There may be no more polarizing director in the history of movies than Brian De Palma. The writer- director's films have continually split viewers into equally passionate groups of fans and detractors, fueling a 40-year debate on the value of De Palma's work. To some, he's a master craftsman and fearless artist hell-bent on pushing boundaries and challenging audiences. Others dismiss De Palma as a technician with little aptitude for character or story who borrows too freely from his cinematic hero, Alfred Hitchcock.
Young filmmakers today frequently count themselves among De Palma's admirers, so it's no surprise that the co-directors of documentary De Palma, Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night), regard their subject as a towering figure in cinema history. But instead of building a case for De Palma's artistic worth, Baumbach and Paltrow get out of the way completely and allow the director to describe the process of creating each of his 29 feature films in chronological order without interruption or outside interpretation.
It's a remarkably straightforward approach to a filmmaker documentary, and one that reaps big rewards and a few frustrations. The now 75-year-old De Palma has three primary things to share with us: how both Hollywood and independent filmmaking actually work (he has gone back and forth between the two worlds throughout his career); specific insight on what it takes to be a successful director; and revealing, often hilarious stories from the trenches. De Palma is a must-see for film buffs and aspiring filmmakers, and it is entertaining enough to engage casual viewers.
De Palma begins with a discussion of Hitchcock's Vertigo, the film that changed De Palma's life and clearly remains a source of wonder and inspiration for him. De Palma spends less than three minutes on his upbringing ("I was basically a science nerd," he says, illuminating his craft-driven approach to filmmaking) before launching into his film-by-film discussion.
All of De Palma's movies receive roughly equal time, including major hits (Carrie, Mission: Impossible), spectacular failures (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars), cult classics (Scarface) and sources of endless controversy (Dressed to Kill). The chronological approach illuminates the ebb and flow of a life's work while showing just how much flexibility and perseverance are required to maintain a career as a filmmaker.
Questions posed by Baumbach and Paltrow are edited out of the film so that the only voice belongs to De Palma. The fast pace needed to cover so much ground in 109 minutes means the film never bogs down, but it's the barrage of film clips — selected by Baumbach and Paltrow with the touch of a knowledgeable fan — that brings De Palma's storytelling to life. Audiences will leave the screening with a long list of films they can't wait to see.
Baumbach, Paltrow and De Palma have been friends for a long time, which seems to make De Palma comfortable and open on camera. But it also may have kept the documentary filmmakers from pressing De Palma on aspects of his work for which he has long been criticized, such as the relentless violence against women in his films. De Palma's thoughts on his singular adoption of Hitchcock's film language also needs further explanation. It may be best to take the film as a kind of visual memoir, a unique document for which De Palma has finally earned the right to tell it exactly as he sees it.