When you read film criticism—especially when you’re reading it online in 2016—it typically comes from one of two angles. The first one is the artistic expression approach—“what did that movie mean?” The second one is the social value approach—“is that meaning agreeable in political and ideological terms?” Occasionally you get the auteurist approach—“what did one creative personality do to give that meaning some distinction?” Much rarer are discussions centered around the craft of making movies—“what techniques were used to create that meaning?” And rarest of all is the business angle—“why was this movie made?”—because the answer to that question is almost always the same: Movies are made to create revenue and to advance careers. That’s why it’s so instructive for obsessive filmgoers to hear directors speak about their craft. When we talk about movies, we talk about art. But when they talk about movies, they’re talking business. We’re the watchers. They’re the workers.
This week, two overlapping retrospectives—one is a series of films, the other is one of the films themselves—help to honor such a worker. The Independent Film Festival Boston and the Somerville Theatre will present screenings of films by Brian De Palma in the form of The Untouchables (6/13) and Scarface (6/14). That duo will be punctuated by an advance screening of De Palma (6/15), a nonfiction interview film directed by Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (Young Ones). It’s likely safe to assume that the two younger directors conducted the interviews personally. But the only thing you see during De Palma is the man himself and the images he created: De Palma faces the frame and talks through his career from stem to stern, offering comments on each of his films and projects—not just Carrie and Mission: Impossible and the ones you know, but also Home Movies and Wise Guys and the ones you never saw. This project seems to have developed out of interviews that Baumbach conducted with De Palma for the Criterion Collection, which are available on the Blu-ray releases of Blow Out and Dressed to Kill. Those were presented in a conversational format. De Palma is different. The film has been edited—by Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath—into the form of a one-man show. They’ve made the director’s recollections into a feature-length monologue, interrupted only by visual evidence from his own films. It’s a deposition.
The obvious response is to call De Palma a feature-length DVD bonus feature. But we’ve seen those, and they’re deliberately heady talks—film-nerd stuff, with Baumbach questioning De Palma on his use of space (magnificent) or his taste in composers (same). De Palma is a more candid experience. It’s not exactly Hollywood Babylon, but De Palma (who’s now 76 years old and hasn’t directed a film within the Hollywood studio system for over 10 years) has no need to temper his expression. He speaks openly about the way one of his films was upended by a lousy lead performance (Obsession). Or about the way a studio capsized another picture by cutting out the director’s preferred finale (Snake Eyes). His candor applies to his own shortcomings, as well, like when he details his inability to handle a mega-budget (Mission to Mars). Past that, most of the conversations are technical. It’s shop talk. One segment has De Palma explaining how he searched for the right amount of split screen to use during the finale of Carrie (it was modulated exclusively for the sake of audience coherence, with no considerations given to, say, “expression.”) Another segment details arguments surrounding the finale of Impossible, with its numerous collaborators split on which finish would bring the biggest profit. So even the craft of filmmaking is often presented as a means to a business’ ends—which is to say that the workers are speaking honestly. Sure, there’s some “Criterion Collection” in De Palma. But there’s also Variety and American Cinematographer.
One text looms largest over De Palma. It’s called “Hitchcock.” His influence has been well documented, and that continues here: De Palma talks about Hitchcock the way that you suspect an apprentice painter may have spoken of the elderly Titian. He sees Hitchcock’s explicitly omniscient aesthetic as being the peak of the cinematic form, and admits dedicating himself to the creation of modernized facsimiles. The editing of De Palma centers that spectatorial apprenticeship as being integral, and a key to all De Palma films—both the blatant Hitchcock riffs (Obsession and Body Double, et al.) and the rest. But it’s not just the-director-Hitchcock who casts his shadow. It’s also the text. “Hitchcock”—a book-length record of interviews conducted between the Master of Suspense and the French filmmaker François Truffaut, first published in 1966 and reprinted ever since—is De Palma’s godfather.
“Hitchcock,” often stylized as “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” is almost spartan in its workmanlike appraisal of the filmmaking apparatus. Screenshots and storyboards are included to help illustrate the way that the famed director organized his filmmaking in a way that would hope to create a unified audience reaction. Hitchcock’s comments emphasize the approach. He describes elements of the craft in terms of their ability to affect the audience, and rarely in terms of their ability to facilitate artistic expression. And when he does get personal, he often asks Truffaut to turn the recorders off. De Palma and De Palma are just as businesslike. And true to the tradition, the elder director proves testy whenever he’s pushed on personal matters. Maybe you’d call this a spiritual successor. The connections do run deep. De Palma is a lifelong Hitchcockian, with whole films to show as receipts. And Baumbach, the technical maestro’s more gentle admirer—the François to his Alfred—has been lifting score music from Truffaut movies for use in his own films for years now. It’s likely an intentional allusion, but you can feel these two trying to stake their own adjacent places in cinema history. They’re chasing ghosts.
They’re doomed to fall short. But at least they’re running in the right direction. Last year saw the premiere of Hitchcock/Truffaut, director Kent Jones’ feature-length nonfiction appreciation of the eponymous text. That documentary saw an all-star team of semi-establishment directors—David Fincher, Wes Anderson, James Gray, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese among them—speak about the profound influence they found in the Hitchcock book. It’s an enjoyable watch, marked by an emotive appreciation of Vertigo by Scorsese. But De Palma better captures the workaday pragmatism and technical expertise extolled in Truffaut’s most famous text. It’s a better adaptation, even if it’s an unofficial one. The people featured in Jones’ film spoke with reverence and awe. But the stories and conversations that are recorded and presented in De Palma? They’re direct from the set, and unembellished by any semblances of self-importance. De Palma is a great artist, but the greatest pleasure of De Palma is that he never speaks like one.
THE UNTOUCHABLES. MON 6.13. RATED R. SOMERVILLE THEATRE. 55 DAVIS SQ., SOMERVILLE. 7:30PM. 70MM. $15.
SCARFACE. TUE 6.14. RATED R. SOMERVILLE THEATRE. 7:30PM. 35MM. $10.
DE PALMA. THU 6.16. RATED R. SOMERVILLE THEATRE. 7:30PM. TICKETS ARE FIRST-COME, FIRST-SERVE AND REQUIRE A PASS FROM IFFBOSTON.ORG