Oak Cliff Film Festival 2016
Greetings again from the darkness. A self-inflicted career retrospective … that’s my most fitting description of this project from co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. Rather than line-up a slew of third-party observers and collaborators, we get the famed director himself walking us film-by-film through his resume. That’s right, Brian De Palma discusses the De Palma film canon … and we movie lovers couldn’t ask for anything better.
Beginning with a clip of Vertigo, the doc leads with the Hitchcock influence, almost as a form of disclosure. It’s as if everyone associated is saying, Yes we admit it … Director De Palma has been heavily influenced and inspired by the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Now pay attention to what he’s done with his career – some really good, some not so good, some downright awful. “Underappreciated” might be the best label for De Palma. He was part of the “New Hollywood” with Spielberg, Scorcese, Coppola, and Lucas, yet they are worshipped, while De Palma is mostly ignored.
Mr. De Palma speaks directly to the camera and seems to thoroughly enjoy this opportunity to analyze (and at times defend) his career, providing a self guided reflective approach – a chronological retrospective that doesn’t shy away from his inability to put together a streak of successful films. This is direct talk (describing a particular bomb as “one of many disasters”) with no apologies from a filmmaker who has worked for five decades. He tells behind the scenes stories in a matter-of-fact manner, not always complimentary of himself, actors or the industry.
The stories and recollections are the highlight here. De Palma speaks highly of Wilford Leach (his mentor and professor at Sarah Lawrence), composer Bernard Hermann and Robert DeNiro, with less than flattering tales of Cliff Robertson (Obsession), Sean Penn (Casualties of War), and Oliver Stone (Scarface). It’s fascinating to hear De Palma explain the box office failure of his version of The Bonfire of the Vanities, address the scandal of Body Double, and describe in detail the simultaneous casting (with Spielberg) of Star Wars and Carrie. Even more eye-opening is his reminiscing on the back-and-forth with director Sidney Lumet as they played hot-potato with Scarface and Prince of the City.
Brian De Palma was Columbia University educated (math and physics), and has directed some of the most creative, colorful and controversial films – some of which never received their “due”. This may be mostly a film for those who want more inside-industry scoop, but it’s a man who takes pride in the fact that famed film critic Pauline Kael was a fan of his work, and that few directors have a more varied canon of film. His patented “holy mackerel” is on full display as he takes us on the journey of De Palma films, and it’s a reminder that “talking head” documentaries can still work … provided the talking head doing the talking is saying something worth listening to.
Here is a list of a few De Palma films over the years: Sisters (73), Phantom of the Paradise (74), Carrie (76), The Fury (78), Dressed to Kill (80), Blow Out (81), Scarface (83), Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video (84), Body Double (84), The Untouchables (87), Casualties of War (89), The Bonfire of the Vanities (90), Carlito’s Way (93), Mission: Impossible (96), Snake Eyes (98), The Black Dahlia (06).