A big part of the pleasure of De Palma, a feature-length conversation with director Brian De Palma in which he talks about every movie he’s made in chronological order, is getting to hear him talk as if he were a close friend. Who knew that the man whose movies were often soaked in graphic sex and violence would be fond of saying “Holy mackerel!” without irony? Who knew that De Palma could tell a funny anecdote (such as his struggle with United Artists over the budget of Carrie) with the precision of a comedian?
Best of all, De Palma, who is 76 and at a point in his career in which he no longer cares about political correctness, does not hesitate to name names, a rarity in the cloistered film industry. He wanted Don Johnson, not Kevin Costner, to star in The Untouchables. He resents Sidney Lumet for stealing Prince of the City from him. He ejected screenwriter Oliver Stone from the set of Scarface because he was becoming a nuisance. He accuses Cliff Robertson of trying to sabotage Obsession because he was jealous of his co-star Genevieve Bujold. He blames Tom Smothers for getting him fired from the set of Get To Know Your Rabbit, his first Hollywood film. He admits casting Tom Hanks in The Bonfire of the Vanities was a mistake from which the movie never recovered.
The director is so entertaining, you forgive De Palma for its shortcomings. In their honorable attempt to make room for all of De Palma’s movies, co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow inevitably give some of the films short shrift. I wanted to hear more about The Black Dahlia, his disastrous adaptation of the James Ellroy novel that culminated with one of the most histrionic plot twists of any De Palma film, or his experiences shooting Mission to Mars, an out-of-character foray into science fiction that was so exhausting to make that it made him give up on Hollywood altogether. Redacted, the low-budget drama shot on video about the Iraq War and a thematic counterpart to Casualties of Wars, is discussed only in terms of how De Palma helped actress Zahra Zubaidi deal with the fallout from the film (she was forced to flee her country and seek political asylum in the U.S.).
But De Palma does make a deep dive into his earlier, lesser-known films (Greetings, The Wedding Party, Hi, Mom!), and it allows De Palma to address the criticism that has dogged him for his entire career — that he’s a Hitchcock imitator — in a way that makes you reconsider his body of work. He also discusses technique and film grammar (such as his use of split-screens and his fondness for long takes) in an instructive, scholarly fashion. Best of all, De Palma provides an opportunity to see clips from his movies projected on a big screen instead of your TV, and the difference is astounding. De Palma never achieved the box-office and Oscar glory of his contemporaries (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese), but this documentary is a testament to a talent that merits a place at their table.
With: Brian De Palma.
Directors: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 107 minutes. Vulgar language, graphic violence, gore, nudity, explicit sex. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque. Accompanied by the retrospective series “Early De Palma” June 30-July 28. For info, visit mbcinema.com or call 305-673-4567.