De Palma (2016) by Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow
Review by Nathan Smith
De Palma, the new documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow about the American director I have called my favorite filmmaker at various points over the past year, is exactly what you'd expect it to be. For a career-long reflection on one of the American cinema’s greatest aesthetes, it is a surprisingly, but perhaps appropriately, unstylish affair. It is De Palma in his own words, captured in a static and simple shot, recounting tales he has recounted before. I don’t mean that as much of a criticism; the documentary’s biggest failing is less with De Palma, who is a delight to listen to, but with Baumbach and Paltrow, who seem a little out-of-their-depth as interviewers.
Throughout the film, De Palma hints at unusual incidents in his childhood, friction in his family dynamic, and stories that might provide a more Freudian context for his endlessly unpackable work. As a Hollywood journeyman bar none, De Palma specializes in a particular brand of cinematic honesty that provides a spacious playground for auteurists; his work might not always be personal, but it is always Him. Every facet of his person – flaws, kinks, and cinematic influences – is on display in every one of his movies, no matter how much of a “hack job” it might seem like to the less inquisitive viewer. So it’s a shame that Baumbach and Paltrow don’t prod him to go a bit further than the on-set stories, studio gossip, and ratings boards quarrels that have defined his multi-decade career as a studio craftsman.
Though Baumbach and Paltrow seem hesitant to encourage De Palma to dig deep into his art, I commend their choice to let De Palma speak for himself instead of leaning on the opinions of others. De Palma’s output has lessened in the last decade, distancing him from many of the scandals he found himself mired in during the height of his careers, but he remains a controversial director nonetheless. De Palma might not interrogate his work much, but hearing his own reflections remains preferable to the string of heads that such a documentary could have become in other hands.
And interestingly enough, for as much as this documentary caters to less-than-diehards, it expects a certain amount of familiarity with the director’s entire catalogue. De Palma trots along at a generous pace, giving about the same amount of attention and introduction to lesser-known pictures like Get To Know Your Rabbit and Home Movies as it does to favorites like Scarface and Carrie. Its approach to De Palma is distinctly auteurist, elevating deep cuts and B-sides to the same level as hits.
De Palma is a bit timid, treating an often-irreverent director with a touch too much reverence. But its also provides insightful and overdue consideration to one of America’s signature auteurs. The most interesting knowledge I walked away from De Palma with is just how disliked – and often despised – many of De Palma’s pictures were at the time of their release. Though Pauline Kael championed De Palma from early on in his career, he rarely saw overwhelming success - financially or critically. Despite its trepidation, Baumbach and Paltrow’s De Palma at least seems to have restarted the conversation for the director’s canonization among cinema’s greats.