DE PALMA (2016, Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)
Martin Amis once wrote that Brian De Palma fashioned “an art that appeals to the purist, the hooligan, and nobody else.” (Granted, he also thought De Palma movies “make no sense,” but what can you do). I’ve thought about that quote since I first heard it around the time of FEMME FATALE, and, unlike De Palma movies (in Amis’s opinion), it makes a lot of sense. The plots are often trashy, the subject matter lurid, and the filmmaking perfectly jaw-dropping. Middlebrow tastes, both critical and popular, have tended to dismiss or cringe at the likes of CASUALTIES OF WAR, BODY DOUBLE, and BLOW OUT.
But if there’s a drawback to Baumbach and Paltrow’s propulsive, nonstop chronological barreling through De Palma’s stunning oeuvre, it’s that the documentary feels aimed at appealing only to those in between. It doesn’t (perhaps wisely) analyze De Palma’s films on a theoretical level, nor does it film-nerd out on technical wizardry. Nor does it giggle at sex and violence or provide jolts for the cheap seats. It sits warmly in the middle, letting the master director (who, for my money, is among the greatest living American filmmakers along with Scorsese, Spike Lee, and the Coens) explore the business side of how he gets movies made, amusing stories of on-set scrambling (many of which involve Al Pacino either burning his hand or stealing a subway train), and an elder statesman’s hindsight about what his career has amounted to.
As an on-camera subject, De Palma is a joy. He’s funny, confident but not with an overblown ego, perceptive, idiosyncratic, and self-aware. He’s sharp enough to point out that even his idol Alfred Hitchcock turned a corner after PSYCHO, having made his best work (like everyone does, he claims) in his 30s, 40s, and 50s. For De Palma, that means his peak was between SISTERS and FEMME FATALE, more or less — ammunition for critics (and I’m one of them) who think everything after FEMME FATALE has been downhill. The comment almost reads like a retirement letter, though he’s reportedly prepping for a new feature next year. Baumbach and Paltrow’s decision to let only the director speak, to strip away all context and just show medium and close shots of De Palma interspersed with clips from all his movies, is admirable and focused. It may not uncover anything too new for diehard fans (though either I never knew or more likely keep forgetting that he directed Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video with Courteney Cox), and can come across like merely solid audio commentary on a Blu-ray, but still — you get to watch a bunch of clips from CARLITO’S WAY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, DRESSED TO KILL, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and everything else. Pretty tough not to like that.