I don’t know about you, but everything I know about menstruation I learned from watching Carrie as a young child: apparently you start gushing blood in the gym shower, have a full-fledged freakout, and then when you try to rub the blood all over your classmates they hurl tampons at you as you cower in the nude? This is what getting your period looks like in Brian de Palma’s world. Which indeed is a rather twisted world, as evidenced by a retrospective happening now at Metrograph and a new documentary co-directed by Noah Baumbach, opening Friday at Angelika Film Center.
The documentary, De Palma, is co-directed by Jake Paltrow, who will join Baumbach in a Q&A following the Friday and Saturday screenings. The two were already friends with the director when they shot the film in about a week (for better or worse, there are no supplementary interviews with actors like De Niro, Pacino, and that guy from The Greatest American Hero who also starred in Carrie). That shows in De Palma’s breezy chit-chat about his entire filmography. For starters, he defends himself against his many critics by saying the shower sequence in Carrie seemed “perfectly logical” to him.
Fun fact: De Palma decided to make Carrie after he himself was in a “steam room on 12th Street” with a writer friend who recommended Stephen King’s novel. He cast Sissie Spacek, who was then painting sets and auditioning for commercials, even though the studio thought she was “physically wrong” for the part. According to De Palma, the studio’s attitude toward the film was: “We’ll distribute it but let’s not talk about it too much.”That kind of studio head-butting and critical ambiguity is pretty typical of De Palma’s career. He had a champion in New Yorkercritic Pauline Kael, but many others dismissed him as a hack and complained about his objectification of women. Indeed, among the countless clips from De Palma’s films featured in the documentary, there are many, many nude or semi-nude scenes, and more than a few shots of women being slashed. “I love photographing women,” the director explains at one point, “I’m fascinated by the way they move, I like to follow them, I love to make the audience get involved in their dilemmas.”
Aside from that, De Palma speaks only briefly about these matters. He remembers that his X-rated 1980 erotic thriller, Dressed to Kill (screening tonight at Metrograph, but sold out) “got a lot of angry protests because of the violence against women.” He doesn’t defend himself except to explain that the early killing of one of his female characters was one of his many nods to Hitchcock (in this case, he was following in the footsteps of Psycho). But does it run deeper? At one point, De Palma describes threatening his dad with a knife after catching him cheating. “I used to follow my father around when he was cheating on my mother,” De Palma says. “I took photographs of him.”
As fellow directors, Baumbach and Paltrow are less interested in psychoanalyzing De Palma and more interested in hearing about his craft. In 1983, De Palma made perhaps his most enduring film, Scarface (screening Saturday at Metrograph). In the doc, we learn that after months of location scouting the film got run out of Florida when members of the Cuban community “didn’t like what the script was about.” We learn why the “say hello to my little friend” shootout is so batshit: it’s partly because Pacino injured his hand while grabbing a red-hot gun and ended up out of commission for two weeks, during which time De Palma “shot every conceivable way someone could shoot at somebody else.”
As a result of this and other gruesome scenes (the most notorious one involving a chainsaw), the movie got an X rating despite multiple attempts to recut it for an R. When he got an X the third time, De Palma basically said fuck it: “I put everything back in, because I said, ‘If I’m going to get an X on version three, I’m going with the original version.’ It’s all X to me.”
Another “big scandal” arose when De Palma cast porn star Annette Haven for his 1984 movie, Body Double (screening at Metrograph on June 18). “The head of the studio heard I was testing a porn star down on stage 7,” he recalls. “They said to me, ‘You can’t do that.’ This was when Columbia was owned by the Coca-Cola Company. And I said, ‘Sorry, I’m doing it.'”Body Double was actually the first De Palma film that Baumbach saw in the theater, as a kid in Park Slope. The movie was widely panned, in part because of a scene in which, as De Palma puts it, “I drilled a woman with a rather long drill.”
Instead of addressing the misogynist implications of the scene, De Palma talks about the shoot from a technical, narrative perspective. “When you do some of these things, they make perfect logical sense to you and then you put them in front of an audience— they go, ‘Holy cow, that’s just too much.’” But, young directors, don’t let that dissuade you: “You’ve always got to realize you’re being criticized against the fashion of the day,” De Palma shrugs, “and when the fashion changes everybody forgets about that.”
By the way, there’s a fun reason De Palma was so comfortable around blood: he used to watch his father, an orthopedic surgeon, at work. The blood in his movies, though, was some sort of dye and corn syrup mixture.
So how do De Palma’s films hold up? Some of them better than others. Even De Palma admits that he botched Bonfire of the Vanities (screening at Metrograph on June 16) by making the Tom Hanks character too nice and sanitizing Tom Wolfe’s damning satire for the sake of box office success (which didn’t end up happening anyway).
As for the rest of them, you can see for yourself at Metrograph this month. De Palma’s 1969 experimental work, Dionysus in ’69 (screening June 9), marks his first use of split-screen; his classic thriller and Travolta vehicle, Blow Out (screening June 11), marks his first use of Steadicam; and his 1989 Vietnam flick, Casualties of War (screening June 14), is— in the director’s humble opinion, at least— an undersung account of the trials and tragedies of warfare. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun to make, at times. In De Palma, he shares some fun stories about Sean Penn messing with Michael J. Fox on set, at one point knocking him to the ground and at another point whispering disparaging remarks such as “TV actor” in his ear.
De Palma himself is making an appearance at tonight’s screenings of Hi, Mom! and Dressed to Kill at Metrograph. Sadly both are sold out, but there are still tickets for De Palma at Angelika; the 7pm screenings on Friday and Saturday feature Q&As with Baumbach and Paltrow.
Correction, June 10: The original version of this post was revised to correct Pauline Kael’s affiliation.