De Palma screens at 6pm on Wednesday, September 30, as a special presentation of the 53rd New York Film Festival, with codirectors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, and subject Brian De Palma all in attendance. A24 has acquired the film’s distribution rights.
This is my fourth year covering the New York Film Festival, and one of my fondest festival memories, oddly enough, is seeing Brian De Palma’s Passion back in 2012. Hardly anyone would dare call it one of De Palma’s best; at very least, the blood isn’t richly liquid enough, and if you want to get more detailed, you might point out that the entire first half is kind of stilted and alien-sounding. But despite that tininess the whole audience seemed to identify it early on as a De Palma retro palate cleanser a la Raising Cain and Femme Fatale, and what at other screenings might have been mistaken for unintended laughter sounded, to me, like a collective acknowledgment of the very film-crit pleasures in observing a master filmmaker play around with his favorite tropes (“I didn’t know you had a twin” is not a laugh line, but it plays like a knowing joke to the De Palma faithful).
It’s appropriate, then, that my first NYFF screening this year was De Palma, a documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow that parlays their friendship with the director into a career overview.
These kinds of docs are not uncommon, though they tend to run on PBS or HBO; Richard Linklater had one just last year with 21 Years, an affable look at his filmography that played a bit like a promo piece for Boyhood. But De Palma, culled from thirty to forty hours of conversations and pruned to only include De Palma’s voice, not his interviewers’, is more comprehensive and film-buffier than most. This is a full run-down covering every single movie he’s directed; Passion (which, sadly, remains his most recent fiction feature as of this writing) is the only one he doesn’t address directly, because the footage was filmed about five years ago, before that film was complete (Baumbach and Paltrow do include clips, though, as De Palma finishes up talking about how he’s returning to smaller indies after decades in and out of the studio system). If you’ve ever wanted to hear De Palma talk about Bonfire of the Vanities or Mission to Mars or Raising Cain alongside Blow Out and Dressed to Kill, this is your movie. And this is definitely my movie.
Even non-superfans might be engaged by De Palma’s open assessment of his experiences—and delight to his frequent use of “holy mackerel!” His offhand manner means that fascinating anecdotes will come out in unexpected bursts, like when he casually mentions, more than halfway through the movie, that he conducted surveillance of his father cheating on his mother, setting up decades’ worth of voyeurism-obsessed movies, or the way Sean Penn apparently tormented Michael J. Fox for extra verisimilitude on the set of Casualties of War. It’s also worth noting that some of the movies often described by others as for-hire gigs aren’t treated by De Palma as such, and one that unabashedly is, the first Mission: Impossible, he designates as a total success (following some fascinating behind-the-scenes conflicts). While the movie doesn’t necessarily demand the theatrical experience (and who knows if it will actually receive a theatrical release), the well-chosen clips (from, again: every movie!) have more grandeur on the big screen, making their technical details easier to parse as De Palma discusses them.
Baumbach and Paltrow bookend the movie with clips from Vertigo, which De Palma describes as revelatory for its strategy of showing “what we’re doing as we’re doing it,” as he puts it, and De Palma ends on a note of melancholy as its subject describes aging in Hollywood. Specifically, he notes that Hitchcock, and many other directors, made their strongest movies in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and how he thinks about that as a then-sixtysomething, now-seventysomething artist. It’s only at this moment that the movie works against him, because it’s hard to watch him talk about his filmography without hoping for a few more additions. Let’s say at NYFF 2017, maybe?