Review of De Palma, a documentary about the U.S. filmmaker

Detail from the poster for the documentary De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
Detail from the poster for the documentary De Palma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.

In the documentary film De Palma, U.S. director Brian De Palma, 75, sits in front of a dark fireplace and talks. He’s just brimming with stories. He must have a great memory! De Palma first told those stories to his friends Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow over dinner, then he agreed to tell them again in front of a camera. (I had assumed that De Palma was shot at De Palma’s home but apparently not, it was done at Paltrow’s.)

According to a New Yorker story, the footage was shot over one week back in 2010. Baumbach and Paltrow don’t appear onscreen. Neither do actors, film-company execs or film profs. We just get De Palma’s own words and they’re plenty interesting enough.

De Palma shares stories about his family (his dad was a surgeon, so De Palma got used to seeing blood), his academic education (a Quaker school, then physics, math and Russian! at Columbia University) his cinematic education (Hitchcock and French New wave in New York’s cinemas) his films and his filmmaking contemporaries – guys like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. Laughs abound; Spielberg was the first person De Palma met who had a phone in his car – cue goofy, playful footage from back in the day.

We learn that Orson Welles and Robert De Niro caused De Palma grief when they wouldn’t or couldn’t learn their lines. Apparently, Sissy Spacek worked as a set dresser before De Palma put her in Carrie (1976).

We get clips from De Palma’s well-known films, like Carrie (1976), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984), The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993), and from earlier ones, going as far back as 1962 horror short Woton’s Wake.

(Molly Haskell’s review of Woton’s Wake in the Village Voice made me think of Guy Maddin’s films: “After a brilliant opening-credit sequence in which the unfolding of an illegible “Old English” (or Norse) manuscript is accompanied by a madrigal-like theme announcing the terrors of the monster Woton, the film flies off in all directions, mixing camp, horror, and parody, real locations and expressionistic settings.” That’s Maddin all over, no? I wonder if they have ever met?)

De Palma also includes bits from Murder à la Mod (1968), Greetings (1968) The Wedding Party (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970). The Wedding Party was Robert De Niro’s first film; Jill Clayburgh was in it, too.

De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was a bigger hit here in Canada than it was in the U.S., and it was extra popular in Winnipeg. He has other Canadian connections, too, though they aren’t mentioned as such in the documentary. Margot Kidder played a “French-Canadian model” in Sisters (1973) and Snake Eyes (1998) was partially shot in Montreal.

In his reluctance to compromise, De Palma has much in common with Guillermo del Toro, who was in Montreal recently to accept an award from the Fantasia International Film Festival. He spoke to fthe public twice while he was here.
Montrealers can watch De Palma at Cinema du Parc, 3575 Ave du Parc.
The film is directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow; it’s in English and it’s 107 minutes long.

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