Movie Review: De Palma
Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow offer a Brian De Palma appreciation course via a talking head documentary that delves into the director’s early days as an avant-garde artiste and his eventual slide into the Tinseltown tar pit
Starring: Brian De Palma
Directed by: Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach
Running time: 1hr 47mins
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
“Poor Orson Welles: The greatest film director of all-time is being dissed by Brian De Palma.”
That’s all I could think as I sat, slack-jawed, watching Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s one-shot portrait of the man behind Scarface and Carrie, as well as Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars.
“Orson Welles was having a hard time with the lines,” says De Palma referring to his ill-fated outing with Tommy Smothers and the noted auteur on 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit. His brush of blame goes on, and it’s big enough to whitewash every one of his box-office failures as someone else’s inadequacy.
It’s all a little small and petty at times for a guy who’s directed Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. By all measures, he’s made it. Yet De Palma’s rosy round face carries a hint of garden-troll darkness, an itch of bitterness that never quite blisters into a boil, but seethes beneath the skin all the same.
It’s the kind of thing an obsessive would pick at, which may tell us something about the directorial tag-team. Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) and Paltrow (Young Ones, The Good Night) are both young directors who were influenced by De Palma’s work, and you can feel the fan worship through the camera.
When De Palma talks about Carrie, and his decision to cast Sissy Spacek because she was the production designer’s (Jack Fisk’s) girlfriend, you feel like you just dropped in on a casual lunch at the Ivy.
These are the kinds of stories that make the movie, like De Palma’s own oeuvre, something of a guilty pleasure. There’s a gossipy, back-stabby sentiment lurking somewhere just off-camera, an ugly face that De Palma’s ego refuses to reveal in his bid to satisfy the curiosity of his apparent disciples.
He dances around his cinematic disasters and waxes on about his successes, including the iconic Bruce Springsteen video that the launched the career of a young Courteney Cox. Even the schlock gets revised as cutting edge, with De Palma pulling Snake Eyes and The Black Dahlia out of the dumpster and polishing them up as under-unappreciated gems.
Like everything in De Palma, you have to take it at face value because there is no other voice intruding in this personal reverie. Paltrow and Baumbach point the camera at De Palma and no one else. And judging by the lighting and the clothes, they only got him to sit down for a single session.
As a result, this is not a probing piece of documentary but a self-conscious piece of self-promotion on De Palma’s part – which actually makes it better, because in the semi-desperation that seeps into the frame, we get a taste of Hollywood’s weird passive-aggressive means of communication.
A toothless grin hides an unexpressed expletive and “it didn’t work out” means it was a disaster. De Palma speaks this creepy tongue better than anyone because he’s been around artifice for so long, he’s become a living example of Tinseltown Darwinism.
Emerging from the mud puddle of the American New Wave alongside Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the most interesting phase of De Palma’s career was the very beginning, when he made the decision to turn his back on a career in applied physics and enrolled in theatre at Sarah Lawrence University, a women’s college that had just opened its doors to men.
It was during this time that De Palma was unapologetically political, spurting leftie views in hipster fashion. It was also when he discovered a young Robert De Niro, casting him in several of his earlier, avant-garde efforts such as The Wedding Party and Hi, Mom!
Though written about in film history books a few times over, this particular chapter in American cinema is relatively unknown. Listening to De Palma talk about being in the midst of a movement is where you can feel the gossamer threads of real soul instead of De Palma’s self-plucked symphony on two strings.
The director ends up on a pedestal. American film gets its own plinth. But Brian De Palma — the man – remains a nicely painted façade, a propped-up face without depth or feeling.
The movie brushes up against his failed marriages, his dynamics with the studios, his tendency for misogynistic violence and graphic sexuality, but it has no desire to undo the De Palma zipper to show the real man.
Like one of De Palma’s own creations, it roams the locker room of the American psyche with a wet towel and a desire to prove itself. It makes an impression, but never feels all that intimate or honest. It’s a portrait painted on black velvet: lots of texture, but no depth.
De Palma is open in select North American markets now, and will open in other markets over the summer. Beginning July 1, the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver will feature De Palma as part of its De Palma retrospective that includes little-seen reels such as Sisters, Phantom of Paradise, Femme Fatale and his latest feature, Passion.
THE EX-PRESS, June 30, 2016