By Liz Casanova
Starring Brian De Palma
Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
Running time 1h 47min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Full Price
Spend a little under two hours listening to the underrated master Brian De Palma in the documentary De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. It's like having a front row seat to an elite, yet deliciously underground, film class.
The setup is simple. The only interview is De Palma. The film is stripped from the distractions of people from his world talking about what a genius he is. It runs the risk of going flat and lacking the texture of having different points of view of De Palma's work. But instead, it does the opposite. Why would we want to hear anyone else talk about the intricacies of his work? The documentary is infused with movie clips and photographs. But the one-sided conversation is riveting, proving that De Palma is also a talented oral storyteller.
De Palma reviews each body of work with striking honesty. He does not make excuses or hold back with filtered opinions. Nope. He gives brutal advice to anyone considering diving into filmmaking, often revealing the mistakes he has made. De Palma talks about his influences, most notably Alfred Hitchcock, and his love for the dying art of true visual storytelling.
De Palma's early work takes from the French New Wave, and his acceptance to the Sarah Lawrence College workshop granted him the opportunity to experiment. This was an era where he began to form lifelong partnerships, including meeting and discovering Robert De Niro. In fact, De Niro's first starring role in a feature film was De Palma's Greetings.
It gets better. After he finished at Sarah Lawrence College, De Palma went to California to hang out with the other giants (Spielberg, Copolla, Lucas, Stone and Scorsese).
What we did in our generation will never be duplicated.
De Palma further points out that it was a playground for filmmakers before the businessmen took over. It was during this time that he made films like Phantom of the Paradise, Sisters and Obsession. His first ten films were independently financed. And then he was offered the opportunity that made him a commercial success—Carrie.
It's fascinating to learn the back story of the more notable films like Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables, but it's the more independent and less commercially successful films that really reveal De Palma's artistic sensibilities and visual mastery. With Body Double, he totally went against Hollywood and, for starters, auditioned a porn star. That sent red flags to the Hollywood executives. He also angered women groups by including an extremely violent scene where a woman gets drilled to the floor. He points out that he never shows the woman getting drilled. And a lot of his films (especially the more violent ones) are shot that way, never revealing the act. But the reviews were good and that was the film that put actress Melanie Griffith on the map.
He stresses his desire to always find ways to make his films "visually exciting." His films are saturated with long sequences that are sometimes void of dialog. He likes his composers to have the space to musically contribute to the story. He gives the example of The Untouchables and how many of the scenes are continuous and without dialog.
De Palma also examines his more political films like Casualties of War starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. With this discussion there is an insight on how De Palma handles the talent. Apparently Fox and Penn were polar opposites of each other as far as personalities. Penn used that to his advantage to get under Fox's skin, which makes the tension between the two characters in the film real. It was an issue on the set of Carlito's Way (also co-starring Penn). The director advises that it's sometimes crucial to get the mechanics out of the way and let the actors do their thing.
Being a director is being a watcher. You have a lot of egos in the room. And you have to watch how they interact with each other. Your job as a director is to get the movie made. If you lose your temper, everything stops.
With the exception of Mission: Impossible, his later Hollywood films kind of tanked. And he got fed up with working within the confines of the studio system. For a filmmaker like De Palma, who creatively thrives on having control of his work, he needed a change and decided to stop making films in the US. He continues to create his visual masterpieces overseas, perhaps coming full circle combining his early French New Wave style with Hitchcockian flair.
De Palma is truly a compelling documentary and a requirement for anyone desiring to become a filmmaker, writer, actor or any other form of storyteller. Baumbach and Paltrow do an incredible job of drawing the essentials out of the filmmaker. There is absolutely no wasted information. He remarks on everything with a fresh perspective as well as a solid foundation that only someone who has been in the business, and survived it, many times over can have.