Acolytes of Brian De Palma’s flavorful, flamboyant filmography hardly need reminding of his acrobatic ability as a visual storyteller; what they’ll learn from “De Palma” is that in front of the camera, he’s a pretty marvelous raconteur, too. The septuagenarian director provides an exhaustive but exuberant film-by-film account of a career spanning nearly half a century in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s delicious documentary portrait — skimping neither on candid self-effacement or irreverent wit as he recalls such professional triumphs as “Carrie,” such dispiriting misfires as “Mission to Mars,” and the wealth of knowledge gained and opportunities lost in between. Elegantly linear in its setup, and reflecting at least one of its name helmers in its overriding mood of buoyant good humor, “De Palma” reps several Christmases come at once for fans, though it’s playful and perspicacious enough to engage all film-biz aficionados.
“Here’s the thing about directors’ careers: We don’t plan them out,” says De Palma, defying, with a cheerful shrug, the critics who more exactingly seek patterns and preoccupations in that heady, inconsistent oeuvre. Certainly, no one who viewed the most recent directorial efforts of Baumbach and Paltrow — this year’s delightful neo-screwball romp “Mistress America” and last year’s futuristic eco-western “Young Ones,” respectively — would or could have anticipated that a conversation with New Hollywood’s foremost Grand Guignol artist, the first feature doc from either filmmaker, was next on the agenda. (For the generational record, Baumbach was born one year after De Palma made his debut feature in 1968; Paltrow is but a year older than “Carrie.”) Per press notes, the pic grew from their decade-long acquaintance with the filmmaker — and the careful selection and assembly of clips suggests much time spent with his work — but is constructed from what appears to be a single interview.
The spiritual connection between De Palma and the directors he brings up in conversation aren’t quite as counterintuitive: Many of his best films have lovingly remodeled the iconography and formal choreography of Alfred Hitchcock. The documentary duly begins with a seductive flurry of excerpts from “Vertigo,” the narrative of which is described by De Palma as a neat allegory for what filmmakers do: creating romantic illusions only to destroy them soon after. Hitchcock may be a standard point of film-studies reference, but De Palma is at polite pains to point out that he means it more than most: “People call (him) influential,” he says later, “but I haven’t seen that many people who actually follow his form except for me.”
If such words sound conceited in print, he doesn’t project any such airs on camera — he’s equally forthcoming on where he believes he’s misstepped and why. It’s De Palma’s chronological, hindsight-advantaged evaluation of his 28 features (omitting 1970’s filmed stage performance “Dionysus in ’69”) that gives the doc its meat: His upbringing and Quaker education in Newark and Philadelphia are covered genially at the outset, as are his years on the film program at Sarah Lawrence, where he began a long-term association with Robert De Niro. But such biographical material, including passing references to his three marriages, is kept to a minimum, as the man’s life is mapped more integrally through his movies.
De Palma looks back most fondly on his output in 1970s, the decade identified with a New Hollywood injection of auteur-driven energy in major studio filmmaking that, in his wistful words, “will never be replicated.” This degree of trust and liberty enabled De Palma to develop a relatively avant-garde style in a mainstream context, while also benefiting from the deeper, more classical resources of the studios. A passage on the still-nervy 1973 horror pic “Sisters” makes both points, as De Palma hilariously relates how intimidating Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann became an unlikely collaborator, and fascinatingly explains the theoretical motivation behind his signature split-screen technique.
De Palma’s musings thus skate fluidly from stimulating, articulate analysis of mise-en-scene to experience-tinted views on the industry’s evolution to candid anecdotal gossip from past shoots. (These include, most wickedly, biting tales of Cliff Robertson’s alleged egotism and excessive tan application on the set of “Obsession.”) As we move into the 1980s, where producers regained control of Hollywood cinema, De Palma’s tone grows more rueful: He enjoyed a yo-yoing relationship with the studio bosses, who were appalled by his stylistic recklessness on misunderstood underperformers like “Body Double,” and thrilled when it yielded muscular hits like “The Untouchables.” The helmer, in turn, was insulted to be offered “Flashdance” by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer; collectors of the “what if” variety of Hollywood lore will revel in many more such examples.
The 1990s begin with perhaps De Palma’s greatest error in judgment: a critically eviscerated adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestselling yuppie satire “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which he admits should have been a more abrasive work in the vein of “The Magnificent Ambersons” or “Sweet Smell of Success.” If he’d done it right, he speculates, it would have ended his career. Instead, that embattled career survived to see its biggest commercial success in 1996’s “Mission: Impossible,” De Palma’s recollections of which brim with boyish glee; the franchise it spawned is unmentioned, though arguably slighted in a sharp, beautifully argued statement on the “boring” pre-visualized direction of contemporary action cinema.
De Palma is the first to admit that now is no longer his time, having lost his taste for blockbuster cinema on the unhappy shoot of 2000’s expensive flop “Mission to Mars” — not coincidentally, his last U.S.-shot project. His four features since then, including the striking, ripe-for-reappraisal “The Black Dahlia,” were made more on his terms, though given the speed with which Baumbach and Paltrow rifle through them, perhaps he’s less willing to step back and survey his newest work.
The film is hardly starved for detail by this point, having captured and sustained a lively atmosphere of mutual auteur appreciation usually best conveyed in print — in those landmark Hitchcock-Truffaut conversations, for example. We may never hear the younger helmers’ side of the interview, but De Palma addresses them at several points both with points of agreement and good-natured observation of the differences between their work and his. “You start with character and work your way outwards,” he says, “while I start with construction and work my way in.” In this particular portrait, both approaches have combined to most rewarding effect.
“De Palma” was presented at Venice with no credits, but is otherwise a polished, swift-moving package, bearing intelligent craft even in its well-lit talking-head material.