Directed by: Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow.
Featuring: Brian De Palma.
There are a few ways in which documentaries centered on the work of one director can go – it can be the kind of fawning treatment, meant only foe diehards, that really should be nothing more than a DVD special feature (like Altman or Milius were a few years ago), or something like Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma – which, yes, is still for diehards, but it is a fascinating film in its own right, and contains a tremendous amount of insight into the films of Brian De Palma – from the man himself – as well as observations about Hollywood, from a man who has been there for more than 40 years. De Palma is mostly clear eyed about his own work – admitting when he made mistakes, or when something just didn’t work, but also being proud of his accomplishments – of which there have been many.
According to IMDB, Brian De Palma has 40 directing credits, and the film De Palma is basically the famed director talking about each and every one of them (they mostly skip the few shorts he made in school, but after that, the list is exhaustive). From his first Hitchcock homage, Murder a la Mod (1968), through subversive indie comedies like Greetings (1968) and its sequel, Hi, Mom! (1970) – which were early breaks for Robert DeNiro), through a disastrous first experience in the studio system – Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), which De Palma says didn’t work, and when he told the studio how to make it work, they fired him, through the indie shockers Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Obsession, and then returning to the studio fold with Carrie (1976) – and then on and on, the film is full of observations, and De Palma pulls no punches. He’ll tell you how Cliff Robertson was an asshole on Obsession – how he realized Genevieve Bujold was stealing the movie from him, and did everything possible to undermine her. Or how he had to ban Oliver Stone from the set of Scarface, which Stone wrote, because Stone was trying to direct the actors. Or how David Mamet refused to work on The Untouchables after a certain point, so he had to do things himself. Or how Robert Towne wanting the climax of Mission Impossible to be a bunch of guys in a box car taking off their masks. De Palma admits that sometimes he has been hamstrung by the material – he doesn’t really like The Fury (1978), which made him do a car chase, which he hates doing, or how he had to completely restructure Raising Cain in the editing room, because it wasn’t working. He’ll admit his mistakes – he doesn’t dispute the fact that The Bonfire of the Vanities doesn’t work, but he does dispute the much made argument that he didn’t get it. He got it just fine, he just didn’t think that since he had Tom Hanks as the lead, that he could make a movie that cynical and depressing, or make Hanks that deplorable – so he lightened it, with horrible results. He knows Mission to Mars (2000) doesn’t really work – and it looks bad in parts, but that is, he argues, because they ran out of money. In regards to that film, he also argues why most CGI heavy blockbusters today look the same – it’s because the big effects sequence are pre-visualized, and not by the directors, but by effects houses, and they cost so much, that directors don’t really have the ability to go back and ask for something else. Ever wonder why every blockbuster seems to climax with a bunch of “stuff” crashing into other stuff, as building collapse, etc. That’s the reason.
One of the positives, and negatives of a movie like De Palma, which only questions the director on his own work, is that you end up with only one perspective. When I watched Hitchcock/Truffaut a few months ago, I wondered why there were no female directors questioned on Hitchcock’s work – which, many have argued, often bordered on, and occasionally crossed right on into, misogyny. The same can be said of De Palma’s work – but he mainly brushes off such criticisms. I would have liked to see dim delve more deeply into the sexual politics of Dressed to Kill (1980) for instance – a film, that is in many ways a stylistic masterpiece, but whose treatment of a trans character would make it impossible to make today. Or, delve a little deeper into the sexual politics of Body Double (1984) – one of my absolute favorites of his, but one that does feature a woman being killed by a giant drill (De Palma’s answer to that – that the drill had to be so big, so it could go through the floor where the main character would see it, is both an interesting practical note, but also a little bit of a copout) – but also, undeniably, has a great role for Melanie Griffith – her first great one, as a porn star, who completely owns and controls her sexuality. There is more to say about the sexual politics in his films, but De Palma doesn’t seem too interested in saying them.
Still, there are tons of great notes on the making of his masterpieces, like Carrie and Blow Out (my two favorites), his constant battle with the ratings board, or his regrets over something like Causalities of War (1989) basically being ignored at the time it came out (it’s one that I think still requires a critical re-evaluation). My one major regret is that it seems like once Baumbach and Paltrow get De Palma’s thoughts on CGI and Mission to Mars, they’re pretty much done with him, and the film. The Black Dahlia gets only a minute or two, Redacted even less, and I don’t think Passion is even mentioned by name. Worst of all, the film pretty much skims right by Femme Fatale (2002) – which would rank in my top five of all De Palma films, but which they don’t really discuss.
Still, De Palma is a fascinating document of De Palma’s career – a reminder of how great he can be given the right material (in the past two weeks, I’ve re-watched both Blow Out and Body Double – and loved both), and how to build a career in Hollywood. A career like De Palma’s could only happen at precisely the time it did – any earlier, and he’d be too shackled by the studio system, any later, and they wouldn’t give him the money needed to make such bold, provocative movies. He has had a wildly inconsistent career – but a great one.