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Film review: "De Palma"


Co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow sit down with esteemed filmmaker Brian De Palma in the wonderful new documentary "De Palma" for an extended, film-by-film profile of his career. As the discussion expands to cover the director's life, influences, and filmmaking process, what emerges is a fascinating resource on the art of making movies.

For the nearly two hour running time, not a single other subject is interviewed, leaving De Palma himself to do all the talking as he takes viewers on a journey through his 55 years of directing films. From early films like "The Wedding Party" and lesser known cult favorites such as "Phantom of Paradise" to outright classics "Carrie," "Dressed to Kill," and "Blow Out," he covers everything. A generous helping of clips -- from his own works as well as from those that inspired him -- provide illustration along the way, and whether or not you consider yourself a fan of the director's work, the conversation that they inspire is always riveting.

Throughout De Palma's career, he's gained notoriety for wearing his admiration for Alfred Hitchcock on his sleeve, so it's not exactly a shock that the film opens with a scene from "Vertigo." But as everything goes on, the filmmaker gives insight into how and why he deliberately chooses to utilize the language of cinema in ways first established by his idol (not to mention his similar attraction to the suspense genre). De Palma is open about his obsessions and honest about the compromises that come during the necessary mixing of business and commerce with art. In blurring the artist's work with stories from his personal life, the film becomes an excellent illustration of the director as auteur, his films inextricable from the life experiences they were drawn from.

De Palma is candid about his failures and misfires, from "Bonfire of the Vanities" to "Mission to Mars," he can pinpoint exactly what works and what doesn't about each one. "Every mistake is up there on the screen," the director laments. "It's like a record of the things you didn't finish."

There are also some delightful behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the director's contemporaries, including filmmaking greats like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, who were all coming up at the same time as De Palma. The men were close through the 1970's and hearing the ways they occasionally helped and assisted one another throughout their careers is endlessly entertaining.

"De Palma" is so good and so compelling that I can't help but hope that Baumbach and Paltrow turn this into a series of similar films, each one focused on the work of a major modern director. If the subjects were all willing to be as honest and open as De Palma, they would provide an invaluable resource not just for aspiring filmmakers but to film lovers as well.