The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2015 New York Film Festival.
Imagine one of the most provocative and legendary directors of the last half-century, a man known for pushing the limits of the cinematic medium with excessive sex and violence and Hitchcock-ian bravado, a man who looks back at his work and often exclaims “holy mackerel!” like an aw-shucks Midwestern dad. That’s Brian De Palma for you.
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma is a cineaste’s dream. Better yet, it’s like getting a minor in film studies, with De Palma as the the candid, mensch-y professor. Told in a disciplined, linear narrative, De Palma looks its subject directly in the eyes and lets him casually recount anecdotes about every single piece of work in his sensational oeuvre. At times amusing, at others analytical, De Palma is both an homage and a lecture.
De Palma narrates through the documentary, talking to the camera and telling his life story. He explains how Vertigo was love at first sight and basically the modus operandi of his entire body of work. He then proceeds to recount every last effort in his filmography, with goofy stories, personal admittance of pride and failure in his own work, and comparisons of his work to contemporaries in the canon. He addresses claims of misogyny in his work, talks about the pains of setting up really cool cinematography, and how every film had a different reason for his involvement (usually passion or money). De Palma is so comfortably structured and in-depth that De Palma even chats up his work on Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video and coming up with the idea of getting a young Courtney Cox on stage to hang with the boss. The stories are wonderful, and the movie is a feast of film fanaticism.
Do these stories and witticisms add up to a deeper understanding of the man and the process of film-making? Kind of. He was an innovator with the camera and at the edit bay. He imparts the wisdom and fallacies of following your interests and sticking to your guns. At one point he discusses Carrie, and how he fought United Artists over budget to the point where studio heads removed furniture from his office, even if he got the money he wanted in the end. Making movies can be funny that way, and De Palma talks about it as a process of vision and one’s own proclivities. De Palma is a film school tabloid tour de force.
Is it gut-bustingly funny to hear a convivial De Palma make fun of Cliff Robertson’s weak acting, too-tanned face, and tendency to screw up other actors’ eye lines? God, yes. De Palma’s great on camera. He’s smart, colloquial, and dead earnest. He’s not low or exploitative, either. A potentially lawsuit-worthy tale about Sean Penn deriding Michael J. Fox as a “TV actor” on the set of Casualties of War is delivered with perfect comic timing.
De Palma is a clear labor of love from co-directors Baumbach and Paltrow (De Palma mentees, apparently). De Palma’s career has been far from perfect, and he’s made a name for himself as controversial, or worse, garish. Yet the amount of care and enthusiasm and creativity that went into each film is so apparent in the De Palma interviews. He just talks, and has an incredible amount to say. It’s odd to say this given that he’s a real guy, but De Palma comes across as incredibly likable. He seems like a no-nonsense raconteur, happily bragging about over-using cameras for fun with Steven Spielberg on the set of Scarface. Why? The love of movies, that’s why. De Palma isn’t just about the director and his career; it’s about belief in the work, drawing on influences, and maintaining integrity. It’s about the very nature of powerful and distinct film-making. It’s that kind of film-making, for all of De Palma’s shock aesthetics and wild tastes, that people keep talking about, and making documentaries about.
Baumbach and Paltrow get the best from De Palma, and they capture him as an open, farcical filmmaker, who just happened to make movies that the MPAA slammed with X-ratings. Holy mackerel, indeed.