Blood spurts everywhere! The knife/bullets/cleaver/ice pick open wounds! He/she/they stagger forward/stumble backward writhing.
Is it a scene from his films? Is it the brutal culmination of a studio bean counter budget battle? Or a priming of actors, upsetting of set directors or ravaging of writers?
It's all there in Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") and Jake Paltrow's ("Young Ones") long take documentary on the 50 year career of one of America's great innovative film directors. Triumphs and tragedies, back stories and back stabbing, mostly brutally honest, sometimes euphemistically elliptical, straight ahead, unblinking testimony laced with great film clips and stories of the emergence of the American New Wave.
"De Palma" chronicles the film maker's career while sharing the insights and memories of America's Golden Age of Cinema, the late sixties through the seventies, a time of energetic creativity before franchises and profit largely rotted the pillars of the system and standardized the product.
At Columbia University, the brilliant physics student feels his life change as he watches "Citizen Kane" and "Vertigo". We track him to the film program at Sarah Lawrence where he and Columbia classmate William Finley ("Phantom of the Paradise") bond with Robert De Niro, Jill Clayburgh and Jennifer Salt. There De Palma self consciously pushes Hitchcock and Godard's long shadows forward in different directions in search of larger truths.
Strongly anti-war De Palma casts De Niro to the social criticism of "Greetings" and "Hi Mom" while supporting himself with documentary work, including pieces for the NAACP. Not until the critical successes of "Sisters" and the cult hit "Phantom of the Paradise", enthusiastically celebrated by New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, did De Palma emerge as film's new, sometimes violent sensibilitied enfant terrible.
In Hollywood, De Palma was at the vital center of the Warner Studio's youth group of directors Marty Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and writer Paul Schrader. De Palma enjoys sharing how he told Paul Schrader that "Taxi Driver" would never be commercial.
Less enjoyable were disappointments working with Tommy Smothers with whom De Palma had creative differences and Cliff Robertson, a lesser choice for the lead in "Obsession." It seems that Robertson insisted on wearing deep brown make-up, leaning heavily to one side and forgetting his lines. Learning lines was also a struggle even for the great Orson Welles. Sets would be dotted with cue cards and scenes were shot over and over.
Like many directors, De Palma had to fight to make his movies. Even successful directors battled to adequately fund their projects. De Palma insisted he needed at least $1.8 million to complete "Carrie." The studio refused to go over $1.6 million. It was only when the director came to work to find the movers carrying all his possessions out of his office that he relented . . . though by the time he brought "Carrie" to completion, a rather satisfied De Palma reports that it came in at $1.8 million, anyway!
Overcoming the mundane and personal, De Palma experimented successfully with split screen in "Sisters", "Obsession", "Carrie" and "Dressed to Kill." He probed the psyches of his characters for motives and unleashed their sometimes violent tendencies. His technical work advancing equipment and shooting, supporting set design and sound, heightened thrillers like "Blow Out", "The Furies" and "Mission Impossible." He was able to coax famed Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann back to work on several films and later used legendary score artist Ennio Morricone for "The Untouchables" and "Mission to Mars."
Throughout, De Palma remained a social and political critic. In "Casualties of War," with Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox, he created one of the most painful depictions of the battlefield tragedy. That same sense of justice fueled De Palma's lifelong struggle to advance and perfect his art form into a medium that helped people see the world around them differently and seek to change it.