Brian De Palma – masked opacity

Brian De Palma/ Image: disclosure.


Preface to the newly released book by Wellington Sari

Recently, in The Fabelmans (2022), Steven Spielberg's most autobiographical film, the key scene, which promotes the narrative's turning point, shed light not only on the director of NA (1982), but, by contrast, he also made more evident the core of the work of his simultaneously closest and most distant generation companion, that is, Brian De Palma, the central subject of this book.

It is the author of this book himself, in fact, who convinces us that Brian De Palma's films are only truly understood when compared with other films, which help us to recreate the network of analogies and metaphors through which Depalm's scenes are created. . If the director's images Body double (Body Double, 1984) are conceived from other images, coming across them means experiencing the overlapping marks of a cultural palimpsest, of a layered filmic text. So let's let a Spielberg film help us better understand Brian De Palma's cinema.

the protagonist of The Fabelmans is a teenage film aficionado who never leaves home without his super-8 camera. One fine day, while watching filming on a family vacation, he discovers that his mother is having an affair with his father's best friend. He understands, first of all, that a cinema image always shows more than what was initially expected of it, surpassing the purposes for which it was intended. The revelation comes from the background of the image, from the detail rescued from the opprobrium to which the depth of field seemed to condemn it.

From now on examined under a magnifying glass, subjected to the detailed study that the teenager promotes through endless comings and goings of the filmed material, the dazzling detail migrates to the foreground and promises to give meaning to what was previously insignificant. A smile, a brush of hands, a furtive gesture becomes a sign of a secondary intrigue, disguised under the innocent appearance of a family film.

What the dreamy boy and aspiring filmmaker now has in his hands is literally a “mother scene”, to use one of the many inspired expressions through which Wellington Sari defines and unravels the main tropes of Brian De Palma's cinema. Unprecedented in Spielberg's work, the situation is very familiar to Brian De Palma's filmography, haunted from an early age by the “syndrome Blow-Up”, that is, through the effect of a perceptual postponement – ​​the traumatic event not assimilated in the first moment of the experience reappears as a late symptom – and, mainly, through the delegation of reality to the signs that replace it in the representation.

Let us remember that in Michelangelo Antonioni's matrix film, Blow-Up (1966), a photographer records the signs of a crime that he only notices after developing the images. The analysis a posteriori of the enlarged photos makes it emerge – in the residual form of a “stain”, or what Roland Barthes would call point[I] – something that, however, had not caught the photographer’s eye during the immediate experience of the event. Perception is delayed and becomes dependent on a mediating device. The crime only appears in the image, in the photograph, in the representation, with all the shadow of doubt entailed by the perceptual decalation and the phenomenological reduction of reality to the two-dimensional surface of the photographic image.

Brian De Palma embodied the “syndrome Blow-Up" from Greetings (1968), which recreated the scene of photographic enlargement with an undisguised caricature tone and treated in a satirical way the theme of political conspiracy and paranoia – then in vogue, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kenedy and his shocking record in the most famous amateur film in history, the super-8 filming of Abraham Zapruder.

Then in A shot in the night (Blow Out, 1981), the plot becomes a serious topic and the dialogue with Blow-Up is improved: Brian De Palma reinvents the hermeneutic vertigo of Antonioni's film through the exhaustive anamnesis of an event also recorded as a sound recording, and not just as an image – the reflection on the gaze-frame and the point of view unfolds into an investigation about subjective sound and the point of listening.

So much Blow-Up as A shot in the night they speak of a reality that is inaccessible, or that can only be reached later, with the help of materials recorded in image or sound. The number of apparatus, devices and supports needed to obtain the desired information multiplies from one film to the next, demonstrating that the mediation of perception by technology has become gradually more complex in the fifteen years that separate them.

In his book about Brian De Palma, French critic Luc Lagier observes that the multiplication of mediating instruments allows the director to emphasize the cinematographically constructed character of the plot's interpretation. To understand what “really” happened in the accident he witnessed and recorded, the protagonist of A shot in the night he subjects his recording to a series of manipulations and, in the end, what remains is no longer reality, but its fictional reconstruction. "In A shot in the night, De Palma shows that every element taken from reality, reconsidered in another context, is transformed”.[ii]

Once faced with the possibility of discovering a plot capable of giving coherence to the chain of signifiers that conforms reality to an unconvincing narrative – the ability to sew the open and ambiguous meaning of the world into a closed scheme is characteristic of the paranoid's hermeneutics – , the sound technician played by John Travolta enters a tireless investigative spiral, whose infernal machine only stops turning when he finally repeats the tragedy as farce, in the heady sequence in which his companion, who embarked on the detective venture with him, is murdered while the Fireworks light up the sky over Philadelphia during Independence Day celebrations.

