There are very few directors out there that have as eclectic of a filmography as Brian De Palma. As a huge fan of the director, this was far and away my most anticipated film going into New York Film Festival this year. Who would have thought that something as simple as a director sitting in a chair for almost two hours recounting his filmography in chronological order would have been as engrossing as this was here?
De Palma is an incredible life force in front of the camera. He does not hold back with any of his stories here, whether it be an incredibly unflattering story or not. De Palma goes into an incredible amount of detail regarding his personal life and how his life experiences tied into his films. One of my favorite stories throughout the documentary was during the Dressed to Kill segment. In Dressed to Kill, Peter, whose mother was just brutally murdered earlier on in the film, is determined to seek revenge on the person who killed his mother. Peter uses listening devices that he made himself, along with a time-lapse camera to track down his mother killer. While De Palma’s mother was not murdered, as a teenager, he used similar tactics to find out if his very own father was cheating on his mother or not. De Palma holds absolutely nothing back here while recounting his incredibly fascinating life stories. De Palma goes on to talk about how he broke into his father’s office by punching the glass door of his father’s office building door with his bare hands to discover his father’s infidelity. He searched his father’s office up and down until he finally discovered his mistress who was hiding upstairs in the third-floor closet.
De Palma tells each and every story in a straightforward manner that allows for the documentary to keep on trucking along without ever slowing down. With almost forty hours of footage, directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow edited their footage down to a concise 107 minutes. Baumbach and Paltrow carefully picked out specific clips from De Palma’s works that tie in with what De Palma was discussing during each specific film. While some of the clips are quite extensive in length, they never felt needlessly long. There is often voiceover from what De Palma is saying that coincides with what is going on in the clip. Not only is it interesting to see what De Palma is talking about visualized onscreen, but it is also fascinating to see the progression of De Palma’s visual style throughout his career.
In no way, shape or form is De Palma a defense of his incredibly divisive career. One of the most absorbing parts of the documentary is when De Palma discusses his career missteps. For example, De Palma comes straight out and admits that The Bonfire of the Vanities was an absolute failure. Every now and then a director will come out and admit that they don’t like a certain film that they made, but how often do we ever get see it in such a straightforward and open manner?
Throughout the documentary, De Palma discusses many of his trademark stylistic choices that are frequented throughout his filmography. While going through his works, De Palma will often mention how certain aspects or scenes from his earlier works will arise throughout the back half of his filmography. De Palma is universally acknowledged for his love of Alfred Hitchcock. It is interesting to hear De Palma discuss the many techniques he picked up from watching Hitchcock. While some are blatantly obvious, others are not as much. Early on in Hitchcock’s 1951, Strangers on a Train there is a scene that takes place during a tennis match. Hitchcock focuses on a man in the crowd rather than match itself. De Palma used this technique in the opening of Snake Eyes. We follow Nicolas Cage’s character during a boxing match, which we never get see. All that the audience gets to see is Cage reacting to the match and what he is doing during the match.
De Palma is not only just one of the most impressive documentaries of the 21st century; it is also one of the most impressive achievements in filmmaking from this century. While diehard fans of De Palma will eat up every single moment of this, even those who can not get on board with him will still find this as an incredible achievement in documentary filmmaking.