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A one-word question hangs over every frame of De Palma, Noah Baumbach’s new documentary on the life and career of Brian De Palma: “Why?” Why would Baumbach, a director of charming, buoyant comedies about higher education, contemporary relationships, and young adulthood, make a study of De Palma, whose films are awash with blood, whose touch has never been mistaken for light, and whose typical protagonists would gladly dispose of Frances Ha with the nearest drill or baseball bat?

To begin with, Baumbach and De Palma, whatever their differences, are two modern masters of cinematic pastiche. Knocked in the first half of the 2000s for his indebtedness to the dry comedy of Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman, Baumbach responded by pivoting to elaborate Eric Rohmer homages (the title of his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding is a nod to Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, and even his son bears the French New Wave director’s name). His most recent films, Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and Mistress America, add Godard, Truffaut, and Hollywood screwball to Rohmer and Stillman. When a middle-aged attorney in Mistress America criticizes the young heroine’s short story on the grounds that it’s pastiche, “like everything your generation does,” it’s telling that no one bothers to correct her—for Baumbach, homages are neither good nor bad; they simply are. As De Palma cheerfully admits, he began his career as a director of Hitchcock homages and will die one, too. Doppelgangers, voyeurs, and MacGuffins have never ceased to inspire him, from 1969’s The Wedding Party to 1981’s Blow Out to 2002’s Femme Fatale. (Edited together, all of De Palma’s nods to the shower scene in Psycho would run about the length of De Palma itself.)  Both directors deal with a conspicuously small number of themes and motifs, often with the same cluster of actors: De Niro, William Finley, and Jennifer Salt for De Palma; Ben Stiller, Adam Driver, and Greta Gerwig for Baumbach).

For nearly all of De Palma, the titular director sits in front of the camera and talks about his life and career, occasionally aided by clips from his vast filmography. The form is so straightforward, in fact, that the role of Baumbach, its creator, is detectable only nominally. But in fact, it’s the latest in a string of “apprenticeship films” Baumbach has directed in recent years, and in many ways his most thoughtful meditation on the problems of originality that have occupied him for the first decade of his career.

In the broadest terms when one artist makes art about an older artist, his work implies two things. It implies, first, that the artist has enormous admiration for his subject—he chooses to pay his respects to a figure of the previous generation, humbly acknowledging that his own work is only of secondary importance to this progenitor’s creations. Seen this way, the message of the work of art can be summed up as, “Go out and learn more about this guy!” The second, less humble implication of such a work of art is that the older artist’s time has come and gone—now it’s the younger figure’s turn to create. The short story penned by Tracy, Lola Kirke’s character in Mistress America (in which a poster for De Palma’s Dressed to Kill can be glimpsed several times), encapsulates both sides of artistic homage. Tracy uses writing to celebrate her older friend, Brooke, but also wants to use it as a kind of therapy, purging her mind of Brooke’s styles and opinions to clear room for her own.

For long stretches of De Palma, Baumbach does nothing to dispute the notion that he regards De Palma as the better director and the greater artist. De Palma insists that “you guys”—meaning Baumbach and his vast number of young, ambitious contemporaries in American cinema—will never have it as good as De Palma and his own friends (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas) had it in the 1970s; Baumbach’s documentary supports this argument whole-heartedly, with stunning, impeccably shot clips from De Palma’s work during this era. Baumbach is similarly reluctant to dispute the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls thesis; as he would have it (and as De Palma proudly confirms, in anecdote after anecdote), the directors of ’70s Hollywood succeeded in making Nashville, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown because they had, for the last time, the industry clout to defend their creative decisions from narrow-minded studio executives. Invigorated by success and acclaim, De Palma moved swiftly from one film to the next—Hi Mom!, The Wedding Party, Carrie, Dressed to Kill—simultaneously honing his technique and taking considerable creative risks. When someone in a recent Q&A session asked Baumbach how he’d compare his generation’s Hollywood with De Palma’s, he answered that “even De Palma’s contemporaries” had to compromise their artistic visions at times. It’s very revealing—and rather poignant, I think—that a young director would qualify a prior generation’s achievements instead of elevating those of his own.

Is De Palma right about his contemporaries? Is Baumbach right to echo De Palma’s sentiments? Certainly, the ’70s produced a jaw-dropping number of masterpieces, and the reasons for this were structural (the changes in the motion picture industry) as much as they were cultural. One could classify the great directors of the era either as “Spielbergs,” who moved on from their early victories to ever-bigger artistic and commercial triumphs, or “Ashbys,” whose careers essentially began and ended with the 1970s. De Palma doesn’t fit well into either group—though he’s kept busy in the last thirty years, and made plenty of big-budget successes (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), the critical consensus seems to be that he did his very best work before Scarface in 1982. There are times when De Palma talks as if he’s managed to stick around Hollywood for so long because of his savvy negotiating skills; there are only a few times when he admits that he’s been a lucky sonofabitch. (The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.) This is a major problem with making a documentary about a brash veteran artist like De Palma: put in front of the camera and told, “Talk,” such a person will attribute his successes to his own ingenuity and play down luck. This is also, as it happens, a major problem with pastiche: the whole notion of consciously imitating another artist discounts the role of chance and one-of-a-kind accidents in making great art. (For proof, compare Hitchcock’s Psycho and Gus Van Sant’s tedious, shot-for-shot remake—one has the magic, and the other doesn’t.)

