It’s strange to imagine that a film dedicated to the great Brian De Palma would be primarily a static shot of a talking head. Love or loathe the movies that the Hitchcock successor spat out over the last 48 years, they could never be described as “talky.” In fact, the filmmaker even mentions his hatred of static establishing shots and tedious dialogue scenes in this documentary.
De Palma spent a career dedicated to elaborate, operatic, violent, and willfully absurd films to specifically avoid such things. Yet, the more the master talks the more entertaining the film becomes. A mixture of candor, sarcasm and cynicism ensures that this is a director profile like no other. While the shots of De Palma might be similar, the bursts of montages from his entire career provide more than enough cinematic eye candy to pick up the slack. This is certainly a film for a very specific and very nerdy cinephile audience, but those folks should eat it up with glee. After all, this guy doesn’t normally like to talk about his career in public much, but the doc won’t let him shut up.
Structurally, ‘De Palma’ is about as straightforward of a career study as possible. The director starts at the beginning and discusses each project he was ever involved with at length, from student shorts to his current disillusionment with the Hollywood system. Along the way, longer discussions of specific themes and obsessions come up when appropriate. The big Split Screen chat comes at ‘Carrie’, when he grew tired of the technique as he saw its limitations in shooting action scenes. Discussions of violence obviously come around with ‘Dressed to Kill’, when he became controversial. The inevitable chat about his hot/cold relationship with critics spreads between ‘Body Double’, ‘Casualties of War’ and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’; he feels that they weren’t there when he needed him and pounced on him with his biggest flop.
Along the way, the filmmaker is always honest, sometimes with a candid glee that most Hollywood folks are too sensitive to reveal publicly because of how it might hurt their careers. For De Palma, he couldn’t care less. He’s only willing to direct on his own terms, so anyone who might be irritated by what he has to say doesn’t really register. The guy is even hard on himself, outright dismissing or barely even mentioning projects that he wasn’t happy with. (‘Wise Guys’ or ‘Mission to Mars’ fans hoping for big secrets can expect nothing.)
De Palma’s sarcastic sense of humor is on full display throughout, picking up during particularly troubled productions. The documentary has hilarious discussions of working with Cliff Robertson on ‘Obsession’ and how his orange perma-tan frustrated the cinematographer to no end. De Palma goes on rants about weird Hollywood politicking during his blockbuster days, like how he and Tom Cruise each had their own approved screenwriters on ‘Mission: Impossible’ working simultaneously, with the script constructed piecemeal in heated meetings. De Palma is all too happy to poke fun and prod as he does in his own work.
Oddly, co-directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach never delve into the often self-conscious, satirical, self-parodying humor peppered throughout De Palma’s filmography. Certain fans might find it frustrating that a number of topics like that never make it into the documentary. To be fair, so much does get covered that it’s hard to complain. You can’t have everything. Super-fans will get bizarre home movies from Steven Spielberg and the long lost ending to ‘Snake Eyes’. It’s not like the movie is devoid of fan-service. In fact, that’s pretty much all it is.
The doc likely won’t win over any new fans for the controversial filmmaker. It was made by folks who are already in the De Palma cult, and they make no concessions for outsiders. On the plus side, that means stories that have been told endlessly before aren’t lingered on. The greatest sequences from the filmmaker’s work prove the impact of De Palma’s career more than anything else. It’s hard not to consider him a worthy successor to Hitchcock when every stunning set-piece is laid out. The fact that ‘De Palma’ is so staunchly static beyond those sequences might even be a deliberate acknowledgment of his mastery of the form, with the professional filmmakers in charge of the doc unwilling to even attempt to try and match him.
If this project seems like a curious entry into Noah Baumbach’s filmography, listening to De Palma talk for two hours should clear that up. Brass, fiercely intelligent, bitterly funny, and completely unconcerned with what anyone thinks about him, Brian De Palma sure sounds like a typical Baumbach character. If he didn’t exist, Baumbach would have to invent him. The fact that De Palma is somehow not nearly as respected as his famous filmmaking friends from the 1970s only fits into Baumbach’s playbook. The director may be a genius, but he’s also an odd outcast in the corner of a room full of geniuses. If that’s not a Noah Baumbach character, what is?