Brian De Palma is perhaps best known for his extravagant visual sensibilities—his split-diopters, his long takes, his split screens—so much so that his remarkable acuity for the emotions vital to his films is usually neglected. So it is perhaps wise that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow chose to go with a straight-forward, unadorned style for their documentary on the legendary director, De Palma in order to put the spotlight on the subject rather than the director.
Formed from many interviews over a period of several years, De Palma reveals its first two tricks from the beginning. First, Baumbach’s and Paltrow’s voices are never heard, and for most of the documentary De Palma seems not responding to any specific question, simply recounting his experience on every single film over his almost fifty year career. Whether this increases a sense of connection with De Palma is hard to gauge, especially since the three directors are all friends, but it provides a greater sense of directness, in line with De Palma’s often confrontational oeuvre. The second trick is in the actual filming of the interviews. De Palma’s appearance doesn’t seem to change at all, continually wearing the same blue outfit and sitting in the exact framing used for the rest of the shots; the viewer could reasonably conclude that it was all shot in one afternoon and edited later. Through this, the filmmakers seem to be putting the emphasis on the films of De Palma and how he progressed through them rather than on the man himself, reinforced by the one break with this style at the end, where De Palma walks on the streets of New York, almost passing the torch as he nears the end of his career (however long it may continue after this documentary).
The choice of archival footage and photographs that for the most part takes precedence over the new footage is surprisingly eclectic. Beginning with the opening of Vertigo, one of De Palma’s earliest and most lasting influences, the documentary largely uses a mix of footage from the director’s films and various behind-the-scenes photographs, though some more intriguing footage, such as the Hitchcock or the original ending of Snake Eyes, is included. The most memorable images are shown (“Say hello to my little friend”, the prom, the climax of Blow Out) but they’re never shown in isolation, as De Palma frequently talks about the difficulties surrounding them rather than letting them sit as totems.
This, perhaps, is the most important function of De Palma. It is not necessarily a work of demythologizing, but it is a tribute and a view from the other side, a chance for De Palma to speak his thoughts freely on the controversial legacy, in terms of both the ardent defenders and vociferous detractors, that his work has created. He is candid about his failures and pleased with his successes, and the viewer never gets the sense that he is being insincere or trying to hide any dissatisfaction. De Palma is the view of a legendary director, but more importantly, it is a view of his work, all twenty-nine films to date in a neat chronological order, through perhaps the most important lens of all.