De Palma documentary provides a chance to explore (or revisit) four decades of film

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One thing to know before you head out to The Belcourt to see the new documentary De Palma: it’s not like any of the all-encompassing (if informative) documentaries we’re familiar with. No Brian De Palma experts jump in the frame to provide a wide-ranging perspective of the film and political landscape during the making of Carrie or The Bonfire of the Vanities. No critics step in to tell us which of the films—hit or flop—are worthy of our time today.

It’s all De Palma, sitting in front of a fireplace, looking into the camera, sharing stories as he recalls them from the films that span over 50 years. Clips from the hits (Scarface, Mission: Impossible) and the misses (Casualties of War, Mission to Mars) fill in the nearly two-hour long film. To that end, it is all-encompassing.

Cinephiles in general, fans of the director specifically, as well as those folks, like myself, who are enamored by filmmaking in the 1970s will learn a great deal from De Palma. There are references to Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, and Lucas that may leave you wishing they’d each popped in the room for long enough to share some thoughts about De Palma’s work and that era especially.

Think back to a time when a film didn’t have a number identifying which sequel it was attached to it. If you can’t recall it, then you may not appreciate this film. Or you will find yourself clicking through Netflix and iTunes to find some of these gems, stories that were told because the directors were free to develop them and the viewer was deemed intelligent enough to comprehend them. The beauty of a film like De Palma in 2016 is that nearly every one of the titles referenced is at our fingertips. (A good number of these titles will play The Belcourt over the next couple months, in fact).

There are the classics Carrie, Scarface, Mission: Impossible. To his artistic credit, the director doesn’t dwell on those any more than he does the ones that ‘got away. I found myself researching the sometimes overlooked titles, in search of new perspective in the time that has passed since I first watched Carlito’s Way or Wise Guys (remember Wise Guys? With Danny DeVito?!).

In the mid-1980s Michael J. Fox was a huge star and Casualties of War was supposed to move him beyond the wisecracking teen America knew of him from Family Ties and Back to the Future. De Palma was most heartbroken when it failed at the box office, and gleefully shares a story about the on-set relationship between twinkly-eyed Canadian Fox and his co-star Sean Penn, the filming of Casualties of War taking place somewhere amid his tumultuous marriage to Madonna.

And there’s John Travolta (photo above, at left with De Palma). Hot on the heels of 1980’s Urban Cowboy and Grease just two years before it, Blow Out was met in 1981 with rave reviews but faltered at the box office. More than a decade before Travolta gained industry cred with Pulp Fiction and a career renaissance in the late 1990s, the failure of Blow Out appears to have pushed him back into simpler and familiar roles with the likes of Staying Alive and Perfect. Of his performance in Blow Out, the legendary New Yorker film reviewer Pauline Kael wrote:

Travolta finally has a role that allows him to discard his teen-age strutting and his slobby accents. Now it seems clear that he was so slack-jawed and weak in last year’s “Urban Cowboy” because he couldn’t draw upon his own emotional experience—the ignorant-kid role was conceived so callowly that it emasculated him as an actor.

And of De Palma she wrote: “De Palma has been learning [throughout his career] how to make every move of the camera signify just what he wants it to, and now he has the knowledge at his fingertips. The pyrotechnics and the whirlybird camera are no longer saying “Look at me;” they give the film authority.”

Co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow are undoubtedly fans of De Palma, and the respect is clearly mutual. Neither man appears in the film, nor are they heard, and the full-on face shot of the director talking about his work at times becomes a bit draining, if only because we’ve been trained by the industry to expect a visual change-up, even in a documentary. But it keeps the focus on the retrospective, the films at hand.

We shouldn’t be dazzled by a wardrobe change or a set change while the director is talking because as viewers we want to feel the same De Palma comment on industry players changing their opinion of Carrie only after it became a hit as when he laments the mess that became The Bonfire of the Vanities and the reasons why he refuses to work in the United States now.

De Palma is like a superbly produced DVD extra, that place you can immediately look for more information at the end of a film for context from the participants involved. Because so much has changed about filmmaking, about film viewing.


De Palma
Opens Friday August 5 at The Belcourt
Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
107 minutes
Rated R