Movies We Like
American director Brian De Palma has a long and often controversial filmography. He started out doing counterculture social satires but found his true calling as cinema’s foremost Hitchcock imitator and made a name for himself with his generous use of fake blood and topless women in danger. In the beginning he was often associated with his pals the movie brats (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, etc.) who stormed the gates of Hollywood and took advantage of the brief period in the '70s between the era of the studio system and corporate conglomeration, when directors ruled with more personal projects. While many of his peers dominated the awards and critics' lists, De Palma was more of a B-movie director who well into the blockbuster '80s had a hit-and-miss record, which in retrospect, is at least always interesting. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow create the perfect tribute with their endlessly fascinating documentary De Palma: no talking heads, just the always-bearded director discussing each film, year-by-year with plenty of clips to accompany him.
De Palma began his career in academia and on the fringes, a true independent director, doing unfunny comedies. His peak of unfunniness came with his first studio picture, the horrible Tommy Smothers vehicle Get to Know Your Rabbit. It bombed and De Palma reinvented himself with the bizarre cult musical Phantom of the Paradise and the very Hitchcockian thriller Sisters (which still stands up today, for me, as maybe his best film). Its mild acclaim and success got him a chance to direct the high profile adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. The film was a smash and De Palma became a brand name. He has had some hits: Dressed to Kill, Scarface (which mostly found its audience later via cable and videotape), The Untouchables and Mission Impossible (more a Tom Cruise production than a De Palma joint). He made a pretty good movie, Carlito’s Way (mostly memorable because of Sean Penn’s brilliant performance as Al Pacino’s coked-out lawyer), but most of his other films have ranged from forgettable to not very good.
De Palma the movie is all De Palma gabbing away and he’s mostly pretty honest, though he poo-poos criticism of his film’s misogyny, strangely explaining the violence in his films towards women as some kind of heroic act inspired by the mistreatment his brother endured as a child while he protected him. More fun is his usually candid assessment of his movie misfires; he’s bewildered as to why his Vietnam flick Casualties of War was received lukewarmly (he thinks it's his masterpiece) but he does acknowledge that The Bonfire of The Vanities is as bad as you’ve heard it is (I’m assuming you have wisely not seen it). He has all kinds of backstage dirt on his collaborators. Actor Cliff Robertson was horrible to work with on Obsession; cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond complained of trying to light his overly tan face. The legendary composer Bernard Herrmann was a grouch but still a genius. Screen writer Oliver Stone had to be kicked off the Scarface set for trying to direct the actors. Robert De Niro didn’t learn his lines on The Untouchables. And Sean Penn often was overly method-y.
Baumbach and Paltrow have found the perfect format for the study of a director’s work. You don’t have to be a fan of De Palma to appreciate the documentary. And because he’s so articulate about his movies and the business of film, it would be hard not to fall under the spell of his dark enthusiasm. I would love to see the directors move on to other directors using the format. Imagine Martin Scorsese chewing over his filmography with all those great clips or even someone less obvious like a John Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur, etc) or William Friedkin (The French Connection, Sorcerer). De Palma the film will easily join the ranks of other director documentaries that have become required viewing for anyone serious about film history, a list that might include films like Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey and Woody Allen: A Documentary. All of these are excellent but they deal with legends whose resumes are loaded with classics (though Allen’s contributions in the last twenty years has become mostly all misfires). De Palma’s history is more challenging and less full of great films but in some ways it makes him more interesting. Therefore, the documentary is more precise and De Palma’s explanations more welcome.