The Fabelmans reaches similar conclusions about the power of transforming reality through cinematic manipulation, but the consequences of this change of point of view, in Spielberg's universe, are totally different from those we would see if it were a Brian De Palma film. In The Fabelmans, the discovery of betrayal brings mother and son closer together, creates complicity between them, and reinforces the emotional bond that unites them. The intimate catastrophe is transformed into the renewal of the parental contract. And the fact witnessed in the film is never in doubt: what was filmed really happened, with this belief in the cinematographic image as a revelation of truth being the inescapable condition for reconciliation on the plane of reality to become possible.

In Brian De Palma's cinema, it would be the exact opposite: the image would not give access to the revelation of truth, but to another image, which would, in turn, rest on another. Fitting of doubles, vertigo of copies (no original to back them up). There is no longer transparency, but rather “masked opacity”, a lapidary formula that guides this book. The “syndrome Blow-Up”, in De Palma, always adds to the “effect Vertigo” – the other axis of the Depalmian Mannerist gear –, to the obfuscating power of an image that, as in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, a body that falls (Vertigo, 1958), causes visual deception not because it hides something, but because it displays it in excess.

Unlike what happens in Spielberg's cinema, in Brian De Palma it is necessary to distrust the image, never truly believe in it in the way of a child amazed at the appearance of a flying saucer. Vision as a tool of knowledge has failed, without the fable-man (Fabelman) being able to come to help or redeem it through the “magic of cinema” combined with faith in good feelings. The obsession with the image now leads to the abyss and tragedy, or rather, the tragedy of mise en abyme.[iii]

Or just frustration, as Brian De Palma learned early on, even before becoming a filmmaker. Wellington Sari describes, in an account similar to a cinematic script, the scene in which a young and inexperienced Brian De Palma perches in the top of a tree armed with a camera with which he intends to record his father's supposed adultery: “Through the viewfinder , the boy sees a man and a woman, framed by the window frame. Click. Click. There is an ellipse. When developing the photographs, a disappointment: is it a kiss? A warm hug? A little secret told in the ear? No, it's just an illusion caused by perspective. A complicit look? Embalmed by photographic rigidity, the gesture is lost in ambiguity. Mission not accomplished: the young man was unable to obtain images that prove that his father, an orthopedic surgeon, is having an extramarital affair with one of the nurses at the hospital. Jefferson Medical College. Nor did the tape recorder, installed by the boy on his father's telephone, provide irrefutable proof.”

The “mother scene”, thus, gives rise to the birth of the “watchman protagonist”, another prodigious expression with which Wellington Sari clarifies the modus operandi of Brian De Palma's cinema, in which the panoptic regime of vision, as the director almost didactically explains in Serpent eyes (Snake Eyes, 1998) e Femme Fatale (2002), it is less the guarantee of total transparency than the entanglement in a myriad of simulacra. The vigilant eye sees everything except what it was looking for. It's the police survey of “The Stolen Letter”, a story by Edgar Allan Poe discussed at the beginning of the book, when we comment on this paradox of vision that scrutinizes every millimeter of space, but misses the elementary, perhaps the trivial, invisible because too visible .

“Everything is on display”, says Wellington Sari when analyzing a scene from The bird with the crystal plumes (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), by Dario Argento, during the providential detour through yellow done in the second chapter of the book, in which the secret tunnel that connects Brian De Palma to the genre of popular Italian cinema most loaded with stylistic exorbitances, intricate optical situations, figurative distortions and anamorphoses comparable to those of Mannerist paintings by artists such as Pontormo and Parmigianino is explored. .

