For almost 50 years, filmmaker Brian De Palma has carved out his own signature style of sensationalism that has led to commercial hits (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), critical duds (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia) and others that found success further down the road (Scarface, Carlito’s Way). No matter what kind of movie he’s making, there’s never a doubt that everything he wants you to react to is right there on the screen. This kind of visceral approach can be thrilling in the moment and in De Palma’s case, produce some classic cinematic sequences but it doesn’t always leave much for the audience to look for under the surface.
Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow seem to have lifted this ethic from their subject when making their new documentary De Palma about the director’s life and career. During their two-hour interview in which each of his films are discussed at varying lengths, there are plenty of great on-set anecdotes and enlightening bits of commentary about the film industry but not enough glimpses of introspection that might give us insight to his way of thinking. The end result is something a bit more shallow and matter-of-fact than it could have been but still worthwhile for those interested in digging into De Palma’s filmography.
Anyone familiar with his work can tell you how inspired he is by Alfred Hitchcock and I admired how Baumbach and Paltrow framed De Palma’s guiding principle of cinema as voyeurism from his first viewing of Vertigo in 1958. The act of “spying” as it correlates to an audience watching a movie is covered most clearly in Rear Window but De Palma argues that the subtext of Vertigo is just as relevant to how people consume films. Much in the way that Scottie works to transform Judy into his idolized image of “Madeleine”, we seek meaning in the characters that are presented to us by projecting our own experiences and values onto them, whether they truly apply or not.
After this introductory analysis and some biographical notes about his early life, the film then goes through the movies that De Palma has made through the years and some summarizing thoughts from the director on each work. Rather than making this a traditional talking head documentary with opinions from others on his work, the form is kept more candid and personal by allowing De Palma to talk through his own experiences with each project. However, it does make me wonder if some outside perspective could have allowed the filmmakers to dive deeper into the thematic strands of his work, as there isn’t as much connecting tissue between his films as I would have liked to have seen.
I confess I haven’t seen of the majority of the 25+ films covered in this documentary (Blow Out piqued my interest more than any other) but after seeing all of these clips together in one sitting, I’m eager to visit and re-visit the director’s work. De Palma may not be a “consensus” filmmaker but his divisiveness is clearly an integral part of what’s kept him around all of these years. It’s fitting, then, that I may have a mixed opinion on De Palma the documentary as I do De Palma the movie maker.