The death of the auteur
There exist certain people who, though unacquainted with the amazing, erratic, audacious works of Brian De Palma, are still familiar with the story of how, as a teenager, De Palma spied on his philandering father and surprised him by jumping out at dad and lover with a knife.
The director cheerily acknowledges this Oedipal drama and several others. Watching his orthopaedic surgeon father “wrestle and grapple” through bloody procedures would contribute to the filmmaker’s love of gore and drilling. He fondly sees his younger self in the voyeurs – say Keith Gordon in Dressed to Kill or Craig Wasson in Body Double – that populate his films.
It might sound creepy or uncomfortably Freudian coming from someone else – the drill used to kill in Body Double had to be that big and phallic in order to get through the ceiling – but De Palma’s matter-of-fact, jaunty delivery is simply too riveting to argue with.
Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow must have realised as much from the get-go. Taking cues from such straight-up Errol Morris bio-docs as The Fog of War, De Palma lets De Palma do the talking, directly to camera. Archive footage, stills and occasional scenes are utilised quickly and merely as an illustrated guide to his words.
His Brat-Pack colleagues – Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg – are glimpsed only briefly, cavorting on the beach in an ancient photograph. There’s a lot (dozens of movies, three wives) to get through. Any number of his synopses might serve as the subject for a full-length documentary.
He has contributed at least one masterpiece ( Blow Out), a gold standard horror ( Carrie), and an unintentional hip-hop classic ( Scarface) to cinema. Having completed just three films since 2002, he appears to know that the game is up: there is simply no room for big-name auteurs and playful filmic devices in the cold, calculating climate of contemporary movie-making. He rightly identifies himself as the last of the Hitchcockian practitioners. Amazingly, he’s not bitter.
Alongside the canon, there are hugely juicy bits of movie gossip (Amy Irving came close to being Princess Lea; Michael J Fox fell foul of Sean Penn’s method acting on Casualties of War; Robert De Niro wore the same silk underwear as Al Capone in The Untouchables, and refused to learn his lines) as De Palma talks us though a fascinating career. A must for cineastes. Top rambling.