BLOOD, SWEAT & FEARS
Review by Ray Schillaci
In my early days as a film student I was not a fan of Brian De Palma. I too easily passed him off as a wannabe Hitchcock. Movies like Obsession and Blow Out I found to mimic Hitchcock’s style to the point that it weakened any power those films might have had. It was a commonality shared by many back in the day. De Palma might have been one of the great misunderstood filmmakers of his time.
But over the years not only did I find a greater appreciation for Mr. De Palma, but so did many others. With the new documentary on the producer/writer/director by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, De Palma gives us an insight not only to a dedicated filmmaker, but a true lover of the medium as well. Here is Brian De Palma recounting fighting the good fight, making due with whatever was passed on to him, and retelling it all at his unabashedly best.
Baumbach and Paltrow give us the highs and lows of the man’s career all with a near cavalier, at times, retelling of his favorite anecdotes that are funny, heartbreaking, and poignant. It’s a wonderful point of view from a new generation of filmmakers that obviously admire one who once struggled to the top and eventually found himself almost back where he started…struggling once again. Watching De Palma is not only fascinating, but is a bittersweet ironic tale of a Hollywood that has been eroded within a decade.
The focus is on the famed director in a room talking to us in a nonchalant manner. Baumbach and Paltrow make it an intimate affair with the audience as they interject the interviews (taken from one room) with behind the scenes pictures and clips from the man’s film library. His humble beginnings with Robert De Niro as a new independent filmmaker, guiding the generally quite and shy actor who would eventually blow everybody away with his screen persona is classic storytelling.
De Palma raves on about his mentor, Wilford Leach (who happened to help finance his first film) yet also reveals how he had to correct the man when it came to shooting certain scenes in his film. It was as if it all came natural to De Palma from the very beginning. He not only admits to being a lover of Hitchcock, but having a deep personal affection for film history all the way back to the silent era.
His candid recounting of hanging with his friends that all helped each other in the beginning (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Schrader, Scorsese) are cherished moments of a bygone era. An 8mm sound film of Spielberg owning the first phone (in his car) is a classic memory. For those who have read the exploits of the once young mavericks, this film only reaffirms with much gusto all the tales told.
It is easily noticed that De Palma did not start off with the homage to Hitchcock’s style. In fact for some, the man known for so many violent affairs (Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way), and notorious for violence to women in film (Body Double, Dressed to Kill), it may come as a surprise (to the uninitiated) that the writer/director began his trek of film with the off-beat humor of Hi Mom, Greetings and later the little seen Home Movies.
The behind-the-scenes stories of these films and the forming of De Palma’s troupe is a must see for every film student and anyone else that has any appreciation for movies. The risks De Palma takes with one of his early films, Hi Mom with the “Be Black Baby” sequence can give one the shivers, especially knowing the environment of the times. And he continued to be that risk taker as time went on.
Getting a studio deal and trying to operate outside the system with a project he knew would be trouble, Get to Know Your Rabbit, here he struggled not only with a temperamental TV star, Tommy Smothers, but also had to deal with the legendary Orson Welles. That’s right, this young punk filmmaker having to tell Welles that a take was not good enough. Even though the film was a disaster, De Palma bounced back with a brazen piece of shocking suspense that rocked the critics the very same year, Sisters.
De Palma’s chronicles of successes and failures is a testament to the burden that weighs heavy on filmmakers. From films like Sisters that was both a critical and financial hit to the unexpected flop that he was sure would be a winner, Phantom of the Paradise, only to have the film become a cult favorite years later, and precede another film in a similar vein that retained super star cult status, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The filmmaker’s recollection of the rocky, bruising relationship between Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn is priceless along with a furious Al Pacino during Carlito’s Way running around the subway in a heavy leather trench coat in the middle of summer. All of his tales prove to be both enlightening and entertaining. Yes, there are mongrels in his library (Get to Know Your Rabbit, Wise Guys, Mission to Mars) that he is not proud of, but several of them, he knew from the beginning were going to be his problem children.
The history behind-the-scenes he relays on Carrie, The Untouchables and Body Double makes me wish we had more time with him. His insights into the studios, other filmmakers, and actors is a retelling of a remarkable journey of a man that came from very simple beginnings. If anything, Baumbach and Paltrow have opened the book for all to see what a master storyteller Brian De Palma actually is.
De Palma is now available on VOD, iTunes, and Amazon Prime.
Directed by: Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow
Release Date: June 10, 2016
Run Time: 110 Minutes