Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Revival of the Dead

Obsession (1976) / Brian De Palma

One is not prone to discussing the class-consciousness prevalent in De Palma’s work; the excitement of his films seems to derive as much from the perverseness of his directorial design (particularly; in terms of the central plot, the mood of the piece and the various rhythms/double-rhythms), but also, from (what seems like an) inevitable, and yet, unforeseen engagement of societal classes. In Obsession, for instance, De Palma revises Hitchcock’s Vertigo by entirely severing the original story’s connection with dreams, magic or enigma at-large, and re-depositing it instead in a world of open manipulation, schemers and hustlers – where the reincarnation is no longer the result of one man’s obsessive fantasy, but of his business partner’s (unbelievably) elaborate plan to annex the protagonist’s mind, and through it, his money. In short, De Palma airlifts Vertigo from Hitchcock’s private architecture and places it, as such, in America. Two great achievements of Obsession: the first is De Palma’s recognition of the plausibility of the central plot itself; a man obsessed with a dead lover/wife spots another woman who looks just like her and aims, through his own set of eccentric and aloof habits, to reincarnate the deceased in the alive. While Hitchcock’s film’s working class detective can hardly, in a ‘real’ world afford to devote most of his life to the peculiar pursuit of this young girl who bears an uncanny resemblance with his lost love, De Palma corrects this technicality by rendering the same plot as a holiday film. The rich businessman goes to Italy for a business meeting and spots this replica (what’s more, she works as a restoration artist, how cute!) – tells his partner to trudge on along to America while he will stay on for a few more days. These ‘few more days’ being the point of De Palma’s larger awareness (which he posits in Blow Out as a complete theory); that only a multimillionaire on a holiday can savour the luxury (as opposed to the hope-agony of Scottie in Vertigo) of rediscovering, perhaps, a lost love. In finishing therefore, this triumvirate (with Laura, and of course, Vertigo), De Palma’s point is made, i.e., only three types of people can spend their lives obsessed with the dead: detectives, rich men on a holiday and of course, at a larger level, cinephiles.

Obsession’s larger achievement is in the final shot of the film, when De Palma paints the final stroke over his Vertigo restoration – he dispenses with the wonder inherent in the circular tracking shot that captures the resurrection/reunion in Vertigo and replaces it instead with the bottom-line reality of such a complex affair: when the man and the woman enter the world-ending embrace in Obsession, she overdramatically and in a high-pitched voice, squeals: ‘Daddy! Oh daddy!’ And this is really how De Palma summarises for us the whole Hitchcock film; as some sort of a modern variation of the old Frankenstein-legend, wherein the reproduced girl is no longer a myth, and she does not see the fanatic whose obsessiveness makes her existence possible as her lover, but as her father, her progenitor and her creator ( of course, this is a terribly sentimental moment; imagine the Monster calling Frankenstein his father, but also a bit of a joke on ol’ Jimmy’s age in Vertigo) . Two other significant facts about this scene; it is set in the symbol of concrete, real and practical contemporary existence, the airport, and is thereby relocated from the dreamy, neon-lit hotel room of the Hitchcock film, and lastly, this scene ends the film (unlike Vertigo, where Scottie must suffer till he can exterminate this agent of recurrence herself). This is because the larger irony of the project – the story of a man restoring an object from the past being filmed by a man restoring an object from the past – is not lost on De Palma, and therefore, just like Scottie, he must end eternal recurrence with his own piece. How? By ensuring that the reunion scene is the final scene of his story, so that by the time the end credits begin to roll, the ghosts of an unhappy past are entirely exorcised.

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