Film Review – De Palma
When it comes to the films of writer, director Brian De Palma there’s an automatic, overt sense of film making on the face of each one that typically it garners an immediate and strong response from viewers. For most of my life I have only liked a handful of De Palma’s films, and the ones I did like are his most easily digestible, arguably least stylistic, like The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible. It wasn’t until about five ago when watching my favorite De Palma film, Blow Out that it all finally clicked. De Palma’s working on a very personally stylistic level, his films directly reflect his choices as a director, choices that are often driven by a preference of aesthetics as opposed to just about anything else. Since mainstream audiences tend to be more narratively inclined, this gives way to an immediate divide. Then there’s the subject matter of misogyny and transphobia, among other things.
With the documentary De Palma, filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow have fashioned a two hour long discussion with De Palma himself talking about each of the films he’s made, including the ten or so independent features he made before what’s often considered his first breakthrough film Sisters (1973). First off, whether you like De Palma and his films or not, it’s often fascinating to hear someone so into their art talk about their own work at such length and in such candid detail. This isn’t so much a masterclass on filmmaking as it is a diary of ideas and emotions attached to each endeavor De Palma has made. Addressing decisions from acting choices to narrative design to the editing and presentation, De Palma covers a spectrum of experiences over a course of an entire career. Much like his mentor Alfred Hitchcock’s definitive study done by François Truffaut, this is a unique opportunity of retrospect and introspection straight from the horse’s mouth.
Given the controversial nature of his films, it’s probably then no surprise that De Palma’s views on said controversies are at times as problematic as the presentations themselves. Several times De Palma tries to wash his hands of these concerns by emphasizing he only did what he felt made sense to tell those particular stories. Much like a person saying I just was doing my job, don’t blame me, De Palma seems to be scapegoating the responsibility of telling these particular stories in the first place. However, there seems to be more misguided intentions than cruel ones, ones that come from a firmly established place saying this is my view of the world, I’m just doing my best, what’s wrong with that. As problematic as his views are on the questionable areas of his films are, there’s something profoundly interesting and wholly different done in each of his movies that exists two-fold for very everything cringe worthy done. Not for a moment does any of that excuse the transphobia of Dress to Kill or the misogyny overtly present in Body Double, or any one of his other films.
However, art is complicated, and like most of life, not binary, which is something I personally had to come to terms with in order to finally be able to appreciate the things De Palma has done masterfully. To me, his films are neither just good or bad, they’re often a little of both. And that’s where this documentary truly succeeds, emphasizing the complicated nature in the passion behind everything that De Palma says. It’s compelling to listen and watch him discuss how his films came about, why some of his most iconic scenes exist and the all-around stark honesty concerning his place in the pantheon of Hollywood and the goings on behind the scenes of getting each of his movies made. It’s not surprising then to hear De Palma talk about the Odessa Steps sequence he copied for The Untouchables and how there’s no mention of the ideology at play behind Sergei M. Eisenstein’s original depiction and how that has nothing to do with Kevin Costner shooting at gangsters as a baby cart rolls down stairs. Aesthetically it’s what makes sense to De Palma and therefore it exists.