has compounded self-righteousness with ignorance. Railing against it, he reminds you of Al Pacino's gangster, in De Palma's Scarface (1983), turning on a well-heeled restaurant crowd: 'You need people like me, so you can point your finger and say, 'That's the bad guy.' '

The guy doesn't turn out so bad. Explore his films, rather than excoriate them, and he is warm and engaged. He is genuinely amazed at the vitriol he attracts. His voice takes on a weary tone: 'It's like, 'Am I not communicating clearly enough? Boy, this looks pretty clear to me.' You've always got to understand the intention of the film-maker - unless it's so obscure, you don't know what the hell he's talking about. But I don't think I make movies like that.'

Crudity, not clarity, is the issue for De Palma's attackers. Their target is his middle period, from 1976 to 1984. Though this period is at the heart of his oeuvre, it makes up only about a third of his career: eight years out of 30, eight out of 22 features. But it's these films, largely thrillers laced with blood and Hitchcockisms, that have spawned his notoriety. In case you missed them, or had your hands over your eyes, a few highlights: a girl, doused in pig's blood on prom night, burns down the dance-hall (Carrie); a woman is murdered with a razor in a lift, her blood seeping into the corridor (Dressed to Kill); a man is killed with a chainsaw (Scarface); a woman is skewered with an electric drill (Body Double).

De Palma apologists point to the style, indeed stylishness, of the execution (if that's the right word). De Palma, again following Hitchcock's example, story-boards every shot before he begins shooting. His compositions are crisp and elegant, and even his most violent sequences have a weird beauty. At times you're reminded of Godard's response to criticism that there was too much blood in Pierrot le Fou: 'Not blood, red.' De Palma too explores the aesthetics of violence, its startling colour and movement. He compares making movies to 'pacing an orchestral piece: building through a largo section, before you let fly'. Often using slow-motion, he gives his scenes of destruction a fluid, agonising grace.

For some it's pure sadism, drawing out pain for pleasure. But there is little sense of the film-maker glorying in it. De Palma analyses rather than ogles - even as the action rolls. In his new film, the noirish gangster thriller Carlito's Way, there's a scene in which the hero, played by Al Pacino, goes into a pool hall for a drugs drop-off. It goes horribly wrong, with bodies strewn everywhere. But what you remember is De Palma's slow, suspenseful build- up. He seems to be staking out the terrain for us, pointing to each detail, so that when the violence erupts, we see it not as an incomprehensible blur, but preternaturally clearly. At his best, De Palma unravels the mechanics of what normally seem like arbitrary horrors.

Perhaps the trouble is that style is put before content, cruddy dialogue and cardboard characters filling in between camera coups. De Palma sequences are as famous as De Palma slaughters: the explosive opening scene of The Fury (1978) in which Kirk Douglas, eating at a seaside restaurant, is peppered with gunfire from a U-boat; the corridor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Dressed to Kill (1980), in which a sinuous shot silently follows Angie Dickinson as she falls into her pursuer's trap; the finale of The Untouchables, a parody of Eisenstein in which a pram and its baby slip down a set of station steps in the middle of a shoot-out. It's beautiful, but is it a movie?

De Palma is unapologetic. The visual has always been paramount - so much so that his rough cuts have often run short, as he dispenses with dull-looking character scenes. 'The idea,' he explains, 'was to develop a stunning, articulate visual style: a hypnotic way of making movies. Then, having got that under control, to use those techniques in more story- oriented, character-driven pieces. In a film such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, the force of the final explosion is heightened by the fact that each character is an emotional or ethical embodiment of a philosophy of war. The character hook gives the visual sequence impact.'

THAT MAY seem a strange, stony path for an artist: to start with technique and then move on to character. Most creators start with a view of the world and then work out how to express it. But detachment has always been at the heart of De Palma's film-making. For human warmth go to Spielberg. For the bustling, nervous energy of the street, see Scorsese. For the reassuringly old-fashioned morality of new frontiers, try George Lucas. But for calculated shocks, knowing parody and wintry humour, Brian's your boy. For years he was known as Hollywood's coldest hot director.

You don't have to delve far to find the possible sources of De Palma's bleakness. His personal life has been as anguished as some of his movies, including two marriages, the first to actress Nancy Allen, whom he gallantly cast three times as a hooker. Born in New Jersey, in 1940, but brought up in Philadelphia, he describes his childhood as unusually lonely: his mother had eyes only for his eldest brother, and his father only for young women. De Palma once claimed that his 1979 film, Home Movies, in which a similarly estranged youth seeks to escape his anonymity by trapping his promiscuous father on film, was autobiographical. When I asked him if that was true, he replied: 'Yes - only I made it a comedy. Real life wasn't so funny.' Another childhood legend is that he watched his father, an orthopaedic surgeon, perform operations, and hence his high tolerance for blood. Also true, he says, but manifested more practically: 'I'm a good man to have around at a car crash.' He is no longer in contact with his parents.

