‘De Palma’ is an Essential Documentary About a Filmmaking Legend

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Nowadays it may be hard to realize that when he was regularly making movies, Brian De Palma was a magnet for controversy. Whether his hits or his flops, the filmmaker was widely the target of countless thinkpieces lamenting the ultraviolence, the hyper-sexuality, and heavily stylized form of storytelling that he employed. He’s been called depraved. He’s been called a misogynist. He’s been called a Hitchcock rip-off. He’s been called a master.

Though the legendary filmmaker has undergone a critical reevaluation over the years, he still has to contend with the labels placed upon him in the past and the reputation he’s earned over the years. Now Brian De Palma is setting the record straight in De Palma, a new documentary from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow examining the life and career of this controversial artist. The film is an illuminating, often funny look at the constant struggle that goes on behind the scenes of a movie, like the cinematic equivalent of Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Collected over 30 hours of interviews, De Palma allows the director to speak for himself. There’s no voiceover narration. Just Brian De Palma going over his entire filmography film by film and candidly explaining the moments of triumph and failure over his nearly 50-year filmmaking career. Before we enter into his work as a director, De Palma explains the aspects of his youth, growing up in a close-knit family in New Jersey before moving to Philadelphia with his two brothers, mother, and his father who was a famed orthopedic surgeon.

Once much of the biographical information is out of the way, De Palma recounts stories about each of his films, starting with his experimental shorts in college before going into his first features, including The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom!, each featuring a young Robert De Niro. All of his early success leads up to his first Hollywood feature, the troubled production of How to Train Your Rabbit, where De Palma recounts the stories of being a young director working with an inconsistent Orson Welles and a dissatisfied Tommy Smothers before being dismissed from the film in the editing process.

Throughout the film, the filmmaker is remarkably candid about his faults and the faults of his collaborators. However, De Palma isn’t afraid to heap praise among his collaborators, including the interesting events leading up Bernard Hermann providing the score for his independent horror film Sisters or the unique casting process that saw himself and George Lucas each auditioning the same actors for Star Wars and Carrie.

As the film progresses, a cycle emerges where the director will follow up a commercial hit with a more divisive, often less successful film. Like following the success of his Psycho-esque Dressed to Kill with the paranoid political thriller Blow Out, which though a masterpiece wasn’t a commercial hit. De Palma is also frank about the influence of Scarface in the hip hop community, and shares some interesting stories about the film’s development. Of course, he follows that film with the Hitchcockian and controversial movie Body Double, a film that equally treads in the waters of graphic violence and sexuality. This cycle continues as he follows up the biggest hit of his career at that point, The Untouchables, with the harrowing Vietnam drama Causalities of War.

One of the most infamous productions that Brian De Palma was ever involved in was Bonfire of the Vanities, a troubled adaptation of the hit novel from Tom Wolfe. The behind-the-scenes stories of Bonfire have been immortalized in Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy, which is an essential book for understand the modern studio system. When discussing the film, De Palma, as he constantly is in the film, doesn’t hold back his critiques of himself or his collaborators, and the finished film. As the film continues more and more into the modern era, De Palma further explains the machinations of the Hollywood machine and just how difficult it is to get anything made, let alone anything with a blend of quality and unique content like an average De Palma film.

De Palma also captures the “what have you done for me lately” nature of the industry. After shepherding the inaugural installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, which is still going strong 20 years later, the director helmed two films that underwhelmed at the box office, Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars, which basically relegated the legendary director to exclusively seek European financing for his most recent projects.

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have crafted a documentary that praises and examines its subject in equal order, but allows its subject to be frank in his personal reflections of his art and life. From start to finish, De Palma examines almost every aspect of filmmaking and how the industry is in a constant evolution, from the brief period of the daring films of New Hollywood to the today’s franchise obsessed mentality. Even for those that aren’t die-hard fans of Brian De Palma, there’s a fountain of information in regards to the world of filmmaking and the deepest aspects of this wonderful, collaborative art form. For those that are, like myself, die-hard fans of Brian De Palma, De Palma is an essential documentary that doesn’t dodge the hard questions and doesn’t peddle in simple hagiography. This is one of the great movies about movies ever made.

 

De Palma
  • Overall Score
4.5

Summary

One of the great movies about movies, De Palma is a candid examination of the life and career of Brian De Palma that features a blistering pace and brutal honesty from a filmmaking legend.

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