One of the unintended effects of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma is in its capacity to produce a sigh of relief at finding a documentary that reaffirms most if not all of your preconceptions about its subject. It’s capital A Advocacy for the American auteur, with Baumbach and Paltrow capturing Brian De Palma in medium close-up for the duration of the film as he candidly discusses his successes and failures, film by film, with excerpts from those pictures interspersed throughout.
Though it’s only with a director like De Palma that you could conceivably open with a scene from another filmmaker’s work (in this case, the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo) and subsequently express everything about De Palma’s approach to cinema. As David Foster Wallace once said: the muse of familiarity comes cross-dressed as Innovation.
That suggestion bares an eerily literal description of De Palma’s cinema, which more or less carries the Hitchcock tradition of impotent male heroes and women in trouble, but in a more lurid direction. And De Palma is blatant in his retooling of Hitchcock’s cinema. So much so that he submits that in an era that heralds every other thriller as “Hitchcockian”, it’s only in his cinema, in his debt and reappropriation, that you see the homage perfected most succinctly.
This flippant, holy-mackerel flamboyance comes to define much of the interview, with De Palma confidently expressing the virtues of all of his films (he’s as much an expert anecdotist as he is a salesman). Baumbach and Paltrow don’t assert much beyond reaffirming those virtues, which leads the documentary to become less a critical survey of De Palma’s work and more a cultural one. This remains a strikingly rich avenue for De Palma to walk you through, in which the director discusses the difficult administrative obstacles in getting his films made, along with his intense preoccupation with generating a financial hit. If there’s something truly revelatory to come out of this documentary, it’s that the critical mythopoeia that we often afford filmmakers is so often glamorized: De Palma was a man who sought cultural acceptance and wanted to please a crowd, pretty much like everyone else. His discussion of watering down his 1990 film, Bonfire of the Vanities, and his fears of having a career-derailing film in the vein of The Magnificent Ambersons or Sweet Smell of Success mollified his artistic ambitions; a contentious issue that marks one of De Palma’s truest regrets.
De Palma is about the cumulative pleasures that come from listening to an intelligent filmmaker discuss his process. His candor opens the doors to a world that is so often the object of secrecy, stripping away the varnish of a process that we associate as so beguiling. Being a director is no easy task and it requires the sturdiest of constitutions to get it right. With Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Carlito’s Way, and Femme Fatale (my top five De Palma, FYI) all to his name, it’s clear that De Palma’s legacy will survive as one of America’s great directors.