Brian De Palma has been a divisive figure in film since the earliest days of his cinematic output. His stylistic indebtedness to Hitchcock led Andrew Sarris to label his films derivative, and the attribution of that view to Sarris (though he is far from the only critic to have voiced such an opinion) may have been a contributing factor in Pauline Kael’s fervent support of the director’s early work. Formal choices, such as his frequent use of split-screen, have drawn the ire of many purists, while his innovative camera movements have drawn the praise of others. But, despite any controversy surrounding his oeuvre, if you’re an adult who has occasionally set foot in a movie theater, you’ve probably enjoyed a De Palma film. And, if you like De Palma, this documentary is one of the most prescient explications of the auteur’s work ever undertaken.
As a documentary, De Palma is very De Palma-esque. Structurally, the film takes the constituent elements of the documentary form at its most traditional — interview footage interspersed with archival material — and streamlines it into a sort of genre-specific cinéma pur. Whereas the cinéma pur of the 1930s French avant-garde filmmakers who coined the term was an attempt to strip away what they saw as Hollywood’s decadent adherence to narrative causality, instead favoring the creation of emotional and aesthetic experiences strictly through filmic techniques, De Palma, as a director, has always employed the fundamental capacities of his medium in inventive or experimental ways to create a synthesis between image, story and emotional affect. Similarly, De Palma (the film) eschews the talking heads or computer-enhanced and animated photographs that have come to define the documentary genre in recent years in favor of a dramatically simplified format in which De Palma, sitting in front of his fireplace, recounts in impressive chronological detail his storied career.
While the prospect of a 75-year-old director talking about himself for 107 minutes may sound deceptively tedious to all but the most ardent cinephiles, the film itself is remarkably engaging for both entrenched film buffs and the casual moviegoer alike. De Palma has been an active force in the American cinema through some of its most tumultuous and interesting periods, and he has the war stories to prove it. Directors-producers-interviewers Noah Boaumbach and Jake Paltrow are never seen, nor heard, but De Palma’s answers to their offscreen questions seem to arise without the necessity of any prompting. De Palma clearly has a lot to say about his work, and every word of it is enthralling.
The historicity of De Palma’s past is riveting. If you’ve ever wanted to hear about how Robert DeNiro changed between his earliest roles and The Untouchables or about the internal politics of New Hollywood (aka the American New Wave) from someone who was in the trenches alongside Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola when they were starting out, De Palma has the dirt and is more than willing to share his recollections. But the greatest value in De Palma may be the insight the film offers into the director’s creative process. De Palma is well aware of what some consider to be his deficiencies as a filmmaker, and he has well-reasoned explanations for them all. Whether he’s right or not is obviously left to the subjective assessment of the individual viewer, but his rationale is always undeniably compelling.
Those familiar with Baumbach’s output may find him an unlikely candidate for De Palma hero-worship of this caliber (I know I did), but he nevertheless manages to tactfully balance the personal and professional qualities that led to the indelible impact De Palma has imparted to 20th century American cinema. A man who can make films that run the gamut from Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to the first Mission: Impossible movie (1996) — with at least a half dozen legitimate classics in between — is certainly worthy of the level of veneration on display here. While De Palma may be a man of contradictions as stark as his split-screen and diopter shots, he is unquestionably among the pantheon of great directors of his day, and the candid discussion of his career on display in De Palma places it high on the list of my favorite documentaries concerning film since last year’s exemplary Room 237 and 2013’s Jodorowsky’s Dune. Anyone who wants to see the unvarnished man behind the curtain of such masterpieces as Sisters, (1973), Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981) or Scarface (1983) — among many, many others — will find that, although the film begins and ends with Hitchcock’s influence, there’s a lot of story to be told in between, and nobody could tell it like De Palma himself.