Brian De Palma is a filmmaker who obviously covets the genius of other filmmakers, so much so that he reflexively duplicates their trademark signature gestures as his own. This occasionally results in exciting film work, such as the staircase scene from "Battleship Potemkin" artfully crafted into De Palma's "Untouchables." More often, though, the unending of one homage after another homage, tributes, plagiarisms is not unlike a three-year-old's version of peanut butter and jelly sandwich; they are virtually unwatchable, dripping with references, abrupt and illogical in their construction. De Palma, in fact, seems far too often to contrive a story just to insert his neurotic virtuoso camera tricks.
He desperately wants to be taken seriously and considered an artist, .and yet the best he can do is occasionally approximate the contours of another filmmaker's inspiration. No one can really watch "Blow Out" and not think of the two superior films that inspired it, "Blow-Up" and Francis Coppola's ingenious Americanization of the film, "The Conversation"; both those filmmakers had an idea of what they trying to do. The Untouchables and Casualties of War succeed as film narratives because De Palma had good scripts he hadn't the chance to alter, "improve" on, nor had the liberty to ignore. He is a director whose body of work would be more impressive if he could reign in his desire to short-cut his way to genius.
De Palma seems to select what scenes he would like to plagiarize and then fashion a movie around them; that would be an exciting technique if it had better results, but it doesn't. Saying that De Palma's style is "post-modern pastiche" is an excellent way of saying that this director hasn't an interesting idea of his own. The tradition has been, and stubbornly remains, that younger artists are influenced and inspired by older artists; the younger artists, those few who will rise as being notable on their own terms, will imitate and then mold their influences with their own experience and sensibility. It's a compelling dialectic. De Palma's work is an excellent example of what is fatally wrong with the post-modern method: take various scenes from other filmmakers and then do a puppet show.
Carrie, Casualties of War, The Untouchables, and Carlito's Way, a few are indeed fine movies, but one can say that they are the least "De Palma-like" in the body of work. He does a good job when he sticks pieces in service to a good script; he had the potential of being a perfect "Hollywood hack," an underappreciated designation to those directors who take assignments and produce influential movies that resist fashion and politics. Perhaps he should have aspired to be Robert Aldrich rather than Alfred Hitchcock. De Palma revealed technical virtuosity, yes, but unlike those he admires, he could translate his personal quirks and issues into compelling art. Scarface is a classic merely because it is glutted burrito of excess; faithful to a post-modern nature, one cannot decide if it is intended as parody or critique. I doubt De Palma knew either, as the increasing extremes of debauched sex, violence, and vulgarity achieves not catharsis but rather the opposite, apathy. The last few minutes, the climactic shoot out with Sonny's invitation to "say hello to his little friend," is terrific, but it is the only thing in the film worth talking about these decades later. It is a simple lousy movie made memorable solely because it was so expensive and garnished.