The very aspects that make this unusual documentary amazing are the same attributes that are likely to alienate non-cinefiles.
The name Brian De Palma is widely recognized as belonging to a famous director. He did “Scarface” and “Carrie,” but how many of his other films are you aware of? What is he known for? Unless you are a fan of his specifically, a quick visit to IMDB may be required. Over the years he’s written a number of scripts (some filmed, some not), and is credited with directing over 40 films, including “The Untouchables,” “Raising Cain,” “Mission:Impossible,” and “Snake Eyes.”
“De Palma” is being labeled as a documentary, but it almost exists outside of that genre. Typically with a documentary there are multiple people involved, random characters and “experts” giving their biased opinions on the same subjects. Not so in this film. There is only one character, De Palma himself. Wearing a matching denim-blue-colored shirt and jacket, he sits in the same chair, in the same room, throughout the entire movie. No other voices are heard, no questions or coaching. Simply him, talking to the camera for nearly two hours with various photos and clips overlaid as reference.
It almost feels like an interview, but with the lack of a third party and DePalma’s unapologetic honesty, it quickly becomes something else. We’re guests in his home. We’ve asked him to tell us a few stories about his career, and that’s what he’s doing. This isn’t a documentary, or an interview, we’re just hanging out with a friend who happens to be an amazing director.
Clocking in at just under 2 hours, the film does feel a bit long, but with so many fascinating stories, it’s hard to pinpoint anything that could be cut. Did you know he was friends with Spielberg and Scorcese in their early days? De Palma tells us Spielberg is one of the first people he knew who had a phone in their car, immediately after which we are treated to a 1976, 8mm home video of Spielberg calling De Palma from his car while cruising with a few young women.
For those not already fascinated by filmmaking, De Palma might be dull and unrelatable. His heavy use and love for Split-Diopter shots are meaningless if you aren’t already familiar with it. If you aren’t a student of Hitchcock, you likely won’t be able to identify all the parallels De Palma draws between himself and the master of suspense. But if you are, “De Palma” is a virtual film-school session. Whether or not to see this film can easily be determined by asking yourself a single question: “What type of person would you enjoy sitting down and chatting with for 2 hours straight?”