Hot Docs 2016 Review: De Palma


Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s feature length interview could have easily been called “De Palma on De Palma.” It features prolific director Brian De Palma, now in his late sixties, in front of a blueish coloured fireplace mantle for its entire duration as the man, in his own casual way, walks through his filmography in order. He offers stories and offers opinions, slags a few people and ideas, and expresses varied regrets, bon mots and tangents along the way.

The experience is delightfully simple, involving cutting away to film clips to underscore what is being discussed, with the editing offering only an occasional hint that there are two younger indie directors on the other side of the camera.

De Palma’s 40 year career, from shoe-string indie pictures to Hollywood blockbusters. De Palma discovered Robert De Niro in college (and made the noteworthy pre-cursor to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Hi Mom! in 1970 – it is noteworthy in that Hi Mom! is quite excellent! In his twenties he directed a late career, quite addled, Orson Welles along with a cantankerous Tommy Smothers in a film called Get To Know Your Rabbit and would go on to direct a slew of movies both big and small with many of the biggest actors of the day: Sissy Spacek, Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Travolta, Melanie Griffith, Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Kirk Douglas, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, Tom Cruise, and a music video with The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen (yes, that music video, so you can thank De Palma or blame him for giving to the world, Courtney Cox.)

I don’t believe a lengthy review of this documentary is entirely necessary, as De Palma is a blunt man who does not mince words. Perhaps Hollywood’s most significant acolyte of Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma makes no bones about borrowing from the ‘Master of Suspense’ at every turn: from the macguffin concept, to doubles, lurid voyeurism, and a fascination with the ‘bomb that is about to go off’ style of storytelling. De Palma has always taken shots he loves (the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin for instance) and tried to build on them in modern stylish ways. It is no surprise that in kind, Quentin Tarantino happily and regularly pilfers from De Palma in a similar fashion. It is the nature of cinema, of art itself really. De Palma just did it with a bit more blood and sleaze and split screens.

As a pretty big Brian De Palma fan (albeit, not as big as one which Pauline Kael was) the two big takeaways I gathered from this documentary were his deep abiding respect for composers and his flat out acceptance of his failures, in particular Mission to Mars and Bonfire of the Vanities. De Palma started his career working with the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, famous for all those iconic Hitchcock pictures, but if you need a further reminder how young an artform cinema is, Herrmann also scored Citizen Kane. He speaks at length on how intimidating working with one of his heroes, but also of the difficulty to acclimatize to other cinematographers after Herrmann passed on in 1975, mere hours after conducting the score for Taxi Driver. Because of those long ‘bomb not going off’ stretches in De Palma’s work, the composer has an elevated role for the director. And he went on to work with many great composers including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ennio Morricone and Pino Donaggio, who scored Nic Roeg’s magnificent Don’t Look Now; a film that could easily have been grist for De Palma had that film come along a decade later.

One gets the sense from watching this documentary that De Palma is a no-nonsense kind of old-school guy, that calls it as he sees it, even if it occasionally gets him fired, blacklisted (or divorced). His ego is on display, but it makes him also modestly human. He guffaws at all the remakes of Carrie, and how his specific changes often work better than directly following the novel (on Steven King, see also, The Shining but he is also rather circumspect in how much his own Blow Out ‘borrows’ from Blow Up, saying he had Hitchcock on the brain, not Antonioni. His experiences with green screen and the modern special effects blockbuster, particularly Mission Impossible and Mission to Mars, show a man far more comfortable working in camera than in computer.

Perhaps the biggest insight of the film is a one-off comment that films are criticized against the fashion of the day. De Palma was perhaps the most loosey-goosey of all the 1970s movie brat generation (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas and Friedkin), both experimentalist and slave to history. At the moment, in my circle of film pals, he remains kind of a love him – hate him type of director. Who knows how (or even if) his work will be regarded 50 years from now, but De Palma is a document worth preserving, and a far more lively affair than the other documentary on his idol, Truffaut/Hitchcock.