This is arguably the simplest possible structure for a documentary about a filmmaker that you could imagine. Brian De Palma (born 1940) sits in front of the camera and talks about his life and his work across six decades. The camera frames him head on and nobody else appears on screen. De Palma introduces clips from, as far as I could see, every one of his feature films as well as several early student films and at least one of his Bruce Springsteen music videos. There are also clips from various films that might have been important influences and some ‘behind the scenes’ footage and stills. I can’t remember if any of the footage is shown in split screen with De Palma’s own work – he was very fond of the split screen. The director proves an engaging raconteur and one blessed with both enough vanity to laud his own efforts and enough humility to recognise the clunkers. You would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to enjoy his tales. He was 75 when the documentary was released and he’s still going.
But what does he tell us and do we learn much about Hollywood? In a generally very positive review the New York Times critic A.O. Scott admits:
Mr. De Palma’s recollections are so vivid and warm that ancient war stories seem fresh. It’s hard for even the most determinedly forward-looking film critic to suppress a twinge of generational envy. Forty years ago, we would have been contemplating Carrie, Jaws and Taxi Driver, with the two Godfather movies in the rearview mirror and Star Wars on the horizon.
Well, I was there and saw all those movies when they were released. I had forgotten the extent to which, at the time, De Palma was so closely associated with Scorsese in particular and the other ‘Movie Brats’. The one De Palma didn’t mention, I think, in reference to the group was William Friedkin, though he does tell us that he soon became fed up of car chases and after The French Connection he thought it had all been done. I watched most Hollywood ‘New Wave’ movies in the early 1970s. For me, Lucas was gone after American Graffiti and Spielberg, though a fantastic technician, holds little interest for me now. De Palma, however, was important alongside Scorsese. Coppola was already involved in studio filmmaking in the 1960s, so my main interest in this documentary was to learn about De Palma’s early forays into New York filmmaking and to be reminded of films like Sisters (1972) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a film I’d like to see again. I learned a lot from this section, including which young actors De Palma worked with; Bill Finley, Jennifer Salt and Jill Clayburgh as well as Robert de Niro – who all appeared in The Wedding Party, made in 1963 but not released until 1969. At this time De Palma was effectively being mentored by Wilford Leach. De Palma had been a science major at university so his film training had been through short courses and projects. I realise now that Phantom of the Paradise was the first of his films I’d seen on release in the UK. After that I picked up on Sisters (1972) with Margot Kidder which became a cult film.
I was aware of De Palma’s fascination with Hitchcock and to the specific influences on his work that might be seen as ‘Hitchcockian’. In 1976, however, when I saw Obsession, I had not yet seen Vertigo (which was unavailable in the UK for several years). I remember that I was very impressed by Obsession but unaware of just how close it was to Vertigo, which De Palma had seen as an 18 year-old in New York on its initial release. Jimmie Stewart’s rooftop nightmare is in fact the opening clip of the documentary and De Palma talks about Obsession in some detail. He claims to be the director most influenced by Hitchcock. I can see the influences, but I’m a little surprised that having recognised the impact of seeing early French New Wave films as student filmmaker (he shows clips of Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol films) he doesn’t mention them (and particularly Truffaut and Chabrol) in relation to the Hitchcock influences in their work. And across the rest of the documentary he seems relatively disinterested in what is happening elsewhere outside Hollywood. This is a shame since one intriguing link I picked up was that Jessica Harper, the star of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977 was also a lead in Phantom of the Paradise. I hadn’t made the link because I didn’t see Suspiria until the 1990s.
It’s also interesting that at least one reviewer describes this documentary as similar to the Truffaut-Hitchcock ‘conversations’ that became a book and then the documentary film Hitchcock/Truffaut (US 2015). That film didn’t really grab me and I’m not sure why. De Palma works better for me, possibly because of De Palma’s address to camera. It does make me wonder though what producer-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow actually did on this film, apart from just letting De Palma ‘go’ and then hiring a good editor. The question about this documentary is why it achieves something beyond the conventional TV documentary which uses clips and strings of anecdotes from talking heads. I note that several critics refer to it as a ‘master class’ by ‘American cinema’s greatest storyteller’ etc. I think that might be over-selling it, but it is true that that De Palma does illustrate and analyse how he achieved the sense of movement and vitality that underpins his features. He is also in a unique position to discuss the emergence of ‘New Hollywood’ in the late 1960s and early 70s – and the difficulties directors like himself encountered with the new ‘corporatised’ Hollywood that developed from the 1980s onwards. I ‘enjoyed’ or was challenged by his films up to the 1980s but I mostly haven’t seen the later films so the final third of the film didn’t hold much interest for me apart from De Palma’s comments on the struggles he faced with studio executives and the frustrations of trying to step outside conventional formats and the “visual clichés” created by working with CGI companies.
The question in 2020, in the era of #MeToo, and debates about representation, is how we should view De Palma’s presentation of his female characters and whether he exploits the women he casts – or provides them with opportunities to drive narratives that have engaged wide audiences, including women as well as men. At one point he tells us that he really enjoys photographing women. He is also quite prepared to ask them to strip for scenes. For Body Double he wanted to cast a well-known porn actress but was foiled by the studio. But the same actress helped Melanie Griffiths prepare for her role in the film. I found the nudity to be an important part of Carrie, a horror film with a real punch and I did find Dressed to Kill to be very effective but disturbing. It would be interesting to know more about what the women in these films thought about them.
Carrie, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible have been on TV in the last few days in primetime slots, suggesting they still have wide appeal. De Palma’s films, at least from the earlier period have held up well, with the proviso that they happened before current debates about abuse of actors began. De Palma’s commentary in this documentary is enjoyable and informative and De Palma is currently on MUBI.