Ahead of the De Palma documentary release, get to grips with the divisive director that Tarantino, Baumbach and Del Toro can't get enough of
Once a week, Brian De Palma dines at a fancy restaurant with Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, usually with Wes Anderson at the table too, and during these meals they sink their teeth into the history of cinema. According to a recent interview, it’s these tasty conversations that led to De Palma, the long-awaited doc from Baumbach and Paltrow in which the pair interrogate their outspoken filmmaking hero on his storied career.
De Palma’s eclectic oeuvre is an embarrassment of riches that’s spawned Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Phantom of the Paradise, Carlito’s Way, Body Double, Sisters, Blow Out, Femme Fatale and too many other cult favourites to fit into a sentence. Whether subverting his chosen genre or executing a style to excess, he’s a visual storyteller whose camera moves with elegant purpose. To prepare for De Palma, here’s what you need to know about the controversial auteur whose biggest fans include Tarantino and Daft Punk.
HE’S KNOWN FOR DAZZLING VISUAL SET PIECES
De Palma admits his priorities lie in story and cinematic sequences, not fleshed-out characters. So in every movie, even his clunkers, there promises to be a few jaw-dropping scenes that could be watched on an endless loop. There’s the 12-minute single take that opens Snake Eyes. There’s the telekinetic strop at the prom in Carrie. Or there’s the 10-minute wordless museum chase of Dressed to Kill where every emotional revelation is told purely through the tricks of cinematography.
HE DISCOVERED ROBERT DE NIRO AND HOOKED HIM UP WITH SCORSESE
“New Hollywood” is a vague term used for anyone half-decent in the 60s, 70s and 80s. More specifically, the “Movie Brats” were a tight-knit friendship group of De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. These BFFs exchanged scripts and notes in the 70s, when Hollywood was pumping money into new ideas, and in turn De Palma’s fingerprints are all over some all-time classics (and whatever adjective is appropriate for Star Wars).
In fact, De Palma’s harsh criticisms of an early cut of Star Wars led to him rewrite the opening crawl. Furthermore, it was De Palma who handed De Niro his first onscreen roles and later introduced him to Scorsese at a party. A well-known, probably apocryphal Hollywood rumour is of a drunken night Scorsese spent staring at a revolver, plotting to take out the executive who demanded cuts to Taxi Driver. De Palma, with the other “Movie Brats”, held an intervention until the early hours and everybody survived to deny the tale.
PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE INSPIRED DAFT PUNK’S HELMETS
When De Palma wrote, directed and summoned Phantom of the Paradise, a savage satire of the music industry, he also created Daft Punk’s all-time favourite movie. A hedonistic hoot from start to finish, the rock opera portrays how pop stars are chewed up and spat out before their vinyl singles hit the shelves. The villain is Swan, the record label producer who literally sells his soul to the devil; on the flipside is the Phantom, a masked songwriter with catchy tunes and an electronic voice-box. With the swirling themes of faceless artists, immortality and the sampling of old records, no wonder Daft Punk wear Phantom-esque head gear as a tribute.
HE SPECIALISES IN EROTIC THRILLERS, VOYEURISM, AND POSTMODERNISM
If those three items are on your wishlist, then you’re weird and in for a treat. First off, De Palma doesn’t deal in ordinary sleaze; Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Femme Fatale and Passion are genre pastiches to the extreme, filled with archetypes who recognise their role in cinema traditions. Of course, De Palma goes all in. Body Double paints LA as a lurid hotbed of exhibitionists, perverts and murderers whose weapon of choice is an oversized phallic drill. Meanwhile, the peeping Tom protagonist and the film-within-a-film implicates the viewer with the crime – it brings new meaning to the phrase “guilty pleasure”.
HE AND AL PACINO MADE A CRIME MASTERPIECE THAT’S NOT SCARFACE
Everyone knows Scarface. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve at least been subjected to some boring bro’s Tony Montana impression. Far superior is Carlito’s Way, which reunited Pacino and De Palma for what’s essentially the anti-Scarface. Pacino is the ex-gangster desperate for a clean getaway; the film is the tragic tornado that pulls him back in. The climactic pursuit is up there with the best finales put to screen.
