There’s a point in a revered artist’s life when their celebrity trumps our awareness of their humanity, as we look at them and see our emotional response to their work reflected back to us. For a few generations of cinephiles, Brian De Palma is such an artist: a film director who bridged the formal grammar of Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard together to create his own kind of erotic, media-interrogating thriller. For over five decades, De Palma has fashioned dozens of the most resonant and controversial images in American pop culture, and his filmography has been subsequently worshipped, vilified, appropriated, and re-appropriated again.
The happiest surprise, then, of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma resides in its tacit understanding of its subject as a person, subtly and casually demystifying the filmmaking process. The documentary is driven by a simple conceit: De Palma sits in front of a camera and discusses his working life, starting with his education at Columbia University, proceeding through his career chronologically one film at a time from start to finish so far. De Palma’s anecdotes are skillfully, sinuously interspersed with footage from the films under discussion, as Baumbach and Paltrow create cheeky, insightful counterpoints between spoken word and image. For instance, when De Palma remembers hearing that Body Double was going to be trashed by the press, we see a close-up of the phallic drill from that film as it approaches its victim, as the filmmaker remembers being told: “You’re going to get killed tomorrow.”
De Palma often explains his films’ most famous or notorious flourishes, such as said phallic drill, in a slightly befuddled, commonsensical manner that’s traditional of envelope-pushing artists. The drill had to be three feet long so as to puncture a woman’s body while penetrating an apartment floor, capping off a significant sequence with a great image of the hero seeing a bloody drill tip coming down through a ceiling. For him, it’s that simple. Carrie’s opening, featuring many nude young women in a rapturous slow-moving tableau, expresses for De Palma the peace and solace that coax Carrie’s guard down for the incoming humiliation, heightening our emotional response.
Removed from the experience of filmmaking, it’s easy for audiences to picture De Palma as a Svengali minutely planting each signifier and anticipating the audience reaction it will trigger. But such a fantasy fails to capture the chaos of producing art. In the midst of creation, one’s locked in the work itself, striving less for brilliance than to get the thing as complete, coherent, and effective as possible. (At one point, De Palma admits that all he sees in the films are their failures.) De Palma’s surprise at the controversy of his work is convincing and poignant, signaling one of the great artistic torments: that unbridged divide between interior intention and exterior reception.
Like Hitchcock, De Palma reveals himself to be guided by an unusual mixture of intuition and intellectualization. Baumbach and Paltrow emphasize through compression and montage the evolution of De Palma’s formal tropes, such as elaborate bird’s-eye compositions and tracking shots that follow women as they pursue (or are pursued by) a killer. A use of split screen in Dionysus in ’69 is understood to pave the way for the shocking use of the same device in Sisters, just as a brutal fake-out in The Untouchables is shown to echo the slasher-movie gimmicks parodied in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. De Palma’s obsession with certain motifs (impotent male avengers, doomed women, un-killable killers, un-knowable mysteries) is shown to provide an element of structural reliability, serving as an intellectual safeguard, or pretense, for the intuition that enables him to plumb the operatic emotionality driving his films. The mathematical precision of the filmmaker’s set pieces contrasts with the messy, despairing, irreconcilable violation that concerns his work.
Unsurprisingly, De Palma proves to be a master oratory storyteller; many great filmmakers are, as it’s part of their art to stoke the flames of their reputation. But Baumbach and Paltrow coax out an element of vulnerability in the director that’s nevertheless revelatory. One senses that De Palma’s guard is relaxed because he’s in the company of fellow directors, the sort of people who can viscerally understand his disappointments and frustrations. De Palma isn’t a typically superficial “celebration” of a subject, as it’s acutely aware of the business practicalities that drive film production.
De Palma admits that he watered down The Bonfire of the Vanities because he was afraid that an unvarnished adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel would ruin his career, citing the effect that The Magnificent Ambersons and Sweet Smell of Success had on the careers of their makers as guiding examples. (Not to mention the fact that De Palma already had several risky financial failures under his belt.) A critical irony isn’t lost on anyone in the room: Those films are now considered masterpieces, while The Bonfire of the Vanities was skewered precisely for the sanitation that De Palma hoped would serve him. De Palma never loses sight of filmmaking as a merging of personality, improvisation, sales, happenstance, talent, and other less discernable contours of the lives involved on its periphery.
De Palma merges the pure sensory exhilaration of the director’s films with backstage drama and thrillingly practical riffs on craft, politics, and the need to disregard the sort of armchair outrage that can mar an artist who thrives on instinct. What lingers above all, though, is the stature De Palma achieves on screen as a bittersweet man of a certain age. Nuances haunt one on the rebound, such as De Palma’s frequent uttering of “Holy mackerel!” to convey astonishment, particularly as the film evolves into an autumnal monologue, as De Palma remembers romantic relationships that didn’t work, conceding that his films are his true mate. This startlingly blunt confession retrospectively informs other bits with pathos, such as a robust laugh that De Palma lets out when recalling an incident with Al Pacino while shooting Carlito’s Way. That laugh contains not only amusement, but nostalgia for camaraderie. As De Palma gradually comes to implicatively rue what he sees as his encroaching obsolescence, we intuit his sense of his own humanity as being tied to his art. Brian De Palma might be the ultimate De Palma character: a brilliant control freak lost in the woods of ungovernable emotion.