Sunday, September 4, 2016

THE LEGACY OF FILMMAKER BRIAN DE PALMA

Filmmaker Brian De Palma today.
Like so many movies released, the documentary DE PALMA, about the filmmaker Brian De Palma, only opened nationally in New York and Los Angeles back on June 10. For those of us elsewhere in the country, we had to wait until it became available on VOD just two weeks ago. And while it was worth the wait, it barely scratches the surface about who Brian De Palma is as a movie auteur and what his films mean in the history of cinema. If anything, the 110-minute film, mostly consisting of De Palma sitting and facing the camera while telling us amusing anecdotes about his movies, is like an extended appetizer course. It’s tasty, but not much of a meal.

Even the clips included are short and out-of-context. It’s truly a film that only the most devoted of De Palma fans will likely appreciate, those who know his resume backwards and forwards. But for those who may be unfamiliar with his legacy, the documentary may strike them as shockingly shorthand. It needs narration, more history, more context, even a POV from filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow who created this love letter to one of their idols. As filmmaking documentaries go, this one can’t really hold a candle to a 2-hour A & E biography.

Sissy Spacek in CARRIE (1976)
What it does do well is present a wry and curmudgeonly storyteller in De Palma as he recounts the films in his directing career, and the highs and lows it took to make them. He tells of his many battles to get what’s onscreen up there, whether they were conflicts within the studio system or with his stars. It presents a world weary man, who’s seen too much in his fifty years as a filmmaker, but what it doesn’t give the viewer much of is a vivid portrait of his exquisite work. Still, if it moves audiences to seek out his films, then it has accomplished a lot. But for those out there only vaguely familiar with him, this documentary will not illuminate De Palma nearly enough.

That’s a shame because De Palma is one of America’s foremost filmmakers, an important player across some five decades of film now. There were few auteurs whom Pauline Kael championed more in the 70’s and 80’s. His arresting visual style and controversial subject matter found within his movies always caused a stir and created tons of buzz. He was a household name then. And rightfully so. De Palma films were big deals and always garnered a lot of attention.

Why? For starters, De Palma’s work was never, ever boring. More often than not, his work was stunning to watch. It was utterly enthralling cinema with a technician's expertise that few could match. In fact, there were few moviemakers who could hold a candle to De Palma's camerawork, editing, and scoring. He was masterful at telling stories filled with suspense, and he was also a true provocateur. His films were about sex, rendered boldly, without compromise, whether it was a girl's first period (CARRIE) or an out-of-work actor's lurid fantasies (BODY DOUBLE). 

Many great filmmakers came out of that time period, and the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas and Coppola were friends and contemporaries of De Palma's. He was almost as big a deal as they were then, and he was certainly one of the directors that audiences and critics looked forward to standing in line for. How many people even know that today? Anyone under 30?

Al Pacino in SCARFACE (1981)
Thus, to tell the story of such a man and the quality of his resume requires more than a scant two hours. And to cover his 25 or so films in a documentary subjugates them merely to a sort of greatest hits list, with little more than a behind-the-scenes story or two, or a humorous anecdote to go along with the clips. It's just not enough, and actually stands as a bit wobbly in structure.  

A movie like THE UNTOUCHABLES probably could have its own documentary, but here in this one, it gets about equal time as all the others, and it feels too short. What we learn from De Palma's tidbits here is little more than a quick telling of De Niro not wanting to learn his lines, as well as how the director had to improvise the staircase scene. But such a classic needs more time to talk about than that. And while it's hilarious when the director talks about OBSESSION and how cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond complained that the overly tan Cliff Robertson blended into the woodwork in his set-ups, again, such films feel shortchanged by their brief appearances in the doc.

Worth more screen time as well, and some truly lively debate, is the polarizing reputation that De Palma has earned with both critics and audiences alike over the years. Indeed, much of his resume could be described as hit or miss. He certainly is able to ace genre time and time again, with the likes of horror (CARRIE) and thrillers (DRESSED TO KILL), but much of his work over the last 20 years has wholly missed anything near that of a classic. And are his films important? That's a question about his work that always shadows it.  

Granted, they said the same of Hitchcock in his era, and look at his reputation today. Still, De Palma is not nearly as important a filmmaker as Hitchcock, but he is better than many people give him credit as being. And it’s nice to see a documentary attempting to restore some of the gusto to his reputation. 

