Home Movies

(USA - 1979)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Nancy Allen, Mary Davenport, Kirk Douglas, Vincent Gardenia, Keith Gordon, Gerrit Graham
Genre: Comedy
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Kim Ambler, Dana Edelman, Robert Harders, Stephen Lemay, Gloria Norris
Cinematography: James L. Carter
Composer: Pino Donaggio
Runtime: 90 minutes

Home Movies was the result of a master class Brian De Palma tought at Sarah Lawrence, his alma mater, in 1979. Professional actors were used, with the students acting the crew. With an amateur production department, De Palma wasn't going to try to make an exceptional technical movie like his next big budget features Dressed to Kill & Blowout. However, the film is both different for De Palma and interesting. It's a dysfunctional family comedy filmed with purposely shoddy production (which masks any of his students flaws) to get over the premise that we are really watching a home movie shot by the main character.

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Kirk Douglas plays The Maestro, a film instructor who starts his new class off by showing his recent failure to make Denis Byrd (Keith Gordon) the star of his own movie (Gordon, who loved the experience basically saying he got paid to get a great education in film, went on to become a director with credits including the very good Chocolate War and great Waking The Dead). Denis is one of those people who exist without anyone really knowing it. He doesn't appear to have any friends and his family doesn't give him the time of day. His father (the late Vincent Gardenia) is a quack doctor who cheats on his wife with his nurse (and probably his female patients). His mother (Mary Davenport) is too concerned about this, continually wavering on whether to divorce him or accept all the blame for not being able to satisfy him. The rest of the time, she's interested in what her good son that she's so proud of even though she doesn't understand him in the least is up to.

The "good son" James Byrd (Gerrit Graham) is an elitist who essentially lives and teaches naturalism and sexism at Now College. He'd rather plant his seed in the ground than in Nancy Allen, but since it's not possible for man to do that yet, he decides he'll marry her if he can convert her to his ways. Kristina (Allen) is an interesting choice for him to try to convert because she's a whore who drinks, smokes, and eats evil fast food. She totally worships him, so she attempts to give it all up for a life with him that's, all things considered, less of a life than she had before because a woman in his world essentially can't do anything.

Since Denis' life is an utter bore, Maestro gets him to film things that the average Joe would pay to see. Thus, Gordon decides to try to catch his father in the act to help his mom get the divorce. He also tries to steal Kristina away from his brother, who has always been the center of attention and one that won in the past, by convincing her that she's fine as she is.

The movie is absurd, but generally in a way that's humorous without going overboard. It's definitely somewhat farcical in its look at filmmaking by the inexperienced and this quirky family.

Graham does an excellent job of playing his wacky character that considers himself to be of the utmost knowledge, but can't convey his points in a way where anyone understands them (he explains with lines like "those who know know"). What makes it even funnier is that he's held in such high regard, yet his disciples consist of about 5 rejects that only pretend to understand him and buy into his philosophies. Still, this usually does not put an end to his tirades and allow them to avoid being verbally berated.

Allen has a tougher role than in her other films with De Palma. She tries to be a good girl, but she's constantly being tempted so she gets to have some interesting personality shifts. She's been in better films, but this is the one where she really stands out as someone that could really act.

The thing with the style is De Palma seems to waver between whether he wants us to believe it's all a home movie or not. At some points, we see Denis going under cover in a Soul Man kind of outfit to spy on his father, but most of the time it's obvious that Denis isn't filming. The thing is, based on the camera angles it's also not believable that anyone else could filming without being seen. To make things more bizarre, Maestro just appears out of nowhere, even popping up in a tree at one point while Gordon is failing to catch his dad in action. The only true breaks in the style are a few dreamy shots of Allen that make her look really beautiful, perhaps so the filmmakers in the film can be described as hacks that luck into a nice scene once every couple of days.

In terms of style, the animation opening is what steals the show. Not that the animations are technical in any way, but it sets up the whole movie by introducing all the characters and the caricatures of them are quite humorous.

It seems like De Palma was just having fun with this one. If you take this at face value than it's easy to rank on because it's got its share of implausibilities. If you don't focus on who is filming the movie then it's solid because the actions of the characters are believable (considering what the characters are like) and the progression is logical. As a whole, it's a mess, but an enjoyable one that was years ahead of its time. It's out there, but if you like movies with weird families such as Some Girls and didn't find the production of Blair Witch to be a detriment then this is another to check out. I'm glad this isn't De Palma's regular style because we would have been robbed of some great, highly stylish films, but as a one-time experiment it's successful enough and a cool kind of different. I think most people would like his far more conventional comedy Wise Guys better, but I found this story far more humorous and a lot less goofy.



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