Thursday, June 16, 2016

A director reflects on his career

Brian De Palma takes us on a guided tour of his work.

I once met Brian De Palma at the Toronto International Film Festival. Amazingly, De Palma hadn't attended the festival to hawk new wares. He was sitting in the back of an auditorium in a multiplex the festival then used for press and industry screenings. Had I missed something in the program? Did De Palma have a new movie? No, De Palma told me. He'd come to Toronto to catch a few films. A director watching movies at a festival in which he did not have a film to promote? Yes, it's a rarity, but, then, so is DePalma.

De Palma, the simply titled new documentary by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach, takes a straightforward approach to the director's life and work, leaving most of the analysis to De Palma himself.

De Palma discusses his career, and we see clips from his filmography, all annotated by the director, who acknowledges his debt to Alfred Hitchcock, hardly a secret to anyone familiar with his work.

De Palma saw Vertigo when he was a kid, and never looked back. He sees himself as the only true heir to Hitchcock, and it's clear that he understands the master's work and knows how to amplify and twist it to create his own cinematic vocabulary.

Box office results also play a role in De Palma's discussion, no small matter when it comes to determining how a director's career will progress. De Palma's identifiable style isn't enough to ensure that he'll latch onto big studio projects -- which he says he no longer wants.

De Palma does, of course, talk about those big-ticket movies (Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible), as well as the smaller, European-based movies that he currently favors, 2013's critically derided Passion.

I was heartened to hear De Palma say that he didn't think he could make a better movie than Carlito's Way, a film starring Al Pacino. I'd call it one of De Palma's best.

Self-protection isn't the point here: De Palma can be critical of himself, and, of at least one actor. At one point, he talks about Obsession (1976), and what a pain in the butt Cliff Robertson was.

De Palma, by the way, was the first director to use Robert De Niro in a feature, 1968's Greetings.

For a man whose movies can be steeped in eroticism and violence -- and some would say misogyny -- De Palma sometimes seems more like a nerdy cinema buff than a cunning auteur. When talking about things that either surprised him or threw him off his game, he tends to use an exclamation that sounds like it's coming from a Boy Scout.

"Holy mackerel" is one of his favorites.

A documentary such as De Palma can serve as an occasion for a critic to ruminate about a director's body of work. No need. Paltrow and Baumbach's movie does that for us, offering valuable insights into both the art and business of film and illuminating the mixture of choice and chance that makes a career.

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