It begins, as it must, with a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s sicko 1958 brain-scrambler “Vertigo” and a description of the seismic impact the film had on a then-teenaged science fair geek named Brian De Palma. Now 75 years old and entering his fifth decade of directing, De Palma is a cinema legend both dear and despised, depending on who you ask.
The naughty boy in the back of the class during the 1970s New Hollywood boom, his star was eclipsed by pals Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. De Palma films were just too kinky, too lurid, too sinfully delicious to achieve the same stratospheric success. They’ve aged awfully well though, and their director would probably be the first to remind you that long before it topped the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound poll as the Greatest Movie of All Time, “Vertigo” was a critical and box office flop.
“De Palma,” the captivating new documentary from directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, cedes the floor to the filmmaker and nobody else. Brian De Palma holds court in front of a fireplace, wearing an uncharacteristically blue version of his trademark safari jacket and talking a lot with his hands. It’s a cozy evening with a garrulous old pro, candidly chatting his way through an eclectic career of wild heights and spectacular lows, accompanied by home movies, behind-the-scenes photos and brilliantly selected film clips.
Though he started out in the late ‘60s with the appallingly funny anti-war satires “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!” (both starring a baby-faced Bobby De Niro), De Palma didn’t break into the mainstream until he unleashed the splattery twin delights of “Sisters” and “Carrie.” For better or worse, a signature style was born.
Outwardly ‘respectable’ films tend to strive for some semblance of realism. De Palma’s movies revel in their very movie-ness — chock full of protracted silent sequences telling the story in pure visuals, drowning out the soundtrack with swoony, string-heavy scores. His extensive use of slow motion and split-screens call constant attention to the man behind the curtain. When watching a Brian De Palma film, the audience is always fully aware that Brian De Palma is manipulating and toying with you. The pleasure is in how bloody well he does it.
Baumbach and Paltrow’s documentary gets into the nuts and bolts of just how De Palma created all sorts of iconic sequences and elaborate Steadicam shots, whether the camera is making a figure eight right before Carrie White’s pig-blood shower or spinning around the room to match the reels of tape on the walls in “Blow Out.” He’s a man terribly impatient with the master-shot/close-up coverage that dominates mainstream filmmaking (“Yeah, that’s interesting to look at!” De Palma sarcastically scowls) and boasts of butting heads with legendary screenwriter Robert Towne over trying to make the climax of “Mission: Impossible” grander and more… well, impossible. An early, telling anecdote from a student project at Sarah Lawrence finds De Palma excoriating his mentor for “not getting any value out of the movement of the camera.”
The film features what could serve as the director’s own superhero origin story: as a kid he suspected his father was cheating on his mother, so he followed him around the city, filming the old man stepping out with another woman before confronting them both in their love nest with a knife. The massive Freudian minefields here foretell a career preoccupied with voyeurism and shame. Also knives. (He admits the experience wormed its way into his screenplay for “Dressed to Kill” before shutting down the topic with a tetchy, “Yeah.”) So many scenes in De Palma movies are people spying on other people, his camera outright leering at beautiful actresses in various stages of undress. But the self-consciousness of his style implicates the audience, reminding us all that we’re really the ones who are watching.
One of the best movies ever made about making movies, “De Palma” is not a film for those who wish to retain romantic notions about an artist’s process. There’s a crusty pragmatism to the filmmaker’s approach to the business of show business. Directing a big-budget picture requires more than a vision. It requires an ability to play air traffic controller with gigantic egos and a willingness to compromise when the money men draw a line in the sand.
He’s forthright about his failures, and he’s had more than his share of notorious bombs. De Palma makes a half-hearted case here for “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (the most spectacularly photographed terrible movie I have ever seen), admitting he erred by being a good soldier and going along with the studio’s idea to try making the despicable yuppie protagonist into Tom Hanks. Bad ideas from the suits only seem to compromise movies people probably weren’t going to like in the first place, as we see in a cutting contrast between his original apocalyptic ending for the Nic Cage-starring “Snake Eyes” versus the dud finale Paramount demanded.
But studio filmmaking is an art form that requires people giving you millions and millions of dollars, and De Palma recounts with rueful laughter that every time he’s put his foot down and said “my way or the highway,” he’s always ended up alone and unemployed out on the highway.
These days he works in Europe, having walked away from Hollywood once and for all after a disastrous experience on “Mission to Mars” in 2000. This unfortunately means that De Palma’s towering, late-career, back-to-basics masterpiece “Femme Fatale” barely got a proper release on these shores, and his most recent film, 2013’s feverishly filthy “Passion” — starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace as rapacious bisexual advertising execs with murder on their minds — didn’t even play Boston theatres at all.
But then the pictures for which this filmmaker is most renowned today weren’t ever really all that successful upon initial release. He describes his now-beloved “Blow Out” as “the biggest disaster of my career” and the box office statistics on it are shocking. The modest hit “Scarface” somehow blossomed over decades into a hip-hop and videogame phenomenon. Back in January, we wrote about the wonderful resurrection of “Body Double,” which in the documentary De Palma claims is the movie of his that regular folks on the street want to talk about most.
I was a freshman in film school when “Carlito’s Way” opened to shrugs. (Except from me. I went to see it three times.) A doomy, ‘40s film noir transplanted to the disco era, it’s a heartbreaking inverse “Scarface” starring a beautifully soulful Al Pacino as a crook trying to go straight in a world that doesn’t give second chances. In one of the documentary’s more emotional moments, De Palma calls it his favorite, then comes straight out and says he can’t make a better movie than that one. Alas, “Carlito’s Way” came and went without much discussion, until a few years later when the French cinema bible Cahiers du Cinéma named it the Best Film of the 1990s.
As with “Vertigo,” I guess these things just take time. “De Palma” is hugely entertaining and a long overdue celebration of a singular American artist. When it’s over, you’ll see old movies with new eyes.