Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 17, 2015 6:22 pm 
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A New York Film Festival Special Event film celebrates director Brian De Palma

This affectionate but also relentless film portrait features the American director Brian De Palma talking to young directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow about his films, his filmmaking style, and his life. In his [url=""]Variety[/url]review Guy Lodge describes De Palma as "New Hollywood’s foremost Grand Guignol artist." That is how he is seen: gloriously over-the-top. And he did begin with and often go back to lurid horror. Perhaps because of his loud popular style, he was championed by Pauline Kael, which he says meant he was always debated. Given the right material, like the surreal tabloid world of James Ellroy, De Palma could be precise and just. I [url=""]found[/url]his version of The Black Dahlia closer to Ellroy than the celebrated L.A. Confidential. But De Palma's luridness is not to everyone's taste.

De Palma's career is varied, ranging from his blockbuster bid with Carrie, wich won him studio clout, to the violence and depravity of Scarface, to the more sensitive gangster picture Carlito's Way. And ranging, Baumbach noted in a post-screening Q&A, over most of the things that can happen to a director working with and without studio support. His notorious, grand failure is The Bonfire of the Vanities, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's perhaps un-adaptable novel in which he says he failed because he gave in too much to pressure from studio executives to make alterations.. Another big failure was Mission to Mars. Perhaps because he's Italian-American, he has been a darling of the Venice Film Festival. Even his Redacted ([url=""]NYFF 2007[/url]), a fairly crude indictment of the US Iraq war, won the Silver Lion at Venice.

As De Palma talks, apparently in a single long interview, Baumbach and Paltrow, who claim a decade-long friendship with him, edit in clips to illustrate the movies and their influences. De Palma is very specific and not very theoretical, but makes several key general remarks along the way. The rest we have to deduce by ourselves. First he says he doesn't work from character as they (Baumbach and Paltrow) do, but starts with "structure" and lets the film develop from there. He also says that everybody remarks on the genius of Hitchcock, but he is the only director to follow Hitchcock's methods extensively. De Palma indeed has constantly used Hitchcock films as a source, starting from his early admiration of Psycho and Vertigo. It's well known how otherwise frankly derivative De Palma's work has been. Obviously his Blow Out grows directly out of Antonioni's Blowup, with Coppola's The Conversation as a kind of catalyst. He explains how The Untouchables' finale in the train station is has a direct borrowing from the famous Odessa steps sequence from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Hitchcock's Rear Window and elements of Vertigo were the basis for Body Double, and Vertigo was also the inspiration for his Obsession. Dressed to Kill is a homage to Psycho, including the similar early killing off of lead actress and the concluding exposition delivered by a psychiatrist.

De Palms explains that because of the long silences and long tracking shots in his films he had much need of a score and so had strong relationships composers, notably Bernard Hermann (six films), Pino Donnaggio (seven films), and Ennio Morricone (for The Untouchables, another of his notable later successes, as was the first Mission: Impossible ). De Palma has some interesting stories to tell about these composers and his use of their music. He comments that contemporary films too often allow sound effects and dialogue to spoil the effect of the score.

The one long interview that seems to provide the material for this film includes De Palma's description of his dysfunctional family, his Quaker education, his undergraduate studies at Columbia and graduate work at Sarah Lawrence, and his various marriages and divorces, but personal details are firmly subordinated to the 28-film oeuvre, but he does describe his early and in some cases long-term relationships with major film figures who were contemporaries: Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, De Niro. Baumbach and Paltrow's illustrative material is invaluable. Clips showing long tracking shots (Pacino, Nick Cage), of chases and shootouts, help give just a glimpse of De Palma's technical gift for storytelling with motion.

The chronological approach means De Palma can describe developments in the film industry, his role in the New Hollywood when briefly directors could be independent and creative in a studio setting, followed by the takeover of the bottom-line obsessed aesthetically challenged producers of the Eighties and onward. As he comes to the end of his of a nearly fifty-year career, De Palma says a director's best work is usually done in his twenties and thirties and forties, and suggests that he may not be up to the physical demands of the job now as he nears seventy: so he takes us from the beginning to the end. He may not be the most profound or uplifting filmmaker, but he must be one of the frankest, humblest, and clearest. This is a highly informative film about De Palma's work; it's actually the kind of film one should have on DVD and watch over and over to focus on and cull out elements.

De Palma, 107 mins., debuted at Venice 9 September 2015; also 30 September at the New York Film Festival, as part of which it was screened fore this review. US theatrical release 10 June 201 (limited, Angelika Film Center NYC); Metacritic rating 83%.

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