The weirdly touching documentary De Palma is catnip for cinephiles, at least those who haven’t written off its subject, filmmaker and eternal provocateur Brian De Palma, decades ago as a hopeless, unrepentant, voyeuristic, Hitchcock-addicted perv.
Now 75, De Palma more or less owns up to that characterization himself. The son of a philandering orthopedic surgeon, young Brian once stalked, photographed and confronted his father and his lover in their love nest, with the future filmmaker brandishing a knife.
This is one of many stories De Palma relays, in relaxed, “yeah, it happened” fashion, to the documentary’s off-camera interviewers and co-directors, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
De Palma saw Vertigo at Radio City Music Hall when he was 18, in 1958. That experience, which he never really shook, set the mood and the direction for his entire life’s work, though that work is far more varied than his Hitchcock-ripoff-artiste rep suggests.
Without racing, De Palma deftly covers the full gamut of the man’s films, from the early Robert De Niro collaboration The Wedding Party (shot in 1963) through commercial breakthroughs in the 1970s and then several more career ups and downs afterward.
Baumbach and Paltrow are pals with De Palma, and miraculously the implicit chumminess doesn’t clog up the movie with unexamined goodwill. De Palma isn’t afraid of drilling into the filmmaker’s wormy obsessions and his adolescent prankster’s streak.
It also reveals De Palma to be a wry and drolly understated chronicler of his own indulgences, his constant filmmaking battles, his amusement at the bloody carnival of it all. Tales of De Palma and Nancy Allen double-dating with Steven Spielberg (hot off Jaws) and Amy Irving evoke an entire cinematic golden age without even trying.
Allen and Irving worked with De Palma on Carrie (1976), and for anyone old enough to remember what that film could do to a high-school-age audience, the Carrie anecdotes are reason enough to see the documentary.
Baumbach and Paltrow do not interview De Palma experts, or critics, or anyone beyond De Palma. This is strictly the filmmaker, seated, indoors, talking to his friends, all very orderly. Meanwhile, the generously interpolated clips from the likes of Body Double (with its insane drill-bit murder) turn the order into delirious chaos.
“I’m driven by unrealistic ideas,” De Palma acknowledges at one point in De Palma. Throughout the documentary, we hear war stories from a cackling warrior who was constantly faced with coming up with practical, filmable alternatives and solutions to crises on set.
The Potemkin-inspired stairway shootout in The Untouchables, for example, emerged as a replacement for a sequence screenwriter David Mamet, according to De Palma, refused to write.
Of Obsession, his Vertigo homage and the first De Palma I saw in theaters (a few months before Carrie), the director shares some lovely, dishy gossip about star Cliff Robertson’s personal, George Hamilton-esque makeup preferences, and precisely why an artificially brown leading man drove cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond crazy.
“Every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” De Palma says late in the film. “It’s a like a record of the things you didn’t finish, basically.”
He made commercial hits (Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible) and near-misses and lots of bizarre or self-conscious disappointments.
But even films as nutty as Snake Eyes offer sequences of such preening virtuosity, with their gorgeously sustained long takes and slithery mise en scene, you just have to shake your head and laugh.
De Palma’s currently in preproduction for his next movie. Here’s hoping it’s terrific.
Exclusive: Texas Theatre, Dallas
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Directors: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Cast: Brian De Palma
Rated: R (violent images, graphic nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Running time: 111 min.