At the Movies

Michael Wood

Good humour comes to seem relentless if it isn’t interrupted once in a while, and this is one of the interesting effects of the film De Palma, a feature-length account of the director’s work. It opens with screaming orchestral music over the title, followed by a clip from the beginning of Hitchcock’s Vertigo – James Stewart climbing onto the roof from which his colleague is about to fall to his death. De Palma’s voice says: ‘I saw Vertigo in 1958. I saw it at Radio City Music Hall. I will never forget it.’ As he speaks the last sentence his image appears on screen. He is sitting in front of a fireplace, as he will be for the rest of the movie, but the camera gets closer to him later and stays closer. Here he is not smiling yet, but he is already sounding a little offhand about horrors, as if they were intriguing but not the sort of thing that would worry you. He says Hitchcock shows us what movie-makers do. They create illusions and kill them – twice. Twice in Vertigo anyway, and at least once, I take it, in any film. This is a really interesting idea, but it doesn’t seem quite enough to call it Brechtian and move on.

Of course the people who move on are the directors, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who seem a little uncertain about what they want to show. The splicing of De Palma’s voice into the conversation is often very rough, for example, so that he seems to be interrupting, eager to make a point in a way that in live conversation he probably wasn’t, since the tone and the tempo once he gets going is always different, pretty much the reverse. De Palma is not in a hurry because he is not going anywhere, and the past isn’t going to shift either, it’s just an old story. The many clips that accompany the voice are almost all short, and we never see the interviewers, so that De Palma seems to be talking into the air. He’s there all the time, a storytelling torso, but he also appears to be absent, almost indifferent. Reviewers have found his style in the film engaging and funny, and they are reading the signs correctly. ‘Engaging’ and ‘funny’ are the meanings projected by the performance and the editing, the adjectives we are supposed to supply. But then that’s what movie-makers do: create illusions and kill them. The performance includes the cool switching on and off of the meanings.

The mixed impression of amiability and absence is good for the film in the end, and lends it a mystery that its manifest content doesn’t have. The narrative is chronological, starting with De Palma’s birth in 1940 in Newark, New Jersey and his growing up in Philadelphia. He made various experimental films while at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence, and moved on to documentaries, notably The Responsive Eye (1966), about an op-art exhibition at MoMA, and Dionysus in 69 (1970), about a famous performance of The Bacchae. His most interesting feature film from this period is probably Murder à la Mod (1968), but he made serious money from Greetings (also 1968), and moved from New York to Hollywood. Carrie (1976) was his first big hit, and remains perhaps his best film. He himself is now rather dismissive of The Fury (1978), but Pauline Kael loved it, thought it had ‘the greatest finish for any villain ever’. Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987) confirmed De Palma’s reputation as one of the most accomplished directors of his generation, although some people, myself included, have thought his work, for all its art and intelligence and deft depictions of violence, often seemed bland compared with that of Scorsese or Coppola. After Mission to Mars (2000), De Palma made no more films in America. He is very cheerful about this decision, as about almost everything else, and his recent movies – Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006), Redacted (2007), Passion (2012) – are never less than interesting.

De Palma has some good comments on the Hollywood system. ‘People are paid a lot of money to get you to do what they want you to do.’ This is by way of excuse for his giving in over plot and scene decisions in The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). ‘It was a disaster,’ he says. Then he changes his mind, and I do find this engaging, as distinct from ‘engaging’. ‘Nothing wrong with the movie,’ he says. ‘Just don’t read the book.’

The best moments in the documentary come when it slows down a little and actually illustrates, rather than just glances at, some of the things De Palma is saying – about the use of split screens or steadicam, for example. There is a terrific sequence showing what you can do when a person becomes trackable on film without the use of tracks for the camera. You can follow them anywhere, and you literally feel De Palma’s excitement and pleasure as he demonstrates just that. The effect is similar to the one Kubrick gets in The Shining from the same device, as the camera pursues a small boy in his toy car round the corridors of a hotel, but the De Palma instance is in its way more haunting because less dramatic: the camera doesn’t do anything except behave like a sniffer dog you can’t shake off.

Another good moment combines technical commentary with celebrity anecdote. De Palma is shooting Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way (1993), on the run from the bad guys and racing through the carriages of a subway train. The camera is in another vehicle running parallel, so we get glimpses of our hero interrupted by passengers, the sides of the carriage, the matched and unmatched movements of the two trains. It’s high summer in New York, the shoot has been going on for hours, Pacino is wearing a heavy leather coat, and suddenly he is no longer to be seen in the filmed car. What has happened? He took the train home, he’d had enough. De Palma tells this story with such relish that his air of indifference vanishes entirely. He is having almost as good a time remembering it as he did making the movie.

There is also a perfect Hollywood tale about the shoot-out in Scarface. Pacino had burnt his hand by picking up a hot gun by the barrel, and needed to take some time off. ‘I had two weeks to shoot everything but Al,’ De Palma says, so he played with multiplying camera angles for the climax. Steven Spielberg stopped by and suggested a few more viewpoints to shoot from, and the killing went on and on. De Palma’s pleasure in telling this story, along with the lurid clips that accompany it, make you think again about his ideas on film and illusion. Why are we all having so much fun with the killing of the illusion of killing? The fun is unmistakable, in the tale and in the movie as we watch it.

It may be that De Palma’s offhand and cheerful tone tells one story and hides another. The tone is the same whatever he is talking about: his philandering father, what went wrong or right with this or that film, which actor or writer was totally unbearable, his own huge delight in certain moments of memory. Well, he really relaxes in the last instance, but this is only a sort of expansion of style rather than a stylistic change. The pleasure and the cheer are not a front, then, but they can’t be the whole picture. They are what keep the rest of the picture out of the way. It says a lot about the film, and about De Palma, that this double effect has been achieved without any apparent attempt at deception. We don’t know what the hidden story is: we just suspect there is one. And we should think again about what we took to be the director’s blandness.