One of the many touchpoints mentioned in the course of “De Palma,” the new film from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is Jean-Luc Godard‘s “Weekend,” but if they’d gone for the embellishment of a subtitle in the name of their interview-based doc, it could very well have been “Brian De Palma: Breathless.” Because it is both literally and metaphorically so, a whistle-stop guided tour of De Palma’s filmography in which the legendary director talks non-stop, with one anecdote jump-cut against the next so fast that often the breaths in between sentences are snipped out. The effect is almost disconcertingly rapid-fire at first, and initially it suggests Baumbach and Paltrow are going for something avant-garde. Then you think maybe it’s an attempt to mimic the giddy headrush pleasures of De Palma’s own high-octane style. And then, maybe four minutes in, you realize it’s actually just because he has so damn much to say and all of it is utterly delicious — in the time saved by removing those pesky inhalations, we probably get six or seven more pithy observations stuffed into this breakneck movie. So you settle in and try to hang on for dear life, like Tom Cruise atop that speeding train, as the fastest, funniest and most exhilarating hour and forty-seven minutes of this year’s Venice whips by.
Formally the film is nothing to write home about — while it’s liberally interspersed with clips that seem precisely chosen to make you immediately pang to watch the film in question again in its entirety, all of the De Palma footage seems to have been taken from one long interview, with him talking to camera against the same unfussy background. And despite the names behind that camera, there’s not a peep out of anyone else; even the occasions on which De Palma addresses a comment or an aside to “you guys,” meaning Paltrow and Baumbach, come few and far between. Actually the two directors, who have known De Palma for over ten years now, perform a valuable service by removing themselves rather appearing as onscreen interlocutors — they make it feel like De Palma, though actually talking unguardedly and frankly to friends of many years, is talking directly to us.
Despite the astonishing length and breadth of the De Palma oeuvre, “De Palma” begins and ends with clips from “Vertigo,” while excerpts from “North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” “Strangers on a Train” and others recur throughout. De Palma does not just acknowledge the Hitchcock influence on his work, he embraces it and even, by the film’s close, lays claim to owning it, suggesting that for all the talk of Hitchcock’s reputation it was really only he who took the responsibility for keeping that legacy alive by devouring it whole and transmuting it into something new.
But mostly, after an economical and entertaining few memories of his childhood and family, he talks about his own films (autobiographical notes are kept to a terse minimum — just the odd mention of a divorce or a marriage). And because his career spans six decades, there are plenty to go through, so some just get a cursory line or two, often including mention of the score and his composers — Herrmann, Donaggio, Morricone — while others, like “Carrie,” “Scarface,” “Obsession,” “The Untouchables,” “Dressed to Kill” etc, get a little more attention. And the stories and insights and reminiscences they yield are pure gold: from De Palma impishly confessing to enjoying all the various “Carrie” retreads because you get “to see them make all the mistakes you avoided” to his tale of the weird coincidences that led to him making Sidney Lumet‘s version of “Scarface” after Lumet snaffled De Palma’s passion project “Prince of the City” away from him. The doc is packed with so many nuggets of crunchy goodness in terms of behind-the-scenes stories and local color that it’s impossible to do them justice here (even if one could make head or tail of one’s eight pages of frenetically scribbled notes).
Really it’s just a delight to spend this time in De Palma’s company, because for someone who describes directing as “creating romantic illusions,” he has refreshingly few about his own eclectic, eccentric and highly individual body of work. There are films he feels are better than their receptions suggest: “I still think ‘Bonfire of the Vanities‘ is fine, it’s a good film. Just don’t read the book,” he suggests. And there are others he’s ruefully aware were ill-conceived or compromised from the start — he’s hilariously scathing about Cliff Robertson‘s limitations in “Obsession,” for example, relating a great anecdote about DP Vilmos Szigmond complaining that the actor’s burnt-umber fake tan rendered him exactly the same shade as the mahogany backdrop. There were shoots that went smoothly like “The Untouchables” and ones that were tortuous like “Casualties of War.” There were hits and misses and surprises and disappointments, and De Palma is candid about them all.
Directors, he opines more than once, make their best work in their 30s, 40s and 50s, tacitly acknowledging that his own output this century has not been his finest. But the bright-eyed, genial, sharp-as-a-tack filmmaker who takes us through his life’s work so far in “De Palma” (endearingly peppering his commentary with exclamations of “Holy Mackerel!”) sure seems like one who could buck that trend and turn in at least one more late-career high. It’s something that even De Palma apostates might be persuaded to hope for after watching Baumbach and Paltrow’s giddy blast of a doc. It’s not deep nor particularly provocative and it does nothing to challenge the form or break new ground in filmmaker appreciations, but “De Palma” is a joy: a hit of garrulous cinephile cocaine so pure you want to do a Tony Montana, fall face-first into it and inhale it all in one go. [B+]