Movie Review: De Palma (2016)
“De Palma” is aptly named. It's a documentary about the life and career of director Brian De Palma, in which we get one talking head, De Palma, intercut with movies, mostly De Palma’s, and a few personal photos, also De Palma’s. Next-gen directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have been meeting De Palma for years at two NYC hangouts, and recently decided to film him. That’s this. They set up a camera and let him talk and talk and talk. So the doc is a little like being stuck at a bar with a dude who won’t shut up. I wanted to come up for air. I wanted to turn to the next guy and ask, “So what about you?”
In his early days, De Palma hung out with four other directors, and, despite his acclaim, he’s basically the Pete Best of this group. He’s the Zeppo, the “... and Peggy.” The others include: the director of the greatest American movie of the second half of the 20th century (Francis Ford Coppola); possibly the greatest American director of the second half of the 20th century (Martin Scorsese); the creator of the most popular movie series of all time (George Lucas); and the most popular director of all time (Steven Spielberg).
So how did it feel to be among these giants who remade American movies? We don’t really get that. What happened when the kids (Spielberg, Lucas) got more clout than the father (Coppola)? Nada. Discussions on art (Scorsese) vs. commerce (Lucas)? Nope. Any of these guys ever say, “Brian, you’ve seriously got to pull back on the Hitchcock”? Who knows?
We get stories. Most of them aren’t bad. One of my favorite revelations is that De Palma and Lucas were casting “Carrie” and “Star Wars” at the same time, often with the same young actors, and Amy Irving, Spielberg’s wife in the 1980s, nearly became Prince Leia. I could see that. It would’ve made me hot for Princess Leia in a way I never was with Carrie Fisher in the role, but maybe this would’ve been a bad thing? I guess I just like that moment of possibility, for everyone involved, before the cards were finally dealt and we got the reality we got.
So while his friends were remaking American cinema in ways both good and bad, De Palma directed movies both good and bad. The doc made me want to rewatch some of them, notably the ’80s stuff: “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out” (which is soured by that ending), “Body Double,” and “The Untouchables.” I still don’t want to watch that Joe Piscopo crap, or rewatch “Casualties of War,” where Michael J. Fox, bless his heart, is overwhelmed by Sean Penn. “Carlito’s Way” I remember being good but not good enough. “Carrie,” sure, and “Scarface.”
Anything else worth a damn?
De Palma was lauded by the preeminent critic of his day, Pauline Kael, but the critical schism on him is exemplified by the single-word, point-counterpoint argument between Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman in the Village Voice in 1980. Hoberman went with “Dazzling,” Sarris chose “Derivative.” I see both arguments. Compared to most filmmakers, De Palma is dazzling; he also has too much Hitchcock in his bloodstream to be a uniquely American director. He has too much “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho.” And when he borrows from other directors, it’s obviously borrowed (baby carriage/steps). His friends are now being copied themselves—Paul Thomas Anderson with Scorsese, J.J. Abrams with Spielberg/Lucas—but who’s aping De Palma? Wouldn’t you just go to the original source?
The doc doesn’t deal with any of these criticisms in a meaningful way; De Palma just backhands them and moves onto the next story about the next movie. One assumes there’s many more stories. The “extra scenes” in the DVD could be interesting.
A bit of a disappointment considering what it could’ve been. At the same time, who’s up for “Blow Out”?