The new documentary, De Palma, opens with a timeless scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Apropos for a study on the career of Brian De Palma. His connection to Hitchcock’s legacy is firmly entrenched. This, of course, has been heavily propelled by De Palma’s own words and intent. The writer, director, and producer speaks openly about his efforts to carry forth the techniques originally developed by Hitchcock. The filmmaker has been, as this feature clearly presents, extremely prolific and eclectic in his work…two adjectives everyone can agree on. The crème de la crème of his success may be his excursions in the horror and thriller genres…arguably his most enduring films. But there is much more to this artist and getting it all in under two hours is challenging…even for De Palma himself.
Viewers take note, this is Mr. De Palma’s show…and a well-deserved one. The film is a continuous interview with the director, well complemented with movie clips. Absent are standard glimpses inside the subject’s house or personal life as in comparative documentaries. The camera remains on De Palma exclusively. There are no comments from cohorts or peers. Co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow engaged in dinner conversations with De Palma over the years focusing on his work…and they seek to recreate that experience here. The project, with De Palma’s blessing, originated as a series of filmed interviews and eventually morphed into the feature length documentary currently touring the country.
The material covered is vast. It begins with De Palma’s early development in the 1960s. De Palma confesses, “I have complicated and intricate views (of filmmaking).” This could properly have been the introduction to the whole proceeding. His experimental techniques with camera angles and split screens are well examined. Jean-Luc Godard was a strong influence during the turbulent 1960s, and it shows in De Palma’s early avant-garde films such as Murder a’ la Mod (1968) and Dionysus in 69 (1970). De Palma also discusses his time working with Robert De Niro including Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), both of which espoused leftist philosophy at the time.
De Palma clearly exhibits a love-hate relationship with mainstream Hollywood. He speaks proudly of his reputation as one of the “New Hollywood” directors that emerged in the early 70s along with Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, and Coppola. But the verdict on De Palma has been a bit more complicated…and viewers can feel that in his very words. De Palma’s first big Hollywood film, Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972) was a disappointment. The production experienced friction with its star, Tom Smothers, and also Orson Welles, who did not do well remembering his lines. The fact De Palma also describes frustration working with John Cassavetes in The Fury (1978) reveals how these successful directors sometimes had issues working the other side of the camera as actors.On the heels of his initial Hollywood failure, De Palma returned to New York City to make the successful low budget horror entry, Sisters (1973). The film found an audience and remains a cult classic today. De Palma, who also wrote the film, discusses how the idea came about after reading about real life conjoined twins in the pages of Life. Another project at this time was Phantom of the Paradise (1974) starring Paul Williams. De Palma reflects how the film (made a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show) was a huge hit in Canada and France, playing continuously…but relatively ignored in the United States. Various lawsuits appeared involving this film, including claims it copied the image of Lee Falk’s comic strip character “The Phantom”. The fictitious record label in the movie that appeared to mirror Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records was also removed due to legal threats. De Palma’s career has often been on the examining table as to his originality versus creative interpretations of similar material. Obsession (1976) was a thriller written by Paul Schrader (of Taxi Driver fame). While De Palma praises Genevieve Bujold, he describes his extreme difficulty directing Cliff Robertson, who was not his initial choice to star.
The films mentioned above set the stage for De Palma’s ongoing shifts between mainstream and independent filmmaking over the decades. That said, his Hollywood product did attain popular and financial success, beginning with Carrie in 1976…a horror film that helped initially put its author, Stephen King, on the map. De Palma repeatedly mentions he has no aversions to blood as a strong visual component in his movies…as witnessed in Carrie. He explains his father was an orthopedic surgeon and he was very familiar with the sight of blood in his youth. This is one of few recollections De Palma makes about his early family years. His discussion remains almost exclusively on his movie career. He cites film critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker as having a good effect on him with her positive reviews. Musical scoring has always been essential in De Palma films. The director spends ample camera time describing his working relationships with composers Bernard Herrmann and later, Pino Donaggio.
Carrie was a hit, leading the way to other genre efforts including his 1980 homage (albeit in slasher form) to Alfred Hitchcock, Dressed To Kill and his 1981 homage to Michelangelo Antonioni, Blow Out. In his interview, De Palma has no problem discussing the similarities. He makes a case that he did not borrow their style as much as expand on the techniques they initiated. He does mention his desire to push the limit with the censors. He fondly recalls his 1984 feature, Body Double…and he also states the walking sequence in that movie may in fact be the longest in cinematic history. Sharing with the audience that Hitchcock once said it’s the run-up to the climax that is the most interesting, De Palma smiles on screen and explains his run-ups often seem to go on forever.
It seems Brian De Palma has touched upon every genre in his filmography. He shares interesting and amusing anecdotes working with Al Pacino on Scarface (1983) and Carlito’s Way (1993). He appears extremely proud of his 1989 Vietnam War story, Casualties of War, with Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. The movie was a box office failure and again De Palma fought with the censors. He proclaims the reason for continuous Hollywood censorship is the fact they don’t want an audience to experience such extreme feelings. De Palma comes clean here with his philosophy of unjust wars. In his words, the practice of sending armies into foreign lands and cultures with questionable reasons is the deciding factor when soldiers return home and struggle. A situation that hits home to this day.
The documentary reveals the fact Brian De Palma has always had a social conscience and concern about his surroundings. He has propagated the art of film as much as one creative individual can. Along the way, it’s clear he loves cinema. The filmmaker has been working in Europe now for over fifteen years, again turning away from Hollywood after his indifferent experience directing Mission to Mars in 2000.
The film never strays from being a timeline of the filmmaker’s career in his own words. De Palma’s discussion of former wife and actress Nancy Allen is limited here to her appearances in his films. De Palma comes across as a sincere artist who prefers to keep on subject rather than delving into personal matters. This works fine for film purists who now have a detailed account of his output. However, for casual filmgoers…the documentary may get tedious near the end as it seems to evolve into a filmed checklist. De Palma comes across exactly as many of his films…subjective and debatable…but the fact Brian De Palma has labored constantly at the art form he loves is undeniable.