As a director, once you get to the point of your career that two younger directors approach you to make a retrospective documentary about your long list of films, you have truly hit that icon status in a new way. This is definitely true of filmmaker Brian De Palma, who’s feature film career started in 1968 and spans twenty-nine films, influencing many different directors along the way, including the two that put this documentary together, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. If you love film-centric documentaries like I do then this look at Brian De Palma taking an honest perspective of his work will definitely satisfy that cinephile hunger.
One thing that completely slipped my mind was that De Palma was part of the group sometimes called the post-modern auteurs alongside Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steve Spielberg and George Lucas. Combined, this group of legendary filmmakers amassed nine Academy Awards just with Scorcese, Spielberg and Coppola and four nominations for George Lucas. De Palma seems to be the lowest man on the totem, not having received a single nod but no matter how bad some of his movies were, and the were really terrible, he had some amazing accomplishments on film that should never be forgotten.
The film goes through Brian De Palma’s life chronologically from his Pennsylvania upbringing and Quaker school education to building computers in high school, we see the beginnings of young tinkerer before the medium starts to inspire him. It wasn’t until he was studying physics at Columbia University that he would come across Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo that he would be put on the path that would lead to him doing a similar film in 1976 called Obsession, one that would also anger Hitch himself. From that starting point of wanting to make films, De Palma would make seven independent features, the majority featuring the young and then unknown Robert DeNiro. These would precede his first hit in 1973, Sisters.
Avant-garde films that defied everything would become a sort of bread and butter for Brian De Palma as he would go on to make an odd film like Phantom of the Paradise, which is just sort of appreciated now. Then would be a big one, with the adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, his first mainstream successful film that is still talked about to this day. As the film starts to chronicle his films past that release, it’s apparent that De Palma’s successes were hugely notable, like Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way and Mission Impossible, while there are a lot that got left behind and many that I haven’t seen myself.
There are so many underrated gems in Brian De Palma’s filmography like Blow Out and Dressed To Kill, which both find themselves part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, the later even tackling the transgendered subject, far ahead of its time. He also proved to be a filmmaker willing to take on producers and studios in order to get his own way, such as in a film like Body Double, where he tries to get a working porn star as the film’s lead. He later had the actress mentor the film’s hired lead, the new it girl Melanie Griffith. Whether a film turned out or not, the unwavering resolve of Brian De Palma gets the proper acknowledgment in this documentary and should be inspiring for any artist now, especially in these times where we seem to bend and break under the pressure of those who control the most power.
Brian De Palma talks freely about clashes he’s had with everyone but notably the onset problems with actors such as Cliff Robertson getting so jealous of his female co-star that he would sabotage her or Sean Penn forming an actor’s club and leaving his Casualties Of War adversary Michael J. Fox as a lone outsider. These insights into his style of filmmaking plus playing mediator between two staunchly opposed sides gives a side to the industry that isn’t always something that gets the spotlight. These are the juicy tidbits in these kinds of documentaries that I just love to learn about.
It’s hard to ignore De Palma’s deplorably awful films, most definitely any film that came after Mission Impossible in 1996 and even that film gets more hate than it deserves. I will also concede that if you ignore a few things in Snake Eyes, the film is actually an enjoyable Nicolas Cage mystery that blends both De Palma’s developed intrigue techniques and Cage’s over the top acting. Beyond that, it’s all crap. Mission To Mars had me screaming at the famed director with his obvious lifting of everything Stanley Kubrick, a well he had not previously mined before. Then he made the sexy thriller Femme Fatale, which was totally forgettable and The Black Dahlia was an almost incoherent mess of a film. Since those, Brian De Palma has only made two films, neither getting any notice and both suffering from middling to low score reviews. It’s sad to say that the director’s last good work is twenty years back in the rearview window.
As far as this genre of documentary goes, it’s as satisfying as a well-buttered bucket of popcorn at the movie theaters. It reminds us where inspiration comes from, the longevity that can come from being loyal to friends and co-workers and legends can still thrive when the count of good films are lower than the bad ones. I have found myself on either side with Brian De Palma yet I still am entirely compelled to be immersed in the films that I haven’t taken in yet. Will I be totally changed in my opinion of the man once I finally see The Phantom Of The Paradise or Body Double? Maybe, but I feel that this documentary gave me a clearer understanding of the man himself and what he thinks about the works that he crafted. I give De Palma a five out of five.