De Palma”: sanguine cinematic self-surgery
directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
running time: 111 minutes
By Bill Stamets
Director Brian De Palma tells his story, film by film, in “De Palma.” Co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, this appealing documentary delivers a lengthy memoir illustrated with clips from 31 works by the 75-year-old auteur. From his 1960 short “Woton’s Wake” to 2012’s “Passion.”
Twenty-five other films are sampled, as well. The insightful editing sets up lineages of images.
Most of the auteur’s making-of anecdotes focus on “Blow Out,” “Body Double,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Carrie, “Dressed to Kill,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Scarface,” “Sisters” and “The Untouchables.” De Palma indulges in little whining about his setbacks and boasting about his hits. Setting-the-record straight and settling scores are done In a good-natured way. Gossip about his own missteps makes for good stories.
De Palma’s admiring chroniclers ably condense over 30 hours shot in 2010. During the one week shoot, De Palma’s outfit and backdrop stay the same. Paltrow has said it all started as a digital camera test in his apartment, with Baumbach handling the sound. “De Palma” reprises material from many Thursday night dinners the threesome shared over the years.
“We always saw the film as a conversation with our friend … who also happens to be Brian De Palma” (ellipsis in original), says Baumbach in press notes from distributor A24. For their first non-fiction effort, Baumbach (“Frances Ha,” “Greenberg,” “Kicking and Screaming,” “Mistress America,” “The Squid and the Whale”) and Paltrow (“The Good Night” and “Young Ones”) offer far more than a feature-length extra for a retrospective Blu-ray box set.
Baumbach sounds defensive when noting: “The film is not a work of investigative journalism. Our interest was to take Brian at his word– the film is structured to his words.” Besides not recording their own off-camera voices, the directors bring no other words into their film by interviewing critics, historians or industry insiders.
Nor do Baumbach and Paltrow look through old newspapers for items like “Ideas For First Film Promising,” a review by B.P. that ran in the Barnard Bulletin on April 27, 1961: “Mr. DePalma himself admits that since he as not yet learned to control camera techniques, the sequence of images may become confusing unless the symbols and plot are understood beforehand…. `Icarus’ is not to be missed. If only today, ten years hence– `Why I saw his very first picture.’”
Seven years later De Palma made “Greetings” with Robert De Niro in the cast. The young director was a guest on the February 26, 1969 episode of “Critique,” a WNET program airing in the same time slot as “What’s My Line?” Too bad it’s not excerpted in “De Palma.”
Also appearing that night was Stanley Kauffmann. Three years earlier, this film critic at The New Republic noted “the rise of the Film Generation.” He described its sensibility as a mix of “somewhat nostalgic revolution” and “an insistence on an amorphous cosmos.” He heralded the cinema scene as “the most cheering circumstance in contemporary American art.”
“I never considered myself an artist,” De Palma told Joseph Gelmis in his collection of interviews titled “The Film Director as Superstar” published in 1970. “I was going to be a physicist.” His high school science fair projects included “An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations” and “Critical Study of Hydrogen Quantum Mechanics Through Cybernetics.”
De Palma’s father Anthony, an orthopedic surgeon, let him see what he did at work. “I did grow up in an operating room,” says De Palma. “I used to go to the hospital and watch him operate. You cannot imagine how much blood is flying around in an operating room.” Never mind what hospital protocols were back in 1950s Philadelphia, let alone best practices regarding child endangerment by exposure to amputations and other sights.
The filmmaker traces his taste for bloody mise-en-scene to these experiences. As for authority figure issues in his fictive dramas, he acknowledges his father played a role there too. Dr. De Palma was often out-of-town at conferences delivering papers like “Slipping of the Femoral Epiphysis” and “The Present Day Status of the Fracture of the Hip Joint.” Or writing medical books, or trysting with his lover. As a teen, De Palma tracked his dad to an apartment and accosted the woman hiding in a closet. That too ended up on screen.
Unprodded?– there’s no way of knowing what prompting the off-microphone filmmakers did– De Palma links more of his past to motifs in his oeuvre. One of his brothers sounds like a stand-in for out-of-sorts characters in his plots:
“You see the character’s helplessness to stop this, this madness going on. I lived in a family full of these incredible egotists who seemed to be very insensitive about the kind of damage they were doing to each other. And my middle brother is very sensitive I didn’t feel he was powerful enough to stand up to these forces. I used to protect him all the time. He doesn’t have the kind of combativeness that I have.” –De Palma in “De Palma”
On feminist grounds certain reviewers objected to gender trending in De Palma’s choice of helpless characters. Film critic Pauline Kael was in his corner. Her combative style in The New Yorker provoked ruckus of among her more serious readers, just as his own style– at times rated “X”– upset viewers.
”It never sort of bothered me when they didn’t like the movies because they were, you know, seemingly unkind to women or too violent or. I just felt to me it always seemed like the right thing to do for the material. You know, the fact that Pauline liked me made people argue about me constantly.” – De Palma in “De Palma”
Doing the right thing “for the material” begs the question of why he chose to direct films like that in the first place. “If I’m going to put somebody in a dangerous situation I’d rather be following around a girl than a guy,” De Palma reasons. “It’s part of the genre.” After shooting “Redacted” (2007) he interceded to protect Zahra Kareem Alzubaidi, a young Iraqi woman playing a 14-year-old raped by U.S. soldiers: “Rather than leave her there with a very uncertain future… I brought her over here and put her in school so she can pursue her dream whatever it is.”
In 1970 Gelmis asked De Palma about his influences. The filmmaker answered: “Godard’s a terrific influence, of course. If I could be the American Godard, that would be great.” That infatuation faded. Alfred Hitchcock took his place. De Palma styles himself as his torchbearer from the Film Generation.
“I’ve never found too many people that followed after the Hitchcock school except for me… Here’s a guy who developed the most incredible visual story-telling vocabulary and it’s sort of going to die with him and I was like the one practitioner that took up the things that he’d pioneered and built them into different forms in a stye that I was evolving.” –De Palma in “De Palma”
De Palma likes “Hitchcock linguistics,” to use the metaphor of nameless interviewer “Q” in A24’s “Q&A.” Seeing “Vertigo” 1958 was pivotal for De Palma.
“It left an incredible impression upon me. What’s so compelling about `Vertigo’ is he’s making a movie about what a director does, which is basically create these romantic illusions and makes you fall in love with it and then kills it, twice. And it’s what we do as directors. We create these beautiful women, these exciting virile men, we get audiences involved in their stories and emotionally attached to them. And Hitchcock made a movie, which is, you know. It’s so Brechtian. It’s showing what we’re doing as we’re doing it.” – De Palma in “De Palma”
De Palma’s 1976 Hitchcock homage “Obsession” drew mixed notices. Rex Reed raved in the New York Daily News: “Like Hitchcock at the top of his form.” Vincent Canby’s New York Times review dismissed any likeness: “To be blunt, `Obsession’ is not `Vertigo.’” In The New Republic, Kauffmann trashed “Obsession,” that De Palma co-scripted with Paul Schrader, as “garbage of a special stench.”
“De Palma” is not as fragrantly “Brechtian” as “Vertigo” but Baumbach and Paltrow are compelling without killing off our illusions. De Palma’s cinema survives this exploratory surgery.