Filmmakers Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones) must have had mountains of fun making their documentary De Palma. The film is something like enjoying a whiskey next to a famed director and engaging in the best conversation of your life. Baumbach and Paltrow are content to place Brian De Palma in front of the camera, shoot him flat, and let him muse away. Unfortunately, that’s all they really do. So, while some of the stories that De Palma relates are interesting, the ultimate effect is a film that feels like a haphazard collection of thoughts, shot in the most bland style possible. Cinephiles will likely drool throughout at the discussion of filmmaking craft, but unfortunately De Palma holds very little thematic power.
Brian De Palma and his films are wonderful subjects for a documentary. The iconoclastic filmmaker has numerous bouts with studios, critics, and actors to mine for material, and of course his films themselves are rich with visual imagery, deep themes, and intriguing characters. It is a little baffling then that De Palma plays out as a stream-of-consciousness tirade. There really isn’t a unifying factor, and De Palma hops between explaining shoots, talking about his personal life, and analyzing the state of film culture (both now and in the past). In this sense, the film feels kind of slap-dash. There are some great stories that illicit a chuckle, and others that leave you wanting much more. But then, there are others that feel like they are simply filling in the blanks, as the stories unfold chronologically. This can cause the film to drag at points, and is one of the greater flaws.
Still, De Palma’s film making prowess is crystal clear, and seeing it firsthand is the most rousing triumph of this film. His discussion of various techniques, classic film or sequences (either from his films or others’) is simply unparalleled. Film buffs and DVD-extra nerds all know the joy of finding a nugget of directorial wisdom on a commentary track or some 10-minute featurette. At its best time, De Palma is that feeling on steroids. His insights into Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are wonderful, and his description of his own bizarre thought processes pops out as well. You can also feel a strong repartee and mutual respect between De Palma and other directors.
If one can find a unifying thread in the ramblings of De Palma, it is in his infamous bouts with the industry of film-making. Studio heads, ratings board, actors – it seems like De Palma has gone to the mattresses with all of them in one way or another. It helps stitch the stories together a little bit. De Palma experiences frustration with getting his independent films financed at the beginning of his career. Then, once he is more established he butts heads with the MPAA or a critic. And the more recent parts of his career offer more of the same. But, I think it is unfair to classify De Palma as a film about the difficulties of the film industry. It has that element, of course, but once again I feel the need to reiterate that the free-form nature of the film detracts from any thematic power it could have. There is simply too much else going on, and all to little avail.
I’ll admit that my expectations for De Palma were through the roof. Critics and fans of independent cinema and/or documentaries have been gushing about the film since its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Perhaps I let these reviews excite me too much, because I was terribly disappointed by this film. As a documentary it leaves a great deal to be desired. There aren’t really any interesting cinematic qualities or choices made by the directors, and most everything is De Palma talking straight to camera while they occasionally show sequences from his movies instead. I get the feeling throughout De Palma that this material, this subject, deserves a much richer storytelling style than the one we got. It may be difficult for die-hard cinephiles to recognize this because they are catatonic over De Palma’s every musing, but at the end of the day this is a bland film. The subject is absolutely fascinating; the execution is disappointing and vapid.