Film Review: De Palma

A sleek yet chatty documentary that gives a rebellious Brian De Palma (and nobody else) free rein to walk viewers through his full canon of experiments, flops, blockbusters and generally twisted oddities.
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In the same way that it’s odd to witness a nocturnal animal in broad daylight, seeing Brian De Palma amiably discussing his work for the better part of an hour carries a certain level of dissonance. That sensation builds rather than dissipates throughout Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s appreciative documentary about the director’s life’s work. You can only see so many clips of swan-necked actresses having their veins opened by gleaming blades juxtaposed with their bearded, grinning creator chirping “Holy mackerel!” before the disconnect becomes almost comedic.

Baumbach and Paltrow’s approach is simple: Put a camera on De Palma as he walks us through his oeuvre, inserting strategic clips from his work or cinematic references as needed. There’s a brief dash through his autobiographical particulars before getting to the heart of the matter. Afterward the structure is chronological, bracketed by his little-seen college work from the 1960s (Wotan’s Wake) to the smaller independently financed films made since his self-imposed exile in Paris (Redacted, Femme Fatale). In between is one of cinema’s most unique and unlikely careers, swerving from psychological thrillers to horror, camp, gangster and war epics, and back again to psychological thrillers. It’s more than enough for De Palma to discuss.

“I saw Vertigo in 1958” is the first line we hear. Given how much time critics have spent dissecting exactly how much of Hitchcock’s technique De Palma has appropriated, it’s a strategic jumping-off point. The film’s layered circularities of sexual obsession, paranoia and surveillance read as a guidebook for the career that followed, and De Palma is happy to admit it.

Like many of the other film-school movie brats of the 1960s, De Palma’s early work was an avant-garde grabbag. His sensibility was then more attuned to German expressionism and the French New Wave than Hitchcock. The comedies that followed, like his two Robert De Niro starrers Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), were more politically charged than the work which would make De Palma’s name, though an undercurrent of Vietnam War-era antiestablishment cynicism has continued to crop up here and there. De Palma talks with some wonderment about how he and the other members of what he calls the “Warner Bros. youth group,” his friends and occasional creative allies George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, were lucky to get into Hollywood at just the right time, before “the businessmen” took over.

The De Palma given the keys to the 1970s studio system made his name with a queasy series of body-horror nerve-janglers. Although 1976’s Obsession (scripted by his fellow movie brat Paul Schrader) was a straight riff on Hitchcock, De Palma’s profile rose because of work like his Siamese-twin thriller Sisters (1973) and the one-two punch of Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978), both of which splattered the lens with telekinetically powered blood and gore that feel of a piece with Cronenberg’s contemporaneous work.

The next two decades saw a pattern develop. De Palma would be brought on to helm splashy spectacles like Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987) and Mission: Impossible (1996), in which he smoothed off some of his style’s more grisly and expressionistic edges. In between he would pivot back to the grottier psychosexual stalker films like Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984) and Raising Cain (1992), with their exploitation shrieks, slash-edits and gender fake-outs that he can’t escape from. After a special-effects disaster like Mission to Mars (2000), De Palma left Hollywood. He had seen the future, and it wasn’t for him.

In between De Palma’s filmmaking war stories, he also drops flashes of insight that might have been expanded on if the film included any other voices besides his. He’s a generous evaluator of his own work, of course, but also sharp, noting for instance his thinking on 1993’s impeccable Carlito’s Way: “I can’t make a better picture than this.” He’s right, as his ever-less-interesting body of work since then—Snake Eyes, anyone?—has proved.

Baumbach and Paltrow commit fully to their auteurist approach. So much so that while they give more time to, say, De Palma’s wrestling with Sidney Lumet for Scarface or his probably correct statement that he’s the only true student of Hitchcock out there, they are completist enough to also let him opine on lesser matters like his best-forgotten 1986 Joe Piscopo-Danny DeVito mob comedy Wise Guys (De Palma likes it). Unfortunately, this canonical take on De Palma’s work gives short shrift to the justified concerns, which he brushes aside, about his films’ voyeuristic sadism towards women—a tendency of Hitchcock’s which he could at least cut with a wit that De Palma has never managed. Almost off-handedly, he tells a story from his youth about following his father while he was having an affair and then threatening him, a Freudian moment that seems clearly central to his artistic obsessions but is never followed up on.

The solitary interview is a disarmingly modest tactic, and one that keeps De Palma from overplaying its hand. If Baumbach and Paltrow had followed the usual road and stocked the screen with one critic or collaborator after another to opine on De Palma’s genius, the result would have been difficult to take. In their minimalist take on a maximalist artist, they leave the man and his work free to stand or fall on their own. Which is as it should be.

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