YOUR FAVOURITE DIRECTORS ARE MEMBERS OF THE DE PALMA FAN CLUB
De Palma is a filmmaker’s filmmaker. When Edgar Wright tweeted his seven favourite De Palma movies, Guillermo del Toro responded instantly with his own picks. Wes Anderson asked De Palma how to shoot the stormy ending of Moonrise Kingdom (you know, the bit that felt out of place) and Noah Baumbach credits De Palma’s philosophy for inspiring the sprinting sequence in Frances Ha.
Outdoing them all is Quentin Tarantino, a lifelong devotee who consistently names Carrie and Blow Out in top 10 lists. In addition to the split-screen homage in Kill Bill, Tarantino built a scrapbook of De Palma interviews, which you can see 29 minutes into this 1994 BBC doc – it’s seriously impressive/creepy.
BUT HE’S ALSO A POLARISING FIGURE WHO PROVOKES HOSTILE REACTIONS
Despite the mainstream success of Mission: Impossible and The Untouchables, De Palma generally makes artful trash of the highest order – the kind of OTT genre exercises which slice audiences down the middle. Nominated five times for Worst Director at the Razzies, he’s also an artist – like Paul Verhoeven, whose films were lambasted by critics on release, but celebrated by cinephiles in retrospect. Good reviews come to those who wait 20 years.
HE POPULARISED THE SPLIT-SCREEN TECHNIQUE
First used by De Palma in Dionysus in ’69, his trademark split-screen shots come to focus in the murder scene of Sisters. On the right, a bleeding victim is unaided by police; on the left, a frustrated journalist frantically calls the cops while her “Why we call them Pigs” article appears onscreen. “I felt the destruction had to be shown in split-screen,” he
“I felt the destruction had to be shown in split-screen,” he explains of Carrie, “because how many times could you cut from Carrie to things moving around?” Elsewhere, the technique’s striking appearances range from the car explosion of Phantom of the Paradise, to the career-defining meta-commentary of Passion: on one-half of the frame is an avant-garde theatre production, while on the other a kinky evening meets a grisly end.
HE STEALS FROM HITCHCOCK AND DOESN’T DENY IT
“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery” is an adage espoused all the time, never by the people being plagiarised themselves. But De Palma doesn’t downplay the Hitchcock influence. If anything, he exaggerates it, directly referencing Vertigo, Psycho and Rear Window whenever possible. By injecting Hitchcockian verve into his visual grammar, De Palma constructs a new layer that’s original and self-referential – although Hitchcock was vehemently pissed off with De Palma when he was still alive.
THE VIOLENCE OF DE PALMA’S MOVIES ARE PURE CINEMA
In the sadistic world of De Palma, no one is safe, not even the main character, and quite often the initial protagonist is a corpse by the second act. A simple explanation is a high threshold for gore which De Palma credits to a childhood spent hanging out at his father’s surgery. But it’s more to do with the rising tension and impact of his dramatic climaxes, such as the prom scene in Carrie or the shootout of The Untouchables, where every bruise and bullet is a satisfying payoff. His deaths aren’t torture porn; they’re balletic examples of heightened cinema that leave a blood-stained impression.
IS HE A PROBLEMATIC SEXIST, A SUBVERSIVE FEMINIST, OR A GENRE SATIRIST?
The common dispute over De Palma is whether a misogynistic streak runs through his movies – namely, the recurrence of beautiful women, often strippers and prostitutes, who kick the bucket with immaculate choreography. And there’s Dressed to Kill, which would be a goddamn magnum opus were it not for the indefensible transphobic twist. Then again, his films are absurd pastiches of pastiches that lampoon Hollywood stereotypes and toy with social taboos. With the fevered debates lasting decades beyond the final credits, you suspect it’s all part of his plan.
De Palma opens in cinema on 23 September 2016