Tuesday, 20 September 2016

De Palma

Brian De Palma is not a man who has issues calling a spade a spade. If he could, not only would he call a spade a spade, but he would put a wig and a dress on the spade and follow it round with a Steadicam for sixteen minutes while having John Lithgow shout "SPADE!" at it, such is his penchant for frankness. All of which is to be celebrated, because it's this frankness that makes De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's celebration of one of their movie-making idols, such a fun watch.

Plonked in front of an unassuming fireplace in one of the least De Palma-esque shots it's possible to compose, the 76-year-old director opens up about the highs and lows of his career over 110 minutes of delicious tittle-tattle and self-deprecation, while his interrogators regularly intersperse the chatter with clips from his remarkable 50-year filmography. It's as prosaic a format for a talking head as you could get, but it doesn't matter a hoot: firstly, BDP is so comfortably avuncular you just want to bathe in the glow of his chubby cheeks and tales of Hollywood madness, and secondly, most of the clips are so exhaustingly kinetic that anything more exciting than a septuagenarian in front of a fireplace would wear you out by the halfway mark.
Navigating De Palma's career chronologically and methodically, Baumbach and Paltrow tease out some tremendous nuggets of gossip. Precious actors are not rare in movie history, but evidence of their preciousness from their own directors is, so there's immense pleasure to be had in De Palma's bean-spilling over Orson Welles and Robert De Niro's unwillingness to learn their lines, Sean Connery's reaction to getting dust in his eye while filming a brutal death scene, or Cliff Robertson's questionably orange face in Obsession. Behind-the-camera squabbles are willingly aired too: juggling both David Koepp and Robert Towne's conflicting scripts for Tom Cruise's producing debut Mission: Impossible seems like it must have been, well, some kind of Task: Unachievable, and you boggle at how the film ever got made, let alone ended up as good as it did.

It's not all scandal and scuttlebutt though: De Palma talks at length about the difficulty of swimming against the Hollywood tide, particularly in the context of his movie brat friends Marty, George, Francis and Steven. "What we did in our generation will never be duplicated," he proudly boasts, but fully admits that his path was not necessarily as successfully navigated as those of his contemporaries. "I'm driven by unrealistic ideas [...] my movies tend to upset people a lot," he understates while musing on some of his frankly numerous critical and commercial failures. But his sheer energy and ambition shine through, emanating from the same well of indomitability that makes all his films fascinating to watch even when they spectacularly fail.
The De Palma process gets a good going over too, with split screens, split diopters, long takes and ludicrously elongated build-ups to comically overblown climaxes all covered by the man who made a lurid, lip-smacking art form out of a combination of all of them. Where it worked, De Palma allows himself a smile (the section on Carrie sees him deliver a glorious takedown of every successive project based on it), and where it didn't, he pragmatically shrugs and moves on. "It did good, it didn't do great" seems to be his career in a nutshell, yet at no point does he appear regretful or bitter.

Baumbach and Paltrow bookend their film with clips from Vertigo, and not without good cause: De Palma's well-documented love of Alfred Hitchcock not only set him on his way but has also been the source of some of his fiercest criticism. He ends the interview with a rousing defence of his decision to frequently homage the master of suspense so blatantly, and it's hard to counter the argument without coming across as the dullest of sticks. Ultimately though, his work speaks for itself and for him, and the carefully curated clips within this loving tribute illustrate this. As a document of its subject's fury, obsession and passion, De Palma is untouchable.

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