Is Brian DePalma a giant of American filmmaking or just a moderately successful journeyman?
It’s pretty clear from their documentary “DePalma” that filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow believe in the first analysis.
In this two-hour journey through the director’s mind and career we mostly get the 75 year old DePalma seated in front of a camera and in more or less chronological order discussing the films he has made over more than a half century.
These range from the off-the-cuff craziness of “Greetings” to box office champs like the first “Mission: Impossible” and “The Untouchables” to genuinely provocative works like “Scarface,” “Carrie,” “Casualties of War” and “Carlito’s Way.”
Of course there are flops, too: “Bonfire of the Vanities” (he maintains that if no one had read the book they’d like the film), “Mission to Mars” (he was a last-minute replacement who joined a production that already had left the station) and the politically-drenched war-on-terror spasm “Redacted.”
The film makes extensive use of film clips, not only from DePalma’s resume but from other filmmakers who have influenced him (Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is a major touchstone).
It’s a sort of crash course in the ups and downs of a Hollywood life, for DePalma has both resided at the top of the heap and spent years as a persona non grata. He’s philosophical about it all – seems to feel he’s had a pretty good life despite the lows and the day-to-day betrayals of Tinseltown.
Maybe his sanguine outlook is the result of a childhood divided between a wildly dysfunctional family (young Brian played detective to get the goods on his philandering father) and schooling by the Quakers, who taught him to find his inner calm. Oh, yeah…he spent a lot of time watching his physician father performing orthopedic surgery, which may explain why as an adult he had no qualms about soaking his characters in gore.
That Quaker upbringing is evidenced in another way…the man apparently does not curse. “Holy mackerel!” is about as salty as Brian DePalma gets. For a guy who has sometimes been raked over the coals for his depictions of violence (and especially violence against women), he seems comfortingly benign.
But he’s a terrific raconteur, with a self-effacing style and a truckload of juicy behind-the-scenes stories of misbehaving actors and showbiz duplicity.
Essential viewing for movie geeks.