De Palma showcases a director moving far beyond imitation

People throw around the term Hitchcockian way too often when they talk about suspense movies — rarely more so than when the suspense movie is by Brian De Palma. The director has heard that adjective applied to his work since 1973, when his psycho-twin horror movie Sisters became a surprise hit.

But he has courted it, too, so it’s fitting then that the new documentary De Palma, in which the subject himself talks candidly for almost two hours straight about every movie he’s directed, opens with a clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Veritgo.

The directors of this spirited, engrossing doc are Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, longtime friends and mentees of De Palma. The rapport among the moviemakers is the primary reason De Palma works as well as it does; Baumbach and Paltrow get their subject to open up in warmhearted fashion, and he talks a bit about his personal life. But mostly the film is an extended, good-natured and very knowing career retrospective.

De Palma embraces the Hitchcock comparison, and it’s fair: Both filmmakers zero in on the psychological motivations — the obsessions — that drive a certain kind of suspense. De Palma says he has pushed the Master’s technique to its next logical extreme, and the evidence on display here is hard to argue against. Voyeuristic shots, uninterrupted takes, dual-focus extreme widescreen, witty split-screen — all those hallmarks of the De Palma style are presented in a context that coaxes new admiration.

It also helps to see the director’s fluid style excised from sometimes sleazy subject matter. De Palma’s victims have often been women, and his carousel of Grand Guignol style and campy tone, sometimes in the same scene, can still make for a queasy ride. But you could argue that Hitchcock would have ended up in similar territory had he lived longer. His peak had accompanied the zenith of classic Hollywood filmmaking that ended with the cultural shifts of the late 1960s, but his 1972 serial-killer movie, Frenzy, hints at how much more luridness he may have allowed himself in the new era. A year later, Sisters would take up the torch.

Put simply, the art of cinematic storytelling has changed drastically since the 1960s, and De Palma’s approach seems even more challenging and fresh now than it did in his early heyday. De Palma the movie makes a good argument for a re-assessment of De Palma the director, an artist whose work remains a fascinating and entertaining study in the public’s fickle taste.

Editor’s note: De Palma, originally slated to open in KC July 1, is now scheduled to hit local screens July 15.

Categories: Movies