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In Engrossing ‘De Palma,’ One Of America’s Great Stylists Reflects On His Career

In Engrossing 'De Palma,' One Of America's Great Stylists Reflects On His Career

“Logic” is a word that Brian De Palma uses a lot. It turns
out that many of his most notorious scenes weren’t conceived for effect, but as
a result of problem solving. The almost comically overblown shootout that
closes “Scarface” came about because Al Pacino had injured his hand, so De Palma
had to keep filming his assembled gunmen for two weeks while awaiting his star’s
return. The great length of drill that kills Deborah Shelton in “Body Double” –
its preposterous size adding to the furor from women’s groups – was simply because
it needed to be long enough to pass through its victim, her floor and the hero’s

These observations are made by the director himself in this
utterly engrossing documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. And they’re pertinent
to so much about him – the controversy that has peppered his career and his ongoing
battle with the ratings board, his unapologetic attitude, and the type of
filmmaker he is – focussed, pragmatic, and one who puts cinematic effect before

“You people start with character and build outwards,” he
tells his interviewers. “I start with construction and fill it in.”

“De Palma” was one of the densest and most exhausting
two hours spent in Venice, in the best way possible. Whether one likes the
American’s films or not, time spent with him is akin to attending a filmmaking
masterclass whose every minute demands notation.

And the film is, literally, focused on him: it doesn’t
involve the views of colleagues or friends, narration of any kind, or the
presence of Baumbach and Paltrow, other than when De Palma acknowledges their
shared profession himself. The camera is fixed on the septuagenarian as he sits
and reflects on his career, film by film, touching on his filmmaking process,
the parallels between his life and movies, people he’s worked with, successes,
failures, controversies.

It opens with a clip from “Vertigo,” just as any discussion of
De Palma starts with Hitchcock – something that he acknowledges, claiming here that
he is the only practitioner to have actively attempted to follow in Hitch’s

“Hitchcock is making movies about what a director does –
creating a romantic illusion, then killing it,” he says. Among other things, like
his hero De Palma takes a perverse delight in putting women in peril; and like
Hitchcock, for whom “the run up to what happens is more interesting” than what
finally happens, in De Palma’s films “the run up goes on forever.”

But he also mentions Orson Welles, not in terms of theme or style,
but as a fellow maverick. “I had the Orson Welles problem,” he says of his
career in the early Seventies. “I had big ideas. I needed a lot of that stuff. I needed to go back into the system.” He duly
managed to do that with “Carrie,” one of his great films. But in fact De Palma
has had far more studio opportunities than Welles. Of the generation of
Seventies movie brats that included Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas, his work has
never been in fashion, but always interesting, and more diverse than people
might think: “Greetings” and “Hi Mom!” (he, not Scorsese, was the man who launched
De Niro), “Sisters,” “Carrie,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Blow Out,” “Scarface,” “The
Untouchables,” “Casualties of War,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Mission Impossible.” It’s
not a bad CV.  

He’s a rum interviewee, frank, funny, not afraid to seem
arrogant, as when he recounts the pleasure he’s had watching the “Carrie” sequel
and remake, “seeing other people make all the mistakes you avoided.” He can get
away with such moments, because he’s equally forthright about the failures,
whether ones that stank because of his own misjudgement (“Bonfire of the
Vanities”) or the more painful sort, like “Carlito’s Way,” of which he’s very proud.
And the way he speaks about writers, production designers and in particular
composers suggests a true collaborator.

There’s a film buff’s delight to be had in hearing his
stories about Pacino’s novel way of escaping a demanding night shoot on “Carlito’s
Way,” or Cliff Robertson’s shameless attempts to sabotage his more talented co-star
Genevieve Bujold on “Obsession,” or Sean Penn’s more productive shenanigans to
coax a performance out of Michael J Fox on “Casualties” (“Good old Sean, he’s  exciting to work with”). But the greatest
value is in listening to what makes the man tick as a director, whether personal
history (Keith Gordon’s pursuit of his mother’s killer in “Dressed to Kill” was
inspired by the young De Palma’s shadowing of his adulterous father) or the shooting
strategies and technical approaches to his films, always with the aim of making
his scenarios play out in new and exciting ways, and which make his style so singular.

De Palma appears to be wearing the same clothes throughout the
documentary, suggesting that he’s talking through decades of filmmaking in one,
extended sitting. Whether he is or not, the effect adds to the intensity of the
experience. He would appreciate that.

Brian De Palma has received the Venice Film Festival’s Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker 2015 Award, dedicated to personalities
who have made particularly original contributions to contemporary cinema.

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