Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
Opens June 10 at the Angelika
One can only hope Brian De Palma appreciates the black-comic irony that a movie about his life and work begins with a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Salt meet wound. His Film Brat peers (Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, et al) pretty much escaped the long shadows of their influences. But De Palma and his predominantly thriller-based oeuvre are forever indebted to the Master of Suspense—whether for good or ill varies wildly depending on who’s doing the looking.
“Being a director is being a watcher,” says De Palma at one point in this breezy and beguiling feature-length documentary. And his younger colleagues/family friends Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow take him at his word, training their camera almost entirely on the man himself as he chatters his way through a six-decade long career. All you need to make a movie is a guy in a chair? Apparently.
That’s not entirely true. There are plenty of cutaways to clips from popular hits like Carrie and The Untouchables, from polarizing works like Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Even the minor movies (the Joe Piscopo-Danny DeVito gangster comedy Wise Guys, anyone?) and the maudits (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars) get mentioned, some in greater depth than others.
Yet even when De Palma glances over one of his films (he plays down his 1978 psychic thriller The Fury, which this writer considers among his very best), it never feels like he’s giving them short shrift. Much of this has to do with how Baumbach and Paltrow structure the documentary as an idiosyncratic exercise in point-of-view, a first-person memoir of sorts, with De Palma as (unreliable?) narrator. He’s at the very least a consistently engrossing and entertaining presence, spouting boyish “Holy mackerals!” instead of curse words and frequently cackling with devilish glee when recounting production stories, like how he himself came up with Carrie‘s indelible “flying utensils” finale.
For De Palma, filmmaking is a pragmatic craft, one that should be approached as if each project were a puzzle to solve, the final form ultimately dictating the content. Those looking for a deeper understanding of the themes and obsessions underlying the director’s often perverse objects may leave disappointed. But that isn’t Baumbach and Paltrow’s intent. This is a film about a great artist reckoning with a much-debated body of work and musing on a legacy that is sure to divide audiences (watchers of another sort) for years to come.