When Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary on Brian De Palma opens with a scene from Vertigo, it’s hard not to chuckle, for any viewer observing De Palma’s career for the past few decades is well aware of his numerous nods to Hitchcock and even Vertigo in particular, thanks to Body Double. De Palma goes on to say that he would never forget his first viewing of Hitchock’s film in Radio City Music Hall when he was a younger and it obviously plays a vital role in his career as a filmmaker. But that’s about as sentimental as De Palma gets, the man or the film – which gets its succinct title from its subject, naturally – as we embark on a 107 minute very candid interview full of memories, anecdotes and vitriol.
Baumbach and Paltrow’s film is set up chronologically, starting with De Palma’s upbringing in the suburbs of Philadelphia and going through his time at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence where he became involved with Cinema 16 and started making short films. Following this, we get a pretty thorough career spanning conversation starting with Murder a la Mod and culminating in an almost too brief rehashing of his work from the past decade. De Palma is an amiable host and is as willing to discuss his failures as his successes, with a good deal of runtime being spent on his biggest titles from Scarface to The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible. It’s rather simple in structure but always dynamic thanks to De Palma’s animated, excited approach to storytelling and the numerous clips peppered throughout including archival home movies, footage from De Palma’s films and those that influenced him. The result is a surprisingly accessible and rich overview of a body of work that – already interesting in its own right – becomes utterly fascinating when examined this close. I never thought that I could be this compelled to revisit The Bonfire of the Vanities.
De Palma is now 75 years old and has been making feature films since the late 60s. To say that a lot of his comments about Hollywood come off as acerbic would be selling his bitterness short. Still, he remains diplomatic to an extent and allows himself to take blame when needed (The Fury) and to blame the source material (The Bonfire of the Vanities) elsewhere. He’s at his most candid when talking about his issues with the MPAA (Scarface, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double) regarding censorship and violence towards women in his films (and probably shouldn’t be on record here stating that he loves to follow women…) and tends to speak gleefully of his films’ ability to upset viewers. He also shares anecdotes that have surprisingly not become the stuff of film nerd legend yet: Spielberg assisting on the set of Scarface‘s major shoot out, complete with footage of Steven in a face shield as squibs explode around him; being offered Flashdance by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer only to turn it down (the sleaze fest that could have been!); casting Carrie at the same time George Lucas was casting Star Wars with Carrie Fisher auditioning for Princess Leia as well as the titular role of Carrie; being upset with Cliff Robertson on the set of Obsession for using too much bronzer; working on Prince of the City for over a year only to be replaced by Sidney Lumet and then taking on Scarface which was originally a Lumet project. It’s all here and at times it almost feels like a De Palma centric version of Hollywood Babylon, but it really works thanks to our subject’s assured manner of speaking and the editing of Baumbach and Paltrow.
De Palma ultimately becomes a documentary that’s as audacious as our subject and our subject’s work. It tells it like it is, with De Palma himself doing the telling. If anything, I wanted more. The most recent few years of his career are rushed through in the final twenty minutes here and it’s a shame really. I’m not sure how keen anyone would be on discussing Femme Fatale at length but considering what De Palma has to say about everything else he made – including even Wise Guys – there has to be more. What we have is gold though, Baumbach and Paltrow have sat down one of our more divisive filmmakers of the past forty years and have let him tell his story the way that he wants to tell it. I’ve always felt that De Palma has never gotten the acclaim or success that his New Hollywood peers have, but now is his chance. Just don’t leave The Bonfire of the Vanities and Snake Eyes out of that eventual touring retrospective, please.