by Jason Suzuki
It's hard to tell which audience will get the most of De Palma which is either a lazily put together tribute to the titular filmmaker, a respectful documentation of the career of an artist, or a glorified DVD extra depending on what mood you are in. For the hardcore De Palma fans it is appealing that this is two hours of the man going through his entire career, candid and with much discussion of craft and filmmaking. But for the hardcores most of it if not all of it will be repeats of anecdotes. For the neophytes it is both a great crash course to get you excited to explore his ouvre but it also ruins much of the sense of discovery so integral to the work of a man who put so much care into his films. And for anyone who is annoyed by Noah Baumbach he is thankfully respectful enough to not even let his voice be heard asking questions. But most annoyingly, it is made for both those well read on De Palma and those who didn't know he was behind such staples like Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables.
The only one interviewed is De Palma himself. It is him going from birth to upbringing to school to his films. In chronological order he goes from one to the next. It's a structure that the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut should have had, like the book it was about, but fatigue begins to set in later into his career. It's a testament more to De Palma than Baumbach and Paltrow that the fatigue is quickly overcome thanks to De Palma's recollections and observations of his work. One insight from this interview is that "holy mackerel" is a staple to De Palma's language as Hitchcock is to his film language.
It's a shame that no other people were interviewed for the film as people who have worked with De Palma tend to have more to say than just the usual blowing smoke sessions most of these documentaries tend to devolve into. Keith Gordon, as seen on supplemental materials for Dressed to Kill has proven to be a very insightful perspective on the man and his work, specifically in regards to the two biggest critiques of him: that he is a misogynist and that his work is too derivative of Hitchcock to be taken seriously. There is something to admire in the purity of having it just be the man himself talking but the sense of what could have been is too great to ignore had they gotten other people involved (Nancy Allen and Jennifer Salt are both thanked in the end credits but it might have been purely for supplying archival images).
While De Palma is very candid and upfront about his work in terms of what didn't and what did, he is too close to look at it from multiple perspectives. Douglas Keesey's brilliant examination of how De Palma's upbringing has continued to influence his work shows that there is much more to these films than just the link between De Palma's surveillance of his own father and the surveillance that Keith Gordon sets up to find out who killed his mother in Dressed to Kill. De Palma flat out says that the character is him but beyond that he is focused on craft, reception, and work stories. Someone like Keesey can take the criticisms and create an overarching look at the man and his work, proving that it's much more personal, and knowingly so, than just mere stylistic play and Hitchcock homage.
Seeing this film with a De Palma detractor helped me see the worth in a work like this. Based off of sequences from Body Double and Dressed to Kill my friend had written the man off as a misogynist through and through. Someone who liked seeing flesh through his lens. After the film she was ecstatic to watch Carlito's Way and even said she felt he was misunderstood. This is a fitting testament to the man, that there is so much to his films that even when you see a wealth of clips from his work, there is still a good deal of surprises left in store for anyone willing. Treat this film like supplemental material on your De Palma journey and depending on your distance traveled, expect added depth of understanding accordingly.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.