The Films of 2016: De Palma

In Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s new documentary, the filmmaker Brian de Palma sits before the camera and discusses each one of his twenty-nine features—from Murder a la Mod (1968) to Passion (2012)—in chronological order.  De Palma, which appears to have been modeled on Francois Truffaut’s famous book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, brims with anecdotes and observations not just about de Palma’s career (highlights of which include Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface, and The Untouchables) but also about camerawork and CGI, Robert de Niro and Bernard Herrmann, politics and film criticism, Hitchcock and Kubrick.  If as a piece of documentary filmmaking it feels slight, one would be hard pressed to name another film currently in theaters that’s as juicily satisfying to cinephiles.  It may not be pure cinema, but it’s about pure cinema, and that in itself becomes more than enough to recommend it.     

De Palma, who is now in his mid-seventies, makes for a spirited raconteur.  Excitable, slightly pompous, and given to winsome exclamations like “holy mackerel!”, he speaks candidly and articulately about his four decades’ worth of experience in the industry, which began in the late 1960s when he was a member of the “new Hollywood” elite.  (The film contains a remarkable photograph of de Palma flanked by his four bosom pals—Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Lucas.  The five of them would trade scripts, actors, and projects throughout the 1970s.)  Among his colleagues de Palma was the one most heavily influenced by Hitchcock, and, as he himself claims, the only one to have devoted an entire career to telling stories in the visual language that Hitchcock had created.  A meticulous technician, de Palma explains that his films are always about using the camera to control the attention of his viewers—often in order to deceive them.  Over the course of the documentary, which runs a fleet 107 minutes, de Palma lays out his theories of editing and camera movement in between wonderfully irascible recollections about combating the censors at the MPAA, negotiating budgets, and butting heads with legendary screenwriter Robert Towne on Mission: Impossible (1996).  His repeated strategy for getting his way in the industry, it seems, has been to play possum, making his enemies believe they have beaten him while continuing to pursue his own agenda on the sly.    

De Palma remains the most controversial and undervalued of the so-called movie brats; Douglas Keesey points out in a recent book that he remains the only one of his circle of friends never to have won an Oscar.  So it’s nice to see him get his due here, and to be reminded of the wit and stylishness of his work.  (The clips included here are enough to make you want to re-watch his entire filmography.)  Baumbach and Paltrow would seem to be unlikely choices for this project; like Truffaut, they have taken their own careers in very different directions from that of their subject.  But both filmmakers are apparently longtime friends of de Palma (in spite of being a generation removed from him in age), and this may account for how relaxed and open he is in front of their camera.  To spend an hour and forty-five minutes in the company of a film artist this wildly accomplished is nothing short of pure pleasure.

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