De Palma (2015)

Directed by Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow


De Palma was made through a series of long interviews with director Brian De Palma as he discusses his four or so decades as a filmmaker.  De Palma talks to director Noah Baumbach, though you never see any of the conversation, just the stories De Palma tells almost as if he was sharing those stories over a beer or two.

Brian De Palma is a fascinating figure, though I’m not sure his career is any more or less fascinating than any number of other directors who have been around as long as he has.  The picture presented through the ups and downs of his career seem to say more about the state of the movie industry than about De Palma in general.  As he says, a movie often faces criticism central to the time a movie is released, but that criticism may be forgotten ten, twenty or thirty years later.

Some of De Palma’s films are not remembered the same as they once were.  Though Carrie was an early and immediate hit, it has lived on in a way a cult movie would, much like Scarface which wasn’t successful at the time but which survived thanks to attention from the hip hop community.

When you remove the context of how each of his films performed, there really isn’t much separating De Palma’s failures and his successes.  He’s fascinated by the female form in a way many directors seem to be, he loves his movie violence, and he often pays homage to Hitchcock, even making a few films very similar to some of Hitchcock’s best, Obsession being the most notable example.

Brian De Palma has made 25 or so feature films, and he has made small movies as well as Hollywood blockbusters like Mission: Impossible.  In the interviews of this documentary, De Palma discusses the challenges and unique circumstances to each of these films.  He describes his frequent collaborators and the struggles of working within certain confines and with certain people like Tom Cruise or Robert De Niro or John Lithgow whom he constantly casts as a villain and isn’t sure why.

Raising Cain (1992) is a movie De Palma made as part of a conscious effort to get back to his roots following the relative failure of Bonfire of the Vanities.  In his recollection of the film, he discusses how all the filming locations were in his backyard, so to speak.  This was a movie that made it easier to be around his family, and he seems to remember it fondly for that reason.

He also remembers fondly the productions of movies like Mission: Impossible and Snake Eyes but less fondly productions like Mission to Mars or Obsession, the latter of which featured an aging movie star who actively tried to sabotage his younger co-star’s performance, at least from De Palma’s side of the story.

As a young filmmaker he directed a film with Orson Welles acting in it, and he recalls how difficult it was to wrangle the aging cinema star, particularly as a young filmmaker.  As a young filmmaker, De Palma was part of the group of directors that included Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Paul Schrader.  This was during the director’s revolution in which studios were giving money to young filmmakers with a vision.  De Palma believes there will never be a time quite as fruitful as that again.

As an older director working within the studio system, De Palma recounts the frustrations of dealing with studio executives and their series of notes.  As a filmmaker who features plenty of striking violence and female nudity, De Palma is used to the notes.

He’s a director with a distinct but challenging visual style.  This seems to have alienated him from certain big studios, but then De Palma will have the occasional mega hit, such as Carrie, which will allow him a long enough leash to work once more on a studio movie.  De Palma makes movies that the studio executives seem unable to get a read on.  No one imagined Carrie would be as successful as it was.

One of my favorite tidbits of information is that De Palma and George Lucas held joint casting sessions for Carrie and Star Wars (1977).  They would share actors, essentially cross-pollinating the movies, and Spielberg’s future wife, Amy Irving, would play an important role in the cast of Carrie.

Despite his long career and assorted successes, Brian De Palma is not revered, I believe, as much as a Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg or even George Lucas.  De Palma’s movies, I’d argue, are more consistently his movies.  They all seem born from his twisted mind, even the movies onto which he was a hired hand, like The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible.  De Palma has been faithful to his own absurd style, living with the challenges it presents to many new viewers who might see his work as uninviting and certainly a little off-putting.  But a movie like The Black Dahlia feels like it has been made with the same passion and manic energy as Obsession or Sisters.

Where other directors have migrated to bigger movies, going through a series of career changes, Brian De Palma remains as faithful to his cinematic worldview as ever before.  Maybe it’s because he hasn’t gotten an opportunity to direct a movie as big as one of the ones helmed by Scorsese or Spielberg or maybe it’s because he has no interest in working on a project that big.  But again, he’s worked on the occasional Mission: Impossible, but he always seems to return to smaller pictures where he has more control, whether that’s Snake Eyes or Body Double or Femme Fatale.

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