‘De Palma,’ a documentary by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach

This time, the camera is on him

You may not think of Brian De Palma as a “Philadelphia filmmaker.” He was born in northern New Jersey, and as an adult, has mostly lived in New York, California and Europe. Of the nearly 30 feature films he directed, only one was shot in Philadelphia.

Paltrow, De Palma and Baumbach. (Photo via EPK.tv)

But, as we learn from De Palma, the new documentary about the filmmaker that opens Friday at Ritz at the Bourse, he lived in Philadelphia for much of his childhood. He graduated from Friends Central School and is the son of noted Thomas Jefferson University orthopedic surgeon Dr. Anthony De Palma. Of course, De Palma directed Blow Out in 1981. It’s one of the truly great Philadelphia movies and showed a much grungier Philly — and a much, much grungier Reading Terminal Market — than the one we know today.

A director’s life

De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, has a simple premise: For two hours, presumably one interview shot in a single day, De Palma sits in front of the camera and covers his entire life and filmography in chronological order.

The format allows De Palma to share all sorts of insights, especially into his filmmaking process and influences. He discuses his trademark split screen, and why he hates car chases. He dishes about his feud with actor Cliff Robertson, who showed up on the set of Obsession covered in bronzer, though his character was supposed to project a ghostly pallor. 

The directors, both experienced filmmakers (though not documentarians) aren’t shy about addressing the two critical knocks on De Palma’s career: He’s sexist/misogynistic, and he steals from Alfred Hitchcock. The film confronts both charges, and De Palma has prepared his answers. The choices he made, he says, were always to best serve the story, and Hitchcock was merely one of many influences.

Everything you wanted to know about De Palma (and Sean Penn)

Unlike some interviews with directors, he’s not sharing stories and anecdotes we’ve heard dozens of times before. Even more fascinating, the stories of his flops are, in most cases, way better than the hits. We know all about Scarface, Carrie, The Untouchables, Blow Out and the first Mission: Impossible, and De Palma has illuminating things to say about all of them. But I particularly appreciated the segments on forgettable flops such as Raising Cain, Snake Eyes, and even 2000’s Mission to Mars, which was the last movie the director made inside the Hollywood system.

Throughout the film’s first half, I wondered how De Palma would address Bonfire of the Vanities, his infamous 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller; it was a notorious flop. De Palma’s answer is that he was coming off of an earlier flop and needed to play it safe, so he wasn’t able to be as vicious as the source material warranted. The segment on Casualties of War (1987) is another highlight, if only because it confirms that everything you thought you knew about Sean Penn is true.

Roots of an obsession

Perhaps his most fascinating revelation is that De Palma used to sneak around his father’s office in order to catch him having an affair, behavior that informed his thinking on Obsession and Dressed to Kill.

De Palma, now 75, says he is part of the generation of directors who can no longer get a movie made through the Hollywood system. He says the only films being greenlit these days are either mega-budgeted blockbusters or indie projects. So now, when De Palma works at all, it’s usually in Europe. His 2006 Hollywood noir The Black Dahlia was filmed mostly in Bulgaria. His last film was 2012’s Passion, and he’s got nothing currently in the works.

De Palma's format is so successful I would love to see it expanded to other directors, maybe as part of a weekly series on HBO or some other cable network that’s willing to pay astronomical fees for all the clips. A Martin Scorsese episode would be amazing. And a Spike Lee one. And a David Lynch one….

If De Palma is a director who means anything to you at all — or even if you’re a longtime detractor — De Palma is a must. If nothing else, it will make you want to go back and watch his films as soon as you possibly can. 

Our readers respond

Sandy C. Bauer

of Philadelphia, PA on June 22, 2016

Dressed to Kill had opening scenes filmed at the Art Museum, standing in for the Met. Good article, though.

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