Bright Lights Film Journal

Terms of Psychic Warfare: Brian De Palma’s Divided House

“What makes The Fury work in the end is the complementary sense that this conflict is part of the film’s very construction, so you can appreciate the audacity of the auto-da-fé.”

Of all the archetypes in the pantheon, the trickster is often the most exasperating. It exists to keep us on our toes, questioning our assumptions and then twisting those questions back on us just when we think we’ve found solid ground. Comfortable playing the buffoon if that would help fulfill its subversive intents, it appears to remind us of the irrational hiding just a shade away from civilization. Sometimes manifesting as a shaman, savior or poltergeist, this figure is equally likely to affect a saintly guise as a demonic one, for both serve a transformational function. In its impulsiveness, however, the trickster frequently does itself no favors, for its allegiance is split equally between provocation and the truth — which it often has to lie to deliver.

Among the pantheon of American film directors, Brian De Palma is such a character. From his earliest countercultural comedies Woton’s Wake, Murder à la Mod and Get to Know Your Rabbit on through such switcheroo japes as Raising Cain and Femme Fatale, his devotion to tweaking critical and viewer expectations makes his films, good and bad, living objects as frustrating as any other complex organism. What makes them especially hard to pin down, though, is the recognition that the master guiding and controlling them has his own internal trickster constantly threatening to upset the Rube Goldberg construction of many of his most inspired scenes and scenarios. He walks a tightrope, where the occasional misstep is as thrilling to witness as the fully realized traverse.

The first time you see The Fury (1978), you may want to chalk it up as one of his failures. It has more What were they thinking? moments than any other De Palma, as though it hadn’t occurred to the director yet that, working now for a big studio with big stars on a big budget, he owed something different to the audience than the seat-of-the-pants vaudevilles he had traded in just a few years before. Veering from conspiracy thriller to drive-in horror to sitcom shtick to some kind of premonitory dream of the Blues Brothers ’80s, The Fury resolves in one of the most spectacular feats of destruction seen on screen till then. Though you may sense that the competing interests having it out within the film were not solely those between its characters, what makes it work in the end is the complementary sense that this conflict is part of the film’s very construction, so you can appreciate the audacity of the auto-da-fé.

In approaching a film about the psyche, it makes a certain sense to deal with it on its own terms, as a subject for analysis, being the product of a feverish, possibly lucid dreamer’s imagination. Following, then, is just such an attempt, reduced to a similarly abstract, telegraphic syntax as used by the unconscious itself. If this constitutes practicing psychology without a license, so be it.

The Fury (1978; dir. Brian De Palma, scr. John Farris)

Peter + son Robin (androgynous nickname for Robert: borderline/transitional character film will work out) Sandza compete swimming (elemental togetherness à la BDP Sisters + Raising Cain “brothers” [ntm Femme Fatale “twins,” Get to Know Your Rabbit execs + bisected Black Dahlia]; elder + younger the dir’s newly matured technical mastery + continued satirical immaturity, also competing), land at feet of Ben Childress (doing same at heroine’s by climax; Childress aka BC, film 2B a 2nd Coming for women) on beach (Sand-za: identified with the earth/milieu; emergence from water evolutionary step fulfilled in conclusion) in MID EAST 1977 (a galaxy far, far away: cradle of civilization, seat also of Robin’s nascence; he ‘Stateside since mother’s death [in childbirth, his return re-birth], w/ “talent that wd shock hell outta people” [not sports, despite football dad’s urging (“more popular w/t girls”), son worrying about being called freak ie gay]); Ben parting ways w/ 20-yr associate Peter (approximately Rob’s age: latter their unnatural lovechild, film series of separations) at Agency [that dare not speak its name] when ARABS ATTACK! (Arab-Jew enmity fundamental Sisters-rift in personality betraying appearance of unity/calm), escaping dad blown out of water (filmed by militant: present film’s own antagonistic nature, perpetually dogging viewer w/ shifts in plausibility, integrity + tone) while Rob hustled out by agent (mind protecting sensitive self from spectacle [cf Murder à la Mod film w/i, Hi Mom! “Be Black Baby” happening, Phantom o/t Paradise concerts, Carrie prom, Blow Out parade, FFatale Cannes et al] dream-censor keeping psyche from witnessing material that wd shock self awake before completion of psychic project), BC complimenting “Arabs” (associates in MidEast drag: terrorism theater for pwr brokers to manipulate people + politics, he traditional DP trickster [cf Carrie‘s Chris Harginson, Body Double‘s Sam Bouchard, Raising‘s Cain, etc] throwing revelatory process into motion), observed by resurfacing Peter (ego [62-and-shirtless Kirk Douglas] having absented self to allow difficult but necessary psychic sleight-of-hand [cf Rabbit magician, Blow Out sound wiz, Body Double body doubles, Mod trunk-switch — and FFatale jewel-] returning now “plot” in motion).

