De Palma and Lehman’s Pulpy Adventure

The Daily — Apr 1, 2020
Detail from the cover of Are Snakes Necessary?

Not only is it difficult to imagine writing a twenty-first-century counterpart to King Lear in these anxiety-inducing times, it’s also, to be frank, tough to muster the concentration to even read Shakespeare’s tragedy. Many of us are looking for a fast-paced, escapist page-turner that will help us tear our eyes away from the spiraling numbers on that Johns Hopkins map. Early reviews suggest that Are Snakes Necessary?, the first novel by Brian De Palma and his partner, Susan Lehman, is just the ticket. So far, critics agree that the blurb on the cover from Martin Scorsese is no lie: “It’s like having a new Brian De Palma picture.”

Inspired by the scandal that ended the political career of Democratic senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, Are Snakes Necessary?—the title is taken from the cover of a book Henry Fonda is seen reading in The Lady Eve (1941)—did indeed begin as an idea for a screenplay. “You write a lot of stuff that never makes it into a movie,” De Palma tells the AP’s Jake Coyle. But at RogerEbert.com, Peter Sobczynski assures us that this novel “so thoroughly fits in with De Palma’s cinematic oeuvre that anyone reading it will feel as if their mind’s eye has suddenly been outfitted with a split diopter attachment.”

Are Snakes Necessary? spins two tales. Pennsylvania senator Lee Rogers is running for reelection in 2016 when he bumps into a former flame whose eighteen-year-old daughter, videographer Fanny, is eager to make webisodes for the campaign. She falls hard for the married senator, and it’s left to Rogers’s fixer, Barton Brock, to take care of the situation. Out west, in Las Vegas, a once-famous photographer falls for a rich man’s trophy wife before she suddenly and mysteriously disappears. All that spoiler-wary reviewers will say about how these two storylines become intertwined is that there’s a twist that involves a French remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. “As I’ve gotten older and made a lot of films,” De Palma tells Coyle, “I can see there’s always lessons to be learned from Hitchcock, the way he sets up certain sequences. And Vertigo is the whole idea of creating an illusion and getting the audience to fall in love with it and then tossing it off the tower twice. Very, very good idea.”

Reviewing Are Snakes Necessary? for the Washington Post, Charles Arrowsmith finds it “silly and uneven, sure, but it’s also fun, a pastiche of hard-boiled crime fiction that doesn’t scrimp on the lurid pleasures of the genre.” At Electric Ghost Magazine, Bobby Vogel takes that notion a step further, writing that the book is “De Palma at his raunchiest, but it is also deeply moral, as his raunchiest films have been.” And from Sean Burns at WBUR: “To quote my friend the late, great Jim Ridley’s review of De Palma’s glorious 2002 Femme Fatale, it is ‘the work of a happy, horny man.’” For Chuck Bowen at Slant, this “naughty pulp cocktail goes down deliciously easy . . . Still, Are Snakes Necessary? also illustrates the limitations of attempting to recapture the visceral qualities of cinema via prose . . . De Palma is a maestro of juxtaposition, composition, and performance calibration, not of words on a page.”

De Palma is seventy-nine now, and he freely admits to Coyle that “I think we’re getting near the end here. I have a bad knee. William Wyler said when you can’t walk, it’s over with.” But he’s still hoping to shoot his next film in August. Freshly retitled Catch and Kill, this will be a #MeToo-themed story set in the Hollywood of the 1970s.

The Latest

Talking with filmmakers and programmers for Sight & Sound, Guy Lodge has put together a brief overview of where things stand in the world of cinema at the moment, noting that “while the quarantined present is tumultuous enough in industry circles, the future is even more confusing.”

On the home viewing front, Steven Spielberg has launched the American Film Institute’s new Movie Club, Andrew Bujalski has put together an excellent set of recommendations for the Austin Film Society, Isiah Medina (88:88) has made his new feature, Inventing the Future, freely available, and via Filmmaker, here’s a nifty one-minute animated short from Robertas Nevecka:


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