As a documentary, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s “De Palma” is about as plain-wrap as it gets: Set your subject in front of a camera — in this case movie director Brian De Palma — let him talk about his work and then splice in as many clips from his movies and those that influenced his career as you can.
That’s it. No discussion between the filmmakers (directors themselves obviously) and subject about their mutual craft; no analysis by another talking head of his works; and no, or very little, contextualization of his films down through the years and many trends and fixations of the American cinema.
Still, if you’re interested at all in one of the more remarkable directorial careers in American films, “De Palma” is for you.
On the other hand, if your interest is mild or non-existent, best to steer clear.
De Palma was a great divider. Critics were always split about his films when they came out (although some revised their original sentiments later). Pauline Kael might as well have been his publicist she was so enthusiastic. Many others including Andrew Sarris thought he stole too much from Hitchcock.
Audiences too were divided, favoring sometimes lesser works and ignoring better ones such as “Casualties of War.” And sometimes opinions shifted drastically, which is what happened when the hip-hop generation discovered “Scarface.”
One great photograph unearthed by the filmmakers is a group portrait of the so-called “Movie Brats” of the early ‘70s — De Palma, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola sitting around a table and grinning at the camera. The photo serves to remind viewers that of this group De Palma has been perhaps the most neglected in recent critical discourse.
Unfairly so, in fact. If you think about it, De Palma arguably directed more good films than Coppola (note I did not say great films) and certainly many more than Lucas, who became a producer and entrepreneur. (Many of us, in fact, wish he had never returned to the role of director.)
De Palma is surprisingly candid in his assessment of his own work. He has a strong critical eye and a refreshing lack of conceit; he knows what works and what doesn’t in his own films.
He can chuckle about the many remakes and subsequent adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” the horror film that became his great breakthrough, where everyone else made the mistakes he so carefully avoided.
But he can also say, to my great joy, that “The Fury” is “not one of my favorite films by a long shot.” I say joy because I remember reading with a slack jaw Kael’s rapturous review of that film, where the New Yorker critic mistook promotionalism for criticism: did we see the same film? Apparently, De Palma and I at least saw the same film.
As for his most high-profile failure, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” he admits that he had no way to faithfully adapt the Tom Wolfe novel given the dictates of the studio system. What he doesn’t say is why he undertook such a project in the first place.
There’s plenty of Inside Baseball gossip here too for the cineaste: How unprofessional Cliff Robertson acted on the set of “Obsession.” How Sissy Spacek, who painted sets on his “Phantom of the Paradise,” was not under consideration for “Carrie” until her audition. And how hostile Sean Penn acted toward Michael J. Fox on “Casualties of War.”
There is discussion but no real analysis of his undeniable misogyny. He shrugs off the continual violence toward women in his films as, in each case, being appropriate for the material at hand, a weak defense to be sure.
Similarly, there are only casual references to his failed marriages but then, one could argue, this is not a memoir but an examination of a career in film.
What one might have liked, however, is a real Truffaut/Hitchcock discussion between De Palma and his interviewers. Clearly, they asked him questions to elicit these reminiscences and occasionally you hear him reference their films. But their voices are edited, sometimes clumsily, off the soundtrack.
I was also surprised, and this too may be a matter of editing, how he praised some collaborators, several composers and a few production designers, but failed to mention cinematographer Stephen Burum, with whom he made seven of his pictures including “Carlito’s Way,” “The Untouchables” and “Casualties of War.”
For the camera is at the heart of De Palma’s cinema. How the camera moves and how sets are lit make all the difference in many of his films especially in his complex action sequences and Hitchcock homages such as “Dressed to Kill” and “Obsession.”
One added note: Film festivals are swarmed by directors hawking their latest opus or looking for their next project. De Palma alone goes to film festivals to see films. I have often seen him at international festivals, his badge on and program in hand, ducking in and out of cinemas to catch movies by known and unknown directors, unnoticed by nearly all moviegoers.
He knows his movie history and his appreciation of fellow filmmakers is enormous. So Brian De Palma very much deserves this in-person doc and the retrospectives of his films currently taking place around the country.
Opens: June 10, 2016 (A24)
Production company: Empire Ward Productions
Director-producers-camera: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush
Editors: Matt Mayer, Lauren Minnerath
R rating, 107 minutes.