You must wade through a pile of female corpses to glimpse Brian De Palma’s special grace. Since dazzling moviegoers in the 1970s with Carrie, he’s often been derided as a chronicler of violence, especially against women, and badgered for being too worshipful of Alfred Hitchcock, as if wearing his influences so boldly only blinded viewers to the many subtleties and secrets found in his art.
Brian De Palma’s career defies easy categorization. It’s convenient to forget that, along with his many homages to Vertigo and Psycho, he’s made gangster films, sci-fi, war movies, and comedies. He no more relies on violence against women than Spike Lee relies on racism, or John Ford relied on Arizona.
Settling into De Palma, a tasty, intelligent tribute from Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, we can’t help but appreciate De Palma’s career for the marvelous thing that it is: not a bunch of senselessly gory movies where women are eviscerated, but a vibrant roadmap through a half century of American culture – from ‘60’s anti-war comedies, to ‘70s horror and glitter, to 80’s excess (any director responsible for Scarface, The Untouchables, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video would be worthy of the canonization that eludes De Palma), to the 1990s, when a piece of fluff like Mission Impossible became his biggest hit – that should be studied and appreciated by every director, would-be director, and lover of movies. By simply aiming a camera at him and letting him talk, Baumbach and Paltrow have created a strangely moving portrait of a man who knows his best work may be behind him, not because he’s no longer interested or capable, but because the movie business no longer has room for him. Our loss.
As a raconteur, he’s fair. He’s humble about his successes, saying only that everything worked out well in those cases. Of more interest is the way he reacts to his failures, cackling like a man who gambled away his home and remains impressed by his own audacity. But this master of intricate plots is, at heart, a man of few words. His favorite expression, dropped a half dozen times during De Palma, is “Holy mackerel.” He doesn’t share much behind the scenes gossip, though we get the impression that writers, studio heads, and feminists, are a pain in his ass. Other than Sean Penn teasing Michael J. Fox about being a television actor, we don’t learn much about De Palma’s actors. The Hitchcock question comes up, and he fields it smoothly, saying that he admired Hitchcock’s style and proudly carries on the tradition. He’s Tony Bennet to Hitchcock’s Frank Sinatra.
A member of 1970s “Young Hollywood,” when his circle of friends included Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Martin Scorsese, De Palma doesn’t rhapsodize about the good ol’ days, saying only that such a time is unlikely to happen again. Of his overstated reputation for depicting violence against women, he maintains that the scenes in question seemed right for the movies he was making at the time. Then we’re treated to a clip of Angie Dickinson being butchered in an elevator.
His comments on moviemaking sound like the words of a journeyman. He suggests that a director can’t control his career, but can only do his best with the opportunities that come up. Still, the clips of Casualties of War, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Phantom of the Paradise, and Blow Out have more cinematic verve than any dozen movies you’ll find in any cinemaplex today, reminding us again that few can match De Palma in terms of sheer eye candy. Another treat: the alternate ending of Snake Eyes, where a tidal wave of Biblical heft wipes out a Las Vegas casino. The scene recalls something from the silent era, a D.W. Griffith storm where evil is vanquished.
A few tidbits about his teenage years are fascinating, such as following his father with a camera when he suspected the old man was having an affair. Though this feels like a scene from one of his movies, De Palma isn’t much for connecting the dots between his childhood and, say, Body Double. The closest he comes to a big-time revelation is when he mentions that his career is probably behind his three failed marriages, and that it can’t be fun to be with a man who says, “My movie is my wife, not you.”
Brian De Palma was at his best when he showed characters, whether a rough Cuban gangster, or a teenage girl with telekinetic powers, or a sound engineer who thinks he's on to a crime, coming out of their isolation into a kind of dream world, a stylized, expressionistic version of America, one that is grotesquely beautiful but loaded with traps. He should be ranked among the best directors, but he isn’t. He’s simply De Palma, the Hollywood equivalent of the homerun slugger who either smashes the ball or goes down swinging. A reassessment is in order, for De Palma’s versatility recalls the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age. This documentary is a start. But even Baumbach and Paltrow present a slightly skewed message. After giving the man a chance to explain himself, they end their movie with a posed photo of De Palma standing over what looks like a female corpse, one apparently split apart by power tools. He has the slightly bored but formal look of an office worker, neither apologetic nor triumphant.