DE PALMA Review
Director: Noah Baumbach
“Let’s hear about the life of Brian De Palma from his mouth only.” At least that’s what I assume Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach pitched as their documentary on the famed director. And they had every reason to jump to this assumption. The titular figure is fascinating, both in the breadth of his catalogue and his industry insight. But where his experience is undeniable, his merits as a filmmaker are hardly justified. Here we have a portrait of a genre director. While it’s fascinating to hear such a man’s war stories, Brian De Palma naysayers need not apply.
Let’s break it down like this: taking any personally vested interests in De Palma’s filmography out of the picture, we are left with a 90-minute interview that’s intercut with footage of the director’s films. The documentarians’ goals at this point should be to make me better understand De Palma, whether that means hating or loving him more. But instead, I left confused. When considering filmmaker biographies, I can’t think of one that’s been more successful than MILIUS. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about John Milius and left reeling about his contributions to the world of cinema. This was a man whose selflessness to the art of writing overshadowed any personal fame. In DE PALMA, all I see is a man obsessed with the pastiche.
TFW you realize that this is technically the only original shot in the entire film
It’s certainly part of Baumbach’s intention to highlight just how full of himself DE PALMA can occasionally be. Otherwise the film would slyly avoid the increments where the man arrogantly claims to be the only living practitioner of the Hitchcock style. But what frustrated me most when watching DE PALMA was that his discussion of his accomplishments was nauseating in its absence of original ideas. By the time the film ended I had two newfound beliefs about DE PALMA: Firstly, the man loved his steadycam. Secondly, nearly every single film of his copied the stylings of another filmmaker.
As such, I felt cheated when DE PALMA would shy away from further discussions on CARRIE and SCARFACE, the two films that appeared to be clear deviations from any formula, and henceforth felt like genuine De Palma ideas. Instead, Baumbach and Paltrow balance the scales, linearly progressing through the filmmaker’s catalogue, going into the same amount of depth regardless of the quality of the film. Hell, even De Palma knows when a film of his wasn’t great, so it feels needless to spend so much time on REDACTED or MISSION TO MARS.
Pictured: Spielberg and Scorsese fend off against a wild De Palma
I sometimes worry that I appear to be in the minority that don’t believe in the merits of DE PALMA as a documentary. While I appreciate much of what the filmmaker has contributed to cinema on a formalist level, especially in genre pictures, I fail to understand why someone would idealize this film as a “miniature film school.” All I see here is a discussion of self-love. Brian De Palma clearly ruffled some feathers in his community, and I would have enjoyed hearing other filmmakers talk about him, because currently all I understand is that this man talks about himself as if he were comparable to Scorsese. And hell, maybe he is, but Baumbach and Paltrow sure as hell didn’t convince me. For what it’s worth, go see MILIUS first.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend