Brian De Palma is a wonderful conversationalist. In this new documentary, “De Palma,” which appears to have taken place in one sit-down interview, De Palma shares with you everything about his career and, by extension, his life. You feel a great director is passing his hand over it all, setting the record straight. This is Brian De Palma, after all, and he has had to endure a formidable amount of attack on his work. Either he was ridiculed for daring to reference Alfred Hitchcock, or his films were deemed to have too much sex, too much violence, and too much blood. The key to what makes this documentary truly worthwhile is that De Palma is a great storyteller and he sure wasn’t going to hold back on his own life’s story. He doesn’t control as much as he reveals.
What you learn about Brian De Palma in this documentary will undoubtedly enrich your viewing of his work. Let the master confess to you. As it turns out, the much discussed voyeurism in De Palma’s films is quite personal. There is certainly the Hitchcock influence, which De Palma addresses early on. How often does “Vertigo” alone get referenced in his work? Well, a lot. That is involved with a fascination in what the viewer gets to see. Later, we find out a deeper motivation. De Palma, as a young boy, was outraged to discover his father’s infidelity. He took it upon himself to follow his father and document on film his activities. De Palma, detective, gathering evidence. Finally, he confronts his father and flushes out his mistress who was attempting to hide in a closet. De Palma furiously chastises his father. De Palma, avenger, administering punishment.
At age 75, Brian De Palma has earned many times over a re-evaluation. This is a guy who definitely knows how to push buttons. Arguably, he has painted himself into something of a corner smeared in blood, mostly women’s blood. His level of suspense can be said to be over the top. However, it is something else when you have him there on the screen thoughtfully articulating his work alternating with various compelling clips and footage from a lifetime in cinema. He’s not there to persuade you. He’s there to let you in on things. You end up feeling that, yes, it is really in your best interest to put away any past preconceived ideas and listen. As for the relaxed candor running throughout, we can also give a lot of credit to the film’s directors, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
Ultimately, this is a master class in filmmaking. De Palma does not say anything without it having a reason, followed by other reasons. At one point, he claims to not care for car chases. He says that “The French Connection” put that to rest with the greatest car chase ever. Besides, he’s not a car guy. Later, he admits he really prefers walking scenes as they lend themselves to great nuance and mystery. He loves the way a woman moves. And, more to the point, constructing a walking scene plays into his need for pictorial structure. And don’t get him started on his split-screen technique. Well, actually, do and you get some fascinating observations. For one thing, yes, it can be overdone and it won’t work for an action sequence. But allow someone with vision to modulate it, and it works. Brian De Palma was part of a golden age and contributed too much to ever be dismissed. This documentary proves to be a great companion to his work.
“De Palma” is currently enjoying a limited run. Catch it in theaters while you can. I had the pleasure of viewing it at one of our Seattle International Film Festival theaters that provide SIFF members and the general public with quality content year-round. “De Palma” is showing at SIFF Cinema Uptown along with a selection of De Palma films. Find out more about SIFF right here.