CHICAGO 1978 (dreamland to cf MidEast reality [+ present to cf archetypal past], sudden incursion there irruption of irreality aka onset of sleep/drm): Gillian Bellaver (Carrie actress Amy Irving amnesiac still wandering that film’s naïve happyworld coda) gripes about clingy mom (mirror-Robin, she missing dad, her domestic woes v his global) + overhears eavesdropper’s thoughts (mind feeding back on self [intuition of objectivity to come], movie DP’s knockoff of own last film: dir’s constant dialog w/ bkgd + surroundings), observed by BC (unsleeping eye of consciousness, overseeing but unable to see w/i), while other agents pursue Peter (out window in boxers: urban Tarzan, elemental force at work in society to counter coldly rational BC), who drops in on crazy sitcom Nuckells family (media-ted middle America, consumed by trivial disputes while world stage erupting [wild veering of tone film also divided against itself]; wimpy patriarch Nuckell head) who give him clothes (he escape artist to match BC’s prestidigitator [as usual in DP, there’s more than one trickster]), agents finding clipping on eavesdropper Raymond Dunwoodie (. . . LOCATES MISSING HEIRESS: “psychic” force unearthing goddess-pwr Gil soon to inherit; gawky William Finley “medium” btwn Pete + Gil); at biofeedback demo (in roomful of wmn; mental pwr [employing “passive” alpha — dream-state — brainwaves] cfg men’s physical/political) presented by Paragon Institute (dir McKeever’s definition as untapped brainpower Gil’s calling to higher potential) Gillian outdoes test-case Hester (professional doormat Carrie Snodgress; “visualize an empty theater + blank screen + let screen fill yr mind” scrw/dir attempting to motivate audience) at powering model train (flipping it overturning phallocracy, on seeing img of bloody Ray: men’s violence derailing selves), onlooker Cheryl (who remarks “Creep!” [cf Robin’s freak-fears]: wmn’s violence psychological) getting lunchtable comeuppance (Gil unconsciously empwrd by telekinetic “sister” Carrie) via spontaneous bloody nose (compensation for her secret pregnancy [cf Carrie‘s “Plug it up!,” dir’s bloodletting bringing out violence inherent in civilization (Dionysus in 69)]).

Peter, surveilled by BC (agents on walkie-talkies everywhere: paranoia heightened awareness of self; onlookers including BC, who “trained him + knows his style”[cf Phelps/Hunt, Mission: Impossible]), foists self on 2 off-duty cops (conscious “authorities” on hiatus, new vehicle à la new clothes aka the unconscious; typical DP buffoons à la Carrie principal + Double detective, while greater evil wields power [which Pete sez “can make somebody disappear any time,” ie forgetting]) for car chase (mind again dodging consciousness till dream/issue resolved) in which pursuers murder innocent drivers (lethal Keystone Kops/Hellzapoppin [CIA dangerous vaudeville act] complete w/ comic-relief darkie + dropped trou) concluding w/ Pete taking car off bridge (void of authorities, mind going off deep end); meanwhile, Gil’s mom suggests psych (daughter turning head the visionary dream-consciousness blanching at analysis; profile like mom’s nightstand pic [cf similar reiterative Rabbit shot] à la divided Sisters: emotional split from her à la Robin/Peter’s physical) as they talk at G’s bedside (à la penultimate Carrie: sense film/country mired in unremembered mystery/trauma w/only greater m/t ahead, like teen contemplating adulthood), while Paragon-nurse Hester (she to nursemaid G’s higher self) parries obscene phone call (cover for [reborn] lover Pete: film’s exploitative content similar camouflage for subversive intent à la Sam Fuller; “I need your body” following borrowed clothes + car numinous psychic material seeking next [fem] incarnation) + meets in van (said new bod; “They’re always watching” re audience: cf Sartre/Nausea, viewer discomfited by film w/own consciousness whose characters’ mastery over objects/others complete) parked atop building (achieving omniscience — together).

Gillian tours Paragon (blueprint for Kubrick’s Shining tour; film source also for other ’80s horrors Eyes of a Stranger/Laura Mars, Scanners, et al, discussion of gifts à la Danny/Halloran) w/ McKeever (in service of Agency aka Studio for other-dir DP, constant surveillance meddling producers/execs, all behaving like “plot” makes sense) + has stairway vision (stumbling w/ McK: stunt dad helping her ascend) of McK chasing Robin up ‘case (latter thrust into world — out window, 2B exact — prematurely), gripping his hand till bleeding (reiterating remembered glass-cut [his feminization window onto vision/future, as Carrie‘s menses] despite later denial he was there: G memory to cf Agency’s forgetting [satire similarly bleeding from film]); BC wakes him next a.m. (“Why does my dead arm still hurt?” à la McK’s disabled hand [+ Strangelove forerunner (reprised in Cain): mind disconnected from unresponsive body both dream + impotence, Child[l]ess polymorphously perverse à la 40s movie-Nazis]: Gil’s absent father split into Bad Dad/Good, former perplexed by persistence of memory + dissociated guilt) + wonders who Pete’s “in” is at Institute (eavesdropping Hester: Pete observing observer thru fem eyes à la Rob/Gil [sexes beginning to share POV phenomenon which will unseat evil — again, à la Laura Mars/Stranger, ntm Shocker + Lifeforce]) while McK-assistant Ellen (former lover [lack of intact parental figures primal separation of fe/male in world awa mind]; also disjointed but still together, PI higher ground where i.d.s/conscious states crisscross) induces trance in G (triggered by Robin filmstrip: film “medium” thru which audience sees thru dir’s eyes) where she witnesses R’s hi-tech psych test (from his POV [reaction shots à la Danny/Shining; likely influence also on ’83 Brainstorm]; his reflection in table under her the Spectral Other whose i.d. she uniting w/) involving Arab-attack footage (her insight into trauma-origin: introduction of violent masculine personality on passing of/from nurturing feminine; sequence in turn modeled on Clockwork Orange Ludovico scenes), she inducing Ellen’s brain hemorrhage (loss of facilitating mother-substitute).

