Review: ‘De Palma’ is more than just a casual appraisal of a director’s work

Brian De Palma taught me the value of film criticism.

The first time one of his films really registered for me actively was when Dressed To Kill was released in 1980. I was starting to get bit by the film bug at the time, still in the early days of the sickness, and there were many ways I would digest films beyond just seeing movies. For films I wasn”t allowed to see, there were still ways for me to get some sense of the movie. Mad magazine, for example. Undressed To Kill was one of the movie parodies that ran in 1980, and it was a beat for beat riff off of the real film. I knew the story and I even knew the twist, since Mad was not shy about spoilers. It was easy to feel like you”d seen the film after you read a Mad parody, and I also started reading not only novelizations, but any film criticism I could find at that point. I started checking every magazine to see if they had a film section. My parents subscribed to Time, so that was the first thing I read every week. At least once a week, we made a trip to the library, and I”d read as many movie reviews as I could during our time there.

When Dressed To Kill was released, it was hammered by many critics. The National Organization of Women organized protests which only made it sound like it was something I had to see immediately. It was at the height of all of this that I discovered The New Yorker, where Pauline Kael stood alone, it seemed, in her admiration of the film and of De Palma in general. I was amazed at the ferocity with which she disagreed with everyone else, and the movie she described sounded like a movie I”d love. By the time I actually laid eyes on Dressed To Kill, I”d been primed to hate it… but it was Kael”s voice that seemed the loudest to me, that seemed the most accurate. I saw Carrie the following year, and then I was off and running, my affection for his work growing as I caught up with Sisters and The Fury and Phantom Of The Paradise even as he was releasing films like Blow Out and Scarface and Body Double. Even when he fumbled with a movie like Wise Guys or Snake Eyes or Mission To Mars, he fumbled with style. He was able to occasionally muster up a genuine blockbuster like The Untouchables or Mission: Impossible, but he was always at his best when he worked from a personal place.

If Pauline Kael had not been such a staunch defender of De Palma, it”s possible I would have just bought into the party line and been denied the pleasure of watching his career unfold. Because of the impact that her work had on me in terms of learning not to buy into the mainstream”s opinion automatically, and because of the playful film nerd nature of De Palma”s work, it”s hard for me to feel anything but affection for him, even if I don”t love everything he”s made. And now, to help make the case for his overall value, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have come up with one of the year”s most entertaining pieces of film criticism. That”s how I”d describe this two-hour interview with the filmmaker, illustrated with not only clips from his films but clips from the films and the culture that surrounded his movies as they were being made and released. The film touches on everything from Murder a la Mod to Passion, with some films being given more time than others. DePalma emerges as a charming storyteller, funny and slightly wicked, and he offers up some terrific anecdotes about his casts, his process, and his choices over the years.

Part of the pleasure of the documentary comes from seeing these clips on the big screen, looking as good as they ever have. I”ve been lucky enough to see many of my favorites of his movies in the theater, either when they first came out or at special revival screenings. Being able to watch chunks of Phantom and Blow Out and The Untouchables all in one screening only underlines just how much fun De Palma is at his best. I just plain enjoy his aesthetic. He is clever, and clever doesn”t always age well. It can be grating over the course of a career. I think De Palma was Tarantino before Tarantino was Tarantino — the bratty film nerd whose movies aren”t just about their plot or their themes but about movies themselves. One of the most often overlooked films he made was Home Movies, in which he worked with a class of Sarah Lawrence students to make a film that was designed to teach them how to make films. It”s such a reflexive exercise, clearly never designed to actually be released theatrically, that you can only judge it as a glimpse inside De Palma”s own feelings about filmmaking. It came at a moment when he was struggling with finding his place in the industry, and he had to reach out to his buddies Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese to help kick in the finances to get the tiny studen-driven film finished. One of my favorite stories in the documentary involves Spielberg”s role in the shooting of the mansion gunfight at the end of Scarface, and there”s a great one about Sean Penn”s torture of Michael J. Fox during the making of Casualties of War as well.

What I found most illuminating here is the way De Palma hides his own life in his films, in some overt and surprising ways. Bringing this all back around to Dressed to Kill, there”s a scene involving Keith Gordon that was inspired directly by De Palma following his own father around when he was younger, photographing him in the act of infidelity. It was a defining moment for him as a kid, and it found its way into the film directly. His lightning bolt moment as a film nerd happened during Hitchcock”s Vertigo, so is it any wonder he picked up so much of Hitchcock”s genuinely daring and inventive film language and ran with it? De Palma as a filmmaker seems almost entirely uninterested in things like logic or convention, and that”s certainly enough to make some audiences crazy. But he is so defiantly drunk in the way he uses film language itself that it is little wonder his films give me a contact high. Baumbach and Paltrow”s De Palma is both celebratory and clear-eyed, an honest appraisal of a film artist who deserves to be praised while he can still enjoy it, and whose love of film feels like a precursor to the modern film geek archetype.

De Palma arrives in limited release this weekend.