It gives the impression that you’re scrolling through De Palma’s Wikipedia entry while he casts off pithy rejoinders over your shoulder.
In De Palma, directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow succeed in canonizing the eponymous auteur through sheer force of will. This is no real game changer of personal taste. If you’ve never liked De Palma’s filmography, you’re not going to flip your opinion much, but at the very least, you’ll be hard pressed not to appreciate his singular cinematic touch.
The film is refreshing, possessed of a breezy, irreverent tone. The sole interview source is Brian De Palma himself, sat in a chair, casually recounting the details of his illustrious career. There are no other talking heads, no testimonials from colleagues or devotees. Nothing about it feels particularly sycophantic. In fact, it’s exactly that unguarded tenor that elevates the film. Of all the pillars of ’70s cinema, De Palma seems to take himself the least seriously, coming off as charming and relatable in a way Francis Ford Coppola might never achieve. This documentary gives the impression that you’re scrolling through De Palma’s Wikipedia entry while he casts off pithy rejoinders over your shoulder.
Much of the film’s first third features De Palma discussing how the film bug bit him in college, mapping early days as a Godardian amateur experimentalist, but the documentary’s opening scene proves perhaps the most illuminating. In it, De Palma talks about his first time seeing Vertigo with near religious fervor. Thanks to an ongoing motif of intercutting shots from the Master of Suspense’s oeuvre with De Palma’s own work, it becomes clear how he developed into the world’s foremost Hitchock fetishist. At one point, De Palma remarks that no other living filmmaker seemed willing to pick up the baton from Hitchcock for pushing film forward as a visual medium. By highlighting his best projects from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s, De Palma asserts his rightful place in the cinematic pantheon with ease.
Most of what keeps this documentary from being a simple exercise in “my favorite director can beat up your favorite director” is the idiosyncratic sense of humor ingrained in the film’s structural fiber, much of which sprouts from De Palma himself. He’s got a great laugh and his propensity for ending thoughts with the exclamation “Holy Mackerel!” is beyond endearing, but the juxtaposition between his anecdotes and the footage Baumbach and Paltrow choose to cut to is brilliant. When De Palma talks about his working relationship with John Cassavetes, they smash cut to the legendary actor exploding at the end of The Fury. De Palma breathes a sigh of relief that his adaptation of Carrie wasn’t plagued by the pitfalls of its eventual remakes, and they insert footage of Carrie: The Musical. Perhaps the biggest laugh line comes when De Palma recounts the difficulty of having Oliver Stone on set for Scarface. Stone wrote the screenplay and kept offering unsolicited directorial advice, even though at the time he had only helmed one picture. To clarify to the audience that this was a younger, less experienced Oliver Stone, they show hilarious footage from 1981’s The Hand with Michael Caine, an inauspicious debut if ever there was one.
De Palma is such a welcome subject because he’s equally fascinating when explaining the background of his successes as he is coming to terms with his failures. The film could easily go off the rails once it delves into the ’90s and the director’s output begins to consistently falter, but hearing him go on about Mission To Mars and offering insight into why he made Snake Eyes is just as engrossing as talk about Blow Out, if not moreso. His reliable candor is also catnip to gossip-hungry cinephiles, as he shines as bright a light onto the machinations of studio filmmaking as he does his own personal artistic process. His stories about the ratings board on Scarface and dealing with dueling scribes on Mission: Impossible are great, but hearing him admit the structural faults in Raising Cain are humbling and inspiring.
If De Palma has a failing, it’s one regularly lobbed at the filmmaker himself. The documentary is stylish and prepossessing but sorely lacking in true analytical depth. De Palma is a self-aware artist who freely offers background into many psychological elements in his work. Most notably, he reveals that the son of Angie Dickinson’s character in Dressed To Kill is heavily based on his own adolescence spent preparing for science fairs and catching his father cheating on his mother. But beyond these personal confessions, he seems to wither at the prospect of engaging his personal issues with women. He’s been plagued by accusations of misogyny his entire career as the reigning king of slaughtering women on screen with painterly elan but, after all these years, doesn’t seem to bother to question why those images appear so frequently in his own work.
On some level, it’s perhaps an unfortunate extrapolation of his love for Hitchcock, as De Palma discusses how he feels his films are often out of step with current social mores. He sees the violence and the troubling relationship to sex as part of the material, but neither he nor the film quite reconcile exactly why it’s that particular subject matter that inspires him time and again. This quandary shouldn’t define De Palma’s undeniably stellar work in the medium, but in watching a tour of his films, the repetitive slashing of female flesh becomes far more discomfiting than in any one scene. This endless procession of dead women is like a cascading series of horrors, literal manifestations of his love for Vertigo writ across a life in the picture business.
De Palma, in so intimately revisiting the man’s work, highlights a great many strengths and undersung talent in his repertoire, but it also emphasizes his shortcomings with depicting women on screen.