During vision in Robin’s old room (memory of regressive masculinity [wmn’s mythical “masculine” power lost at onset of puberty + socialization (all-girl school separation from this faculty)]), of doctor/governess Susan Charles (bi-sexual name ambiguity holding R’s development in check) chiding R for running away (Gil’s own intermediary i.d. confronting errant masc; he in “Alas poor Yorick” pose, feeding back on own loss), Hester walks in (touch not bleeding her: w/o scar of separation now she’s reunited w/ Peter) + conspires to help her escape (as Susan had promised to take R to country: Gil lucid dreaming [telekinesis metaphor for same], living out R’s future/drm); Robin “building power of atomic reactor” on dad-separation (children all of family fission, à la irradiated These Are the Damned‘s) over which sedatives ineffectual (Gil also drugged: narcotizing teens by “national security” Agency defensive superego keeping next evolution in mediumistic/transitional state), developing “perfect psychotronic relationship w/ machines” (DP’s own evolving technical mastery) but imperfect physically (logically; sleeping/visionary mind itself divorced from outside world), “relationship” demonstrated at indoor amusement park (another DP fête/spectacle/pageant, + metaphor for dream) when he sends Arabs on tilt-a-whirl (dervish motif [whirling Sufi practice of inducing religious ecstasy] signaled in title + semicircular tête-à-tête camera moves + repeated twd end: revolution taking place w/i) hurling into Mansion of Horrors (dispelling Patriarchy’s patriarchy; poetic justice complicated by original Arabs being actors: populace manipulated twd retribution against straw men).

While helping Gillian escape (reciprocal release into consciousness of redemptive fem), Peter shoots pursuing agents (keeping defenders o/t status quo at bay), whose car throws Hester into other’s windshield (à la Robin/Arabs thru window: breaking thru barriers of perception, recognition of servile fem-img that must also go [dispensing innocent Carrie again, scene daylight reworking of that film’s climactic car crash]; slo-mo to heighten tragedy, vs “comic” tone of Arab death), + puts Gil on bus (discussing her feelings, his guilt + son’s experience: parallel journeys, sexes dependent on others for mutual resolution); arrive at hideaway (Robin sensing Gil’s presence intuition of complementary — externalized — fem side) as R locking self in w/ Susan (her fe/male names also intermediary btwn Robin+Gillian and embodying lost parents [model for romance] in anticipation of “made for each other” assignation) to accuse her of poisoning food (recognition oedipal May/September relationship unhealthy: the mind moving out of insular wombworld) + hoist her bleeding body (expiating ties to not-the-mother [psychological construct bridging boy’s transition out of oedipal stage]) + spin her (à la tilt-a-whirl: machine become organic, R moving back twd humanity), throwing off blood (ritual sacrifice à la Dionysus, Phantom, Carrie, Dahlia et al), + defenestrating guards (thru glass again: mind casting off restraints on readying for transition/transcendence).

Peter goes in after paranoid Robin (son’s reacquainting w/ [hetero] adult male self-img thot dead) hovering above (in suspension) till seen in mirror (as earlier coffeetable: floating androgynous img in back of psyche), sweeping both out window (out of social construct), Peter holding son by one hand (supportive father-son/masculine union vs opening competitive; also paraphrasing Sistine “spark of life”) + window pane by other (old, established way of seeing vs visionary new), R grabbing his face (to determine verity: grasping his i.d. as well) before plummeting (subsumed into Unconscious; xchg of blue eye-light w/ Gil transference of “regressive” masc energy/vision into progressive fem), followed by dad (descent into sleep-unconscious of originating “masc” consc’ss); next morning (elision non-REM sleep, in which information uncovered in preceding dream assimilated into Self [as Peter/Robin into Gil]), BC tries seducing her into cooperation (she “only one that matters + must survive”: patriarchy recognizing own obsolescence), unsuccessfully (kissing his eye blind demonstrating pre-existing verity: only she endowed w/ vision; casting about à la Frankenstein [viz proto-Rocky Horror Phantom Beef, dir acknowledging own cobbled-together creations]), he spectacularly combusting (Dionysian annihilation of old god [graphically deconstructing old order, à la Zabriskie Point] to make way for new; perfunctory quality — lacking tribal/ritual film-sense of earlier DP iterations — denying BC divine status) before credit roll (disorienting absence of descending action remaining in catharsis, leaving audience free to imagine what next world shd/will look like).