I don't know which clever wag first coined the expression "style over substance," but whoever it was did a great job of defining a kind of aesthetic snobbery that has proved difficult to dislodge, even through the many moon phases of post- and post-post-modernism. That particular binary has been especially vexing when describing the films of Brian De Palma, the visionary director who has spent nearly 50 years creating a body of work that makes a strong case that in cinema at least, style is substance.
Because of the style-substance dialectic, De Palma's movies tend to have a polarizing effect on audiences, and the cavalier—which is to say agonizingly stylized—way he has depicted violence, especially (though not exclusively) sexual violence against women, has drawn visceral outrage for decades. For many years, the films ran into constant trouble with the MPAA ratings board, which tried to put an X rating on his films Scarface (1983) and Body Double (1984), which look almost quaint by contemporary standards of gore and prurience—though both remain plenty unsettling for other reasons.
The new documentary De Palma is a feature-length interview with the man himself, which offers the promise that he might discuss his controversial reputation, the way his aesthetic has evolved from film to film, and, perhaps, how he justifies scenes like the one in Body Double in which a nearly naked woman is grotesquely murdered by a home invader with a three-foot-long power-drill bit.
He both does and doesn't address these things in the documentary, which consists of exactly two elements: De Palma talking to the camera and clips from the films he's describing. The filmmakers, who are also filmmakers, don't really press their subject very hard, and it's easy to see why. Contrary to his devilish behind-the-camera reputation, De Palma on-screen comes across as a gregarious, often hilarious narrator of his own career. His laugh is warm and infectious, and his gift for showbiz anecdotes is world-class. Hearing him trash-talk Cliff Robertson, or describe how Al Pacino bailed on an overlong shoot, or the little ways Sean Penn psyched out Michael J. Fox honestly made me wish the doc was five hours long.
One thing De Palma isn't, though, is terribly reflective. Which you might chalk up to being generational—until you consider that he came of age in the 1960s and '70s, when the ego deep dive became the dominant art form among the creative class. He's fairly blunt about his preoccupations, his photographic attraction to the female form, his weird relationship with his father, but the insights are superficial. Still, De Palma's reluctance/refusal to engage in much self-analysis is instructive in itself. "Your job as the director is to get the movie made," he says late in the film. It's no more complicated or semiotic than that.
When he looks back at his work, what he sees (or what he discusses, anyway) is how he designed the often breathtakingly elaborate set pieces that wind through his filmography, from the astonishing vérité of the "Be Black Baby" sequence in Hi, Mom! to the telekinetic prom-night massacre in Carrie to the mega-gratuitous Scarface shoot-out to the Eisenstein homage in The Untouchables to the Viet Cong tunnel hellscape in Casualties of War to the subway train chase in Carlito's Way to the helicopter flying into the Chunnel in Mission: Impossible to the tidal wave ending that got cut out of Snake Eyes. The story of De Palma is the story of everyone who photographs things: getting the shot.
Though he mentions the fact that his "graphic sensibilities have angered women's groups in the past," he neither apologizes nor explains himself. (Nor speaks ill of the women who took offense.) He simply says that the things he put on film and the way he put them there "seemed exactly right" to him. Because he's a formalist and not a moralist. More to the point, he asks, "Why was the drill bit so long?" in Body Double's infamous scene. "Well, it had to go through the floor!"
You can't deny the mischief in his answer, but there's a point in it, too. The relative propriety of how imaginary characters are treated within the fictitious landscape of the movie is secondary to the aesthetic reality he's fabricating. If nobody is actually getting hurt, why should morality be applied to the image of a gangster getting hacked up with a chain saw, or a cop being riddled with bullets, or a woman being slashed up with a straight razor by her non-gender-conforming psychoanalyst... okay, hold on.
The context of the artistic environment in which De Palma came of age is significant to this discussion. The early-to-mid-1970s, when the film school generation infiltrated the vestiges of the pre-corporate studio system, was the second (and last) golden age of American cinema. Part of the film nerd romance that attaches to the period is the idea that the roguish young filmmakers were also friends, or at least confederates. De Palma was both at the epicenter and slightly to the left of this insurgency. The documentary shows a great photo of him flanked by Spielberg ("Steve"), Scorsese ("Marty"), Lucas ("George"), and Coppola ("Francis"), and a snippet of 8 mm footage from 1975 in which Spielberg calls De Palma from his brand-new car phone to wish him a happy Thanksgiving.
But where each of these peers took artistic high or middle roads, the formative years of De Palma's artistry consisted of aestheticizing the lowest of genres: the horror thriller. Early films like Sisters and Carrie, and even experiments like Greetings and Phantom of the Paradise, abdicated all claim to being important, while the director's increasingly ambitious and masterful craft marked them out as flagrantly cinematic, and of an entirely different class than the drive-in schlock they would have been if made by less talented filmmakers. This was style as substance, commentary and composition all wrapped up in one garish package.
And some of them were big hits, which led him to an unusual double career, split between films he originated (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Raising Cain) and big-budget studio projects he was hired to direct (The Untouchables, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission: Impossible). It also made him a very different kind of auteur, equally visceral and intellectual. His work was an affront and a crowd-pleaser. He was the only one of his cohort who could make cheap entertainment that also satisfied Pauline Kael.
The lowness of the form and the mischief of the method permitted (demanded) maximum outrageousness. De Palma's strict fealty to the visual and dramatic grammar of Hitchcock, the demands of the marketplace, and the prefeminist consciousness of 1970s Hollywood meant that the female body was destined to be in the crosshairs of his gaze. His films thrive on the psychological power of women being threatened (and one of them, the surprisingly grim and underrated Blow Out, climaxes with the threat becoming a full-on sacrifice). He didn't invent this dynamic, but he doesn't examine it either, which is the documentary's big disappointment.
One of the film's great laughs comes from De Palma gloating over the many failed stage and screen remakes of Carrie. It's clear from the footage that the problem with the remakes was their failure to perceive that the source material is trash—but trash with good bones. It wants to be rendered faithfully, but it also wants to be made fun of just a little. Tweaked.
No filmmaker in history is better at tweaking his own films than De Palma. His camera moves are so audacious, his bursts of violence—both visual and musical—so explosive that they often verge on the ridiculous. Just as often, they cross the line of ridiculous and come all the way back around to unbelievably wonderful. In a way, this is a commentary on the intrinsic ridiculousness of narrative filmmaking, with its fixed structures and predetermined arcs that stretch all the way back to Aristotle. But it's also a full embrace of the power of narrative. The perverse elements of De Palma's stories (voyeurism, forbidden desire, sex, violence) all tend to be self-reflexive window dressing daring you to surrender while simultaneously daring you to look away.
The documentary De Palma won't be of interest to everyone. Nor does it answer, or even ask, every question raised by his body of work. But it does do the valuable job of reminding you how many stunning images he has committed to celluloid, and it makes you want to go see them again.