Monday, May 7, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #35. "De Palma" (2016)

Brian De Palma
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

De Palma
Released: June 10, 2016 
Release Number: 35
Directed By: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow
Starring: Brian De Palma
Plot: A documentary about writer and director Brian De Palma.

In 2015, A24 had a major success with their first documentary Amy, which would be one of three films to win an Oscar that year. With that in mind, one had to wonder what their second outing would be, and would it help to define the niche brand of a studio known for ambitiously weird subjects? In that regards, De Palma felt like a perfect fit because of how many of the 35 films felt like they owed some debt to director Brian De Palma. With the return of While We're Young's Noah Baumbach, the documentary was a talking head tribute to one of cinema's most distinct voices, and it does so by letting him dig into his own work. It may have a less impressive impact than Amy, but it helped to set the template for the type of nonfiction films that the studio would invest in as the years went on.

The story doesn't actually begin with any major pre-production. In fact, it began approximately 20 years before the documentary's release. Baumbach was a young filmmaker who discovered that De Palma was at the same party. After getting drunk Baumbach approached his idol and began talking. As they later discovered, they had a lot of shared interests and would become friends over the years. The same could be said about co-director Jake Paltrow, who also met De Palma under similar circumstances. The three of them were close friends, helping each other on various projects and meeting up to have coffee. Suddenly there wasn't a barrier between mentor and mentee, and the conversations they had were more casual.

While this would be a key component of the documentary, the project didn't start off as a way to pay homage to De Palma. It actually started off with Paltrow and Baumbach buying a camera and, in 2010, decided to film De Palma telling stories about each of his films. The director wore the same shirt over the course of one week for continuity's sake as he delved into everything about his career, rarely getting personal if it didn't impact his thoughts on the films. His casual language made Baumbach and Paltrow think that he had an electric presence. The 30 hours of interviews would come to create De Palma: the documentary that highlighted the director's career film by film. There wasn't any other talking head or subject to chime in on the film. Even the co-directors took out their voices so that it could be unfiltered De Palma. Not bad for something shot in Paltrow's living room.

The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival to largely positive reviews. Over the course of its run at festivals, people like Martin Scorsese would introduce the documentary, and some shows would feature interviews with Paltrow, Baumbach, and De Palma. The film would earn $165,237 at 19 theaters during its entire theatrical run. Beyond that, the film was generally reviewed favorably. The film would get a 95% rating on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, which remains one of the best for all A24 movies. Greg Cwik of The Week would highlight what made people love De Palma as a subject, claiming that "No one kills people with the bravura relish of De Palma. He is the Michelangelo of Murder, a man who crafts decadent, deviant works of art using viscera and celluloid in lieu of paint." Meanwhile, those who disliked De Palma tended to critique its aesthetic, with Noah Gittell of Washington City Paper would propose that "De Palma resembles more of a visual IMDB page than a film."

Whatever the case may be, De Palma was a solid second documentary that captured the enthusiasm for the charismatic director. It may have been one of their simplest films, but it had a big impact in discussing how art is created. Even if there's not much else to say about it in comparison to Amy, it definitely had a niche fan base that was more than excited to spend time with him. Up next would be a film that may have had some De Palma influence, but more than that it made abstract covers of the Jurrasic Park theme and "Cotton Eye Joe." It was a film that explored male bonding and brought aboard its second Harry Potter alumni through the strangest way possible: a farting corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe. 

Up Next: Swiss Army Man (2016)

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