Science is another key to the De Palma personality. The lonely young boffin is a recurrent figure in his films. In Blow Out (1981), John Travolta's sound recordist recalls being 'the kind of kid who fixed radios, made my own stereos, won all the science fairs'. So was De Palma - he came second in an all-America high-school science contest. He looked set for a career in medicine before rejecting it as 'not precise enough'. Some would argue that his weakness, and danger, as a film-maker lies in trying to reduce an art to a science.

De Palma didn't start in horror, but as a comedian and experimentalist. He nodded vigorously when I suggested nearly all his themes are already there in his third feature, Greetings (1968), a comedy about a young 'Peep Artist' (played by Robert De Niro, a De Palma discovery) trying to avoid Vietnam. Loose and skittish, Greetings melds the two neglected sides of De Palma: his radical politics and his satirical humour. The credits close with Lyndon Johnson telling Americans they'd never had it so good. The whole of the film - and De Palma's work - can be seen as a scornful riposte.

His second film, Murder a la Mode (1968), told a murder story in three styles, reflecting the viewpoints of the participants. In Dionysus (1970), he experimented with split-screen, filming a stage version of Euripides' Bacchae alongside the audience reaction. It was a notorious production, in which the audience joined in the slaughter. With its examination of the role of the watcher, the film anticipates the director's later obsessions. And its exploration of Apollonian and Dionysian ideas is appropriate to De Palma, who is a hybrid of the two, calculating in style, but frenzied in content.

These early works point up De Palma's playfulness, his fevered fiddling with form. His thrillers are thrillers but also commentaries on thrillers - hence the Hitch-snitching. De Palma's films are lambasted for using references in a way that is commonplace in other arts. 'In the thrillers, I've always, somewhere, had my tongue in my cheek,' he explains, laughing. 'You have to give the audience a little of that because the constructions are so incredibly absurd.'

A picture builds up of an artist out of sorts with the world - standing back, in anguished, sometimes sneering, abstention. De Palma describes himself as 'a product of the Fifties and Sixties - the Kennedy assassination was the first time that we didn't believe our leaders - that started it and Vietnam finished it off'. The brutality of Vietnam was tackled in Casualties of War (1989). De Palma was chiefly interested in the Kennedy assassination as a media event: he says he was transfixed by the television coverage. The Zapruder film is a recurring motif, as is the whole idea of the voyeur, implicated but powerless. As we talk, De Palma picks up a portable video camera and films me.

Such diverse obsessions can make De Palma more cerebral than enjoyable; or lead to chaos, as in The Bonfire of the Vanities, when he tried to turn Tom Wolfe's panorama into a flip satire on the media. But when they gel, they can make for great films. Anyone who wishes to dismiss De Palma must first see Blow Out, the extraordinary 1981 thriller in which John Travolta played a blue-movie sound man who accidentally records a Chappaquiddick-style car crash. A beautiful concept - a picture about sound - combines with perfect thriller technique, giddy romance and cynical political satire. The sound man ends up dubbing his sweetheart's death throes into his movie. It is the quintessential De Palma moment: a devilish irony in which real suffering gets recycled for trashy commerce.

SINCE Blow Out De Palma has shunted between big commercial pictures and more difficult, personal pieces. For every Body Double there's been an Untouchables, for every Raising Cain (his droll little 1992 thriller) a Carlito's Way. But even with studio products, De Palma retains his style. You'll see few more haunting sequences this year than the opening of Carlito's Way, where the world is seen turning through the eyes of Pacino as he lies on a stretcher; or the closing shoot-out (in another station) with everything in gliding motion, including the camera. De Palma talks eloquently of the hideous waste of Orson Welles - 'a fascinating study of how not to play the system' - which he's keen not to emulate. He knows he's nothing without the dream machine behind him. 'Hollywood's got all that stuff,' he says with a trace of venom.

The prosecution is less ferocious these days. De Palma has mellowed and grown, taking some of the criticism on board. All the abuse seems to have both pained and provoked him - if you prick him, he may bleed another character to death. But he's too indifferent to hate - women, or anyone else. And he could surely have made more effective pornography if he had wanted to. There's an odd integrity in his sleazy, tortured vision. In a conformist industry he is obstinately different: a depressive stylist among manic straight men, a provider of stiff medicine rather than phoney panaceas. It's a more innocent record than it seems.

'Carlito's Way' (18) opens on Friday at the Empire (071-437 1234) and around the country.

(Photograph omitted)