Sunday, June 12, 2016

"De Palma"

 3.5 / 5 

Scorcese, everyone knows.  Coppola, too.  Spielberg, naturally.  And of course, Lucas, even if you think of him more as the creator of the Star Wars machine than an auteur.  They're the household names.

Then there's Brian De Palma, whose name doesn't quite have the same recognition to the average moviegoer, and who's the subject of a new documentary by directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

There was a brief and extraordinary period of time, De Palma recalls in the long, fascinating interview that forms the spine of De Palma, in which Marty and Steven and Francis and George and, yes, Brian somehow managed to take over Hollywood, not simply to become favored by its inner power circle but to become its inner power circle.

They were the auteurs, the movie directors influenced by the French New Wave of the 1960s, who wanted to experiment with the form and substance of film while making movies that were still recognizably mainstream, to push the boundaries of what audiences would accept by paying attention to what the audiences were saying they wanted.

While the studios were still making bloated musicals and big-budget disaster movies and lighthearted rom-coms starring Doris Day, these guys were blending traditional narrative film with bold and daring experiments, and their films were becoming blockbusters.  And best of all for the studios, they were cheap.

Yes, Lucas had his style.  And Coppola.  Scorsese had his style and the themes that he wanted to explore, and Spielberg had his uncanny eye, but what of De Palma?

His films were arguably, even more visually daring, even more thematically off-the-wall, even more challenging to audiences accustomed to the studio style of filmmaking.  De Palma experimented less with narrative structure than with visual style, to the point of audacity, utilizing techniques like split screen, deep focus and remarkably physical camera work.

De Palma takes a close look at the body of De Palma's work, and the movie is mostly a fascinating and grin-inducing trip down memory lane for film buffs who came of age in the 1970s or 1980s.  For cinephiles, De Palma comes about as close as you're likely to get to sitting down with such a talented filmmaker and getting him to tell stories -- why he almost didn't select Sissy Spacek to star in Carrie, how Sean Penn treated Michael J. Fox on the set of Casualties of War, how Cliff Robertson nearly ruined Obsession, why studio executives couldn't believe what they were seeing when they first screened Blow Out.

His stories are mesmerizing, and De Palma turns out to be a most affable and charming host, though he seems more interested in recalling the making-of stories (mostly, but not always, he veers away from gossip) and, in the documentary's major disappointment, less about discussing the impact and legacy of his work, or casting a critical eye on his own creations.

In that way, De Palma tends to uphold the mild insult many critics lobbed at him when he was making mostly thrillers: that he was "Hitchcock light."  De Palma doesn't provide the sort of psychological insight or technical field study of his films as Hitchcock so famously used to do.  He doesn't seem interested in examining them at all, in fact, merely recalling a story or two and then moving on.

The stories are fascinating, but not endlessly so.  Learning about his use of split-screen in Carrie's climactic prom scene is great, but hearing an equal number of stories about The Fury is unnecessary.  De Palma doesn't even like that movie.  And De Palma glosses over the most significant misstep in De Palma's career, the 1990 adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities, then gives as much time to De Palma's lesser and more recent work -- like Femme Fatale and Redacted, two movies I didn't even know had ever been made -- which seems needlessly completist.

The opportunity for insight into the work of a truly dazzling and fascinating filmmaker isn't exactly squandered here, but few who have interest in De Palma are going to be grateful for Baumbach and Paltrow's decision to delve into the different versions of the ending to Snake Eyes.  Baumbach and Paltrow want to cover every film De Palma has made, which leaves too little time to delve into the really significant ones.

For real film buffs, though, De Palma is still a treasure, not the least for the shot of Steven Spielberg wearing a protective helmet while watching De Palma shoot a gunfight for Scarface.  To see those directors together is a treat that can't be missed.  De Palma puts them together in the same shot, but never entirely makes the cogent argument it should: that De Palma is in the same league as Spielberg and the other great directors of the 1970s.

Viewed June 12, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


No comments:

Post a Comment