De Palma [2016] – An Insightful Documentary on a Film-Maker’s Passion and Obsessions

De Palma

People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing

                                                                                                                                                                                —  Director Brian De Palma

Of all the important, game-changing directors of the 1970s Hollywood – the ones who created a fresh level-playing field – William Friedkin and Brian De Palma were driven away to be the outcasts. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas didn’t turn out much after a decade of glorious works, but still they have an reputation as respectable artisans. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have risen to be legends, who are still involved with good projects. But, the uniqueness of De Palma and Friedkin in the ever-changing Hollywood landscape is often ignored. It is true that De Palma’s career arc wavered between lowest and highest points, unlike that of the consistent output by the other legendary directors from the era. However, the primary reason for De Palma’s outcast status is his maverick, sharply-focused film-making style which often provoked extreme reactions from the audiences of that period. While De Palma’s detractors would argue that there is no content in his films, the fans may argue that the extreme style is his content. While the director sees the reusing of Hitchcock’s visual tropes as a way of continuing a tradition, he is most often cited as a plagiarizer. Then of course, his on-screen portrayal of violence (especially against woman) has earned him the name ‘transgressor’. Nevertheless, when the controversial dusts have settled down, the operatic visuals of De Palma have gained enough respect.

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary “De Palma” (2016) is edited as a long monologue, where the director recalls his works, made in the five plus decade career, from a self-critical and rational viewpoint. The result is a 110 minute of pure bliss, laced with treasure trove of details. Film-makers Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”, “Frances Ha”) and Paltrow have had a healthy friendship with De Palma for the past decade or so. The three of them have spent a lot of time discussing about movies in general. And, way back in 2010 they got the idea of filming De Palma, talking specifically about his films. The two of them filmed De Palma for over a week (the director wore the same clothing) keeping a singular focus on their subject, acquiring some 30 to 40 hour footage. Since this is a documentary about a film-maker made by film-makers, the entry point was chosen to be the director’s films rather than weaving a broader biographical picture. The lack of different talking heads or the sole focus on a film-maker’s chronological account, playing for nearly 2 hours, could have made the documentary a bit tiring. But, thanks to De Palma’s casual manner at dissecting his films and the fiery passion between the words, we seem to crave for extra running time and more revelations.

De Palma with directors Jake Paltrow (left) and Noah Baumbach (right)

This one long interview is generously filled with clips and montages from the director’s movies. Both Baumbach and Paltrow don’t use any fancy ways to convey the beauty of De Palma’s craft. They just give full space to the director himself to draw excellent insights. The way he defends the fondness for making his brand of cinema or the way he draws deep connection between his craft and life or the amiable manner with which he confesses cornucopia of inside information (about Hollywood) makes the documentary a must-watch for aspiring film-makers and movie-lovers. Not one moment of Brian De Palma’s long career goes unaddressed. De Palma discusses each work in his filmography in the chronological order, before divulging economical details about his family and early life. He starts with his film student experiences, his first short and tells how he casted a young Robert De Niro for his first feature “The Wedding Party” (made in 1963, released in 1968). It is in those days he started exploring the split-screen technique, which later became one of De Palma’s trademark signatures.

As one could expect, films like “Sisters”, “Carrie”, “Obssession”, “Blow Out”, “Dressed to Kill”, “Scarface”, “The Untouchables”, “Carlito’s Way”, and “Mission Impossible” gets more attention than the other works. But, De Palma doesn’t forget to use precise, very self-critical language to dissect what went wrong with the duds like “Body Double”, “Snake Eyes”, and “Black Dahlia”. The stories and insights he gives away about his films dealing with themes of obsession are pure gold. He is so sharp in explaining why he thought the split-screen technique was relevant for “Sisters” and how it didn’t work out for “Carrie”. You could feel how much he enjoys citing the reasons for failures of other directors, trying to make an adaptation of “Carrie”. While “Scarface” has a huge following now, it was surprising to hear the film’s status during its release. More fascinating is the behind-the-screen revelation of how De Palma grabbed up “Scarface” from Sidney Lumet, the same way Lumet grabbed De Palma’s passion project “Prince of the City”. The most precious nuggets of information in the documentary is De Palma’s brief account stating the little ways he contributed to the eponymous works, made by his friends Scorsese and Lucas’. The conflicts with “Scarface” script writer Oliver Stone, Orson Welles (in “Get to know your Rabbit”), Cliff Robertson’s sabotaging performance in “Obsession”, the never-ending struggles with studio-heads imparts small percent of turbulence in what must be a career of controversies and confrontations.

Brian De Palma doesn’t just dives headlong into his projects, explaining the mechanisms or giving out some intriguing tidbits. He is able to derive something out of those good or bad experiences and paraphrases it perfectly in the documentary so as to make it as the ‘essential lessons in film-making’. For example, he is absolutely right about the pre-visualization techniques of present-day Hollywood and why those big-budget action films are only churning out uninteresting visual cliches. In other different occasions, we could hear his clear perception on bring the best out of movie editing, musical score, and acting (“We got to get all the mechanics of this movie-making out of the way so the actors can act….. Being a director is being a watcher, in a sense that you have lot of egos in the room and you have to sort of watch how they interact with each other”). There are interesting, brief stories about De Palma’s collaborations with legendary composers Ennio Morricone, Herrmann Donaggio and the legendary DP Vilmos Zsigmond. He also makes this frequent connection between his craft and personal life. For example, De Palma states that the voyeuristic nature of his characters was derived from his own personal experience of following his dad and secretly photographing his affairs.  While contemplating about the extreme violence in his films, the director says the bloodletting element was because he often spent time in operating rooms (since his father was an orthopedic surgeon). Although, De Palma makes minimal autobiographical notes, like the mention of odd familial clashes and divorces, those disclosed, little personal information seem to have had a part in De Palma’s ups and downs.

From a formalistic point of view, “De Palma” (110 minutes) hasn’t got much to talk about, but it definitely does the essential job of inciting interest in the film-maker’s works. De Palma through his eloquent style of speech doesn’t try to pronounce the importance of his works or attempts to answer the accusations he received. He just talks about his unbridled love for cinema, which could be related by cinephiles all around the world (not just ‘De Palma’ fans).


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