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‘De Palma’ (review)


Produced and Directed by Noah Baumbach
and Jake Paltrow
Starring Brian De Palma

Full disclosure: Brian De Palma is my favorite director.  It’s kind of a close call, really; Hitchcock (duh), Argento, Spielberg, Peter Weir, etc.

But something about De Palma’s style and sensibility has resonated with me since I was a kid.

I’ve seen nearly all of his films in the theater since I sneaked into Scarface when I was 14.

The only De Palma feature I’ve truly disliked is Redacted (which I just found amateurish and a pale shadow of the masterful Casualties of War).

So, yes, I like Raising Cain, Wise Guys, Mission to Mars, and think Bonfire of the Vanities, flawed as it is, is a perfectly enjoyable film in its own right (though apparently a lousy adaptation of a book I haven’t read).

So, when I heard that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow were filming a feature length documentary about the man, I was extremely excited.  Baumbach’s lengthy interview with De Palma on Criterion’s Blow Out disc is a gem, and he and Paltrow do a terrific job here with what is basically a chronological, film-by-film, talking-head-intercut-with-clips interview.

It’s a pleasure to see the notoriously cranky filmmaker seemingly at ease, and being quite frank assessing his career. The film is a fascinating chronicle of one man’s career – and life – but it’s equally valuable as an overview of a span of time in Hollywood.  The politics, the scheming, the timing, the tastes and fashions of the day, etc.

De Palma doesn’t exactly break the mold in terms of structure, but there’s truly no call for it.  Let the man – and the wonderful clips – speak for themselves.

This is truly a must for anyone interested in film, whether you’re an acolyte or a detractor of this particular filmmaker. His assessment of his own work and of others is consistently intelligent and enlightening. (His reading of his Bonfire adaptation is spot-on, in my opinion – though probably not the popular consensus).

I loved that during the Mission: Impossible segment he rips on modern-day, blockbuster filmmaking, especially when it comes to CGI pre-visualization, which renders everything clichéd and dull.  And he laments that only he (debatable) carried the mantle of Hitchcock’s trailblazing cinematic language, which, it must be said, few directors have run with since.

It’s also telling how much he detests “coverage”.  This industry standard method certainly does the job with a top-notch director in charge, but it can also be a crutch that neuters potentially potent stories, and De Palma knows this and makes no bones about being derisive towards the practice.

The only real quibble I have with De Palma is kind of the same complaint as a cinematographer friend of mine had with the wonderful documentary Visions of Light; it would have been great if it were longer and more detailed.  This is probably too much to ask of a mainstream audience, but De Palma is already kind of a niche film to begin with.  I would have loved to see much, MUCH more time devoted to the likes of Femme Fatale and Raising Cain, and even minor films like Wise Guys could have been expounded upon.

That said, Paltrow and Baumbach should be lauded for this wonderful doc. If you’re an admirer of De Palma, you have to see this film, especially for gems like a clip of the original ending of Snake Eyes (a criminally underrated film) and the very funny revelation of what Sean Penn actually whispered in Michael J. Fox’s ear at the end of Casualties of War.

And really, it’s just a thrill to see an often overlooked film master get his due. I honestly can’t wait to see it again.

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