So many of Brian De Palma's movies revolve around sexually charged murders, stories that demand our attention to detail, that become exercises in active viewing. Sisters' split screen, Blow Out's field recordings, and Body Double's voyeuristic camera lens all force our eyes and ears to multitask, navigating our way through dense sensory environments as we filter the signal from the noise.
Even when we give our undivided attention, there's sometimes misdirection to throw us off — characters peel off their masks at the end of Mission: Impossible, revealing that we haven't actually been seeing what we've been seeing.
De Palma, the new documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, doesn't hold us to the same exacting standards. The co-directors place a camera in front of their subject and passively observe as he discusses his entire filmography at length, going from one film to another in chronological order for the entirety of their study on the influential director.
As if to reinforce his reputation as a lone-wolf auteur with iconoclastic tendencies, there are no other voices to complement or contradict De Palma's: The filmmaker has become both interrogator and suspect.
Interspersed with his insights and analyses are clips from the movies in question: Phantom of the Paradise, Carrie, The Fury, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission to Mars, to name just a few. When he goes deep on the student films he made with a then-unknown Robert De Niro, casually referring to legends like "Bob" and "Marty" as the close friends they are, it feels like cinephile fan service — the closest that Hi, Mom! enthusiasts will ever get to a Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie.
De Palma is essentially director porn, all De Palma all the time. The indulgence is apropos of a filmmaker often pigeonholed as a pervert for killing off his sexed-up female characters at alarming rates.
Still, you'd think it might have occurred to Baumbach in particular that such a straightforward approach belies the aesthetic complexity of his subject. Maybe this is why last year's While We're Young devolved into a screed on the ethics and aesthetics of documentary filmmaking.
De Palma makes for a compelling interviewee all the same, and everyone who's casually dismissed him as a perverted voyeur based on his movies will be disarmed by his go-to exclamation of "holy mackerel" and affable nature. Is this really the same guy who famously killed off Angie Dickinson in that elevator from Dressed to Kill? De Palma never deflects, owning his failures as readily as he fondly recalls the ones that came together just right. The Untouchables did gangbusters, but following it up with Casualties of War and The Bonfire of the Vanities did little to endear him to viewers.
Ironically enough for what amounts to an auteur study, De Palma also serves to remind that even filmmakers who exert near-total control over their work have to contend with outside forces: ratings boards, Hollywood fat cats, test-screening audiences. De Palma, now 75 and four years removed from his most recent film, is confident that he'll never work within the studio system again; in hindsight, it seems improbable that such a justifiably stubborn director ever did in the first place.
Perhaps as a result of his decades in and out of those studios, we sometimes see De Palma equating financial success with the overall merit of a film as a whole — he makes no bones about wanting his art to be enjoyed by others. But there's no one formula for making a film that appeals to both its creator and multiplex crowds. By the director's own admission, he didn't always hit the mark. Too bad De Palma doesn't either.
Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema