TWITCH: DE PALMA'S "TRICKSTER SPIRIT UNIFIES EVERYTHING HE TOUCHES"
"Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's documentary, De Palma, begins with its beloved subject discussing the first time he ever saw Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and the profound impact it had on his sense of storytelling and general cinematic philosophy. In discussing Hitchcock, an interesting point is raised; that for all the talk of the Hitchockian influence, Brian De Palma remains his only true disciple. Nowhere else in the cinema of suspense are Hitchcock's expressionistic lessons in anticipation so well heeded and stylistically expanded upon.
"De Palma’s most important advice from my point of view was the value in building a network of fellow filmmakers both as professional comrades-in-arms and as personal friends who can understand the pain and torment most filmmakers will inevitably have to face. The best example of this at play was when De Palma and George Lucas teamed up to use the same casting calls for both Star Wars (1977) and Carrie (1976), a situation that worked to the advantage of both filmmakers. Now as an aging filmmaker, De Palma has thoroughly enjoyed developing relationships with the next generation of directors which is how this documentary eventually came to be made. What I loved most about the movie was De Palma’s brutal honesty about the realities of the film industry. De Palma has made so many movies both in and out of the studio system and each approach has its pitfalls to be avoided. On Phantom of the Paradise (1974), De Palma never bothered to get E&O insurance, consequently the film was hit with four massive lawsuits the moment they tried to distribute the film. While making The Bonfire of the Vanities, a high profile production adapted from Tom Wolfe’s bestselling book, De Palma was inundated with so many notes from studio execs the end result was a movie that appealed to no one, least of all De Palma who had originally believed it had the potential to be the greatest film of his career. Then there are the actors to deal with such as Cliff Robertson deliberately sabotaging takes for other actors on Obsession (1976) or Sean Penn provoking his costar Michael J. Fox by whispering ‘TV actor’ in his ear during a take on Casualties of War (1989). Mission: Impossible turned into an absurd scenario where De Palma had to play referee in a civil war of screenwriters with David Koepp writing drafts in one hotel room and Robert Towne, the studio’s choice, writing in another. Somehow out of the chaos, a hit movie emerged. Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables were two of the rare cases where both the shoot and the reception of the film could not have gone better. If these stories sound bleak, not to worry, De Palma smiles and laughs throughout all of his anecdotes, but there is nothing at all sentimental about De Palma’s frank descriptions of the movie biz. Filmmaking is a tough, brutal industry where nearly every day on the set can break a director, the film, or as he experienced on Mission to Mars (2000), both. De Palma sadly admitted that his filmmaking is pretty much over. He now has trouble walking and as challenging as the creative and political battles in filmmaking can be, the physical demands of being a director can often be the biggest challenge of them all.
"One of the key takeaways from the film is how little control directors have over their own filmography. Contrary to the misconception of successful directors carefully picking their projects at just the right time, De Palma freely admits he often just had to go with projects that had a green light and were ready to go which is how he ended up directing Bruce Springsteen and the then unknown Courteney Cox in the music video ‘Dancing in the Dark’. There were times he would develop a screenplay for over a year like Prince of the City only to see it fall into the hands of another filmmaker like Sidney Lumet, a situation that was reversed when De Palma came on board Scarface, a film originally intended for Lumet. If there is one thing, however, that is consistent in his insanely unpredictable career, it is De Palma’s eye for framing a shot and staging action. One of his chief grievances against many directors is their inability to establish the geography of a scene leading to total confusion as the action begins to unfold. Whether he is filming a high school prank gone wrong in Carrie, his Odessa steps homage in The Untouchables, or the incredible chase through the subway in Carlito’s Way, few directors have ever managed to stage action in such a clear and powerful style quite like De Palma. But enough of my rambling."
"This is De Palma's story and if the details aren't always 100% true, they are the one's that he remembers. I say that because Baumbach in the post film screening at the New York Film Festival inferred that's the case. I haven't fact checked it but I suspect it's probably true because we all get things wrong, that doesn't mean it's not a great story.
"The film itself is a great deal of breezy fun as De Palma talks about the films he's made and the careers he started (say Robert De Niro). The film is full of great stories about how and why films were made and cast-DePalma takes great jot in making fun of Cliff Robertson in Obsession who was unnaturally tan and worked to derail his co-stars. The film is also a kick as primer on why some films work, some don't and why things get made or never see the light of day as De Palma explains why films went as they did.
"The problem with the film is that he's made so many films over the years that there is a great deal left out. Some stories say some of the yelling over Redated is never mentioned and some films are barely mentioned. Passion is only noticed via a film clip (though to be fair the recording was done five years ago according to the Q&A so Passion wasn't made yet). I want to see the unedited material which I suspect has many hours of great-and probably unpublishable stories.
"This is a really good film about a great filmmaker. Its a really fun look at Hollywood via an outsider who is sometimes an insider. Definitely a must see for anyone who loves films."
Updated: Sunday, October 18, 2015 7:03 PM CDT
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