When it comes to interviews, filmmaker Brian De Palma always seems rather remote or looks like he would rather be somewhere else. In an interview about “Redacted,” he flat out told the interviewer he was simply there to sell his movie, and the interviewer replied perhaps De Palma was enjoying his company. To this De Palma replied, “I don’t think so.” So aside from him crushing the interviewer’s ego, his reply illustrates how uncomfortable he gets when talking about his movies. Perhaps this is why he has never done an audio commentary on any of them to date.
But this is the real joy of watching the documentary “De Palma” as he seems more than willing to spill the beans about his life and the inspirations behind his work. It also helps that it was directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, filmmakers De Palma has been friendly with for several years. Whether he’s talking about his greatest works like “Carrie” and “Scarface” or facing up to his critical and commercial disasters like “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the revered filmmaker holds nothing back as he discusses each of them with a sense of humor which shows how he’s dealt with the movie industry and the way it has treated him over the years.
Now De Palma has often been accused of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock, and the documentary does start off with scenes from “Vertigo,” a movie now considered to be the greatest ever made. De Palma said he was so compelled by “Vertigo,” and we can see how this particular Hitchcock film influenced much of his work. However, the documentary gives us a deep overview of his films and how he drew inspiration from other filmmakers like Jean-Luc Goddard. He also explains the purpose of using split screen as it allows the audience to put everything together for themselves.
One of the real treats of “De Palma” is how it looks at the director’s upbringing, something we haven’t heard much about in the past. He never had much of a relationship with his dad, he says, who was an orthopedic surgeon which had him growing up around a lot of blood. This certainly explains why blood has played a big part in his movies whether it’s the prom scene in “Carrie” or the chainsaw scene in “Scarface.” We also get to see actor Robert De Niro, who appeared in De Palma’s movies “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom,” at the start of his career long before he played Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”
From there, we get to view his movies in chronological order and of how his work as a filmmaker evolved from one decade to the next. Now granted, this might make certain viewers a little impatient as they might want to skip ahead to his stories about “The Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Untouchables,” but it’s sitting through the others before them that shows De Palma’s evolution as a filmmaker and how he managed to pull so much off despite intense pressure from studio executives and the MPAA.
Looking at these descriptions, “De Palma” may sound like just another talking head documentary. In a way it is, but to dismiss it as such would be unfair. De Palma is such an interesting guy on top of being a brilliant filmmaker, and I loved how he looks back at his triumphs and struggles with an almost gleeful sense of humor. He has been through a lot of heartbreak and struggles throughout his life, and it’s kind of a relief to see him laugh at some of the darker moments he was forced to endure.
What both Baumbach and Paltrow have pulled off is more than just the average documentary on a filmmaker you often see on cable. They present us with something which feels more like a friendly conversation with someone who is not always so open, and it’s a real pleasure to sit back and hear him talk. At the same time, “De Palma” also provides us with a look back at the great filmmaking period that was the 1970’s and how that period will never be repeated again. Then again, I have no issue with people proving me wrong there.
But perhaps most importantly, “De Palma” shows us a filmmaker who managed to stay true to his own voice despite working in a business which, as he puts it, makes you lose your own way. Even as he began working with bigger budgets and movie stars, he still tried to stay true to what he wanted to accomplish, and you come out of this documentary admiring him for that. And unlike other filmmakers who were stubbornly resistant to changes in technology, he was quick to utilize them whether it was high definition filmmaking in “Redacted” or the advent of music videos in “Body Double.”
There are many surprises and interesting bits of trivia to be found throughout “De Palma,” and I would rather you discover them for yourselves. What I can tell you is that this is one of the best movies, let alone documentaries, I have seen so far in 2016. It is infinitely interesting and a must for movie buffs and aspiring filmmakers. Whether he intended to or not, Brian De Palma has provided us with a master class in directing many would be smart to watch as the movie business is one which can tear an auteur’s vision apart out of fear or for the sake of profit. But here’s a man who, for better or worse, has done things his own way and continues to do so from one movie to the next.
And while it may be wishful thinking, here’s hoping it will give studio executives enough of a reason NOT to remake “Scarface.” We’ve already seen what others have done to “Carrie” for crying out loud.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.