In spite of his boundless love for Godard, Truffaut, and above all, Hitchcock, it’s difficult to imagine De Palma making his own documentary about a filmmaker from the generation that preceded his own. Judging from De Palma, he’s always taken an impish pleasure in undermining his illustrious predecessors’ talent—consider the way his face lights up when he remembers realizing that he was a far better director than his mentor, Wilford Leach, or chewing out Orson Welles for his incompetence on the set of 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit. In this way, we come to the central paradox of De Palma, De Palma, and Baumbach: a director is often at his most subversive when, superficially, he’s at his most derivative. Even in their most dutifully Hitchcockian moments, De Palma’s films convey a sense of rebellion and creative destruction directed at his society’s tastes and fashions; indeed, De Palma is at its funniest when Baumbach contrasts his subject’s films with mainstream American crap—when he pairs Carrie with its dreadful remakes, or when he juxtaposes Raising Cain and Harry and the Hendersons. De Palma’s trademark blood and gore aren’t any less bizarre than the contents of the films that gross hundreds of millions; the difference is that De Palma approaches his projects with inventiveness and technical savvy, while most directors aspire to a visual blandness that’s calculated to alienate as few patrons as possible, even if it wows no one. To “choose” to imitate Hitchcock at a time when films aspire to the formal laziness that Hitchcock deplored is a creative act, a rebellious act, even a political act. Seen this way, De Palma itself isn’t a great creative achievement for Baumbach, but it is a remarkably thorough illustration of everything that De Palma’s—and thus Baumbach’s—creative methods are capable of achieving. Much as De Palma is at his most original and his most political when he “does” Hitchcock, Baumbach is at his proudest, his most creative, and his most ambitious when he points the camera at his subject and listens.

But although De Palma celebrates a great director’s talent for pastiche, it also spells out the dangers of pastiche—reckless, blind imitation—especially potent lessons for anyone familiar with Baumbach’s films. It is no coincidence that the directors most renowned for their knowledge and love of movies almost invariably face charges of misogyny (Quentin Tarantino being perhaps the prime example). One can see why without much difficulty: cinephilia is a self-perpetuating process, with each generation of young moviegoers growing up to direct their own work and inspire the next generation. The unfortunate side effect is that Hollywood’s vices—its racism, sexism, and anti-intellectualism—get passed down along with its virtues. And in this respect, Baumbach is very different from his predecessor, though he’s responding to near-identical influences. De Palma, whose female characters have been snuffed out with big, phallic weapons of every kind, from drills to clubs to—above all—knives, dismisses accusations of sexism as “the current fashion,” and, rather dubiously for an auteur (though appropriately for a practitioner of homage), defends his work on the grounds that it’s the nature of noir for women to be murdered. To argue this is tantamount to defining cinephilia as a boys’ club, as if young directors had no choice but to echo their predecessors’ childish fantasies of femininity. Baumbach is no stranger to the “boys club” view of film and literature—The Squid and the Whale is one of the most insightful films ever made about how this mindset perpetuates itself—but in the last half-decade he’s made a concerted effort to move away from its clichés, populating his films with one complex female protagonist after another.

Ultimately, Baumbach’s most valuable point is also his most readily apparent: De Palma is a natural comedian. Watching him chuckle at his own well-timed stories, one realizes that De Palma films are, at their simplest level, comedies (watch Carrie if you don’t believe me) and that the difference between De Palma’s artistry and Baumbach’s is essentially a difference between two kinds of humor. As he plunders Hitchcock, De Palma assumes a stony deadpan, one which accumulates in heft throughout his filmography. Baumbach’s relationship with his own cinematic influences is livelier and more self-effacing; he winks at the audience, reminding us of his thefts without apologizing for them. Both of these forms of irony run the risk of lapsing into straight imitation, but in the end, Baumbach is more capable of (and more interested in) leaving space for his characters, rather than treating them as puppets. In part, this difference between Baumbach and De Palma is explained by divergent choices in genre and influence–easily reduced, say, to Rohmer vs. Hitchcock–but it’s also, I think, a manifestation of Baumbach’s feminism, and his reluctance to echo bigotry without question.

After forty-odd minutes of De Palma, we’re told a revealing and yet utterly unhelpful fact: as a teenager, De Palma used to stalk his father for hours at a time, and eventually caught him cheating on his mother. We’re left to guess, first of all, how De Palma took the news—if he was punished, if he ever spoke to his father again, etc. Even more pointedly, I think, we’re invited to wonder if this incident might not have been a kind of creation myth for the young artist—if it didn’t launch his interest in sex, spying, stalking, and some of the other motifs he’s explored with such relish for the last fifty years. These are plausible hypotheses, but in the end they’re irrelevant. Indeed, Baumbach doesn’t begin his documentary with an episode from his subject’s family history; he begins with clips from Vertigo, the single greatest film by (at least for De Palma) the single greatest director. The message is clear enough: De Palma defines himself according to his relationships with movies, not with people. Whether Baumbach ultimately sees such a gesture as liberating or suffocating, it’s not a bad example—and, despite De Palma’s best efforts, the example—of how personal pastiche can be.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.