Academic journal article Genders

Misfortune and Men's Eyes: Voyeurism, Sorrow, and the Homosocial in Three Early Brian De Palma Films

Academic journal article Genders

Misfortune and Men's Eyes: Voyeurism, Sorrow, and the Homosocial in Three Early Brian De Palma Films

Article excerpt

[1] In her groundbreaking essay "When the Woman Looks," Linda Williams argues that "Brian De Palma's film Dressed to Kill extends Psycho's premise by holding the woman [Kate Miller, played by Angie Dickinson] responsible for the horror that destroys her" (94). De Palma extends much more than Psycho's premise in this film, just as all of his other Hitchcock homages extend much more than the premises of the various Hitchcock films with which they engage. Without dismissing the work done by Williams, Shelley Stamp Lindsey, and myriad commentators, feminist and otherwise, on the misogynistic propensities of De Palma's oeuvre, I would like to propose a different angle from which to inspect it, one that would allow us to see it organically as an ongoing critical project: a depiction of male friendship that functions, through studies of betrayal, duplicity, vengeance, greed, and cruelty, as a critique of the organization of the homosocial sphere within capitalist society. Homosocialized male power is the horror that destroys Kate Miller, other heroines, and the hapless male protagonists of many De Palma films. More precisely, De Palma films interrogate the necessity of forming bonds within the homosocial sphere, seeing that necessity as an inevitable burden that must be carried by the American male. The male subject position, in De Palma films, is as impossible to occupy successfully as the female one.

[2] This new critical perspective on the director brings into sharper focus the anti-patriarchal sensibility in his work. I argue that De Palma exudes an ambivalence about his female characters rather than a misogynistic hatred; indeed, one could argue that De Palma has a far greater and more sustained interest in representing women than many of his fellow New Hollywood peers--Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, Friedkin, et al--have ever exhibited. Before De Palma's ambivalence towards his female characters can be measured, we must come to a clearer understanding of his overarching interest in male relations. In order to demonstrate the validity of this approach, in this essay I examine three early De Palma films--Greetings (1968), Hi, Mom! (1970), and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972)--in light of the interest in the dynamics of the homosocial that permeates De Palma's body of work. Given that this essay treats De Palma's films from a queer theory perspective, it will helpful first to elucidate this theoretical approach.

Triangulating Desire

[3] Rene Girard and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick privilege the triangle as the graphic schema for erotic competition between men--two men warring over the same woman. Femininity is the economy that allows the men to exchange their desires in whatever forms those desires may take (Girard 1-52, Sedgwick 1-27). In relation to the theme of male friendship and male relations, the theme of men's relationship to women--to Woman--emerges as a prominent one in these early films. In them, the figure of Woman functions iconically, as the site of exchange between men, to use Girard's and Sedgwick's formulas of triangulated desire, but also as an impossibly aloof, elusive Ideal around which men revolve and which they must also overmaster and conquer. Though his often essentialist gendered schemas may not endear him to many of his critics, De Palma's treatment of women is inextricably connected to his general critique of the compulsory performance of masculinity and manhood in American life.

[4] An important distinction must be made between De Palma's treatment of women in these early films and in the later, more stylistically cohesive period (his "Red Period") that begins with Sisters (1973), which signals both the advent of an explicitly intertextual relationship with the looming body of work in the Hitchcockian suspense genre and the persistent, even obsessive interest in the construction of the heroine, and concludes with Body Double (1984). Though these three early films form the foundation for the critique of male relations in De Palma's oeuvre, they should be viewed as initial stages in the evolution of this theme and not as themselves iconic of De Palma's treatment of either male relations or women in his films. …

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