REVIEW: De Palma

One of my favorite movie directors has always been Brian De Palma. I first became aware of him when he directed Sisters (1973), a movie I recorded on the family Betamax when it aired on HBO and watched over and over again.  After a couple more movies, he made Carrie (1976), followed by The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981).  I devoured these movies and read everything I could about the man.  When I was in high school, I even wrote my senior research paper on De Palma and the influences of Alfred Hitchcock.

This was Brian De Palma’s “golden age,” and in the new documentary, De Palma, he talks about how the movies from great directors late in their careers are never as good as those they make when they’re between the ages of 30 and 50.  He doesn’t necessarily say this in defense of his later films; however, it’s pretty obvious that movies like Raising Cain (1992), Mission to Mars (2000) and The Black Dahlia (2006) get progressively worse.

With my personal history of interest in De Palma and my love of his films from the seventies, I was fascinated by De Palma, which is really nothing more than an extended interview with the man where we don’t hear the questions, but he sits in front of the camera talking about his movies and his career for almost two hours.  It’s a chronological tour through his filmography with a lot of clips from his movies where he alternates among personal anecdotes, inspirations for his movies and lessons he’s learned as a director.

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I remember the controversy about him “stealing” from Hitchcock in the 70s, but forgot that he was also under fire for the violence against women in his films. I like in De Palma how he addresses the former by saying that Hitchcock was supposedly such an influential director, yet he was the only one to use the techniques Hitchcock pioneered.  It’s late in the documentary when he says it, and not necessarily in reference to Dressed to Kill, the primary movie that received criticism for cinematic plagiarism.

He addresses the latter when talking about Dressed to Kill, only by mentioning the “protests” that happened when it was released.  It’s obvious he feels he has nothing to apologize for and discusses how a movie is more suspenseful if it’s a woman in danger instead of a man.  Not helping his case, he also says that it’s more interesting for the camera to follow a woman than a man and that he absolutely loves women and the way they move.

If confidently unapologetic, and possibly sexist, De Palma also comes across as a little arrogant. When he talks about how many elements of his movies he created on the spot, on his own, I question that he was really so powerful that he could get away with it behind the backs of other qualified artists who would have been responsible for writing the scripts, designing the sets and lighting the scenes.  For that matter, was he even that multi-talented?

On the other hand, it could be true because the way he explains how he makes a movie supports his statements. He believes a movie is built around its set pieces.  If you have three terrific set pieces, it’s up to the rest of the filmmakers to create a story that leads up to them and supports the characters that are involved.  He’s almost nonchalant about the importance of having a good story with solid character development when you begin shooting.  Since he wrote many of his movies, it’s an approach he must have used.

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And, when you look at those movies, it’s easy to see how those set pieces are the best components of them. Think of Sisters with the split screen depicting a murder from two perspectives.  Think of Dressed to Kill with Angie Dickinson’s dangerous museum flirtation.  And think of Body Double (1984), which he claims has the longest “walking” scene in movie history.  They’re all lengthy, visually terrific scenes which may or may not, depending on your opinion, be adequately supported by the characters and the story.

I also forgot how De Palma was part of a group of up-and-coming directors that included Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg (who was the first person he knew with a phone in his car.) De Palma has a great home movie clip of him riding around LA with Spielberg driving and talking on his phone.  They all contributed to each other’s films and “were able to get into the studios to make some incredible movies before the business men took over.”

Throughout his career, it’s apparent that De Palma wanted to be a commercial success. He really wanted to make a hit movie.  While several were moderate successes (remember Scarface wasn’t a blockbuster when initially released in 1983; it grew in popularity years after the fact), it wasn’t truly until Mission: Impossible in 1996 that he got his wish, and that was largely due to the involvement of Tom Cruise.  Following the trying experience of making it, his marriage ended and he “went into hiding.”

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Having made one to two movies per year throughout the 80’s and the first half of the 90’s, he slowed down. Then, two movies later, when her ran out of money on Mission to Mars (2000) and “got in over his head,” he asked himself, “Am I really enjoying this?”  At the age of 60, he went to Paris with the intention of never making a movie like it anymore.  He has not made a movie in the United States since then.  His four movies since then were all made in other countries, sometimes depending upon where he could complete financing for them.

Nearly every movie he discusses includes some information about his personal life. More ideas for his movies came from his own experiences than from the films of other directors.  For example, Keith Gordon’s character in Dressed to Kill arose from De Palma following his father when he was cheating on his mother.  These revelations in turn lead to comments about the craft of filmmaking.  For example, in relation to the aforementioned Dressed to Kill, he talks about how waiting for something is more exciting than actually witnessing that something.

I’ve merely scratched the surface of the font of information contained in De Palma.  If you don’t like the man and his attitude, or even his movies, you can still learn a lot about filmmaking by watching it.  He breaks down many of his most recognized scenes with explanations of why he chose to film them the way he did.  This was most interesting for me when talking about Carrie.  I recommend De Palma primarily for aspiring writers and directors, then for fans of his movies, and finally for anyone who wants to learn anything at all about the process.

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