I have never fancied myself a fan of Brian De Palma films.
Hate them? Not a chance. De Palma is far too skilled as a director to actually hate his films. However, he's an incredibly visionary director and, quite honestly, I've just never resonated with that vision.
Then, of course, I read through his filmography - Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War, Mission: Impossible, The Black Dahlia and others.
Oh sure, there was Bonfire of the Vanities. There was Raising Cain. There were others that didn't quite seem to accomplish what De Palma was trying to accomplish.
In a world where many filmmakers find one thing they're good at and build a career around it, De Palma has built a career out of making films that made sense to him even if they didn't always connect with wider audiences or critics or those who've, at times, considered his films to be almost inherently misogynistic.
Co-directed by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach, De Palma is one of the year's best feature documentaries, a 107-minute mini-epic of sorts that nearly qualifies as monologue as the film essentially qualifies as an incredibly extended Q&A without the Q and with refreshingly honest, candid and mesmerizing A's.
Opening this week at the Fort Wayne Cinema Center and Evansville's Showplace East 18, De Palma is a captivating work of cinema that focuses the lens of De Palma along with a wealth of clips from his works and the works of those who inspired him. We learn early life stories, such as when De Palma's early life inspiration from his father turned into following a philandering father and capturing photographic proof.
Stories such as actor Sean Penn taunting Michael J. Fox with the words "television actor" during a particularly intense scene from Casualties of War aren't necessarily enlightening, but they are authentic and entertaining. It's balance that makes De Palma such a wonderful film, a perfectly balanced weaving together of showbiz gossip, filmmaker insights, directorial bravado and unapologetic honesty that makes the film a "must see" for any De Palma fan and an enjoyable view for even those who don't consider themselves interested in behind-the-scenes Hollywood.
It was a viewing of Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film that he considers one of the greats and an impeccable metaphor for the filmmaking process, that largely inspired De Palma's journey into film. It's a journey that began with a couple of highly praised short films before 1963's The Wedding Party starring relative newcomer Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh. He dabbled in the indie world for a few years, first attempting to enter the Hollywood machine with Get to Know Your Rabbit.
It wasn't a positive experience. So, De Palma maintained in the indie world for a while long before a certain horror film based upon a Stephen King novel came along. Carrie, featuring one of Sissy Spacek's finest performances, likely became the film that changed everything for De Palma and led to The Fury and the low-budget Home Movies, the latter being a film that he made as part of a filmmaking class he was teaching at Sarah Lawrence College.
Several hits would follow. Then, De Palma would, at least on some level, begin to fall out of favor with both critics and audiences. He's had a couple of huge hits since then, but he's also endured through accusations of misogyny, unnecessary screen brutality and sexual in exploitative ways. De Palma, to this day, seems to sort of shrug his shoulders and say "It made sense to me at the time." To his credit, and to the credit of both Paltrow and Baumbach, De Palma doesn't avoid these controversies but neither does it obsess on them.
De Palma presents as an even-keeled man, openly reflective of his past successes and failures, or at least those films somewhat viewed as failures by critics and/or audiences. He's unapologetic in explaining his visions and thoughts and ideas, yet also lacking in the ego one often hears from filmmakers sharing their cinematic journeys. De Palma feels intimate yet not bogged down by irrelevancy. While Paltrow and Baumbach are directing, it's clear that De Palma has some sense of what needs to unfold here and he's transparently surrendered himself to the process of making what is not only an absolute "must see" De Palma documentary but also likely one of the best filmmaking documentaries in quite some time. Maybe ever.
De Palma really doesn't contain a lot of laughs, but it was a film that left me smiling as the closing credits rolled. Filled with a passion for De Palma and the filmmaking process, De Palma is a captivating look at one of contemporary cinema's most captivating filmmakings. It's a documentary that should be remembered come awards season.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic