Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s new documentary, De Palma, is currently showing in limited release. It is an effective and compelling documentary about a film director’s relationship with Hollywood. The film is the perfect medium for loved and hated director, Brian De Palma, to sit down, go through some of his most notable and infamous movies and deconstruct them, scene by scene. These moments allow him to share his thought processes and juicy Hollywood gossip, but more importantly, they allow him to be real—to be a true movie lover sharing his passion for his craft.
De Palma’s main focus isn’t so much the man himself, but rather his work and the films that inspire him. Citing Hitchcock’s Vertigo as one of his main influences, it’s easy to see, throughout the documentary, how almost each of De Palma’s films pays homage and at times even surpasses Hitchcock’s iconic film.
Chronologically examining approximately thirty of his films, 75-year old De Palma candidly and excitedly talks in depth about his notorious and polarizing style, storytelling, editing, and music. His passion and enthusiasm can make anyone excited about the craftsmanship behind moviemaking.
The film begins with De Palma’s New Wave-inspired independent films from the 60s such as Greetings (1968), Murder a la Mod (1968), and The Wedding Party (1969). It then continues with slightly more recognized films such as Sisters (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Obsession (1976), ultimately leading to his first real commercial and critical success Carrie (1976).
De Palma never holds back and remains honest and gracious about his successes and failures. We sense a bit of nostalgia and sadness when he recounts his “studio years” in the 70s and 80s when he was surrounded by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg (who was on the set of Scarface when they filmed the iconic and completely over the top shootout finale), Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Paul Schrader and many more. He openly discusses his trials and tribulations with the big movie studios and the ratings board, always defending and never apologizing for his vision. And what a vision!
Whether or not, you’re familiar with Mr. De Palma’s work, almost everyone is aware of some of his most notorious scenes: from Al Pacino as coked out Tony Montana holding a machine gun and screaming “Say hello to my little friend!” to Sissy Spacek as the petrified and pig’s blood drenched, Carrie to Tom Cruise’s secret agent Ethan Hunt, catching a drop of sweat whilst hanging from the ceiling.
De Palma doesn’t shy away from his critics and actually welcomes them. It seems that as long as people talk about his films in a passionate way, he has done his job as a film director. He explains and defends his less successful movies like The Fury (1978), Wise Guys (1986), Casualties of War (1989), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Mission to Mars (2000) etc… He also recounts his more critically and commercially successful films such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), etc…
Baumbach and Paltrow astutely remove themselves from the interview, making it not only seamless and narratively enjoyable, as De Palma, himself, is such a lively and knowledgeable character, but a very intimate film, as it feels like the director is in an intimate conversation with us, the audience. They don’t bother with secondary interviews because they have all the information they need from De Palma himself! He’s bursting with insightful stories and sharp observations that we barely realize the film is almost two hours long. Yet, it could easily go on forever. You start noticing his signature iconography from the stylized camerawork with extremely complicated shots, the use of split screen, slow motion and split-diopter, the elaborate production design, the overtly red blood (and lots of it), the woman as the object of deceit and desire, the violence and so on. His passion for cinema, music and storytelling become evident in his films, thanks to his explanations. Whether it be sleazy thrillers, gangster movies, psychological, suspense or erotic crime thrillers, De Palma’s films all share his vision as a true auteur of the 20th century.
DePalma is the perfect documentary for people who’ve never seen a Brian De Palma film, as you’ll leave the theater truly excited to see his movies. And De Palma fans, will finally be able to see that the man behind the camera is truly what he puts in front of it. He is unapologetic, witty, shocking and possesses an abundance of love and respect for the art of film.
By the end of the movie, you will wonder how someone who says “Holy Mackerel” several times throughout the documentary, was able to come up with such explicit, graphic and controversial films.