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"Snake Eyes" visionary uncoils

By Ray Pride

AUGUST 10, 1998:  The sleek and decadent "Snake Eyes," a formally self-conscious telling of an acidic, cruel story, may be the ultimate Brian DePalma movie.

In his twenty-fifth feature (written with David Koepp, who also co-wrote the director's "Mission: Impossible"), DePalma restricts his canvas, confining the action to a fictional Atlantic City casino-sports arena in which a government figure is assassinated during a pay-per-view prize fight. The garish melodrama pits shady cop Nicolas Cage, who thinks of himself as "the mayor of A.C.," against a few suspects, who include a Howard Hughes-like hotelier and defense contractor (John Hurt), a bumbling, chesty young mystery woman (the game Carla Gugino), a fraud whistle-blower, a cardboard Palestinian gunmen, loudmouth bookies and Cage's oldest friend, military attachˇ Gary Sinise, who should not have lowered his guard before the shooting occurred.

DePalma works with a God's-eye-view, but it is the god of the Old Testament. He does not forgive, and the blistering pace of the storytelling, with figures propelled through space to near-abstraction, is a pure distillation of his vision. His mastery of cinematic technique does not rely on fast cutting or flashy decor; even when he uses the swooping images made possible by the Steadicam in "Snake Eyes," with several shots melded to create the impression of a ten- or twelve-minute take, the effect is grave and weighty, as if composed through the use of the same kinds of equipment used in the studio era, when his great idol, Alfred Hitchcock, was playing his own mind games.

A casino is the ideal room to lock DePalma's imagination into. From the start, casinos are the most observed of public spaces, and when the killing occurs, as DePalma reexamines the actions through flashbacks and multiple points-of-view, using devices familiar from his earlier work, the effect is that of a couple thousand Zapruder films, each capturing a fragment of the action, the plot and perhaps some kind of truth.

DePalma was one of the first directors I ever interviewed, and his customary prickliness has not mellowed over they years. While spectacular in its own way, "Snake Eyes" is smaller than the epic scale of the delirious "Mission: Impossible," and its story plays with the kind of melodrama that was once found in B-movies.

"Well, I wasn't trying to re-create a B-movie particularly," the 57-year-old director says with mild exasperation. "What I was as trying to do was come up with a very interesting visual style to tell multiple points-of-views on a crime. David and I could have made any movie we wanted." After tossing around ideas, one rose to the surface. "What we wanted to do was a multiple viewpoint on a murder. And had always been interested in Howard Hughes wining-and-dining defense contractors in Vegas, as well as the casino world, which looks like hell on earth."

So why the lifelong fascination with the fractured frames, multiple points-of-view, revisiting the scene from different perspectives? He grins and after a pause, launches into an irony-laced answer. "These are my obsessions and I'm afraid they'll be appearing in all my movies. They're like what becomes elements of your style. You don't know why. It's just something that sort of interests you. I'm not the greatest judge of that. That's what we have you people for, to look through all my work and find those fabulous connections. People like yourself point [this] out to you, and you go, 'Oh really, did I do that again? Whoa! It's that short-term memory loss clicking in!' We just sort of do things unconsciously, hopefully, and sure enough, these themes keep appearing because we are who we are."

There is a scene where Cage finally gets to confront the bad guy in the emptied-out arena, and throughout, a parade of brand names marches across the background as the two characters explicate what they think are the grave evils of our political and economic system today. DePalma lights up at this.

"Hey. A guy with an eye!" He chuckles some more. "I said there should be product placement in this movie. Because that's what you see, it's amazing at those fights, there's this stuff that's always on the screen. I'm even bothered by the Olympics now with the product placement. It's also irritating about the Internet. You ever notice every time you load in a site, what comes in first are the advertisements, and then the information? I wonder who worked that out!" He laughs heartily. "I wonder how they figured that kind of hierarchy! If you've got something that people want to look at, believe me, they'll slap an ad on it."

DePalma draws inspiration from directors of the past, but does he keep up with current movies? "I don't stay at movies anymore. I seldom get through the first twenty or thirty minutes. Just when 'Godzilla' got to New York for the first time and ate a car or something, I was gone. I saw all of 'Out of Sight' because I was at a screening, but I was not happy with that one because I thought the flashback construction was confusing. I haven't seen 'Armageddon' yet, but I'll probably make it through twenty or thirty minutes of that."

And what about his own films?

He laughs. "I'm forced to watch them!"


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