After a lifetime spent peering out from behind the camera, veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma becomes the subject of his own movie in De Palma, a documentary on his career made by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. In the film, released last Saturday, De Palma takes his disciples on a guided tour through his filmography, and with them the anonymous audiences and potential filmmakers who have been watching and learning from his movies for decades. If you’re already a De Palma connoisseur, then by all means ignore me and head straight to theaters for your dose of film history. But for anyone who hasn’t yet become acquainted with De Palma’s movies, the documentary presents an occasion to dive into one of Hollywood’s weirdest and most accomplished artists.
De Palma is a perfectionist when it comes to his work, and his obsession with film history and techniques can make understanding his movies a little daunting. He is also, god bless him, a total perv, and while his tendency toward a kind of ironic horniness only makes his movies more endearing as you watch them, I can see how it might be disorienting if the first film you see unexpectedly features an oft-nude woman murdered by a gigantic, phallic power drill. As a fan who stumbled her way into Brian De Palma appreciation without a road map, here are my humble suggestions for anyone who is ready to take the plunge for the first time.
The Black Dahlia Years
The most important advice I can give you as you start your adventures with De Palma is to avoid being born in the early '90s, which dooms you to the youthful error of picking up the first new De Palma movie you see at your local video store. Fortunately, there are no video stores anymore, but the point is that if you’re like me, this path leads to watching The Black Dahlia at 13 — long before your developing mind can wrap itself around any coherent sense of irony, surreality, or forgiveness — and then vowing never to watch a De Palma movie again. I came around eventually, but The Black Dahlia is a movie that is For Fans Only if there ever was one; with a plot that never stops unfolding, the only actor who seems to even have a clue what's going on is Fiona Shaw, who adjusts to the mess around her by going completely bonkers. Critics and 13-year-olds declared it incoherent at the time, and while De Palma stans might find camp value in the movie’s never-ending twists, nonsensical lesbianism, and A-list bad acting, first-time De Palma viewers would be better off starting with a movie that offers more straightforward pleasures. The same word of caution applies to Passion, the glossy corporate thriller De Palma made a couple years ago with Rachel McAdams, which is mostly good, utilizing Skype as a 21st-century cinematic device several years before Unfriended — but which is also unfortunately hampered by a deranged (and not in a Fiona Shaw–esque, good way) performance by the Swedish Dahlia, Noomi Rapace. As a rule, recency is not the best path into De Palma, and if you can sidestep the hurdle of starting out with movies that might be older than you are, you’re already over the biggest challenge.
If you want to get on board with a documentary in which a grandpa talks about nothing but his own movies for two hours, I’m going to send you back to 1976 to watch the horror classic Carrie. Carrie is, truthfully, a bit of an anomaly among De Palma’s films — while he has dabbled in just about every genre, De Palma’s preferred filmmaking style tends toward mysteries and thrillers like his hero, Alfred Hitchcock. The themes of the occult that make the explosion of violence in Carrie so mesmerizing don’t really recur anywhere else in De Palma’s decidedly secular cinema. But what Carrie does highlight for first-timers is the pinpoint precision of De Palma’s formal style, his queasy ability to express unstable mental states through sound and image — think of the kaleidoscopes and split screens that accompany the start of Carrie’s attack on her high school prom — and the thin balance between sincerity and insincerity. Stephen King’s source material and Sissy Spacek’s performance ground the film in the relatable outsider’s perspective, but De Palma unsettles any sense of normal identification, pushing scenes like Carrie’s endurance of her mother’s religious ecstasies to melodramatic extremes. In De Palma’s hands, part of the film’s horror comes from not being sure if you should be laughing, crying, or screaming at the unfolding tragedy of Carrie White.
Sisters and Carlito’s Way
Where to go after Carrie is a little tricky, because Carrie is so good that if you start looking for Carrie equivalents you’re just going to come back disappointed. Sisters is a solid early De Palma outing focused on an actress who either has an evil twin or a killer case of multiple personality disorder. It hews closer to De Palma’s usual external preoccupations like murder and doubles without burrowing to the same emotional depths as the more psychologically introspective Carrie. The Untouchables is famous, but it’s also straight-up bad — its constant winks to classic films and Al Capone might constitute kitsch if only it weren’t following such a bland team of lawmen. Skip it until you’re so invested in De Palma movies that even a De Palma movie starring Kevin Costner can’t bore you to an Eisenstein-homage-themed hell. On the other hand, Carlito’s Way marries De Palma’s ostentatious style with a thoughtful story examining cycles of crime and recidivism — but it’s kind of a dad movie. Either watch with your dad or become a dad and then watch it.
