Movies

Movie Review

‘De Palma’ catalogs a filmmaker’s obsessions

Brian De Palma on the set of “Scarface” with Al Pacino, from the film “De Palma.”

A24

Brian De Palma on the set of “Scarface” with Al Pacino, from the film “De Palma.”

Brian De Palma is the demon imp in Hollywood’s basement. Of all the storied directors of the 1970s — those who broke the rules and made up new ones — he’s the outcast, the id. Spielberg and Scorsese are respectable legends who these days collect accolades and direct slightly dull films; Francis Ford Coppola’s an artisan who makes wines everyone drinks and movies no one sees.

But De Palma? He’s recalled less for his hits — “Carrie,” “Scarface,” “The Untouchables,” the first “Mission: Impossible” — than his cultural transgressions. The misogynistic kink and cinematic catharsis of cult objects like “Dressed to Kill,” “Body Double,” “Sisters,” and “Femme Fatale.” The Hitchcock worship — or is it plagiarism? — of “Obsession” and “Blow Out.” The almost surgical way in which his movies play on our nerves.

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And the artistry — there’s that, too. In the two-hour documentary “De Palma,” co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow set out to rehabilitate their subject’s vaguely gamey cultural reputation and remind us that here is one of the great pure filmmakers, still alive and not working as much as he should.

The film’s made consciously in the shadow of the 1966 book “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” in which Francois Truffaut gently grilled Alfred Hitchcock about each of the latter’s 50-odd movies. (Their collaboration was itself the subject of a fine 2015 documentary.) Again, filmmakers interview a filmmaker: Paltrow, son of director Bruce Paltrow (and brother of Gwyneth), has worked in film and episodic TV while Baumbach is an established Manhattan auteur (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Mistress America”).

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Again, each item in the filmography is discussed in chronological order. Again, there’s no one else in the room. “De Palma” consists of nothing but film clips and Brian De Palma chatting amiably in medium close-up for 111 minutes. If you have any love of movies at all, it’s riveting.

One of the documentary’s strongest aspects is the way it reminds you of out-of-the-way pockets in this director’s career. De Palma’s first feature, “The Wedding Party” — filmed in 1963 but only released six years later — stars a baby-faced actor named Robert De Niro, already gifted at commandeering a scene. The ratty counterculture farces that followed, “Greetings” in 1968 and “Hi Mom!” in 1970, established De Palma as a fresh, anarchic voice, and the racial politics of the “Be Black, Baby” sequence in the latter film still sting.

There’s also the excellent combat morality play “Casualties of War” (1989), overshadowed by the following year’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the bomb that nearly ate the director’s career. And there’s the aching New York crime drama “Carlito’s Way” (1993), which De Palma singles out as his personal favorite. This critic reserves the honor for 1981’s “Blow Out,” which mashes up Hitchcock, Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” Watergate, and Chappaquiddick and somehow emerges as one of the most bleakly powerful meta-tragedies of a famously bleak era.

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But it’s the suspense films, gory and controlled, for which this director is best known, and “De Palma” lets him discourse on their making at length, telling tales and dishing dirt. Like all storytellers, he’s a born raconteur, pointing out his personal triumphs, copping to his mistakes — yes, Tom Hanks was a terrible choice to play Sherman McCoy in “Bonfire” — and breaking down his use of film techniques. De Palma has used split screen probably more than any other director, and here he discusses how handy the device is both for directing the audience itself and for playing with its head.

But that’s the distrust that has always dogged this filmmaker: that he manipulates moviegoers into shameful complicities for no other reason than that he can. (The charge was long applied to Hitchcock, too.) “De Palma” peers into a little of the man’s psychology, while understanding that even a little can be taken too far. Still, growing up with a surgeon for a father (and every day seemed to be Take Your Son to Work Day) may explain young Brian’s clinical approach to movie bloodletting.

And when De Palma recalls going undercover to follow his father as the latter cheated on his wife, suddenly all those endless tracking shots start to make sense. “In my movies,” he says, “the run-up goes on forever.” He knows we’re afraid of what we’ll find at the end.

Among other things, “De Palma” testifies to the difficulty, if not insanity, of making worthwhile work in a craven film industry, even as it recalls an era in which a director still had the freedom to follow his most wayward impulses. Why are today’s movies so boring? “Because they’re pre-visualized,” scoffs De Palma, and here are the clips to remind you of how shocking an original eye was and still can be. “De Palma” is a cinematic sampler that makes you want to gorge on the whole unholy buffet.

½
DE PALMA

Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. At Kendall Square. 111 minutes. PG-13 (violent images, graphic nudity, sexual content, some language).

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
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