De Palma is ‘a masterclass in cinema, and mandatory viewing for any self-respecting film buff’ says MacDara Conroy
De Palma is a must-see for anyone even vaguely interested in the art of the movies. It’s also not a very well made film in its own right. You might imagine experienced filmmakers like Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and, to a lesser extent, Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth) would give their subject a more professional sheen than they actually do here.
Instead we get Brian De Palma, black sheep of the 1970s ‘movie brats’, sat in a dark, echoing room in what appears to be his own New York brownstone, reeling off stories and memories to a rough audio track that fluctuates wildly in quality throughout.
The opening minutes rush through the requisite origin story in amateurish fashion, with no pause for breath as the film quick-cuts between anecdotes and reminiscences of De Palma family whatnot. The pace is discomfiting, betraying an impatience to get to the good stuff. It’s not a great start by any means.
Thankfully, the substance here greatly outweighs the style, or lack thereof. But be aware, this isn’t your standard rounded profile, filled in with quotes from colleagues and critics. It’s about the subject as transmuted through his films; any details of De Palma’s life are purely to contextualise the work.
And what a body of work it is. De Palma the film is best appreciated as a visual essay of his career, one that’s far more varied than he’s given credit for, crossing into comedy, crime and war nearly as often as his signature American giallos.
The De Palma story hits its groove when the physics nerd discovers cinema at university and dabbles in his own experimental shorts, gradually building a tight-knit circle of friends and performers (among them William Finley and Robert DeNiro) who would populate his early humour-leaning features like Greetings and Hi, Mom! De Palma’s animated recollections of these days gives new context for films that aren’t exactly representative of the much darker style for which he would become notorious.
That only happens when the disappointments of failures like Get to Know Your Rabbit and Phantom of the Paradise set him firmly on the suspenseful path from Sisters to Obsession, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double, a run of films that would brand De Palma synonymous with sexploitation — and Hitchcockian fixation.
Baumbach and Paltrow skirt around the obvious when De Palma essays his, how shall we say, ‘remix’ filmmaking style, failing to tease out that he cribbed both his signature split-focus framing and extended tracking shots from Orson Welles, whom he even cast in one of his earlier features.
De Palma himself is more forthcoming about his homages to Alfred Hitchcock, whose unique cinematic moments he reads as a vocabulary to rewrite in his own fashion, an effort to be true to a particular cinematic vision. It’s an interesting take, even comparable to hip-hop culture, after a fashion (in one of a few asides, De Palma expresses some bemusement at that same culture’s appropriation of his own career peak, 1981’s Scarface).
As uncritical as they are, Baumbach and Paltrow do capture some of what might be the deeper obsessions behind De Palma’s films. When he talks about women, saying “I love to follow them”, you’d hope he’s only talking about while the camera’s rolling and he’s sat firmly in his director’s chair. When he makes an almost offhand comment about an incident from his teenage years, when he surveilled his adulterous father, it’s as if he’s only realising now what kind of profound influence that might have had on his career.
There’s definitely room for a companion piece to explore such personal insights more thoroughly, if De Palma were willing to elaborate. But what we get here, while rough around the edges, is still a masterclass in cinema, and mandatory viewing for any self-respecting film buff.
De Palma opens exclusively at Dublin’s Light House Cinema on Friday October 7th
Also published on Medium.