De Palma

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Laura Clifford 
De Palma

Robin Clifford 

In 1958, I saw "Vertigo," one of the two filmmakers most associated with the Master of Suspense tells us, beginning a cinematic journey spanning over five decades. Over the course of a week in 2010, directors Noah Baumbach ("While We're Young") and Jake Paltrow interviewed a man whose career has veered all over the map, from countercultural to commercial blockbuster to independent, all while, with few notable exceptions, remaining true to himself.  You don't have to be a fan to luxuriate in the anecdotes and expertise of Brian "De Palma."

Simply put, this is a cinephile's delight.  For a week in 2010, De Palma sat in Jake Paltrow's living room and talked, and talked some more, until Paltrow and Baumbach had 30 hours of interview footage (De Palma wore the same shirt throughout for continuity's sake).  This has been brilliantly whittled down to under two, intercut with illustrative clips and stills, by Paltrow's editor Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath ("While We're Young"). This documentary is so endlessly fascinating, as De Palma talks about every aspect of filmmaking from costume to camera shots to casting, that one can only hope at least several of the hours left on the cutting room floor end up on a blu ray release.

After analyzing "Vertigo," which De Palma equates to filmmaking itself, he talks about his youth, spending twelve years in a Quaker School, his father distant.  Initially a physics major, his love of film drew him to Sarah Lawrence's theater department where he met a young Robert De Niro and made his first film, "The Wedding Party."  The films that followed, "Greetings" and "Hi, Mom," were released into theaters and made enough money to get Hollywood's attention. At first he floundered with "Get to Know Your Rabbit," but he persevered independently with "Sisters" and "The Phantom of the Opera" until Hollywood came calling once again with "Carrie."  The studio didn't realize what they had until they released it (Sissy Spacek, known then only as production designer Jack Fisk's girlfriend, fought for the role and both she and Piper Laurie were Oscar nominated. She's not his only discovery, there were many - he's the guy who put Courtney Cox in Bruce Springsteen's 'Dancing in the Dark' music video.).

While he didn't achieve the heights of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, this was the group of filmmakers De Palma began his career with, Warner Brothers' 'youth group,' all of them offering advice on each other's projects.  De Palma is quite the raconteur, telling us he remembers Spielberg being the first guy he saw with a car in his phone (home movie footage illustrates this).  He has something colorful to tell us about every film he was involved in, from frustration with Cliff Robertson on "Obsession" to Sean Penn's unorthodox motivational techniques with Michael J. Fox on "Casualties of War."  On the technical side, listening to him talk about the reasoning behind his much loved split screens, which later developed into his use of split diopter focus, is like a master class in filmmaking.  (The documentary is a more entertaining version of the master class articles another early De Palma colleague, Paul Schrader, has been writing for Film Comment magazine.)  The only subject which is given short shrift is violence against women, De Palma often criticized as a misogynist, yet he was quite willing to hire a real porn actress for "Body Double," a bold move nixed by the studio (Melanie Griffith was cast instead).

There were failures of course and he speaks frankly about them, most notably "The Bonfire of the Vanities," where he caved to studio demands, and "Mission to Mars," whose visual effects frustrated him (of the many intriguing insights De Palma provides, his statement that computer generated imagery being 'preordained' has led to repetitive cliche is one of the most profound).  After "Snake Eyes," De Palma decided to no longer make films in the U.S.  His filmography is undeniably uneven, but after watching "De Palma," you'll want to revisit his extensive catalog.

Grade:  A

Brian De Palma has been making films for 50 years and has a lot to say about the industry, the filmmaking process and how both have changed. Documentarians Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow give the maestro the opportunity to talk about himself, his films and his actors in “De Palma.”

This is a lean and mean documentary that focuses totally on its subject – Brian De Palma. In a departure from the usual series of talking head interviews of those who know the subject, the director is the sole interviewee. As such, we, the film lovers out here, get a total immersion into the life, times, loves, losses, successes and failures of De Palma.

This is more than just a feature biography about an iconic filmmaker. It is also a history of film from the 1950s through to today – mostly De Palma’s filmography but also those of other great filmmakers of our time. The director name drops those who inspired him and those whom he inspired, like Marty, Steven, George and Francis.

De Palma also talks about those greats who created the various music scores for his films. Such greats as Bernard Herrmann (“Obsession (1976)”), the director’s long time music collaborator, Pino Dogaggio (“Carrie (1976), “Dressed to Kill (1980),” “Blow Out (1981),” “Body Double (1984)”) and Ennio Morricone (“The Untouchables (1987)” have all created the memorable tunes for De Palma’s films.

The filmmakers provide a chronological view of almost all of the prolific director’s works, from his earliest student short film, “Woton’s Wake (1962)” debuting none other than Robert De Niro to his last, little seen feature “Passion (2013)” and everything in between – “Sisters (1973),” “Phantom of the Paradise (1974),” “Scarface (1984),” “Casualties of War (1989)” and, of course, the biggest flop of his career, “The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).” The director created some 40 works during his long bcareer.

De Palma discusses at length the relationships he has had, and often retained, with the actors who helped create his stories. He has introduced and worked with such notables as Orson Welles, Kirk Douglas, Cliff Robertson, Charles Durning, Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Al Pacino, Melanie Griffith, Nancy Allen (also his wife for a time), Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, to name just a few.

The casual filmgoer will likely not be drawn to the life and work of Brian De Palma, but for us ardent film buffs, it is a treasure trove of modern film history through the eyes of a man who lived it. I give it an A-.
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