Fittingly, De Palma opens with its subject gushing about Alfred Hitchcock and, in particular, Vertigo. “What’s so compelling about it is that he’s making a movie about what a director does, which is basically to create these romantic illusions. He makes you fall in love with it and then he kills it. Twice. And it’s what we do as directors: we create these beautiful women, these excitingly virile men; we get audiences involved with their stories and emotionally attached to them. And Hitchcock made a movie that’s so Brechtian—it’s showing what we’re doing as we’re doing it.” As Bernard Herrman’s score swells on the soundtrack, Hitchcock’s images melt into De Palma’s own.
That opening salvo is perhaps the most revealing line in a documentary full of revelations. Photographs, home movies, and clips of De Palma’s work animate this feature-length monologue. In chronological order, the director highlights the connecting threads and obsessions that have formed his singular body of work. It’s a feature-length demonstration of auteur theory that doubles as a celebration of perhaps the most polarizing director in American movie history.
That doubling is appropriate. Brian De Palma made a career out of doubling: split screens, split diopitors, and split personalities are staples. He loves restaging popular movie moments—a technique that’s invited misguided accusations of plagiarism from dissenters—and watching people watch people. Most of all, he never allows audiences to forget they’re watching a movie.
That may be why that opening line is so simultaneously informative and deceiving. While he acknowledges his embrace of sex and violence, he denies the problematic result of conflating the two. He mentions “virile men” but doesn’t address his own movies’ subversion of that Hollywood archetype. (From John Travolta to Michael J. Fox to Craig Wasson, ineffectual leading men are as important to his aesthetic as icy blondes were to Hitchcock’s.) They’re fake outs in a career full of fake outs. But even more, that opening is the sole invocation of Bertolt Brecht, maybe the most important clue to understanding this director’s singularly dialectic approach: these are movies about watching movies.
Finally, who’s the “we” De Palma is talking about? The documentary was produced and directed by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach, two products of Hollywood royalty and moviemakers themselves. Neither is a likely candidate. Paltrow works on television while Baumbach is known for shaggy, semi-improvisational comedies like The Squid and the Whale. The impetus for the project, they’ve said, was to record the stories they’ve heard over decades’ worth of dinner parties, and the movie reflects that intimacy. But next to the dazzling formal acrobatics of the movie’s clips, one can’t escape the feeling that this director deserves a more visually innovative tribute. Fans don’t need another reason to revisit De Palma’s work, and those unfamiliar with the subject will be lost. (De Palma assumes more than a passing familiarity with the French New Wave and filmmaking jargon, and it reveals the twist endings of nearly every movie mentioned.)
While devotees will gobble it all with a goofy grin, De Palma is not quite scholarly enough for students and too dense for casual moviegoers. It exists in a kind of limbo or middle ground: it’s easy in a way De Palma never is.
De Palma. Directed by Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach. Starring Brian De Palma. Opens in Kansas City July 15, 2016.
(Note: an earlier version of this review mistakenly identified the opening day. It has been updated to reflect the studio’s current release schedule.)