ON BLU-RAY [REGION ‘A’ ONLY] AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 110 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A documentary where director Brian De Palma talks about his movie career….
Though he’s made a few hit movies which are still well known titles [I guess Carrie and Scarface are the ones ‘everybody’ has probably heard of], Brian De Palma never really became a household name, and he’s not generally been beloved by the majority of the critics either. Nonetheless, it’s De Palma who Noah Baumbach [who is a friend and a huge fan of this director despite being a very different filmmaker] and Jake Paltrow decided to make a documentary about, and there were times whilst I was watching it that not only did I think that the way they made it was the best possible choice, but that all programmes about movie directors should be shot like this. It basically consists of nothing more than De Palma talking and talking interspersed with footage and stills from his films and occasionally other things such as photographs of him as a kid. In fact there were a couple of times where I wished it was even simpler and was all De Palma. The movie clips remind you of what an amazing visual stylist De Palma is, but they don’t really show his mastery of set pieces and it may have been better if a few scenes had been shown in their entirety [though that may also have made the documentary very long]. De Palma often mentions his penchant for long takes but we’re never allowed to see all of one. And the endings of several films are shown which may ruin things for someone who hasn’t seen all of the movies, though like all good documentaries about filmmakers it’ll probably make you want to check out some of De Palma’s stuff even if you’ve seen some of it before but not been too keen.
However, I’m probably getting ahead of myself and sounding unnecessarily negative, because for the De Palma fan this documentary is often quite wonderful. The man is honest, revealing, witty and warm [the latter not being something always associated with this director] company as he goes through his movie life [with a bit of personal stuff thrown in] and his movies. He tells of how each project was set up, talks about their stars and major sequences, and tells stories. Some of these will be familiar to the De Palma lover, such as the oft-mentioned tale of composer Bernard Herrmann turning up to see a cut of Sisters and being horrified that some Herrmann music from Psycho and Vertigo had been placed over it as a kind of temp score….though it’s worth hearing them again from the man himself. Telling this one, he does a terrific imitation of Herrmann whose voice, being a fan of the great movie composer, I’ve heard on a couple of recordings. He sounds just like him. And there are a few tales that you probably won’t have heard. Despite recently watching the extensive special features on Arrow’s fantastic Blu-ray release of Raising Cain [my watching and reviewing of this being what prompted me to obtain De Palma, realising that as a De Palma fan it was ridiculous that I hadn’t yet seen it], I don’t remember hearing that Raising Cain was actually partly inspired by an affair De Palma had with a married woman, and what he thought would happen if she stayed at his place all night!
The opening rooftop chase from Vertigo begins the documentary, which is appropriate for two reasons. First, De Palma talks about how he saw it in its original 1958 release and how it blew him away, giving an interesting interpretation of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece along the way which was new to me but which makes sense and will probably shed a different light on my next viewing of a film I revisit every four or five years. And secondly, Hitchcock has been an unmistakeable influence on many of De Palma’s films, with Vertigo clearly informing Obsession and Body Double, and Psycho certainly inspiring Sisters, Dressed To Kill and – partly – Raising Cain, while De Palma’s style derives a bit from the Master of Suspense too and they share some of the same interests. All this has probably been one of the reasons why De Palma hasn’t been taken seriously by many critics, but it’s good that the documentary doesn’t shy away from this. Anyway, De Palma talks a little about his background and younger years, with a great story about him bugging a girl’s sex education class at school. Later on he relates how he would follow his father around when he was having an affair and eventually broke into his office and found his mistress hiding in a closet. And – while I knew that his dad was a surgeon – I didn’t know that he used to actually watch him operate as a child. You can certainly link some of these things to De Palma’s later preoccupations as a filmmaker.
De Palma, who says that he was originally a “science nerd”, then goes through his very early work which was especially interesting to me as I haven’t seen any of his movies prior to Sisters. There is great footage of a very young Robert De Niro and we’re told that some of what you see in Hi Mom! is actually real, though I was too busy laughing at De Palma informing us of what he did to stop himself being drafted. De Palma often seems to have trouble keeping a straight face at times as he recalls things with great amusement. The man is clearly loving this. We then move on to his first Hollywood production Sisters and the films that followed. De Palma lets us know which films he loves [Carlito’s Way is the one he seems to think is the best] and which ones he doesn’t, tending to spend less time talking about the ones he’s not too keen on or doesn’t rate too highly [sorry Fury fans, you don’t get to hear much about that one]. And there is certainly some new and revelatory material. I won’t reveal the tidbits involving Scarface, Carlito’s Way, Casualties Of War and Mission Impossible, but I’ll never be able to watch Obsession [one of my favourite De Palma movies] the same way again now I’ve heard what an ass Cliff Robertson was during filming. De Palma also goes into his style and technique, saying that what may seem odd ways of doing things to others just appear to be the best to him.
The documentary does seem to rush past his last few films, which is a shame. I would have especially liked to have heard a bit more of his thoughts on Redacted which – however flawed – was an interesting attempt to re-invent himself, and Femme Fatale, which is one of his most audacious movies at least in terms of narrative. Maybe he feels too “close” to them and can only reflect in detail about a movie he’s made with some distance? Maybe he’s disappointed in their muted reception and lack of wide releasing, even though he’s happy to chat about the notorious flop that was The Bonfire Of The Vanities earlier? Or maybe it’s just as a result of the editing down of what was apparently 30 hours of footage? I don’t know how much say De Palma himself had in the cutting of this documentary, but it’s disappointing that some of the deleted material isn’t on the Blu-ray or the DVD. The film clips are not only too short as I said earlier, but are also sometimes awkwardly inserted into the narrative, and there’s also a pointless device whereupon, because only a single camera angle was used, the editors obvious felt it necessary to re-size the image occasionally just to create a bit of variety. It’s a little annoying but no big deal really.
However, when De Palma is just chatting about himself, his art and his craft, De Palma certainly succeeds and shows that the most basic way of doing something can also be the best. And there’s a touch of sadness too, when he says that his kind of filmmaking [such as – for example – music being to the fore and not competing with sound effects] has gone out of fashion, and when – without it ever being explicitly stated – we’re reminded of how directors like De Palma are becoming a rare breed, or find it increasingly hard to make their movies the way they want to. It seems that De Palma fought the studio on pretty much every film he made yet nearly always won. I somehow can’t imagine he’d win very often if he was still making Hollywood studio pictures today. While they need to find a better way of incorporating film clips, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have still made something very worthwhile here, and I’m now just trying to think of which filmmaker they could next turn their attention to.