“De Palma”: A master class from one of cinema’s most controversial directors

depalma

“DePalma” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. R, 1:50, three and a half stars out of four. FREE!

The Village Voice once ran dueling columns by its film critics, Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman, on Brian DePalma. One was headlined “Derivative” and the other “Dazzling.”

Such has been the competing views of DePalma. Like his spiritual mentor Alfred Hitchcock, he’s been a deeply polarizing figure in American cinema who only now, late in life, may be finally getting his due. During his heyday, many critics couldn’t look past the blood or the naked women or the bloody naked women in “Dressed to Kill” or “Carrie” or “Body Double.”

But he had his champions, most notably Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, and has come to be renowned as one of the masters of cinematic storytelling. Even if those stories got a little overheated. The fine new documentary “De Palma,” by fellow filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, features just one interview, with De Palma himself, talking about every single film he ever made. No other interviewee is necessary.

“De Palma” is getting its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, followed by a 35mm screening of De Palma’s first big hit, “Carrie.” Both screenings are free, and part of a retrospective the Cinematheque is doing of De Palma’s work this fall.

The conversation proceeds chronologically, starting with De Palma’s cheeky ‘60s underground comedies (a couple featuring an impossibly young Robert De Niro) and then, film by film, into De Palma’s golden period in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We see how techniques are experimented with and refined over time, especially those long Steadicam shots that could build such exquisite tension. “Hitchcock knew that it was all about the buildup,” De Palma says. “In my movies, the buildup takes forever!”

De Palma is funny and extremely candid about his experiences, talking about how he had to have Oliver Stone taken off the set of “Scarface,” how intimidated he was by composer Bernard Herrmann on “Carrie,” how Sean Penn would mess with Michael J. Fox on the set of “Casualties of War,” at one point whispering “television actor” in his ear during a take.

And then there were the battles with studio heads and ratings boards over the lurid content of some of his films; at some point, the phrase “And then they saw it!” is employed in most stories.

Much like in the “Hitchcock/Truffaut” book and subsequent documentary, the conversation seems to be richer because both interviewers and subject are filmmakers. De Palma seems more at ease discussing the ins and outs of his technique than he would with a journalist or fan. One thing “De Palma” gave me a greater appreciation for is his use of music in films, how he pares back sound effects and dialogue so that they don’t dilute the emotional power coming from the music. (Dialogue, honestly, is the one thing De Palma seems like he could do away with altogether if he had the power.)

There are some biographical details that hinted at the motivations and obsessions that drive De Palma’s films; while talking about “Dressed to Kill,” he mentions offhandedly that he once tracked his father to his mistress’ house, broke a window and confronted them both with a knife.

De Palma’s career In Hollywood ping-ponged up and down, and finally, worked on the massive 1999 sci-fi film “Mission to Mars,” he decided he just wasn’t having any fun anymore and decamped to Paris. His last film was 2012’s “Passion,” which I dismissed at the time as a DePalma knockoff that happened to be made by De Palma.

But the insights in “De Palma” will send me back to “Passion,” and all his movies, with a new set of eyes and ears. DePalma repeating himself is better than most filmmakers saying something for the first time.

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