Life of Brian

As you may well guess, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary De Palma explores the career of the filmmaker Brian De Palma, as told in his own words.

With some 30 films to his credit, De Palma breezes through them, and aside from a few references to his personal life, he’s basically hosting his own retrospective, replete with clips. Devotees of the director will likely find it enjoyable, if slightly familiar. He doesn’t offer many revelations, and it’s entirely from his perspective that the film is conveyed.

Throughout his career, De Palma has been viewed by some as the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock and by others as a shameless imitator. That this film begins and ends with Vertigo (1958) is probably no surprise.

There have been hits (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables), misses (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, Femme Fatale), initial flops that became cult classics (Phantom of the Paradise, Blow Out), and some cash-and-carry studio gigs (The Fury, Mission: Impossible). De Palma offers his reminiscences and opinions in a laid-back fashion that is neither self-aggrandizing or self demeaning.

He made them, he hoped they’d work, and they’re out there for people to see.

Although it’s only briefly noted, there was a time in the 1970s where De Palma seemed on the verge of becoming one of the major American directors. He was essentially a mentor to the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, only to see them be acclaimed as perhaps the greatest filmmakers of the “New Hollywood” generation. De Palma certainly has his champions, but not to the same extent. Too often he courted controversy, making films – Scarface (1983), Body Double (1984) and Casualties of War (1989) – that today are admired, but certainly weren’t at the time. Yet that was all part of the De Palma mystique – to challenge, to stretch boundaries, to push the envelope. And sometimes Hollywood pushed back.

It is, however, telling – and not inaccurate – when he observes that a director’s best works (Hitchcock included) tended to occur in their 30s, 40s and 50s – before they achieved legendary status, at which point there really was no place to go but down. Is there a Hollywood comeback in the cards? More to the point, is that what he really aspires to? !

De Palma opens Friday

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