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Political junkies eagerly anticipate the book each president writes after his administration ends, hoping that the freedom of unemployment will allow them to finally reveal the truth. This same type of thinking informs De Palma, in which the eponymous director spins tales from his career in Hollywood with the loose lips of a guy who has no intention of ever going back. He trashes his bosses, tells sizzling, behind-the-scenes stories about his star actors, and even throws his audience under the bus. Is he fun to listen to? Mostly, yes. Is it enough to hang a film on? Not even close.
The documentary’s lackadaisical origin story reveals the problem: In 2010, directors Noah Baumbach (Mistress America, The Squid and the Whale) and Jake Paltrow (Young Ones, Gwyneth’s brother) sat down to interview their friend Brian De Palma in order to try out their new camera. The stories he told were so good that they added clips, did some editing, and decided to release it in theaters. To their credit, De Palma is a good talker. He’s candid, entertaining, and not always likeable, and his career, like his films, is full of dramatic reversals. He has a habit of following up a mainstream success (The Untouchables, Scarface) with a labor of love (Casualties of War, Body Double), which has earned him critical accolades but also made it hard to sustain a career in the studio system.
He’s also a bit of a braggart. He’ll tell you why Mission Impossible is better than virtually any blockbuster being made today. He’ll also suggest Snake Eyes—that Nicolas Cage movie with the twenty-minute tracking shot in the opening—would have been much better if the studio hadn’t messed with his ending. He’ll even tell you that Bonfire of the Vanities is just fine, as long as you haven’t read the book.
Unfortunately, he spends equal time on films no one but the most committed film nerds have ever heard of. The director spent the 1970s—when contemporaries like Scorsese and Spielberg were becoming darlings of the studio system—making obscure, psycho-sexual dramas with names like Get to Know Your Rabbit and Phantom of the Paradise. These early films get far more weight than they should, particularly since De Palma and his chroniclers are so convinced of his greatness they never bother to explain why we should care. To them, each of his films—no matter how famous or forgotten—deserves the same amount of screentime.
There is something admirable in this refusal to be slaves to commercialism, but also something frustrating. There need to be more points of emphasis for a narrative to emerge. As the director simply sits in a chair and talking about each subsequent work, De Palma comes to resemble more of a visual IMDB page than a film.
Still, De Palma succeeds at least as a reclamation project. Baumbach and Paltrow believe their subject should be in the pantheon of New Hollywood and considered every bit as important as his old friends Marty and Steve. In the end, they prove their point: This guy made some good films. I agree. Now, instead of watching De Palma, go watch some De Palma
Opens Friday at E Street Cinema.