De Palma isn’t a documentary so much, it’s more of a cheerful stroll down memory lane – a reminiscence by its central figure. There’s no real conflict or opposing viewpoint, as the film involves Brian De Palma sitting, and talking to camera, punctuated with appropriate clips and images. And to be fair to it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow are old friends of the director and just wanted to get him talking on the record.
As a raconteur Brian De Palma is a personable presence, and this chronological look at his entire filmography is entertainingly candid. He doesn’t shy away from explaining why something didn’t work, or why the remakes of his most famous films (Carrie in particular) are so awful. He has a thick skin and with as many critical brickbats to his name as plaudits it seems necessary to keep bothering to make movies. He is from a generation of directors that includes Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, people it is often forgotten who were experimental independent film-makers when they first started out. De Palma was cut from the same cloth of filmmaker, and indeed of all of them is the one who still holds on to that independent status more than others. He has had some critical and financial hits over the years, namely The Untouchables, Carrie, Scarface and Mission: Impossible, but running through his career has been a dogged desire to keep making movies, trying new techniques. And to keep making movies despite the fact that the money men and banks were now in charge.
What’s interesting in a movie which essentially has one viewpoint is De Palma’s preparedness to talk about accusations against him. It’s often said that he relies too much on Alfred Hitchcock’s techniques in his storytelling, and he discusses this with great openness, as well as the accusations of misogyny (lots of his thrillers involve naked or near naked women coming to a nasty end). He acknowledges his debt to Hitchcock because Hitch knew what he was doing, and frames the exploitative schlocky horror of his earlier work in the context of the time they were made. Basically -they seemed like a good idea at the time. The way he holds his hands up to it is kind of refreshing, if not a desperately satisfying answer.
Brian De Palma has made some great films, and he’s also made some pretty bad ones too, and as such this two hour look at his work is never not interesting. He doesn’t shy away from the stuff which failed and there is something peculiarly fascinating in watching someone laugh about his previous work. He has made an astonishing amount of work over the years, and it’s likely that this will send you to his back catalogue with more appreciative eyes.
De Palma is out in cinemas on Friday 23rd September, and for fans of films and film-making in particular, it is a fascinating and unexpectedly funny watch.