From the moment it opens, De Palma slides comfortably Brian De Palma’s obsession with Alfred Hitchcock. He talks about Vertigo in particular for a few moments before a small montage of his own work appears on screen, accompanied by a minor amount of discussion of his early life. Unsurprisingly, we discover very little about his personal life outside of the occasional mention, as the filmmaker is entirely focused on one thing: his films.
Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow leave the camera in front of De Palma. framing him a couple of different ways, but essentially just shooting him as simply as possible for, presumably, hours, only some of which makes it on screen. What he offers is a dash of history, a pinch of political and economical insight, some filmmaking tips, and an abundance of anecdotes for each work discussed. Never do external voices factor into the movie and whether or not they would have added anything to this straight-forward documentary is debatable. There’s nothing special to how the directors present the commentary and the clips, but it is refreshing to see a filmmaker reflect on his own career without having that juxtaposed against a barrage of individuals praising or critiquing his work.
Part of the greatest pleasure of De Palma is the fact that Baumbach and Paltrow constantly utilize clips from De Palma’s work, as well as that of his contemporaries (lots of Scorsese and Spielberg) and those he discusses (Hitchcock, Hitchcock, and more Hitchcock). Not all the clips are great, but the ones that are emphasize what a talented filmmaker he was make the viewer want to seek out his work to see what other goodies they might find, be it a first viewing or a rewatch. Think of it all as an extended series of commentary tracks strung together to cover an entire oeuvre. Certain films get more focus than others, for instance Carrie, Blow Out, and Scarface, and others are shrugged aside almost entirely by the filmmaker, notably stuff like The Fury and Wise Guys.
While the filmmaker giddily dishes out shade at himself and others—Obsession star Cliff Robertson gets thrown under the bus brutally, Oliver Stone was thrown off the Scarface set, and filmmaker Adrian Lyne’s name pops up more than once as someone who took on projects Brian De Palma wouldn’t be caught dead directing—the most interesting moments of his discussions come when he reveals little truths about himself as a filmmaker and approaches the criticisms lobbed against him. “You always have to realize you’re being criticized against the fashion of the day, and when the fashion changes, everybody forgets about that,” he explains in a seemingly defensive manner, unsurprising with the accusations of sexism lobbed against him as a filmmaker.
Though he approaches those moments and some others with his guard up, De Palma feels entirely comfortable discussing his tropes as a filmmaker (with split screens and long takes getting plenty of love). Fans of his work, and those who simply have a genuine interest in filmmaking, will take delight in watching the man dissect famous sequences from his movies and occasionally explain how he got certain things done. By no means should De Palma be considered the be-all, end-all discussion of Brian De Palma’s career, but it makes for an engaging and amusing dive into a bonafide auteur for audiences both familiar and not.
Directed by Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow; starring Brian De Palma; 108 minutes.
De Palma is now experiencing a limited theatrical release.
In Miami, the film opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, June 24th, accompanied by a month-long retrospective of De Palma’s early work. The films, all of which start at 8:50 p.m. on their respective dates, and hosts for introductions are as follows:
- Sisters (1973) – June 30th, introduced by DtHL critic Juan Barquin
- Carrie (1976) – July 7th, introduced by Miami Herald critic Rene Rodriguez
- Obsession (1976) – July 14th, introduced by Indie Ethos critic Hans Morgenstern
- Dressed to Kill (1980) – July 21st, introduced by Miami Art Zine critic Ruben Rosario
- The Fury (1978) – July 28th, introduced by Humanizing the Vacuum critic Alfred Soto