Brian De Palma speaks his mind with the tenacity of a termed-out POTUS conducting a brazen farewell tour. He doesn't care about glamorizing the past, only reveling in its absurdity, beauty and horror. Throughout Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's intoxicating documentary De Palma, the gregarious director speaks candidly about his life and professional career, warts and all. By confronting both successes and failures head on, he humanizes the auteur theory in a new way.
Fittingly, the film begins with De Palma's first recollection of Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's demented classic about a police detective slowly ripped apart by memory, obsession and warped sexuality. The director "creates beautiful illusions and then kills them," De Palma confesses with glee, describing in one sentence why Hitchcock's work has made such a profound impact on his own.
Being educated in a Quaker school forced De Palma to think about the moral aspects of life early on. Women fascinated him, as did watching them, something he readily admits. While attending Columbia University he was introduced to the French New Wave at Amos Vogel's Cinema 16, which further subverted his understanding of perspective. Originally majoring in physics and math, De Palma quickly became immersed in the history of film, and artistically concerned with the manipulation of directing, or "telling the audience what to look at."
De Palma functions in much the same way, but instead of focusing only on the director's patented thematic and stylistic motifs, it calls attention to the patterns of its subject's personality. Remembering the filmmaking process matters most to De Palma. He recollects specific details as if they occurred yesterday: the difficulties with Orson Welles forgetting dialogue on the set of 1972's Get to Know Your Rabbit, Cliff Robertson's diva-like attitude during the shooting of 1976's Obsession, and the creative scuffles that led to his Miami/Cuban version of Scarface.
Juxtaposing behind-the-scenes anecdotes, ruminations and jabs with bravura film clips from his entire career, Baumbach and Paltrow cleverly demystify the process of collaboration. Also, they pinpoint dirty little secrets of film history that elevate the work itself. Long chastised for presenting brutal violence against women, De Palma discusses these controversies with the ratings board and unhappy studio executives. "My movies tend to upset people a lot," he says laughingly, still genuinely surprised that people would interpret his films as gratuitous or sadistic.
De Palma admits early and often that his films are a representation of how he sees the world. Masterpieces such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Causalities of War (1989) and Carlito's Way (1993) transcend genre to explore the helplessness we feel in the modern age. They are cynical and divisive works that never shy away from their ugliness and beauty. While voyeurism influences much of De Palma's style in his entire career ("being a director is being a watcher" after all), the smooth long takes and hazy split diopter shots that have made him famous are constructed to express the opposite of control. We're essentially watching our own deaths.
Acting like a requiem, De Palma, which opens Friday, June 17, provides a pulpit for one of mainstream cinema's greatest artists to express his frustration with the system he helped create. "The values of Hollywood are at odds with what make good movies," De Palma says, further lamenting the industry takeover by businessmen who care little for the medium's mystery and potential.
One of the key figures in the 1970s New Hollywood, De Palma reminisces about his friendship with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, who each found success within the Hollywood machine. De Palma rarely did, and his outsider status can be felt in every ornery word. Refusing to adhere to the status quo defines the identity of both De Palma and De Palma. The man and the movie are bastions of a time when art and commerce weren't mutually exclusive, and film history was made at night with reckless abandon.