DIR: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow • CAST: Brian De Palma
Earlier in the year saw the release of Hitchcock/Truffaut, a documentary adaptation of Francois Truffaut’s acclaimed book detailing his eight-day interview with legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. As both the interviewer and interviewee had since passed away, its director, Kent Jones, assembled filmmakers such as David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and James Gray to function as talking heads. Instead of Hitchcock explaining his movies, the audience had each director describing the influence the English auteur had upon them. Although, it was a terrific piece of work, the book on which it was based is far more interesting because it was Hitchcock himself speaking truthfully about his filmography, not someone else. What is great about Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s new documentary, De Palma, is that their subject is alive. Thus, the entirety of the film is just Brian De Palma describing frankly and candidly his films and the fascinating experiences he had making them.
For those who don’t know Brian De Palma is the master director behind classics such as Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way. Baumbach and Paltrow chart his evolution as a filmmaker, beginning with his student films and concluding with his most recent work. De Palma’s musings about each individual movie are then interspersed with the clips he is discussing.
Watching the documentary is like talking to a famous celebrity and having them confirm every strange rumour about the Hollywood film industry. It’s amazing to hear someone so successful and prominent in the studio system speak so openly. De Palma describes his difficulties on set with Orson Welles and John Cassavetes, the time he had to kick writer Oliver Stone off the set of Scarface and the clashes he had with the ratings board over Body Double and Scarface – all with reckless abandon.
Despite its simple structure, Baumbach and Paltrow manage to pack in a lot of information. De Palma rose to prominence at a very rare time in cinema history – during the New Hollywood movement. This was the brief period where art was given preference over financial returns, before businessmen took over the film industry once again (a time De Palma argues will never return). The movie finds time, amongst analysing its subject’s filmography, to touch upon the close-knit relationships between the various New Hollywood filmmakers. We see De Palma assisting Martin Scorsese in the editing of Mean Streets, George Lucas helping cast Carrie and Steven Spielberg wishing De Palma a happy birthday through home-video footage.
The most impressive aspect about the documentary is that it conveys, even to non De Palma fans, that the director is truly gifted at thinking cinematically. We are shown a scene from an early film made by De Palma and his theatre professor and mentor, Wilford Leach, entitled The Wedding Party. The two apparently had a falling out over how to shoot a scene where three characters are talking. Leach wanted a simple point and shoot long take while De Palma thought it was more visually pleasing to keep moving the camera and switching locations. We see both versions of the scene and the latter is much more appealing. Then, throughout the rest of documentary, clips from De Palma’s later output like Phantom of the Paradise, Blow Out and Carlito’s Way are shown. The audience realises while watching these that the director could make even a simple scene feel like it needed to be seen on the big screen.
I mentioned Hitchcock in the opening paragraph, not just because the documentary focusing on him is similar to this but, because De Palma was often critiqued for ripping off the English director’s style. Another advantage to having the American filmmaker as the sole talking head is that he can respond directly to his detractors. De Palma acknowledges that he is heavily influenced by Hitchcock but argues that the late director left a blueprint on how to make pure cinema and no one took note. He states: “I was the one practitioner who took up the things he pioneered and built them into different forms”.
De Palma is a rich documentary about one man, that also happens to be about cinema as a whole. Just to hear the director discuss his work and his influences, all while seeing his iconic scenes on the big screen once again make this essential viewing for cinephiles.
De Palma is released 7th October 2016