By Eleanor Ringel Cater
How you feel about the new documentary, “De Palma,” is pretty much tied to how you feel about director Brian De Palma’s pictures. For those who find his work boorish, simplistic, and misogynistic – with a weakness for sensationalism and imitation (he calls it “homage”) – listening to the filmmaker go on about himself can be trying.
It could’ve been worse. Reportedly, Noah Baumbach and Jason Paltrow winnowed down 30 to 40 hours of interviews into a little less than two hours of De Palma talking about his favorite topic.
Well, Baumbach and Paltrow did ask. And the 70-something filmmaker is more than willing to wax eloquent on his, um, body of work. Angie Dickinson slashed to bloody ribbons in “Dressed to Kill.” Sissy Spacek drenched in pig’s blood in “Carrie.” Nancy Allen’s dying scream in “Blow Out.”
These are some of the things that have made him a cult icon, especially with the eternally adolescent blog boys who share his taste for gratuitous boobs – the bloodier the better.
De Palma does have some respectable credits. The first “Mission: Impossible,” for which he had the very good idea to kill off the TV series’ team early in the film and thus set up his star as more of a lone wolf. “The Untouchables” helped cement Kevin Costner’s stardom, earned Sean Connery an Oscar and featured a memorable scene with Robert De Niro, as Al Capone, taking a baseball bat to the heads of certain troublesome mobsters (never mind “The Walking Dead’s” Negan and Lucille; De Palma got there first)
Stylistically, the documentary is hardly groundbreaking. Mostly, it’s just the director sitting there talking, plus a bunch of movie clips. Most are from his own work: “Sisters,” “Scarface,” “The Fury,” “Carlito’s Way,” “Mission to Mars,” etc.
But some are from other people’s films, almost all of which, ironically, are far better than De Palma’s: “The 400 Blows,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “The French Connection,” “Breathless,” and “Taxi Driver.”
The filmmaker is entertaining. He is acerbic. He is self-promoting. He’s even a little wistful. Though his movies have made him rich and famous, he isn’t as rich and famous as his contemporaries (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and Scorsese). And under his braggadocio, you sense that even De Palma realizes that, say, “Carrie,” good as it is, isn’t in the same league as Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” or Spielberg’s “Jaws” or Lucas’ s mountain o’ gold known as the “Star Wars” franchise.
De Palma has a treasure trove of stories, some self-serving, some not. Talking about “Casualties of War” – a daringly brutal movie and one of his best – De Palma recalls how Sean Penn jacked up the tension between his heartless character and Michael Fox’s conscionable soldier (it’s set during the Vietnam War). In one scene, Penn brushed by Fox and whispered dismissively, just low enough for only his co-star to hear, “Television actor.”
Yet too much of what De Palma says is drenched in ego and smugness. You really need to see the ain’t-I-a-naughty-boy look on his face when he brings up a famous scene in “Carrie”: “That’s when I came up with the flying utensils!”
And he wonders, with gratingly faux ingenuousness, why were women’s groups so mad when Deborah Shelton was murdered by a hand-held drill in “Body Double?” Maybe he senses that pretty girls killed in ugly ways is about all that he’s got left. In fact, one thing you notice over the course of the documentary is how little he’s grown as a filmmaker. “The Black Dahlia,” made in 2006, isn’t all that much different from “Obsession,” made in 1976.
Still, there’s a kind of passionate obsessiveness about De Palma. And an unfiltered cunning. And a raging ego. Meant to be a tribute, “De Palma” mostly reminds you of how many terrible movies he’s made.