Brian De Palma was one of the pillars of the New Hollywood that flourished in the late 60s and early 70s, the time when the studio system was breaking down along with the production code. The moviegoing public was getting bored with the dusty old product that the Hollywood elders were pumping out and so new voices like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman – many of whom were just coming out of film school, tapped into what the audience was hungry for. All of these directors forged great work in their time and have, by now, encompassed a body of work that any filmmaker would envy. They all had something, however, that De Palma did not. Consistency.
De Palma’s body of work is probably more interesting than it is fully admirable. While those other directors sailed into great heights, De Palma seemed to fly under the radar. While his films always had meat on them, they weren’t always met with great admiration, and if you’ve seen some of them then you know that it wasn’t without good reason.
Watching the documentary De Palma, you can see the work of a man who’s never really found a tone in the way of his contemporaries. Spielberg grabbed hold of the audience’s sense of wonder. Scorsese understood the dark side of the New York streets while Woody Allen explored the lighter side. Cassavetes threw out the conventions of movie structure. Coppola managed epics that would become American masterworks. And of course Lucas’ success restructured the entire tapestry of the direction of American cinema as a business. For a while, De Palma was seen as the successor to Alfred Hitchcock (his inspiration) and earned himself the nicknamed “The Master of The Macabre” but it fell off as his work became less and less consistent.
De Palma is a talking-head documentary but since the only head belongs to De Palma himself, you don’t really mind. He is the sole focus here; there are no producers, no directors, no actors, no affiliates, and no family members. It’s just a film artist talking about his passion, his vocation, his avocation, his inspiration and his drive to keep moving despite often mixed reaction to his work. One film at a time he talks about what inspired him to make Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way and Mission Impossible. He never seemed to have made a film that earned universal praise and he was often criticized for his mishandling of female characters. Looking at clips from films Blow Out, Body Double and Femme Fatale, it is possible to believe that some of the criticism may have partially been valid.
What unspools in De Palma is a man who stuck to his guns despite overwhelming criticism. Directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach are often more admirable of his work than it probably deserves but for the film lover this is a dreamland of film clips and anecdotes. He remembers De Niro holding out on the role of Al Capone until the very last minute while De Palma had Bob Hoskins waiting in the wings. He remembers the famous “flying knife” death of Mrs. White in Carrie and being appalled that in the book the character dies of a heart attack (“A heart attack? Really? That’s it?”). He remembers Sean Penn on the set of Casualties of War riling up co-star Michael J. Fox by whispering in his ear “TV actor.” He remembers fights with the studio over the downbeat ending of Blow Out and the battle with the MPAA over the violence in Scarface. In those cases, he promised to behave and then went and did what he wanted anyway.
De Palma has the physical presence of a bullish bouncer but he’s not impervious to criticism. He can wave of any suggestion that it doesn’t bother him but his eyes suggest something different. When he made the Al Pacino gangster epic Carlito’s Way in 1993, it was met with a volley of mixed reviews. Looking back he can’t hide his sadness as he confesses “I can’t make a better film than that.”
I think he can. His best film, in my estimation, is 1981’s Blow Out starring John Travolta as a sound man who accidentally records a car accident that had political connections. It was inspired partially on Antonioni’s Blow Up but largely on the Chappaquiddick scandal but was a story well told. On a storytelling level, he got it just right and he mixed it with a great filmmaking style that reminded me a lot of Strangers on a Train. Of all of the films examined, this one seems to get more of a breakdown especially in light of the fact that it’s failure at the box office was blamed on its sour ending. For me, it’s the one De Palma film that I am waiting for the public to rediscover in the same way that they have reassessed Scarface.
By the film’s end we’ve seen an artist who has spent a lifetime fighting for his art whether it is from Hollywood executives, feminists, movie critics or the filmgoing public. He keeps on fighting. Sometimes he gives into the impulse to give Hollywood what it wants (he agreed to turn Mission Impossible into a Tom Cruise movie by having the rest of the cast killed off early in the picture), but often he breaks away and just does what he wants. It is at those moments when he is at his best. De Palma proves that he’s still a great storyteller in front of and behind the camera.