by Benjamín Harguindey
“Cinema – it’s men filming women,” quoth Jean-Luc Godard. If this is taken at face value, then Brian De Palma is the filmmaker par excellence. His entire work could be summed – as indeed he does in the 2015 documentary that bears his name – as the obsessive compulsion to follow women in an attempt to understand them.
The movie is perhaps less of a documentary, more of a tribute. Written and directed by mumblecore’s Noah Baumbach and Gwyneth’s Jake Paltrow, it consists of nothing but De Palma in talking head mode and clips/stills from his whole oeuvre, beginning with the 1962 short Woton’s Wake and ending with the 2012 erotic thriller Passion, which remains largely unreleased to date.
It is essentially a filmed seminar in the vein of the “masterclasses” that distinguish the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, such as Vittorio Storaro’s recent visit, where guests do a film-by-film review of their life’s work with a mixture of regret and complacency. This is usually as riveting as you are passionate about the artist’s work, but the documentary does a fine job at selling De Palma’s haunted genius figure.
The movie begins with De Palma reminiscing of the one movie that arguably defines his work as accurately as Godard’s opening quote above: Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo’s convoluted plot could be summarized as one man’s futile attempt to give life to the woman he once loved through another woman, only to lose her a second time.
Throughout De Palma’s filmography we see a chronicle of such futility, of women that are mocked, humiliated and brutally murdered because of the way they project beauty, purity or sexuality. Because of this De Palma’s detractors criticize his work as borderline exploitative if not outright pornographic (hiring a porn actress for his 1984 Body Double helps). The way De Palma hand-waves controversy is a bit disingenuous, explaining how crucifying the mom in Carrie (1976) with kitchen knives is more dramatic than a heart attack, then shrugging off the power drill scene in Body Double as only logical.
Be that as it may, think of De Palma as a student of Hitchcock by way of the Italian giallo school of filmmaking, artfully crafting suspense with elaborate camerawork before delivering a bloody shock. Perhaps best known in this day and age for his remake of Scarface (1983) – as appropriated by 90s hip hop/gangsta subculture – and commercial hits like The Untouchables (1987), Carlito’s Way (1993) and Mission Impossible (1996), the documentary pays equal attention to the more obscure part of his filmography from the 60s and 70s: the erotic thriller, the indie horror movie, the offbeat buddy comedy in the vein of John Cassavetes. The film reveals and celebrates De Palma’s versatility and the way he brings an expert craftsmanship to every project, whichever the genre, whatever the decade.
De Palma ultimately feels a bit elegiac, the man himself speaking in a droning, end-of-the-line kind of resignation that does not befit his position as one of America’s greatest living auteurs, never mind his falling out with the industry these past few years. The documentary is a cinephile’s dream come true. If only every seminal film director got one of these.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).