Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's documentary, De Palma
, begins with its beloved subject discussing the first time he ever saw Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo
and the profound impact it had on his sense of storytelling and general cinematic philosophy. In discussing Hitchcock, an interesting point is raised; that for all the talk of the Hitchockian influence, Brian De Palma remains his only true disciple. Nowhere else in the cinema of suspense are Hitchcock's expressionistic lessons in anticipation so well heeded and stylistically expanded upon.
But while there is a certain level of apparent inspiration at work in De Palma's evolution, what materialized from his admiration of Hitchcock is a thirst for originality so vivacious in its growing storytelling toolbox that, in Hitchcock's wake, grew one of the most dynamic filmmakers to shape the modern cinematic landscape. Whether your genre is suspense or not, De Palma's willingness to take risks, via his throbbing middle finger aimed at coverage-style shooting and general cliché, stands as an urgent call for outside-of-the-box thinking.
Even in De Palma's early screwball art films, which take a far stronger cue from Godard than Hitchcock, there is an expressionistically anti-norm playfulness at work establishing De Palma's artistic priorities from day one: to be singular. Take, for example, one of Noah Baumbach's favorites of De Palma's early work, Get To Know Your Rabbit, which stars former Smothers Brother, Tom Smothers, as a corporate leach who abandons his career path to become a magician. Though De Palma would undergo changes in genre in subsequent years, his trickster spirit unifies everything he touches. It involves making the audience stare at the rabbit while he pulls a cinematic fast one, through tactics like his split screen revolution which evolved into his custom split diopter lens, or his mastery of the choreographed mobile long take with a propensity for surprise.
There are countless reasons to love Brian De Palma that may not necessarily become immediately apparent depending on which of his 40 or so films a first timer will choose to watch. Those who love him unconditionally do so because, though his filmography isn't flawless, his missteps are almost as admirable as his masteries, in their equally noble attempts to break new ground.
If this extended intro is not preaching to a De Palma-loving choir, I'd recommend that rather than watching Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's impressively subjective documentary on the man himself, you first get to know the man via his work. For De Palma doesn't care which of his films you have or haven't seen. In his career's entirety, they are all heavily spoiled with no mind paid to the uninitiated. Though this may strike some as a detriment, it is only one of the many things that make this one of the most unique tribute documentaries ever made. The beautifully loving De Palma triumphs both in its thoroughness and its adulation entirely because of the intent of its filmmakers.
With the rawness of a tribute video meant for family, De Palma comes from a place of unadulterated love, respect, and awe. It is fervently uninterested in elements that would make it fit within the canon of films that are, on paper only, of its ilk. For one, the film does not feature multiple voices weighing in on the subject. It is bare bones subjectivity. De Palma sits in front of Paltrow's fireplace, wearing a blue shirt, answering questions from dear friends who may as well be his kin. This is such a fundamental detail in the uniqueness of the film. For whereas one could collect all the De Palma interviews included in his films' DVD supplements, though these interviews are certainly worth digesting, what they lack, and almost all interviews of this kind lack, is the type of pleasurably candid discussion one can only achieve when in the company of friends. One wonders to what degree they're being tongue in cheek in placing De Palma in a faux fireside chat setting.
Though Baumbach and Paltrow's voices are not heard in the film, their presence is detectable through the light in De Palma's eyes, transforming him into the type of raconteur most are only accustomed to listening to in intimate circumstances. With such a comfort, not only are they able to get a spirited first hand telling of De Palma's career, but an equally earnest discussion of his failures without a hint of defeated ego. "Every single cut you make will look at you forever", De Palma says of the eternal nature of the filmmaker.
For the purpose of their profile, Baumbach and Paltrow are disinterested in De Palma's personal life. Despite the tickling tales of his Quaker upbringing, never once do they pry into his relationships, allowing the details to unfold only when they're relevant. It's simply off topic. Or, as De Palma puts it, "My films are my wife, not you!" The discussion surrounds his career, and in its beat-by-beat telling, a great lesson in filmmaking is to be gleaned. There is so much to be learned about process, technique, and industry, in its multiple examples of how films make their way into production or why they, more often than not, fail to do so. Further, included are a healthy dose of De Palma's tricks, from how best to maximize your score, to how to manipulate audiences by controlling their focus, all the while, holding a loaded magic hat.
All revealed methods aside, De Palma is no instructional. Filmmakers are ever welcome to rip off De Palma's devices if they so please - and lord knows many do - but it's missing the point to walk away from this film with anything other than inspiration to create one's own unique bag of tricks. There's nothing wrong with being the descendant of a great master, but as De Palma himself learned from Hitchcock, the key ingredient to originality is further development of all that came before. Thus Paltrow and Baumbach's loving salute most importantly exists for posterity... for future generations to digest, appreciate, and build off of, or simply to understand fully that a filmmaker named Brian De Palma existed and the spark in his films projected onto the screen meant a great deal to a great many. Through Baumbach and Paltrow's loving keepsake, the light in De Palma's eyes finally reflects back at the audience.