Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

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I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

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And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

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This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

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