This is the documentary the critics have all been waiting for.
Brian De Palma may not be the household name the other directors and friends of his in the ‘70s became (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese). Yet nobody would deny he’s done some great films (The Untouchables, Carrie, Carlito’s Way). He’s done some terribly underrated ones (Blow Out, Body Double). And he’s had plenty of big bombs (Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, Snake Eyes).
Friend and fellow filmmaker Noah Baumbach (along with Jake Paltrow) directed this, and instead of having numerous talking heads, it’s all De Palma. Now, I could listen to him talk about his films for 10 hours at a dinner party. In documentary form, it didn’t work as well. It’s also interesting that we hear him talk about almost all of his films (and even a Bruce Springsteen video he directed). That doesn’t always work so well.
When we hear about how it affected him to find out his dad — a doctor — was cheating on his mom and how he played sleuth to discover the truth…made me want to know why he would have an affair with a married woman, or why his three marriages didn’t work. Instead, they’re mentioned in passing.
When De Palma talks about the groups protesting his violence against women, he tells a great story about the scene in Body Double in which the killer uses a long drill on his victim. He excitedly tells us that it needed to go through the floor, and into the ceiling so the guy below can see it. Audiences were put-off by it (I thought it was an incredible scene, and a good movie). Yet I couldn’t help but think, just like his idol Alfred Hitchcock, that he has a weird fascination with women. He admits to loving shots where the camera follows them, and he always uses the same scene, that shows the skin of a woman getting sliced by a knife.
It was interesting to see his early ‘60s student film (Woton’s Wake), and to find out tough critic Pauline Kael was an early fan. Also nice to see a young Robert De Niro in many of his early pictures. Even more interesting to find out later, when he wanted him to play Al Capone in The Untouchables, how Bobby cost so much money (not sure why he thought he should get a discount on using one of the biggest actors in Hollywood)…although we can see his frustration with De Niro not learning his lines.
Stories like that were wonderful. We all knew Sean Penn was a d**k, but hearing how he treated Michael J. Fox on the set of Casualties of War…or hearing about how Cliff Robertson (not his first choice for Obsession) was difficult in many ways. These were a lot more interesting to me than his obsession with using split-screen all the time.
When De Palma talked about Raising Cain (1992), I wanted to know more about working with John Lithgow (who he also used in Blow Out). Other than being impressed with De Niro in the early days, I wanted to know more about the actors he worked with. Now, he did that perfectly with the story of Al Pacino wearing a leather jacket in 100 degree heat while running through a subway multiple times in order to get the right shot. This documentary needed more of those, and as long as it was, there was time to edit this better and leave out some of the lesser known movies we care little about.
Other things were confusing. In his overrated Scarface, he shares a few interesting stories about the changes that were made, and Oliver Stone’s screenplay (and interaction with the cast). Yet he is asked if the movie can be redone years later with a hip-hop soundtrack used instead of the score he had. His response: Absolutely not!
Then we see a scene that has a hip-hop song underneath it. Does that mean it was done without his consent?
By the time he got to talking about a disagreement with screenwriter Robert Towne over how to end Mission: Impossible…I thought it might not be possible to sit any longer and listen to the stories. I was growing bored, which should never happen when a filmmaker I like is talking about his craft.
I was intrigued by the subtle way De Palma feels he should be in the same class as those huge directors in the ‘70s. He talks about giving the script for Taxi Driver to Marty. Ah, what a sweetheart. I would’ve preferred he make a movie half as good as Marty can.
He talks about helping out on some big pictures those guys were directing, and he also relishes the fact that he’s a bit of an outsider. You get the feeling he’d rather be just as big as any of those guys are.
Most people don’t remember Joan Rivers directed a bomb called Rabbit Test (Billy Crystal plays a man that gets pregnant). I didn’t know De Palma directed a Tommy Smothers/Orsen Welles movie called Get to Know Your Rabbit. The stories on the set from that were interesting.
It’s not as interesting hearing him discuss the disaster that was Bonfire of the Vanities,
I read an interview with Warren Beatty talking about his bomb Ishtar. That was fascinating. It’s a shame De Palma couldn’t at least give us some great stories from that stinker.
I would’ve liked there to be more of a discussion with how often De Palma “borrowed” from other filmmakers. He admits to a few of the Hitchcock things, or the hand coming up out of the grave in Carrie (a Deliverance rip-off). It would’ve been nice if some of these other things were delved into a bit more, as well as his life away from the camera. Show the audience what drives him.
This is strictly for film buffs. As a documentary, it leaves a lot to be desired. My girlfriend didn’t like it and can’t understand why I’m even giving it 2 1/2 stars. I’m guessing most critics will rate it higher.
It gets 2 ½ stars out of 5.