Gawker will be covering this year’s New York Film Festival with dispatches in the form of quick reviews and interviews throughout the festival’s October 11 conclusion. Our first batch, focused on three documentary tributes—De Palma, Everything Is Copy, and No Home Movie—is below.
Filmmaker Brian De Palma is an engrossingly frank talker whose terrifically entertaining movies sometimes take years to accrue the fandom they deserve (Scarface’s cultural impact didn’t peak until about a decade after its release, and the once-reviled Body Double is now remembered fondly by many cinephiles). So a retrospective documentary honoring his work seems overdue, but Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma is merely serviceable. Filmed over the course of five days in Paltrow’s living room, the film chronicles De Palma’s movies in order with copious clips over his commentary. That it holds your attention for its entire 107 minutes is testament to the director’s extensive filmography and its magnitude of impeccably composed thrills.
Though De Palma occasionally goes deep—at one point, he explains that the basis of Keith Gordon’s Dressed to Kill character came from his teenage spying on his father when he was cheating on De Palma’s mother—he’s not particularly challenged here and is able to, for example, dismiss criticism of his movies’ perceived misogyny with just a few words. He isn’t distastefully arrogant, nor does he flinch when discussing his numerous flops, but I didn’t get the sense that Baumbach and Paltrow were able to extract much more from him than your average interviewer (he was similarly open with me, seemingly willing to take on whatever question I’d throw at him, when I spoke to him by phone a few years ago). Because of its softball-interview nature (aside from a few seconds of him walking down the street, we only see De Palma sitting in Paltrow’s living room), De Palma feels like one of those feature-length docs that ends up stuck on a DVD as a bonus—but a good one.
Everything Is Copy is similarly affectionate toward its subject, but much larger in scope. The assessment of writer/director Nora Ephron’s life and career (and the faint the line between the two) features what feels like everyone notable that the woman ever met including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Mike Nichols, Lena Dunham, Rosie O’Donnell, Barbara Walters, David Remnick, and her second husband, Carl Bernstein. Like De Palma, Everything Is Copy is terrifically entertaining because of its subject’s terrifically entertaining body of work (as well as Ephron’s ability to give good interviews—various talk-show appearances are sprinkled throughout), but you get the feeling that it couldn’t have been done without a major inside connection. Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein wrote and directed this. He also appears in it.
I’m friends with Jacob, but when I realized in Copy’s first few minutes that he decided to put himself in it, I tensed up. “Why are you doing this?” I wondered. My fears about the potential vanity behind the decision were quickly assuaged and I soon had my answer. Copy is not just about the successful life of an extraordinarily witty woman; it’s a story about inheritance. Ephron’s mantra—“Everything is copy,” meaning anything that happens to you can be used in your writing—came from her screenwriter mother, Phoebe. Just as Ephron followed in the footsteps of her mother (and father, for that matter) into a writing career, so does her son Jacob follow his mother in becoming a writer-turned-director (he writes for the New York Times; Everything Is Copy is his first film).
It’s even deeper than that because Everything Is Copy’s agenda is not just to salute Ephron’s legacy, but to complete it. When Ephron died of acute myeloid leukemia in 2012, many of her friends were puzzled because they didn’t even know she was sick. The woman who made a career out of sharing seemingly everything (and a few enemies as a result) kept the illness that led up to her death private for six years (she was diagnosed in 2006). Why she did this is a question Bernstein and many of her friends openly grapple with in Copy—the most agreed-upon answer seems to be that Ephron was a control-freak and the illness that went on to kill her was completely out of her control.
In spending so much time discussing what Ephron went out of her way to make sure what went undiscussed when she was still alive, Copy makes her leukemia copy, and definitively. It honors Ephron with her own truth, regardless of how unsightly she found it. This seems only fair—as frequent collaborator Meg Ryan recalls, “Her allegiance to language was sometimes more than her allegiance to people’s feelings.”
As a retrospective, Everything Is Copy is pure joy, but as a formal exercise, it is utter genius. It will air on HBO in March. Watch it.
Chantal Akerman has also made a documentary about her mother, but No Home Movie has about as much in common with Everything Is Copy as Everything Is Copy has in common with De Palma. There aren’t interviews with Akerman’s mother’s friends, there isn’t long exposition about Akerman’s mother’s life (we practically stumble into a conversation about her surviving the Holocaust), but there are long, quiet shots of Akerman’s mother, Natalia, shuffling around her house in Brussels, sometimes humming to herself, often out of frame. We see several affectionate mother/daughter interactions that might be considered mundane if Akerman weren’t deliberately insisting otherwise with her film. There aren’t really any condescending cute-old-lady moments to be found here.
Like Akerman’s 1975 movie Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which chronicled its protagonist’s household chores in painstaking detail (and, not at all incidentally, was based in part on Natalia), No Home Movie challenges viewers’ conceptions of what makes worthwhile subject matter and which lives are worth capturing. This film is not a lively experience, but the more the movie meditates on this life, the more profound it becomes. It all leads up to a devastating final scene that contrasts achingly with the several static shots of Natalia puttering around her house. Akerman gives Natalia a moment of silence that has way more weight than your average tribute. It’s a familiar tactic made fresh by the particulars, a perfect tribute to a life that earned its glory quietly.