By Douglas Gosse (Toronto, ON, CAN)
Jake Paltrow, Brian De Palma, Noah Baumbach


Talking Head Documentary, Infomercial, or Revelatory Biopic?

De Palma (2015) focuses on the cinematic career of Brian De Palma, director of dozens of films from Carrie (1978) and Scarface (1983) to Mission Impossible (1996), spanning over 50 years. De Palma was shot from the shoulders up in front of a fireplace mantel in the dining room of co-director Jake Paltrow, and the documentary, running 107 minutes, is interspersed with footage from De Palma’s films. Born in New Jersey, De Palma shares a long series of career anecdotes, starting with his privileged childhood as the son of an orthopedic surgeon. Having thus established his high social class, De Palma shifts to tales of adolescent sibling rivalry (guess which brother actually became the most successful despite not being “the golden boy?”). De Palma quickly moves to bullet-like snippets about practically every film he ever made. This becomes tedious after 40 minutes.

In the 1960s, De Palma began his career with a number of artsy, low budget films. Greetings (1968) tackled the draft, conspiracy theories, and political assassination. The draft is an intimate topic for De Palma who says, “a middle class guy can get out of the war.” De Palma, the white, heterosexual, upper-middle class son of a wealthy surgeon, offhandedly divulges that he faked allergies and homosexual tendencies to get out of the draft. He links the voyeuristic and bloody themes in many of his movies to watching his philandering father perform surgeries in his childhood but he also acknowledges his longstanding adulation of Hitchcock. Murder a la mod (1968), the story of a young woman’s murder told through multiple points of view, sets the tone for ongoing leitmotifs of doppelgangers, voyeurism, and sexual objectification and frustration in De Palma’s work. Some regard De Palma as a poor man’s Hitchcock for the repeated imitationsi and mirrored techniquesii of the iconic “Master of Suspense”.

In the 1970s, De Palma graduated to standard Hollywood genres from horror and sci-fi to gangster and war films, and the Hitchcock-inspired psychological thriller. Composer Bernard Hermann, perhaps best known for his scores to several Hitchcock films, particularly Psycho (1960), was employed by De Palma for Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), and Carrie (1976). De Palma relates some amusing stories about the crotchety Hermann, and other Hollywood legends. De Palma became known for his use of split screen, pioneered by directors including Stanley Donen and Norman Jewison in the early 1960s. De Palma subsequently used split screen in Sisters (1973), Blow Out (1981) and Snake Eyes (1998). The split screen of Carrie (1976) on stage at her prom, is perhaps the most recognizable example of this, the tension augmented by Hermann’s petrifying score—Carrie is shown on the right side of the screen using her telekinesis, and on the left, students struggle to escape the mayhem she causes.

A number of De Palma’s films have met with controversy and protest, in particular criticism for misogynist portrayals of women.iii De Palma (2015) could have delved into this with more alacrity. Men in his oeuvre often desire female beauty and sexuality but in darkly pathological ways. Voyeurism may lead to rape or murder. Women, objects of men’s desire, are seen as seductive, dangerous, and often meet their end in disturbingly violent ways by the hands of men. Men often subscribe to hegemonic ideals of patriarchy: stoicism, provider roles, and repressed sexuality, or impossible to attain and sustain acts of heroism. Michael J. Fox, in his portrayal of Private Max Erikson in Causalities of War (1989) emblematizes these conflicts as he seeks justice for the rape and murder of a Vietnamese girl by his squad. Tom Cruise as Agent Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible (1996) captures the absurd heights of physical, spiritual, and psychological danger which male characters endure to prove their heroism, and either protect, rescue, or avenge their wives or girlfriends in American cinema.

de-palmaTom Cruise and Brian De Palma on set of Mission Impossible (1996)

Many of De Palma’s male characters suffer from deep shameiv and unbearable burdens, due to the pursuit, and restraints, of manhood. From stoicism and spousal infidelity to the rigours of war, many of his male characters end up with psychiatric illnesses, even psychosis. De Palma brings these tensions with masculinity to the screen in a provocative and unapologetic manner.

Of socio-historical interest, in the 1980s and early 1990s, De Palma was on the bandwagon of audience obsession with the supernatural (see The Fury, 1978, starring Kirk Douglas, for instance) and multiple personalities. The existence of “multiple personalities” is now highly contested amongst members of the American Psychological Association. Raising Cain (1992), starring John Lithgow as a psychologist with psychopathic multiple personalities, may seem shocking to modern eyes for its pathological portrayal of cross-dressing men, or possibly transexuality.

Of note, De Palma’s oeuvre helped thrust several respected actors into the limelight. Melanie Griffith, daughter of one of Hitchcock’s favourite  actresses, Tippi Hedren, rose to stardom in Body Double (1984). Robert De Niro, who had roles in De Palma’s lesser known earlier works–The Wedding Party (1969) and Hi, Mom! (1970), played the coveted role of Al Capone in The Untouchables (1978), helping to establish his reputation in Hollywood for “tough guy” roles. Carrie (1976) showcased the talent of a young Sissy Spacek and another budding actor, John Travolta. Travolta also starred in Blow Out (1981).

de-palma-1Brian De Palma and John Travolta on set of Blow Out (1981)

Is De Palma (2015) another talking head documentary or just an infomercial for new showings of De Palma’s films? Fans may not care one way or the other, and will probably enjoy tidbits of information from a director who has traditionally shied away from public disclosure.

A career-spanning retrospective, Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma, runs from June 18-September 3, 2016 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, showcasing twenty-five of his films. Across Canada, there will be additional showings at the Vancouver Vancity Theatre, Ottawa Mayfair, Edmonton Garneau Theatre, and the Victoria Vic Theatre.


Directors: Noah Baumbach; Jake Paltrow
Executive producers: Eli Bush; Scott Rudin
Running time: 107 min
Canadian premiere, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

[i] Cavell, S. (2008). On Eyal Peretz’s Becoming Visionary. In E. Peretz (Ed.), Becoming visionary: Brian De Palma’s cinematic education of the senses (pp. xi-xvii). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
[ii] Keesey, D. (2015). Introduction Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film. USA: University Press of Mississippi.
[iii] See: Greven, D. (June 2009). Misfortune and men’s eyes: voyeurism, sorrow, and the homosocial in three early Brian     De Palma films. Genders, 49.
[iv] For more on “shame” in De Palma’s work, see: Elliott, D. (2009). Queering the cult of Carrie: Appropriations of a horror icon in Charles Lum’s Indelible. In I. R. Smith (Ed.), Cultural borrowings: Appropriation, reworking, transformation (pp. 139-156). University of Nottingham: Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies.



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