Andy Garcia in THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987)
After all, there are few filmmakers of any generation who have created such a distinctive and recognizable visual style onscreen as De Palma. The gliding Steadicam floating from one room to another, like those in DRESSED TO KILL or THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, is not only pure cinematic storytelling, it’s pure De Palma. The use of a split screen to tell two sides of a story simultaneously in SISTERS and DRESSED TO KILL became an instantly recognizable signature of the filmmaker too. And what other director has created so many cat and mouse set-pieces with little or no dialogue other than De Palma? Hitchcock, yes, but for such an important director as the Master of Suspense, De Palma observes that few people pay much homage to him in their filmmaking. He admits to stealing quite generously from Hitch. Steal from the best, isn't that what they say? 

And yet, even though De Palma is a consummate technical director, and one whose themes of sexuality, perversion, power and corruption onscreen have few parallels, there are so many that still utterly loathe De Palma. They’ll tell you that he uses his impressive techniques as a crutch, or too often in the service of weak material. If only he had spent as much time on the scripts of such duds as THE BLACK DAHLIA or FEMME FATALE, he would’ve turned them into winners. They’ll also argue that he’s too obsessive with fetishizing women, or even destroying them, as evidenced by what many see as outright misogyny in so many of his pictures. Only a director who hates women, they’ll argue, would have Angie Dickinson sliced up so brutally in that elevator, or offed Deborah Shelton with an 18” drill.

Angie Dickinson in DRESSED TO KILL (1981)
Indeed, De Palma has overdone some of the violence. Worse yet, he's bungled a lot of good material he had to work with. He turned some that should have been sure shots into misfires, like James Ellroy’s finest detective novel. There’s a great movie, or miniseries, to be made of THE BLACK DAHLIA, but De Palma’s version wasn’t it. It’s hard to argue with such mistakes, yet he’s often elevated lurid scripts to something resembling art. SCARFACE is filled with over-the-top violence and some performances that edge into stereotypes, yet De Palma turned much of the pulp into poetry. There's an elegance to his camerawork, even if it's showing Al Pacino mowing down dozens of assassins with his "little friend."

And quick (!), name an action scene from the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie franchise. You came up with Tom Cruise hanging by those wires, didn’t you? That was the first in the series, directed by De Palma, and it's still the most memorable. The fact is De Palma probably doesn’t get nearly enough credit for so much of what he's accomplished as a great filmmaker, not just as a great visualist. 

He certainly doesn’t get nearly the praise he deserves for the amazing work he gets out of many of his actors. He guided Sean Connery to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for THE UNTOUCHABLES. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie got nominations for their work in CARRIE under De Palma's direction. And he was the first among directors to champion a young Bobby De Niro in comedies like GREETINGS and HI, MOM! 

Melanie Griffith and Craig Wasson in BODY DOUBLE (1984)
De Palma also was the first big time director to give big film roles to John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, Paul Williams, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and Keith Gordon. He also did wonders to change a lot of people’s minds about the talents of Angie Dickinson and Melanie Griffith, winning them multiple supporting actress awards for their work in DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE, respectively. And he saved Michelle Pfeiffer from the trash heap of Hollywood after the debacle that was GREASE 2, with a career-changing turn as Tony Montana’s wife in SCARFACE.

It was also De Palma who had the vision to bring Bernard Herrmann out of retirement and guide him to create a few more outstanding film scores. Sure, Scorsese hired Herrmann to score TAXI DRIVER in 1976, but De Palma utilized him that same year for OBSESSION, and actually hired him to write the music to accompany his Margot Kidder thriller SISTERS three years earlier. De Palma relates many such stories in the documentary, and it’s rather sad as he does so with an air of realization that people don’t know that he did such things. They think he’s just the guy who mainstreamed voyeurism at the cinema. But anyone who loves movies needs to know of the impact he has had on film. This documentary may have shortcomings, but it at least sets the record straight. 

Tom Cruise in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)
De Palma may not be quite in the sphere as those famed contemporaries of his from the 70’s, but he has created great films. Many of them. Who'd argue with the place in cinematic history that CARRIE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and DRESSED TO KILL own, along with cult classics that continue to build their fandom like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, BLOW OUT, THE FURY, and OBSESSION. And if you are moved to rent De Palma’s CASUALTIES OF WAR, SISTERS, or CARLITO’S WAY after viewing the documentary, you might just realize that those are a whole helluva lot better than they get credit for as well.  

When De Palma is firing on all cylinders, he is truly masterful. And even though he’s 75 now, one hopes he still may have a movie or two left in him. His wit and intelligence are so clearly on display in this documentary, as he holds the audience in the palm of his hand, simply telling you about his adventures in the screen trade. If he can do that sitting in front of the camera, imagine what he can still do behind it.

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