Life of Brian
By Adam Nayman
Dir. Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, U.S., A24
I’ve always liked that John Travolta’s character in Blow Out rents workspace above a porn theater. If Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller about a crack sound recordist using the tools of the trade to cut through institutional corruption is to be taken as a personal film, then the sign reading “Independence Pictures Incorporated,” with its cheesy American Eagle logo—and promise of “Educational Filmstrips”—casts the script’s self-portraiture in flattering light. It also suggests, with all the subtlety of an elbow to the solar plexus, that De Palma very much knows his place in a hierarchy where the line dividing honest, searching artistry and naked exploitation is thin indeed.
Rotate the frame 90 degrees, and this multi-tiered slice of downtown Philadelphia real estate becomes a kind of split-screen—the technique that De Palma has always used to give his films a two-pronged ferocity. At times, the double-edge has been sharp enough to draw blood. In Passion (2012), the director juxtaposes performance footage of a contemporary Jerome Robbins ballet piece with the sort of first-person, heavy-breathing POV he lampooned in Blow Out’s film-within-the-film Co-Ed Frenzy (a combination send-up/critique of Halloween and its Steadicam brethren). Passion’s half-and-half set-piece isnot only a joke on De Palma’s own filmography (which may also be the way to read Passion as a whole), but it also underlines—in the directorial equivalent of Magic Marker—the running dichotomy between art and trash that has made its maker, in his way, a signal modern American filmmaker. De Palma makes ingeniously bisected genre pieces, and his refusal to choose sides turns even his most cleanly produced movies into open wounds. Take them or leave them with a grain of salt, it’s entirely up to you.
De Palma’s long-standing commitment to making movies in his own hermetic, ornery way—even when he’s working on somebody else’s terms and dime—is the subject of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s eponymous documentary, which bypasses a whole host of pro and con commentators and goes straight to the source for insight and explanation. Every one of the film’s 107 minutes is dedicated to De Palma talking us through his career, one film at a time, which generates an expectation of comprehensiveness that—perhaps appropriately given the man’s dualistic themes and aesthetics—both is and is not fulfilled. Technically, there are reflections here on everything from the playfully referential 1962 student feature Woton’s Wake, which so fatefully impressed a smitten film festival juror named Pauline Kael, to Passion, and yet, taking their cues from their subject, co-directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach devote wildly disproportionate amounts of screen time to the forty titles on offer.
On one level, this is simple common sense. Even the most hardcore auteurist—the kind who dutifully believes that a mediocre movie by Howard Hawks is better than a good one by John Huston, and that a director’s credit can be a guarantor of interest for a production—would concede the coexistence of major and minor works, while the rest of us will readily acknowledge how different critical studies can focus on different movies without compromising their integrity. And yet in a documentary that ostensibly exists to limn the difference between De Palma as he’s already been received within the mainstream—where he’s best known as the stylish hired gun who made Carrie (1976) and The Untouchables (1987)—and the wildly ambitious, consistently misunderstood artist presupposed by the project’s very existence, it’s the “official” De Palma who gets pride of place, asserting himself in the narrative like John Lithgow’s bullying, dominant alter ego in Raising Cain (1992). This, in turn, unfortunately leads to a less interesting movie than promised by the all-access set-up.
So: long passages on Carrie and The Untouchables; a victory lap around Scarface (1983); lip service to the controversy over Body Double (1984) and a mea culpa for The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). The straight-ahead chronological structure of De Palma may account for why the filmmakers behind and in front of the camera palpably start running out steam after the long section on Mission: Impossible (1996)—a revealing passage insofar as it recounts the director’s delight at winning an on-set battle of wills against Robert Towne and Tom Cruise. De Palma’s pride at taking a potentially ordinary, corporately backed genre exercise and hotwiring it into a slick and enjoyable piece of craftsmanship seems tied to the fact that Mission: Impossible made a lot of money. Whatever their technical or artistic merits, the successes of Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible differentiates them within a body of work that’s typically been more notable—and in some corners, largely validated—on the grounds of failing to connect with audiences. For all the glee De Palma says he takes in making viewers uncomfortable, he seems to get off even more on getting big crowds into the theater in the first place.
A more penetrating film would have found a way to link this intriguing paradox—the self-styled subversive intermittently questing for acceptance—with De Palma’s deeply revealing reflections on his relationships in the early 1970s with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. In these sections, De Palma is—as usual—trying to do two things at once, reminding us (to the point of redundancy) that he was very much part of that easy-riding group while also playing up his outlier status: self-deprecation as a (not-so-subtle) form of arrogance. Scrutinize the numerous anecdotes about “Marty” (whom he was kind enough to hand Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver) and Steven (who is glimpsed, in a great archival find, tooling around Hollywood with Nancy Allen while ringing Brian in New York with a prehistoric car phone) and it’s easy to detect a note of contemptuous envy, as if he feels he should be considered in their weight class. Which, of course, he should, but not because of some fair shake he didn’t get. Rather, De Palma’s legacy comes from making precisely the sorts of productively unpleasant, richly idiosyncratic movies that hadn’t—and wouldn’t—occur to his old USC beach-bum buddies.
Now, the problem with De Palma may not really be a problem at all; the fact that Brian De Palma doesn’t really feel like propping up Mission to Mars (2000) or Passion in the home stretch could be taken as the good sense of a guy who knows how to differentiate between his A-game and his B-game—much to the chagrin of critics who see masterpieces in these films maudit. Not to give too much credence to De Palma apologists (De-Palmogists?), this avoidance/dismissal of such comparatively under-theorized films feels like the path of least resistance, and occasionally, it means that Baumbach and Paltrow sidestep movies that should have been met head-on, like Redacted (2007). That fine, thorny return to De Palma’s early-70s, Godardian form is barely glossed here for its clever multimedia presentation or its conscious narrative reworking of Casualties of War (1989), replacing the distanced memory-play of its predecessor (produced and partially set fifteen years after the end of the Vietnam War) with an imploding, present-tense intensity—the lack of any discernible, long-view perspective on Iraq serving as both a theme and an aesthetic raison d’être.
By the time Passion and its wholly fascinating—if also rather ridiculous—interrogation of literally cutthroat corporate greed and ad-agency callowness (including a Coke machine gag that’s probably the most oblique Kubrick reference in cinema history) is introduced and dismissed within the space of 90 seconds flat—via the aforementioned split-screen scene, which is both an apt and obvious clip choice—it’s clear that De Palma is in a hurry to wrap things up. This impatience undermines the dully inspirational coda, which shows the great man waddling down a New York City street, as if to literalize the idea that he still has places to go as a filmmaker. De Palma may be the most sustained close-up we’ll ever get on a filmmaker who treats the camera like crosshairs (c.f. his verbal cameos as inquisitor figures in Murder à la Mod, The Black Dahlia, and Redacted), and yet for all the interestingly schizophrenic attitudes it captures, its gaze is finally too straightforward to honor a director who has always kept us guessing about the best place to look.