Brian De Palma in a chair talking about his career, that is how this documentary is structured: one long continuous talking head interview as images and film are put over his narration. It’s simple, its predictable and it’s brilliant.
De Palma has an incredible filmography behind his name, no he isn’t considered one of the greatest filmmakers ever made but he is an artist who challenged the medium throughout his career. Filmmaking is art, art is experimentation and De Palma came into prominence at a very crucial time in cinema history, when studios were allowing filmmakers to be truly creative and were willing to financially back all types of projects. This was the time of Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese and of course De Palma.
This film is almost like a therapy session, a man in reflection of his life and legacy, his greatest achievements and failures. De Palma’s stories are fascinating, little tidbits that connect into the larger history of filmmaking: he discovered Robert De Niro, He had to shoot the final shootout in Scarface without Al Pacino for two weeks, and how De Palma faced adversity for most of his career. Was De Palma beloved? absolutely not, he never shies away from the criticisms but doesn’t agree with them, as the stories are told there would be a dry remark about the reaction. One story in particular about how he got a call from a public relations director after a press screening for Body Double with the message “They’re going to kill you tomorrow”.
The recurring themes in his stories are fascinating to analyse as well, his love and admiration of the work of Alfred Hitchcock. He mentions many times how his films were inspired by Hitchcock’s classic works, the opening of the film is his story of how Vertigo inspired him as a filmmaker. He adopted Hitchcock’s styles, the voyeuristic angles, the horrifying approach to violence and upgraded them to his own. Long beautiful steadicam shots, grotesque sequences of murder, De Palma jokes how he was always surprised by people’s outrage at the violence in the films. Stating that it’s the suspense genre what else is supposed to happen? De Palma had his critics in the press but also his critics in the industry, nearly every film details a disagreement with the ratings board and De Palma’s stubbornness to conform to their vision of his film.
Mentions of “One Million and eight”, “3 Million”, As we go through De Palma’s stories, the numbers get higher and higher. The financial risk of filmmaking grew with every year but De Palma’s creative spirit only dampened when he went against his principles. He laments on decisions he made in the editing room, projects he lost interest, selfish moments. De Palma thrived in his passion, he didn’t need validation, he needed a good story and a way to bring it to life. His career had him caught in specific genres: suspense thrillers, gangster epics but then De Palma could tackle a Vietnam film Casualties of War, a comedy like Wise Guys and a big Hollywood action film Mission Impossible.
There are portions in this documentary when De Palma talks about the ending, where if a filmmaker can get at least three good endings in their films then that’s pretty lucky. It makes you reflect on the ending of De Palma, what his final legacy and this documentary addresses that in an interesting way: it has De Palma inadvertently reflect on it. This film is literally just Brian De Palma sitting in front of camera, telling stories with the appropriate pictures and film. Unlike other documentaries, there are no other perspectives: no journalists, actors or other filmmakers telling stories, bolstering his reputation. This is De Palma reflecting on De Palma, he doesn’t over exaggerate himself, he tells the truth, he has no interest in lying about himself. He says that directors greatest creative periods are most likely when there are in their thirties, forties and fifties and that their legacy will also be about those movies they made in that time.
Those movies will be the movies that people will always talk about, so yeah people will always talk about Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables and that’s fantastic but will that be the only legacy of Brian De Palma? Of course not and thats what this documentary displays so well. Your life is a series of stories and De Palma just has so many to tell and they are all fantastic.