We can expand the sentence: everything is on display, but nothing can be seen. Masked opacity, precisely. The opaque, after all, is what is seen in excess, the excess of a matter not fully converted into form, the surplus of the signifier that the signification has not been able to absorb well, that is, not to the point of accessing the transparency of the sign, the perfect illusion that each image is self-contained and shows what is needed, without revealing any absence or incompleteness. “In the image you never see the whole, you never see the whole picture”, notes Wellington Sari, who also emphasizes the gesture of pointing the finger at the image, of inducing the convergence of scopic energies to a single point isolated by an overinvestment of interest and libido, on the verge of hallucinatory psychosis.

However, this recurrent deictic function in Brian De Palma's cinema – and which perhaps refers to the first gesture that establishes an image: pointing to something as if to suggest that we momentarily forget the rest and only see what has been framed and highlighted for our privileged perception – it serves above all as a catalyst for the scopic bankruptcy of the contemporary subject, immersed in multiple webs of visibility, but seeing less and less. If opacity, in Brian De Palma, appears masked, it is because it is disguised in the fantasy of a vision provided with a thousand eyes, endowed with ubiquity.

But being everywhere simultaneously, or simply being in the right place at the right time, as an ideal witness, does not guarantee understanding the meaning of the event. The protagonist of Vertigo is the ideal witness, but what he learns from the scene is just a game of masks: the body that falls is not the same as the one he sees falling.

All of this is discussed by Wellington Sari in a writing that mixes theory, analysis, essay and something else that we can call “fabular speculation”, for lack of a better term. Because sometimes we have the impression that we are reading a novel derived from Depalm's imagination, made up of deviations, misdirections, flashbacks, split screens, postponements, suspense, intertextual dialogues. Certain descriptions of scenes are almost fictional recreations: analysis becomes a creative act and the brilliance of Wellington Sari's writing style brings with it the structuring principle of theoretical and critical reflection proposed by him.

We are facing a phenomenon similar to what the art historian Michael Ann Holly pointed out when comparing the writings of Jacob Burckhardt on the Renaissance with those of Heinrich Wölfflin on the Baroque. According to Michael AnnH olly, Burckhardt characterized the Renaissance as a harmonious, eternally immutable set, whose images reveal the beauty and virtues of classical stasis, as if the world of Quattrocento was frozen in an Urbino panel. Burckhardt's text is formally analogous to a Raphael painting: he makes everything appear in proportion and harmony.

Wölfflin, conversely, abandons the position of fixed observer of a Renaissance painting and adopts an oblique view, as the tensions and instabilities of visual experience that he himself identifies in Baroque art do not allow for stasis or strict perspective on the object. “The fluidity, the emphasis on the perceptual world in a state of change, and the lack of absolutes that Wölfflin considers so characteristic of the Baroque imagination are also characteristic of his imagination of the Baroque.”[iv]

Perhaps we can say that the look taken by Wellington Sari at Brian De Palma's cinema adopts a similar strategy, extracting from the analyzed object itself the rhetorical devices that determine its critical response – and adding, of course, a different look and style, which exist only in the textual space created specifically for this book. The way Brian De Palma found to reflect on Hitchcock's cinema consists of the films he made based on Hitchcockian motifs.

The way found by Wellington Sari to analyze De Palma's cinema consists of a theoretical investigation that intersects the tools of film analysis and critical essay through the invention of a singular style of writing, which is inspired by Depalmin's motives without being limited to them. . What the reader will have in their hands, from now on, is not only the best study on Brian De Palma ever written in Portuguese, but a text as pleasurable and thought-provoking as the director's most captivating films.

*Luiz Carlos Oliveira Jr. He is a professor of the Cinema and Audiovisual Course at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF). He is the author of the book The mise en scène in cinema: from classic to flow cinema (Papyrus). []


Wellington Sari. Brian De Palma: masked opacity. Curitiba, Edições A Quadro, 2025, 274 pages.


[I] See Roland Barthes, the camera lucida. Trans. by Júlio Castañon Guimarães. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 2015. []

[ii] Luc Lagier, Les Mille Yeux by Brian De Palma. Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2008, p. 102. []

[iii] For a closer comparison between Spielberg and De Palma, see Hervé Aubron, “De Palma, buddy double". Cahiers du cinema, n. 795, Feb. 2023, p. 24.

[iv] Michael Ann Holly, “Wölfflin and the Imagining of the Baroque.” In: Norman Bryson; Michael Ann Holly; Keith Moxey (Eds.), Visual culture: Images and interpretations. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994, pp. 360-361. []

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