So one of the best things about Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s documentary De Palma is that it recalls a time when vital critical wars raged over the work of Brian De Palma. Back in 1980, the Village Voice gave front-page space to a debate between Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman over whether Dressed to Kill was “derivative or “dazzling.” (The articles make a brief appearance in the doc.) De Palma’s films were confrontational and controversial, filled with indulgent technique and provocative levels of gore, violence and sex. To some, it was sleaze and style devoid of content. To others, the sleaze and the style were the content.
But compare the contentious reception of Dressed to Kill to that which greeted the director’s most recent release, the deliriously paranoid 2012 erotic thriller Passion. The kind of ridiculous and breathless exercise in high style that would have once torn critics apart, Passion was regarded as a quaint throwback — a beloved filmmaker taking his favorite genre out for another spin. The film was neither loved nor hated, but its reception gave you the sense that Brian De Palma had finally become (gasp) respectable.
I realize I’m making it sound like the poor guy is dead. Hell, he’s not even retired. Garrulous and good-humored, De Palma presides over Paltrow and Baumbach’s film, taking us through his life and career step by step, title by title, in chronological order. The documentary is essentially one long interview, peppered generously with clips and montages that illustrate its subjects points. (A highlight: intercutting two scenes of De Palma himself, in his own movies, playing a director trying to get an actress/murder victim to take off her clothes, first in 1968's Murder a la Mod and then in 2006’s The Black Dahlia.) Paltrow and Baumbach don’t get fancy with the filmmaking. They’re smart enough to let De Palma’s own resonant images — his gorgeous compositions, his smooth camera moves — do much of the work. (After all, if you can’t make an awesome clip reel out of Brian De Palma films, then what good are you?)
De Palma is refreshingly forthright about drawing connections between his art and his life. “I grew up in an operating room,” he notes, contemplating how witnessing his father’s work as an orthopedic surgeon informed the bloodier aspects of his movies. De Palma also recalls secretly following dad around and photographing him having affairs — a portrait of the artist as a young voyeur. He’s not afraid to dish on former colleagues — on how Obsession star Cliff Robertson tried to sabotage Geneviève Bujold’s performance by giving bad line readings and messing with her eye-lines, or how Michael J. Fox nearly killed Sean Penn on the set of Casualties of War. He sounds downright proud when he recalls how he kept screenwriters Robert Towne and David Koepp stashed away in different hotel rooms during the production of Mission: Impossible, each writing and rewriting in isolation.
Most of these are stories he’s told before, so little of what he says here will feel revelatory to his biggest devotees. The true highlight of De Palma is the work itself and hearing the man talk about issues of form and technique — about when his signature split-screen effect works best, or how he came up with the split-diopter shot, which allows foreground and background to remain simultaneously in focus. Or how long takes allow him to document emotions “happening in real time.” Or how the current Hollywood craze for pre-visualization with computers is leading to “visual clichés” and boring action sequences.
Occasionally, he touches on others’ films, and his observations are incisive, as when he notes that the deliberate pacing in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon establishes a “time-sense” of its 18th-century setting, immersing you in the rhythms of its era. All too often, directors feign modesty or just-doing-my-job naïveté. De Palma by contrast comes off as quick, smart — but never cocky. All throughout, you get the sense of an artist for whom style is a living, breathing thing. He understands that composition, movement, cutting and pacing lie at the heart of what he does.
As a paid-in-full member of the Brian De Palma Fan Club, I enjoyed the hell out of De Palma, even though very little of it challenged my assumptions and opinions about the films. Like a lot of recent documentaries about artists, it ultimately plays something like a glorified DVD extra: an interview with, a video essay about and a love letter to a favorite filmmaker. Perhaps it might have been interesting to pursue further the controversies around his work — to give voice to those who’ve accused him of misogyny, say — or to make a more pronounced case for the ongoing relevance of his films. But that’s a different movie, and while De Palma is an eloquent advocate for his own work, he’s not about to sit there and spend hours answering his critics or trying to get the uninitiated into the theater to watch his stuff. For better and for worse, we no longer live in an era when he needs to.