In the final minutes of Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach's recent documentary De Palma, about the life and work of American filmmaker Brian De Palma, the camera catches its subject in a rare pose.
For nearly two hours, De Palma speaks about his life's work, practically radiating obsessive confidence as he works through his early 1960s political films (Greetings, Hi, Mom!), his major commercials successes (Carrie, Scarface, Mission: Impossible) and the controversial cult artifacts that made him a target of moralizing, "think of the children!"-type protesters and a champion of cultish cineastes (Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Body Double).
As both an artist and a man, Brian De Palma seems tough and clenched, his cantankerousness shot through with flashes of humour – see: his favourite interjection, repeated throughout De Palma, "holy mackerel!" Like Hitchcock, his hero, De Palma is made through his films. Everything's up there on screen. Which might be why it's a bit unfamiliar to see him, in the last scenes of De Palma, out in the world, shuffling with a stiffened, world-weary gait, through the amber, magic-hour light of New York.
But regular attendees of the Toronto International Film Festival may be accustomed to the sight of Brian De Palma, out in the wild. He's been a regular fixture at TIFF, as both a filmmaker and as a fan; immediately recognizable in his trademark khaki safari jacket, which has long functioned as the director's de facto uniform.
While his birthday often falls in the middle of the festival – he'll be 76 on Sept. 11 – he brushed off the idea that going to the festival is some kind of present to himself. Like pretty much everyone else at TIFF, De Palma is there for the movies. "I think it's the best festival," De Palma says over the phone from his home in East Hampton, "organized in order to see the most new and exciting films from all over the world, in the shortest possible time."
It's not uncommon to find De Palma slumped in a seat at the Scotiabank Cineplex, nodding through some Québécois indie-thriller or bolting for exits as soon as things get boring. "If I didn't think the film was progressing in a way I thought was interesting," he explains, "I just walk out and go to another one. Some days, I could see five or six films."
This year, De Palma won't be afforded the luxury of skedaddling for the lobby if a film doesn't grab him in its opening reel. For TIFF 2016, he has been tapped to head the Platform jury, which awards $25,000 to the director of a film that, per TIFF's press release, exhibits "high artistic merit." Platform, which launched just last year, is billed as a programme that champions "directors' cinema." As a filmmaker known for his decadent, borderline-rococo high style – those split screens, the long takes, the resplendent, almost oozy, lensing of violence and obsession – De Palma seems like an ideal fit to lead the jury.
And as someone who's been coming to TIFF since the early 1980s, back when it was still called "The Festival of Festivals," De Palma also has an eye for emerging, independent talent. He distinctly remembers being "quite struck" by Run Lola Run when he saw it at TIFF in 1998, before it became a breakout, art-house hit. "I never went to the red carpet screenings unless a friend had a film in it," he says. "I always went to see the ones that would probably never get distribution – not these big red carpet specials. I'm always more interested in things that are out of left field."
Because of the sheer labour of watching films, especially with an eye toward judging them, De Palma hasn't sat on a jury since the mid-1970s. But, he says, he felt a "special obligation" to TIFF after they hosted a massive retrospective of De Palma's films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this summer. "It's always flattering to have a retrospective," he says. "Most of the high points were included. And some of not-so-high points." (In the latter camp he lumps two of his comedies: the 1972 Tommy Smothers vehicle Get To Know Your Rabbit, and the 1986 Joe Piscopo/Danny Devito Costa Nostra caper Wise Guys.)
Titled Split/Screen: The Films of Brian De Palma, TIFF's career-spanning programme spoke to De Palma's snowballing reputation. Long a pet obsession of certain breeds of hard-core cineastes, drawn to De Palma's sumptuousness, his stylishness, his sheer singularity, the cult of De Palma is moving closer into the mainstream.
De Palma himself remains typically caustic about his rehabilitated rep in cinephile circles, chalking it up to the fickle tastes of filmgoers and the capricious whims of history. "Certain films have lasted through the decades, and now people are referencing them," he says. "That's kind of the luck of the draw. Some films vanish, and no one's particularly interested in watching them again. And some films are watched generation after generation. I have a few films like that."
His approach to judging the films screening in the Platform section is similarly matter-of-fact, maybe even a bit fatalistic. Like the screens in so many of his films, De Palma's aesthetic judgments also seem to split right down the middle. "You're either going to have a wonderful experience in the theatre," he says, "or you're going to be bored to death. It's always one or the other."