De Palma (2015) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: R for violent images, graphic nudity, sexual content and some language
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Brian De Palma
Director: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Review published June 21, 2016
For a director who, at various points of his career, had wanted to be the modern-day equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock, perhaps it's fitting that he would also get interviewed about all of his works in his filmography in sequence. Hitchcock had been interviewed over the course of several days by auteur Francois Truffaut for a landmark film book, "Hitchcock/Truffaut", which was recently made into its own documentary, and here, current auteurs Noah Baumbach (Mistress America, While We're Young), who patterns himself after 'Nouvelle Vague' filmmakers like Truffaut, and Jake Paltrow (Young Ones, The Good Night) have done something similar with their first documentary effort, De Palma, in which the septuagenarian director goes over all 28 of his films, about five decades worth, and discusses each for a few minutes at a time.
Baumbach and Paltrow, as directors, cover little ground on their own when it comes to the influence of Brian De Palma, who actually has influence other notable filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who has utilized De Palma's trademark long tacking shots and split-screen technique on a number of his own films. However, they do have a good relationship with De Palma, enough to get him to sit down for a week to talk about all of his movies, offering up many tidbits about the making of each one, including historical observations, choice trivia, rarely heard anecdotes, and plenty of philosophizing on the nature of what it means to be a director who has lasted in the business for so long.
De Palma is strictly a documentary about Brian De Palma, in his own words. No other people are interviewed, and the interviewers voices are not heard. All you see is Brian De Palma on the screen, either front and center, or while clips of each movie play out under them, or while photographs and newspaper articles give us a glimpse into the public and private life he experienced at the time.
There are a few nods to De Palma's personal life, from his upbringing to a few of his failed marriages (De Palma cites film as his sole true love), but De Palma is more interested in how his movies were made, their influences, and how the director perceives their success, whether commercially or artistically, especially in how and why he had to compromise his vision while working in the studio system throughout most of his life. At this point in his career, and with nothing to lose, De Palma speaks with great candor. He admits to many mistakes without overly touting his successes, which makes him a likeable figure to follow in one-sided conversation, even though some of his movies have divided film critics as to his auteur-ship due to his lifting of his techniques from other directors (interesting that the first shot of De Palma is not of any of his own films, but Vertigo, by the man who continues to overshadow him, Hitchcock), as well as for their perceived misogyny and gratuitous violence, something that continues to dog self-described De Palma disciple Tarantino to this day.
Despite not being in the limelight for some time, De Palma has continued to pursue making movies, most since 2000's Mission to Mars outside of the U.S. studio system, though much of it is continuing on things that brought him attention in his hey day in the 1970s and 1980s. De Palma contends that, with few exceptions, most directors best works come when they made films in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, citing his idol, Hitchcock, as an example, as De Palma has indeed followed in his foot steps in nearly every regard, at least as a filmmaker. Although De Palma's career is a mixed bag, it's still just as interesting to hear about his colossal failures as it is his triumphant successes.
De Palma, as a documentary, is mainly for film buffs, and, more specifically, those who are so familiar with Brian De Palma's body of work that they won't care that many of the clips shown offer major spoilers as to the movies they come from. In other words, it's not recommended to watch this documentary until you've at least seen De Palma's most notable works. For those, like me, who have seen their fair share, this production is about as interesting and informative as we're likely ever going to get on the virtuosos director's work, and will likely make one want to dive back into his best films with renewed gusto and fervor for his commitment to thoughtfully realized filmmaking.
©2016 Vince Leo