What Today’s Filmmakers Could Learn From The Brian De Palma Documentary, ‘De Palma’

The Halloween of 1974 saw the release of Phantom of the Paradise, a film written and directed by the not-quite-established writer/director Brian De Palma. A rock and roll riff on The Phantom of the Opera with songs by Paul Williams, the film follows the brief rise and long fall of Winslow Leach (William Finley), a talented songwriter whose songs are stolen by the evil record mogul Swan (Williams). Framed, imprisoned, and mutilated, Leach returns to haunt the Paradise, the successful nightclub that now features his music against his will. He does what he does better than anyone else, but the powers that be are in the business of extracting what they need from true artists, tailoring it to current trends, and discarding the rest. And so Leach haunts the Paradise and plots his revenge.

It would be a stretch to suggest De Palma has become something of a Phantom of the Paradise to Hollywood. His greatest commercial triumphs (CarrieDressed to KillScarfaceMission: ImpossibleThe Untouchables), and his greatest commercial stumbles (the masterpiece Blow Out, the non-masterpieces Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars), awaited him after that film’s release. His career has been one of many ups and downs — with the downs seemingly as much of his own making as the ups. What’s more, though he makes movies with less frequency, De Palma doesn’t seem all that unhappy with the career he’s had. In the fine new documentary De Palma, co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, he’s sanguine about both his successes and his failures.

Yet it’s hard to watch De Palma without getting a sense that there are elements missing from too many movies today, and they’re precisely the elements De Palma’s best films always had in abundance. De Palma is still with us — and still making movies, if less frequently — but his films have a double life as phantoms of the multiplexes, reminders that we should be asking for more of thrillers and spectacles and too often end up settling for less. Here are a few takeaways worth considering.

Take Your Time

There’s a quote from Alfred Hitchcock (more on him in a bit) that boils down to this: Surprise is a bomb exploding under a table. Suspense is knowing the bomb is there and waiting for it to explode. Shocks are easy. Suspense takes work. Consider Carrie‘s famous prom scene. It’s not the bucket of blood falling on the unsuspecting Carrie’s head that makes it work, it’s the seemingly endless build-up to that moment. De Palma’s camera shows Carrie’s tormentors waiting in anticipation as their cruel prank is set in motion, slips into slow motion (a favorite device) as some in the crowd start to suspect something is amiss, lingers on the bucket perched precariously over Carrie’s head, traces the path of the rope that will bring it down on her, lingers on the hands set to do the pulling, then cuts from one detail to the next as the music swells, then brings it down. It’s almost unbearable. And it’s impossible to look away from it.

De Palma’s filmography is littered with such sequences, and few directors do this sort of slow build/explosive payoff better than De Palma. But maybe that’s because not enough try. There’s a patience required, both by filmmakers and audiences, that’s not seen often enough. De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, with its long, silent, Tom Cruise-suspended in mid-air break-in sequence appeared in 1996, the same summer that saw the White House blown up in Independence Day. One is an example of suspense, the other is an example of surprise. It’s not hard to see which has had the greater influence on contemporary blockbusters.

Treat Action Scenes Like Pieces Of Choreography

There’s a reason people are still talking about the big airport fight scene in Captain America: Civil War, apart from it featuring virtually every superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: It has a rhythm and a sense of place. It’s clear where everyone is in the environment, who they’re fighting, and how it’s going. The editing has a sense of purpose. The action rises, escalates, takes unexpected direction, and falls. In other words, Joe and Anthony Russo put in the work of crafting a set piece which, for all its good qualities, haven’t always been what Marvel movies do best.

A scene like the Union Station shootout in The Untouchables is the polar opposite of any given action scene in a film like, say, San Andreas. That film has its charms (mostly because Dwayne Johnson stars), but crafting coherent action scenes isn’t one of them. In De Palma, De Palma discusses the contemporary habit of handing action scenes off to special effects crews. The end result: A lot of show-offy CGI clichés like objects flying at the camera. This approach can be surprising. But thrilling, it’s not.

Take The Longview Of History

De Palma’s career has seen more than a few controversies. Scarface initially earned an X-rating. Dressed to Kill and Body Double attracted protests for their violence against women. These concerns weren’t necessarily misplaced — it’s hard to imagine a film in which a woman meets her death at the end of enormous drill not attracting controversy — but the movies have endured long after the controversies faded and gotten folded into the history of the film. De Palma’s career is proof that films last while outrage doesn’t. (See also: Basic Instinct, Zero Dark Thirty, etc.) What makes a film lurid and tasteless can also be what makes it compelling.

Which isn’t to say the films shouldn’t be talked about as if they were in any way antiseptic or beyond criticism, but they’re also bigger than the elements that attracted protest in the first place. And sometimes the protest is misplaced. Consider Dressed to Kill: Charges of misogyny found traction in 1980, but the film’s at best naive, at worst hateful portrayal of a transgender character went without much notice. Now it plays like a relic of a different time and different ways of thinking. Movies can serve that purpose, too.

Try To Use Hollywood Before It Uses You

De Palma has said he’ll never work in Hollywood again given the current climate. What’s amazing is that he was able to work in it so long. To look at his filmography is to see a director who knew how to build on the momentum of hits and use the capital to make more personal projects. Carrie and The Fury paved the way for Blow Out. When Blow Out flopped, he recovered with Scarface. The success of The Untouchables allowed for the unflinching Vietnam War movie Casualties of War. And so on. De Palma now seems exhausted by the process, seeking financing from foreign investors for most of the projects he’s made this century. But for a while, he knew how to play the game.

 Own Your Influences

For a long time, the knock against De Palma was that he was, at heart, a Hitchcock rip-off artist. De Palma begins and ends with the director talking about Hitchcock in general, and Vertigo — the film that made a searing impression on him when he first saw it — in particular. De Palma has borrowed liberally from Hitchcock. It’s even possible to map whole films onto their Hitchcock inspirations. Obsession revisits VertigoDressed to Kill looks directly to Psycho. Body Double echoes Rear Window. And so on.

But in De Palma‘s closing sequence, the director sees it differently. From his perspective, Hitchcock created a whole language of filmmaking in danger of being lost if no one else started using it. Directors need influences, even if they need to move beyond them. They need traditions to keep alive and achievements to best. If De Palma sends more viewers and, perhaps more importantly, more filmmakers back to Brian De Palma’s films, it will have done what it needs to do. What’s too often missing from movies now doesn’t have to stay missing, particularly with De Palma having provided so many strong, demanding examples of how much better they can be.