Cast: Brian De Palma
Director: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
For a certain type of cinephile, Brian De Palma is one of the greatest living filmmakers of his generation; a man who has fashioned a specific catalog of pictures combining obsessive aesthetic style with lurid genre tropes. That his filmography has been both lauded and derided speaks to the director's place within cinema history as someone operating outside the studio system while being intrinsically tied to it. Unlike fellow "film brats" Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, and Scorsese; all of whom went onto critical and commercial success to varying degrees within the system, De Palma has always been the odd man out.
The shrewdest decision made by directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow with De Palma was having the man himself speak directly into the camera regarding his career. Superficially a very simple conceit, this is nonetheless the best of all possible ways to approach this subject, as it strips away the impersonal talking heads format from outside parties and allows De Palma to become his own greatest critic and biggest admirer. With a mixture of self-deprecation, wit, and brutal honesty, the artist deconstructs his art in a way which speaks to the very reason we go to the movies in the first place, making De Palma a cinema lover's dream; a poignant tribute to both one filmmaker's contribution to the art form as well as a pleasurable sensory experience that only the medium could provide.
Moving from his early years at Columbia University and then proceeding in chronological order as footage from the discussed films is interspersed with playful anecdotes and insightful production notes, De Palma reveals the auteur as a somewhat tragic figure even as it never devolves into hero worship. Many of the most notorious images and sequences get the full treatment here; such as the controversial phallic drill from Body Double and Carrie's infamous opening featuring a throng of nude young women caught in poetic slow-motion. De Palma's baffled reaction to the public outrage concerning many of his films seems like more than simple hubris; it's a window into the mind of an artist struggling with representing what makes sense to him for whichever particular story he's telling and the hyperbolic reactions to such images. Often accused of being interested only in aesthetic, what's striking about De Palma is the way it illuminates the filmmaker's style into a symphony of montage that both explains his fixations as well as deepens his thematic obsessions from film to film.
Far from a Hitchcock plagiarist as many detractors have claimed, De Palma expresses disappointment in how his pictures have been unfairly maligned for simply taking the style of a celebrated director and going into another direction with them. His fondness for split screens, long tracking shots and bird's eye compositions may seem at times like affections, but the idea of taking Hitchcock's approach into seedier, more pulpy territory should not be undervalued. Likewise, De Palma's obsession with violence (particularly against women), unstoppable killers, sexual voyeurism, and impotent male heroes, is always covered at length here, inextricably tied into his rigid formalism. Most telling, however, is how De Palma sees failure in nearly everything he's made (save for perhaps Carlitos Way, which he claims is his best film), openly admitting that, for example, the Bonfire of the Vanities fiasco came from his creative caving into studio demands.
The most surprising and ultimately transcendent thing about the film, however, is how it corrects the idea of De Palma as some soulless technician. Baumbach and Paltrow's greatest strength here isn't simply the compiling of key footage (though that is impressive in its own right), but in how they create a comfortable environment for him to open up. There's something endearing, for instance, by his constant refrain of "holy mackarel!" when hopscotching through behind-the-scenes tidbits, or how melancholic he seems when discussing various romantic relationships that fell apart. Ultimately, his love for cinema shines through, and no matter how one feels about his body of work, there's no questioning that De Palma is essential viewing for film-lovers.