De Palma De Palma! DE PALMA

My original plan for this entry was to talk a little bit about New Hollywood – not to try to define it or anything like that (well, maybe a bit like that), but just to say a few words about why I’ve chosen that era as the contextual container of this research project. But it turns out that’s going to be my next entry.

Last night I saw De Palma, and I decided I’d rather talk about that. This isn’t necessarily a review in the traditional sense. Watching the film last night, I was struck by how its form and structure work to exemplify some of the things I’m trying to get at with this project, so I thought it would be worth taking a minute to talk about why.

For those who don’t know De Palma is a new documentary about the American director Brian De Palma, whose films include Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, and many many more. Here’s a trailer for the doc:

De Palma has a complicated reputation. During his early career in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, his forays into studio-backed art cinema made him something of a godfather to the burgeoning New Hollywood filmmakers. Even when his early films flopped (which most of them did), the combination of his drive, his knowledge of film history, and his dedication to taking a rigorous formal approach to “genre fare” endeared him to the young filmmakers who were trying to update Hollywood for a new generation of viewers (while keeping at least one eye clearly on the past). At the same time though, De Palma is also known for the hyper-stylized violence that pervades his films – lots of blood and gore – and particularly for the violence that is laden upon many of the women in his films, a trait that has led to numerous accusations of misogyny throughout his career.

The film touches on all of this. And fans of De Palma, the era, or Hollywood filmmaking in general will likely find lots to enjoy. The documentary is “informative.” De Palma tells lots of great stories about the production of every one of his films (one of the documentary’s main problems is that in its linear, list-like presentation of De Palma’s career, very few of the films get anything like a thorough discussion). He often pulls no punches when discussing his difficulties with actors, film ratings, or budgeting, but he does so while coming across as a highly knowledgeable and likeable guy (he peppers his conversation with lots of “holy cows,” which adds an odd incongruity to all the graphic nudity and violence on display!).

He skirts the question of misogyny, and I wish the directors had pushed a bit more on that issue. It’s a claim that’s followed De Palma since early in his career and one that I think is worth discussing because his films are often brutally violent to women. Yes, they’re brutally violent to everybody, but when his penchant for introducing elements of Hitchcockian voyeurism is thrown into the mix, the violence towards women and its centrality to so many of the films often comes across as something that’s meant to be enjoyed. I don’t intend to settle the question here – it’s been addressed by numerous writers elsewhere. But I found it odd that in the film the only thing De Palma really had to say was something like (from memory), “I like filming women. I like the way they move, I like how their bodies look.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing on its face, but as an answer to whether his films are violently misogynist, it seems at the least icky, and maybe even compounds the problem (and the filmmakers don’t do him any favors by delivering the line in voiceover while the camera follows Deborah Shelton’s backside during the long mall sequence of Body Double).

What I’d really like to talk about, though, is De Palma as an auteurist project. In a couple of entries from now, I’ll explain what I mean by “auteur paradigm,” and why I think it’s a relevant term to describe the state of film studies, even as so many of us insist auteur theory is dead. This film, though, is such an auteurist exclamation point in the way it reinforces the paradigm that I thought I’d go ahead and get a start on the topic.

First off, obviously, is the title. It’s not just that the film is named after the director, but that it’s his last name. An autuerist has arrived (or his supporters hope he’s arrived) when he can be referred to by his last name alone. Chaplin. Hitchcock. Kubrick. Scorsese. Furthermore, the tendency to use last names of directors pervades film studies – we write their names in parentheses every time we mention a film in print, something we don’t do for cinematographers, editors, screenwriters, etc. Thus the title of the film announces right away, this movie is about an auteur!

Then there’s the film’s structure. The film is billed as a conversation with the director, and that’s what you get. The entire film is one long chat with De Palma – but a very one-sided chat. We never hear the interviewers’ questions, we never hear anybody else speak. It’s De Palma and De Palma only, and it’s edited in such a way that it seems like he sat down, the filmmakers wound him up, and off he went. No talking head shots of famous collaborators – no Nancy Allen, Robert De Nero, John Travolta, Stephen H. Burum – no archival footage of past interviews or on-set production activity. To be sure, there are many clips from the films to illustrate points De Palma makes about them, but De Palma himself is almost never silent – voiceover pervades every illustrative shot.

Another characteristic worth discussing, which I briefly mentioned above, is the film’s narrative construction. It’s completely linear. De Palma starts off talking about his childhood, then progresses from A to B to C and so on through school, university, his early films, then his Hollywood and post-Hollywood career. One film at a time, covering every single movie with at least one anecdote about its conception, production, or reception (a few of the early films and some of the better-known ones get slightly more extensive coverage).

The effect of the film’s style and narrative approach is to intimately wed De Palma’s life to each of his films – he is the font from which all creativity springs; his is the only voice worth including in a discussion about these twenty eight movies (the effect is also, for this viewer anyway, to induce a bit of tedium by the end of the two hours).

To be fair, De Palma does have a few kind words to say about some of his regular collaborators. He praises longtime friend and actor William Finley and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. He makes a few statements about how important writers are to the filmmaking process and how their work should be protected. And he’s mostly praiseworthy of Nancy Allen, who starred in many of his late-‘70s projects and to whom he was married for four years. He also tells a highly amusing story about Bernard Hermann’s work that emphasizes the composer’s authorial capacity. But these comments are few and far between. It’s difficult to say with any certainty if that’s because De Palma simply didn’t talk very much about his many collaborators or because the filmmakers chose not to include those bits.

But that absence is key to understanding what this film is. As much as it’s a history of New Hollywood or, as the trailer claims, a “master class” on filmmaking, it’s mainly at its heart an auteurist intervention. It’s a film that both buys into and perpetuates the notion that directors are the sole (or, let’s say, supreme) engines of creativity in Hollywood. Two key moments come near the end of the film in seemingly off the cuff comments that De Palma makes. Noah Baumbach, a director whose films I generally admire, but who also has aspirations to auteurism, is one of the film’s co-directors along with Jake Paltrow. They include a comment that De Palma makes about wanting to “make films like you guys.” Then, as the film is winding down, De Palma makes an astounding claim. It’s de rigueur in De Palma circles to acknowledge his debt – his many acts of homage – to Hitchcock. But De Palma claims that he is the “only” filmmaker who has carried on Hitchcock’s work. This point could – and certainly should – be debated. But what interests me is the way the filmmakers’ inclusion of the two comments ties all three together – Hitchcock, De Palma, Baumbach – and firmly ensconces them within the decades-long auteurist tradition.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism, per se. Take auteurism how you will. It has a long history in filmmaking, Hollywood or otherwise, and it’s not going away any time soon. But in my work, I’m trying to make two overriding arguments: 1) auteurism disproportionately elevates the importance of directors while simultaneously diminishing the work of other cast and crew, and 2) auteurism has become so integral to the fabric of film studies – academic and popular – that it can justly be labeled the paradigm that constructs our understanding of how filmmaking works. De Palma expects viewers to accept this paradigm. Its success depends not so much on one’s opinion of Brian De Palma as a filmmaker of quality or not, but on our acquiescence to the notion that directors – and only directors – deserve this kind of laudatory treatment.

It’s a likeable (if overlong) film. Watch it. Enjoy the insightful anecdotes and laugh at the jokes. But also try to keep in mind that at its heart it’s offering a very specific story about filmmaking, a story that isn’t very novel and one that continues to diminish immense amounts of creativity and labor.

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