One camera sits unmoving, trained on Brian De Palma as he talks about his life and career. As he talks relevant clips from his films play. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary about the filmmaker, simply called De Palma, doesn’t use the kind of fancy camerawork or extreme visual storytelling style that its subject does, and maybe that’s just a stroke of genius.
By keeping it simple Baumbach and Paltrow allow De Palma’s work to stand out, to be blasts of cinema in an otherwise uncinematic documentary. Why compete with the master, when the master can provide you with all the action you need?
The doc itself is subtle; the filmmakers just let De Palma speak. Every now and again you’re reminded that he’s actually being asked questions off screen (and every now and again you’re reminded he’s speaking to peers - he occasionally talks about the kind of movies ‘you’ make, meaning Baumbach) but in general the effect is a direct one on one connection with De Palma. He’s just talking to you. It’s incredibly intimate.
As with any intimate conversation the revelations come in around the sides .The movie sets up De Palma’s early life and then jumps into his movies, which he would probably argue are his real life. While the filmmakers never seem to pursue questions about De Palma’s private life - his marriages and divorces - the information creeps in at the sides, inextricably linked to the making of the movies, and inextricably linked to the content of them as well. It replicates the experience of discovering a great filmmaker - finding the work and then diving deeper to discover the context of the work.
The work is great. Any movie that goes, film-by-film, through the De Palma oeuvre is going to be worth your time; having De Palma himself providing the commentary along the way makes it invaluable. Besides the personal insights (many of which, to be fair, dedicated De Palmists will already know) he offers funny asides, bizarre trivia and scathing anecdotes (Sean Penn dissing Michael J Fox on the set of Casualties of War by hissing ‘television actor’ at him may be a personal favorite). The problem is that many of the clips Baumbach and Paltrow have selected are spoiler heavy - they reveal the endings of a number of De Palma’s films, which are plot-oriented and thus susceptible to major spoilage.
That makes me wonder just who this movie is for. If you’re brand new to De Palma the doc might very well turn you on to one of the greatest and most underappreciated filmmakers of the 20th century, but at the same time it could be robbing you of the sublime pleasure of experiencing De Palma’s machinations for the first time. If you’re a die-hard De Palma guy you’ll find little in here that’s new, although you’ll enjoy the experience of spending time with De Palma. I almost think the target audience for this film is the middle crowd, the movie dorks who have written off De Palma based on a few of his later films and the memeification of the idea that he apes Hitchcock (a charge easily backed up by De Palma’s own words in this film). De Palma feels like an attempt to reposition the legacy of a great filmmaker, an attempt that’s already working as the great rep societies on the east and west coast are doing major De Palma retrospectives in the wake of the film’s release.
That makes De Palma a kind of work of cinematic activism; it’s a full-throated defense of a man whose work towers over so many of his peers and yet is so often casually dismissed. I like that De Palma allows the filmmaker to take completely ownership of all the things at which a snobby critic would roll their eyes - his love of genre, his approach to movies that starts with plot and comes to characters second, his kinks and quirks, his interest in photographing beautiful women, his status as a self-described disciple of Hitchcock. All of the things that have been used to attack De Palma are true, but that doesn’t make those things bad.
For the last few years it’s been frustrating to see how people write off De Palma, even going so far as to devalue his earlier works. I love that De Palma takes a defiant stand against that movement, and that it even goes so far as to embrace his lesser films. If all that ever comes out of De Palma is a reappreciation of Casualties of War, it will have been worth it, but I suspect that De Palma will do much more for the filmmaker’s status than that.