Wednesday, 21 September 2016

De Palma review

Following an astounding pattern of fantastic releasing, A24 have landed on a documentary portrait of long-standing filmmaker Brian De Palma. It comes out on the 23rd September and I decided to check it out for y'all! Hear my thoughts after the jump...

Most documentaries contain thoughts, narration, and clips from a variety of people and sources, to gain a multi-faceted view into the life of the subject. Take last years Amy, for instance, and you can see the large number of influences. Or the fantastically inappropriate 'The Aristocrats', whose subject was a joke. In that film, most comedians who were worth their salt were interviewed on camera. Or other recent director docs, such as Millius, which rely on a varied range of testimony to drive home the point. On the contrary, De Palma features what is ostensibly a conversation over coffee, in the same setting, with the same angle for around two hours.

The single angle for the documentary.
Of course, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow insert illustratory clips and scenes to go with the talking - sometimes its necessary to visualise what the conversation is currently about - but the source feels like a friendly meeting in De Palma's home. Allegedly, it's been shot over 30 hours, but it had me fooled.... To my mind, it felt like a two hour conversation. Speaking of Baumbach and Paltrow, their links to De Palma seem terse at best - considering their films have almost nothing in common. Yet Baumbach assures us that he has been a consistent influence throughout his life, as a child hearing about controversial works, then finally being able to watch them as he got older. As for his own films? He remarks 'isn't it obvious?' (with a rather wry smile).

Structurally, this audacious documentary provides a complete career retrospective for the eponymous director, taking us from his initial 'Wedding party' (1963), starring a then unknown Robert De Niro; to his 2013 film Posession, and everything in between. By which I mean literally everything. De Palma proves such an interesting subject, primarily because he has succeeded at small and big films; and failed at small and big films. He is able to explain why he has failed in his failings without sounding bitter (well, not TOO bitter...), and is able to explain why his successful films succeeded without sounding like Quentin Tarantino (that is, up his own ass). He focuses on the films that we want to know more about: there's a lot on Carrie, Scarface, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out. Speaking about every one of his efforts, he recounts his influences - usually Hitchcock, a big theme in the documentary - and then shares a tidbit or two from the set. The most interesting of which consists of an explanation for the over zealous shootout from Scarface: Al Pacino picked up a gun by it's barrel (burning hot), then had to spend a few weeks off set, so De Palma spent those days shooting people shooting... It's these magical diversions that set the film apart from other like-minded documentaries, and provide the level of depth that you'd be more likely to find in the essential literary study 'Hitchcock' by Truffaut.

A split-screen moment from the fantastic Sisters
Other things are discussed as well. Perhaps my favourite angle (no pun intended) of focus (no pun intended) is on the camera maneuvers that De Palma himself championed, pioneered, or invented. These range from the impressive split-screen antics of Sisters, to his consistent use of Di-optical focus (almost like a single frame splitscreen effect where two planes are both in focus at the same time), and that fantastic slow motion that punctuates Carrie and the Untouchables. The explanations and visualisations of these very movements turn the documentary into what becomes a filmmaking masterclass; showing the substance behind the style in many of his films. De Palma's home life is also brought into the equation, strictly as a backdrop, in much of this exploration as well: learning how his upbringing influenced both his earlier and his later films. Yet, perhaps the most biting aspect of what the 76 year old has to say is on the Hollywood studio system. Recalling the collaborative atmosphere that he was able to have with Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorcese; and then lamenting that this could not be possible today due to the money-grabbing and bureaucracy, he effectively explains why these great directors are directors of the past - and why Hollywood has gone stale. Adding to this, a clear, concise, and level-headed examination of why modern action sequences are so dull (spoiler: they're pre-visualised by VFX studios) is a couple-minute clip that should be shown to all Media students across the country.

BTS photo of Carrie.
Naturally, you don't get this famous or revered without making a few enemies, and De Palma seems to take great joy in insulting everyone from Oliver Stone, to Sidney Lumet, to Tom Cruise, his friend Robert De Niro, Orson Welles, the studio system, critics, and of course the general public. The deadpan honesty and humour displayed in these scenes (a discussion of Cliff Robertson being a complete dick on the set of Obsession is particularly funny) go to show that in his old age, De Palma has lost his need to be popular, or in the best light - and has instead opted to open himself to the public, and lay his opinions bare. But he has not lost his sense of wit or timing, and that's what truly makes a master. Even more so, the continued relevance of his films - with the 'Be black, baby!' segment of 'Hi Mom!' being examined and revealing a satirical edge in 2016, and his Vietnam/Iraq films still criticising aggressive US foreign policy - goes to further justify the need for a Brian De Palma documentary in the first place. Thinking of 'Be black, baby!', it also acts as a cornerstone in mockumentary, verite, and perhaps even found footage genres: a real groundbreaking moment in cinema. What's more, throughout the entire oeuvre, the violence is still shocking! From 70s and 80s pictures, that's a hard                                                         one to find nowadays.... the guy just knows how to push all the                                                               right buttons.

In the conclusion of the documentary, he argues convincingly that he has been the true heir to Hitchcock. Never stating that he has done better, or for that matter worse, but acknowledging that their ethos and methodology have been the same. Throughout the film, the two are compared at an almost forensic rate - and it's well and truly believable that they are one and the same. Battles with the ratings board, battles with actors and actresses, battles with audiences: they both made controversy their life choice.

A classic moment from a classic movie...

Baumbach and Paltrow never interfere, speak, or provide any evidence of their existence whilst the film plays. Instead, they give the entire floor to this incredible man: a wise choice given the eventual output. Their only influence appears to be the framing of De Palma himself, sitting directly in front of a fashionable teal fireplace: something homely, perhaps. Their real skill comes from the idea generation, and then the cutting of the 30 hours of conversation to resemble a coherent two hour one: a remarkable piece of audio engineering that really needs to be heard to be believed.

The directors with their subject.
At the end of the day, the majestic director agrees that he has somewhat 'lost it', and that his time is now gone. But what a pleasure to be able to listen to two hours of intelligent insight and wit from a man who has seen it all; and a key player in that mid to late 20th century period of Hollywood prosperity. For cinephiles, this is a dream come true; for De Palma fans, it's like Christmas x1000; and for your average viewer, it's a captivating and enlightening jaunt inside the hilarious mind of a madman. This film may have been made by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, but it belongs to De Palma. Highly recommended.
De Palma gets 4 stars!

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