No nonsense documentary lets film industry icon analyze his own art to a fault
De Palma (2016)
Directed by Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow
Cast: Brian De Palma
Noted movie director Brian De Palma is a film nerd’s film nerd. Like Quentin Tarantino long after him, he’s the sort of idol-worshipping movie lover who’s spent his career noodling around in the realm of his heroes. In De Palma’s case, it was a major obsession with Alfred Hitchcock that fired up his filmmaking blood. And, no matter how much De Palma has grown as an artist and an innovator, the DNA of Hitchcock’s ghoulish psychological thrillers has remained evident in his work. He came out of the same generation as, and was close pals with, industry kings Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. This was the “New Hollywood” generation of the 1970s, a group of filmmakers who—unlike the workhorse directors of Hollywood’s Golden Era—were known primarily as cine-literate film school graduates. Despite a handful of hits, De Palma’s films (Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, to name a chunk) have marked him more as a well-
The filmmaker finally gets his propers, though, with the release of the highly-focussed documentary De Palma. Directed in no-frills style by fans Noah Baumbach (director of The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (director of The Good Night, Young Ones and a bunch of “NYPD Blue” episodes), De Palma doesn’t bother with critical analysis of De Palma’s oeuvre. It doesn’t dig up friends and contemporaries to shed insight into the man’s character. It just cuts to the chase. The film plops Mr. De Palma down in front of a fireplace and lets him talk. And talk he does, in a lucid, nonstop stream. The garrulous De Palma runs down his family history, his introduction to cinema, his education, his Hollywood connection, and just about every film in his resumé. In the process, De Palma sheds light on both the filmmaker (who turns out to be a fascinatingly down-to-earth mix of film-loving intellectual and Hollywood construction worker) and the infamous era from which he emerged (the indie-film-fueled, young Turk time period of the 1970s).
De Palma unspools somewhere between long overdue tribute and grad-school lecture. Controversial for most of his career—due in no small part to his many battles with the film ratings board over sexuality and violence—De Palma comes across these days as a perfectly mainstream mentor to today’s hard-R-loving filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino.
De Palma unspools somewhere between long overdue tribute and grad-school lecture. Controversial for most of his career—due in no small part to his many battles with the film ratings board over sexuality and violence—De Palma comes across these days as a perfectly mainstream mentor to today’s hard-R-loving filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. You won’t get a particularly deep refutation of the many accusations critics have levied against De Palma for being a misogynist. Instead, he comes across as an unpretentious artist, perfectly comfortable with his lowbrow obsessions. Speaking about a particularly gruesome and phallic construction drill used to kill a female character in 1984’s Body Double, De Palma is nothing but practical; he chose it because he needed a weapon long enough to go through the floor so that the protagonist below could witness it. Asked about his choice of films and what that says about him as an artist, De Palma admits that directors have little control over what they make and when the make it. One project falls apart, another comes along. You make the film that you can make at the time. De Palma doesn’t read too much into his decisions, and other people probably shouldn’t either.
Oddly enough, there’s no need for fancy filmmaking tricks here. No slow-mo, no 360-degree pans, no split screen narrative—all of which, of course, were made famous by De Palma. The man normally behind the camera simply steps in front of it to break down the business of moviemaking for viewers. On top of that, the filmmakers present a string of expertly chosen film clips to give you all the visual information you need. Amusing, analytical and quite open about his art, the film’s sole subject proves to be an entertaining, engrossing and painfully honest raconteur. Why was such an over-the-top gunfight to close out Scarface, you ask? Star Al Pacino burned his hand and was off-set for two weeks. De Palma was just spinning his wheels and ended up shooting a ridiculously comprehensive sequence of mayhem. That’s just how it happened. De Palma simply and rather beautifully captures the chaos of making art in the film industry. It’s often a battle to get a project off the ground. And it’s only after the work is complete that one can look back and judge success or failure. Reflecting over a lifetime of commercial hits, box office bombs, friendships, broken love affairs and dream projects that never even got off the ground, De Palma (the man and the documentary) demonstrates that art is not an end result, but a lifelong struggle.