No one will argue that 2012 was a particularly revelatory time at the movies. It was the year of the first Hunger Games, the first Hobbit, the first Avengers and the first (or was that fourth?) Spider-Man. Franchise-starters all, each heralding the current era of bigger and not-quite-better ancillary cinematic product.
But 2012 was also the year that Brian De Palma released Passion, a psycho-sexual corporate thriller starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. At the time, it was seen as a minor thing – a titillating venture that trafficked in light chills and generated only the occasional whiff of heat. De Palma Lite, in other words. Yet, as the director has failed to release a movie since Passion – and because he has no concrete plans to make a new one, either – 2012 can also be viewed as the last year that cinema truly boasted a serrated edge. A sense of sleaze and sex and excess – highly stylized danger.
It’s become old hat among film writers to boast of De Palma’s underrated brilliance – the man has been inspiring impassioned contrarian takes ever since he started putting out films that could only be described as contrarian in their very nature (Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars). But four years is an awful long time for any director of such prominence and influence to be missing in action, and there’s no arguing that the movies are worse off for his absence.
Even a cursory glance at the current cinematic landscape reveals a watered-down slate in desperate need of De Palma’s polarizing touch. Where is the relentless mania of Scarface or Phantom of the Paradise? The uneasy seduction of Body Double or Femme Fatale? The self-igniting fury of Carrie or Dressed to Kill? No matter the genre, De Palma’s films were visual agitations – itchy, aggressive things that poked and prodded audiences.
At least now we have the new documentary De Palma, which underlines how complacent the movies have become in their determination to satisfy stakeholders instead of provoking audiences. The doc is easily the most exciting movie to be released this year, perhaps because it acts as a highlights reel of the most exciting movies to be released over the past five decades.
But the film, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is also a remarkable work of art itself, in that it does what few other docs allow themselves to do: shut up, and let the subject speak for himself.
Instead of crowding the screen with devotees, family members or collaborators, De Palma simply positions the artist himself in a living room, and affords him two hours to discuss his varied filmography. Purists will gain insights into all of De Palma’s usual tricks – the split screens, the bombastic scores, the voyeuristic aesthetics deliberately reminiscent of Hitchock.
Newcomers will realize all that they have missed, and start angrily campaigning Netflix to carry more than simply The Untouchables.
It’s invigorating, wild fun, and all the more remarkable for the fact that it was made by two directors who seem to be the unlikeliest De Palma acolytes. “What, you don’t see it?” Baumbach joked last year when I asked about De Palma’s influence on his own films, which appears to be non-existent. Still, the director of the anxious relationship dramedies Frances Ha and While We’re Young had little trouble identifying a through-line. “Maybe you don’t think of us together, but any movie that’s from a director who’s so cinematic in his thinking, and so visual in how he puts a scene together … it’s just what I’m trying to do as a director.”
Paltrow, best known for the sci-fi film Young Ones and his work on television’s NYPD Blue and Boardwalk Empire, also acknowledges the debt that any filmmaker who prides their own personal vision owes De Palma. “People make jokes that, ‘Oh, you’re so different, so why make a doc about him?’ Well, the genre is immaterial,” Paltrow said during an interview in April, when De Palma played Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. “If his films are coming from a similar place, a personal place where you’re generating the material yourself, well, that’s common ground for any filmmaker.”
After watching the doc, though, it’s easy to despair that perhaps not enough of today’s working filmmakers are heeding the lessons of De Palma. Or, more distressingly, that the director himself is gone for good. “He hasn’t gone away,” insists Paltrow. “The movies are such an up and down thing in general. He’s always writing. He never stops.” Let’s hope so. But in the meantime, we’ll always have 2012.
De Palma opens June 17; Split/Screen: The Cinema of Brian De Palma is on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox until Sept. 3.