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Documentary ‘De Palma’ Lets The Bad Boy Of The American New Wave Have His Say

Filmmaker Brian De Palma is the subject of the documentary

Credit: A24

Above: Filmmaker Brian De Palma is the subject of the documentary "De Palma."

Filmmaker Brian De Palma rose to fame in the 1970s and 1980s with “Carrie,” “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” A new documentary that sets him in front of the camera opens June 17 at Landmark's Ken Cinema.

Companion viewing

"Vertigo" (1958)

"Sisters" (1973)

"Phantom of the Paradise" (1974)

"Casualties of War" (1989)

Film director Brian De Palma rose to fame in the 1970s and 1980s with “Carrie,” “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” The documentary “De Palma,” which opens June 17 at Landmark's Ken Cinema, provides an insightful portrait of the bad boy of the American New Wave.

“De Palma” is a simple, straightforward documentary that sets the filmmaker in front of a camera and just lets him talk for 107 minutes. And it’s riveting.

It opens with a clip from the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock work "Vertigo," and De Palma describes the impact the film had on him as a teenage science geek. Now 75, De Palma has been directing films for half a century and has spent much of that time battling to get his particular vision on the screen.

"You’re battling a very difficult system and all the values of that system are the opposite of what goes into making original, good movies," De Palma says in the film. "The problem working in the Hollywood system is you could lose your way."

The documentary by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow works because De Palma helped defined a generation of filmmakers and he speaks intelligently and provocatively about his films and the challenges of creating art within a business model.

We never hear a peep out of the filmmakers and there are no offscreen questions asked. It's as if they don't want to waste any screen time on the mundane questions when they have such fascinating answers to let us listen to. They also rely on well-selected clips from De Palma's films and from the movies that inspired him as well as behind-the-scenes material and home movies.

Hearing De Palma talk about his craft and about his obsession with Hitchcock makes me realize how few filmmakers today are willing to be so meticulous and dedicated to a particular vision. But he paid a price for his obsession.

De Palma's career reveals some delirious highs as well as some painful lows. It reveals that even the film that he may be most famously remembered for, "Scarface" with Al Pacino, was not a hit right out of the gate. It needed years to find its epic pop culture status.

The film also reminds us of the camaraderie among the film-school kids of the American New Wave that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. We hear how De Palma and Lucas cast their respective films "Carrie" and "Star Wars" simultaneously; and we see a shot of Spielberg helping out on the set of "Scarface."

We don't see that kind of collaboration and support system today with, perhaps, the exception of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

De Palma speaks candidly about his films, revealing how Cliff Robertson sabotaged "Obsession" when he realized his co-star Genevieve Bujold was stealing the picture from him, or how he came to "Mission Impossible" desperately wanting a Hollywood hit. He has no problem dismissing all the "Carrie" remakes and offshoots as crap. Thank you for that, Mr. De Palma.

If you love movies, see “De Palma" (rated R for violent images, graphic nudity, sexual content and some language). Then you need to cue up his films and start watching or re-watching his entire filmography.

His work is sometimes flawed but it is never dull, and at his best, he reveals an intoxicating style that celebrates cinema itself.

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