Blow Out is a tempting option, since it’s maybe the most De Palma of all De Palma movies, following a young John Travolta as he investigates a murder attempt he possibly caught on tape while recording sound for a low-budget slasher movie. Blow Out eventually builds De Palma’s filmmaking fascinations into its story as the real threat of murder becomes entangled with the artificial process of making a film. But before you can get around to contemplating the permeable boundaries between real and unreal that are created by the movies, De Palma literally starts Blow Out with a Peeping Tom murder from the point of view of the Peeping Tom that then turns out to be a hilarious joke about making bad Peeping Tom movies. I can get down with cinema as a pipeline into an exploration of the misogynistic psyche, but you’ve gotta warm me up first — and on that note, let’s hold off on Body Double too, while we’re at it.
But for all their considerable merits for fans, movies like Sisters, Blow Out, and Body Double are third or fourth or 10th date movies — in art as in people, it helps to know someone’s style before you ask to see their soul. Which is why I’m going to recommend a jump into the '90s once you’ve washed off Carrie’s pig blood, from one of the best book-to-film translations of all time to one of the best TV-to-film translations: Brian De Palma’s 1996 kickoff to what would become the Mission: Impossible franchise.
Skipping ahead on this choose-your-own-De-Palma-adventure, Mission: Impossible is a look at what happens when De Palma plays it cool. First of all, it stars Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vanessa Redgrave, so if your thing is severely cheekboned white women who sometimes speak French, Brian’s got you covered. But Mission: Impossible is also worthwhile for being the polar opposite of Carrie. What’s mesmerizing about Carrie is all of the hints of high school holocausts yet to come, but De Palma’s take on Mission: Impossible builds life-and-death stakes while remaining as detached and logical as a doctor before the operating table.
It can be hard for some filmmakers to make big-budget studio movies that still seem personal, but for De Palma, there’s something personal about impersonality — which makes him a perfect director for movies about the professional world of spies at work. If the subsequent Mission: Impossible movies are admirably executed joyrides — action as pure fantasy — the De Palma original moves like a heist, not a takeover. His spies don’t muscle; instead, they approach rappelling from ceilings and jumping from helicopters slowly, quietly, and then all of a sudden — but always in style.
Now that you’ve been introduced to De Palma served cold and hot, take a look at Scarface, another adaptation, this time from the studio-era filmmaker Howard Hawks. Hawks’s version focused on an Italian gangster whose twisted family and twisted business eventually leads to a twisted and pathetic end. De Palma kept the story, but updated it for the xenophobic scapegoat of the times, making the titular gangster a part of the so-called “Cuban crime wave.” Even among De Palma fans, Scarface is a bit controversial — I don’t think I’ve ever talked to someone about Scarface and found their opinion to be neutral. My mom has refused to watch it for decades because it’s a reminder of everything inhumane and inaccurate that white people like to project onto Latinos; at the same time, I’ve got cousins who call it an all-time favorite. It’s a movie that lives unironically in the hearts of Napoli mafiosi and as a poster on the walls of countless frat boys looking for a machismo hero. But when I watched it for the first time, the marriage of Tony Montana’s high machismo to De Palma’s high style pushed Scarface into a realm of camp that’s maybe not quite emasculating, but at least winking.
More than anything, Scarface is a film of outlandish style, a candy-colored trip into a neon fantasy of Miami where how you feel is dependent on how you see. We follow Tony’s story through his actions, but you follow his heart through his décor — from the déclassé but exuberant Hawaiian shirts and leopard print of the start to the black walls of the finish. De Palma shoots Tony as a figure within a flamboyant world so superficial a key murder is shot up against a wallpaper designed to look like the Miami beach. At any moment, a blimp might appear in the sky to let a character know “The World Is Yours” — and if Giorgio Moroder’s score is discernibly synthetic in instrumentation, the jury’s out if it’s accompanying scenes that are synthetic in feeling. Love it or hate it, laugh or cry, it could only be De Palma pulling the strings behind the camera.