Rise and Folly
Eric Hynes on The Bonfire of the Vanities

The hegemonic, occasionally appropriate, always pleasurable gambit known as auteurism gave rise to—and has since fairly defined and enabled—the career of Brian De Palma. He was among the generation of American filmmakers to arrive in the wake of auteurism’s emergence as the validating lens of choice for film as art, and his flourishing, film-literate, genre-happy preoccupations (for an auteur is nothing without his preoccupations) were well-suited for its first wave—when the implications of auteurism were solidly in play for both filmmaker and critic. Such self-regard was never afforded the directors whose careers gave rise to the notion, whose bodies of work only retrospectively yielded the (to borrow, reluctantly, from Pauline Kael’s arsenal) botanical pleasures of patterns, obsessions, and harnessed stubbornness; the “I can’t help being me” masculinity of just doing it, of making great art unawares—or unobserved or unrecognized. Whether lack of recognition was real or mythological, filmmaking, particularly of the popular sort, had yet to receive full validation as art.

The proactive authors of the authorial notion itself, the directors of the French New Wave, were the first to live with this recognition, but their engagement with auteurism was so demonstratively and playfully direct that it controlled what it seemed to emulate, a rather lovingly parasitic, meta-textual version of the student devouring and destroying the mentor. While the French aimed—with admittedly differing degrees of commitment—to transform and make mischief with the very beast they helped to corral, the American Wave, like their American interpreter, Andrew Sarris, looked to auteurism as a workable system, a potentially fixable standard for evaluating film art. Sarris applied the standard to working filmmakers, making the theory live, and inspiring present and future filmmakers to make a career of it, to arrange an underlying pattern for the sole purpose of raising it.

Who wouldn’t do the same? Who wouldn’t seek that affirmation, the approbation of those willing to connect the deliberated dots? De Palma and others of his generation frequently rose above cheap auteurism, but they did help define that cheapness by capitalizing on name-above-the-title branding, the simultaneous pimp and whore and essentially valueless attribution that gave rise to “A Fred Schepisi Film.” The point is not that Fred Schepisi has no right to the claim—the point is that such a claim has always been an expression of vanity, and a hack like Fred Schepisi only makes a De Palma look worse for wearing such a silly crown. But if we didn’t have De Palma’s insecurity we’d lose much of what makes him a fascinating—and historically defined—filmmaker.

Neither an aberration nor another bead on the necklace, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) was the culmination of De Palma’s steady climb to the top of a Hollywood heap already dominated by his generational peers. It’s at least somewhat productive to acknowledge a collegiate competitiveness at work among the first-gen film school crowd, and to identify the late Eighties as De Palma’s open window for big-time validation. With Lucas an all-powerful name but invisibly Oz-like, scorned Scorsese running from The Last Temptation of Christ to seemingly safer gangsterland, Coppola doing rather the same with The Godfather Part III, and Spielberg, though dominant and undaunted, busy constructing his own folly, Hook, this was De Palma’s best opportunity to achieve the level of recognition and clout that each of his peers, save perhaps Scorsese, had previously enjoyed. During this period, De Palma wasn’t satisfied with letting trademark stylings define his filmmaking and, derailing standard-issue dismissals, it had been years since he’d made anything even remotely Hitchcockian. Following The Untouchables and Casualties of War, there was no reason to doubt that De Palma’s transition to major American director—nay, moviemaker—was nearly complete.

As much an expression of adolescent bravado and fidgety artistic insecurity as any film in the great messy pile of De Palma, The Bonfire of the Vanities is no better than you remember and likely no better than you’ve heard, but it does stand as his biggest venture outside of his carefully demarcated auteurist confines. No, this was no unfairly maligned, secretly avant-garde masterpiece, no deliberately self-destructive art happening courageously deployed to confound the unsuspecting masses. The film is an honest-to-goodness attempt at big-statement filmmaking—the sort of filmmaking that De Palma’s auteurist concerns are arguably least suited for. But De Palma went for it: the big budget, mass-market, Oscar-ready adaptation of a zeitgeist novel, opened in the heart of the holiday prestige-picture season. To surmise a more fiendish, self-destructive motive is to overlook De Palma’s naked desire for an even bigger name above an even bigger title. It is the architecture for classic folly, and De Palma doesn’t disappoint in bringing the house down.

That De Palma wasn’t satisfied with enjoying the spoils of his hermetic auteurism—that he spent much of the Eighties traveling beyond those carefully defined parameters, interpreting rather than writing, harnessing his style to more mainstream forms—fascinates. Unfortunately, the film at the end of that road only proves that his talents do better serve a smaller canvas and more selective palate. Worse could be said of a man. And for the private miracle that is most worthwhile cinema, bigger is often no great advantage. Small and manageable, trackable and defined, genre rewards and protects auteur and fan alike; anything bigger or beyond is no longer theirs but everyone else’s as well. For De Palma lovers, the flameout of The Bonfire of the Vanities sparked a triumphant return of the maestro with Raising Cain, his first original screenplay in nearly a decade, a venture back toward horror, a reunion with Lithgow and a link back to pulpy, critic-proof, pre-mainstream De Palma. For the rest of us, well, it’s too bad he wasn’t up to the bigger task.

Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, though problematic, deserved better, as did anyone intrepid enough to ignore the blistering reviews and find themselves in the company of such punishing hollowness. I’ve encountered defenses from De Palma loyalists, campaigns that are nothing short of elaborate sensory denial—baffling considering that at its most exhilarating, De Palma’s cinema is a full-on engagement of the senses. To appreciate Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, or Carrie, and then trumpet a staggering piece of shit like The Bonfire of the Vanities is to lay bare the baseless hero-worship at the core of much of film appreciation.

The problems with The Bonfire of the Vanities are so glaringly obvious that a contrarian can’t help but look for, overemphasize, or even congratulate the comparatively less problematic. But outside of an attention grabbing title-card shot—a chilly, unpopulated, time-elapsed birds-eye pan from north to east over the Manhattan skyline—it’s irresponsible not to explore the series of bad decisions brass plated onto more bad decisions. Approaching the film sidelong, as defenders and enablers must, there are moments of high De Palma style—a twisting overhead shot that allows a patterned-marble floor to upstage the stuffed-shirt characters standing atop it; a familiar, Touch of Evil-cribbed single-take opening shot that moves from tunnel to conveyer to elevator to hall to grand, glass-enclosed Winter Garden at the World Financial Center; a foreground-background collapse converging on a mechanical device both literal and narrative; split-screens, steep angles, distorted lenses, deeply seedy lighting. But in the context of the film in question, these seem inappropriately grafted, a distraction for both filmmaker and viewer from what’s supposed to matter in the moment.

There’s nothing to support the notion that the matter itself is being critiqued, as some might optimistically offer, for De Palma furthers Wolfe’s caricaturing (the novel’s most fundamental failing) with dismaying kindred-spirit gusto. Though stereotyped, Wolfe’s characters are exactingly detailed, and though not realist (despite being showily based on real people and events from Eighties New York at its most brazenly dog-eat-dog, racist, and classist) they assume a vividly fictive life. Rather than replicate, temper, or naturalize the literary, De Palma and screenwriter Michael Cristofer shuck detail and broaden Wolfe’s strokes, making gargoyles of the great and small: an opportunistic Al Sharpton stand-in is a devilish behemoth; a power-hungry Jewish district attorney (F. Murray Abraham in goose-squawk mode) makes a minstrel show of being a power-hungry Jewish district attorney; during an angry mob scene, black youths inexplicably bounce basketballs with, um, menace. As would-be Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy, a man of his time, the symbolically empty heart of the whole big-statement enterprise, Tom Hanks looks stricken, a powdered, oddly coiffed summer-stock interloper whose constipation ostensibly signifies smugness, and whose Turner and Hooch–honed hollerin’ falsetto apparently means “spiraling out of control.” De Palma furthers his career-long appreciation for the diversity of dignified womanhood by letting Melanie Griffith’s southern belle Maria Ruskin out-whore, out-grate, and out-dehumanize anything Nancy Allen ever managed before. Never easy on the ears, here Griffith’s voice is an atomic siren of hell, murdering scenes left and right with a systemic, ostensibly directed sense of purpose (overdubbed for maximum precision). The book’s British tabloid journalist Peter Fallow is reinterpreted as a stock Yank reporter, a Cagney-era boozer in a supposedly topical narrative, embodied by Bruce Willis in charmless, dimpled prick Moonlighting mode.

The casting of Willis, and its film-trope flattening of the material’s essential topicality, reveals just how far afield De Palma was misfiring. It’s as if Wolfe’s novel—and his own particular interpretation of the language of cinema—were his only referents. As if he were unaware of the events, culture, personalities, and city that the novel meant to evoke and satirize. Wolfe’s book made mincemeat of a culture preoccupied with the surface of things, whereas De Palma’s film proceeds as if the surface of things were all there is, fronting for nothing real or living, a fanged farce with no flesh to pierce. Inexplicably divorced from its own substantive reason for being, The Bonfire of the Vanities never improves on that bird’s eye view, copious close-ups and shoe-horned, Morgan Freeman-intoned morality certainly notwithstanding. Meticulously crafted but joylessly so, authoritatively made but self-incriminating, this is De Palma hitting hard against his own ceiling. He missed his moment, and in dropping Wolfe’s zeitgeist hand-off, ours as well.
And yet. Should De Palma be blamed for the failings of a script he didn’t write, or the hypocrisy of the source material, or the collaborative lobotomy behind the casting of this lot, or the ceaseless, baffling breeziness of Dave Grusin’s sabotaging score, or for Griffith’s mid-shoot breast augmentation? But of course. There’s no having it both ways. There’s only one name above this title, and only one figure on the podium in this symposium. If a film this woebegotten had been branded by one less exalted, we’d have been spared by a simple thumb dismissal, pithy Maltin put-down, or elegant “woof!” And we’d be no worse for it.