Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Children of George and Steven, Part II - The League of Ordinary Filmmakers

Over the years, the bashing of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg has become something of a national pastime amongst many of our nation’s critics, and it’s something that will continue until the last critic who can remember a cinema before JAWS breathes their last. 100 years from now, or maybe even just 50 years from now, there won’t really be a heck of a lot of dissenters to swim against the mainstream that these guys were movie gods of the highest order. Not that HOOK will get reappraised as a film classic (although maybe the STAR WARS prequels, all of which I enjoyed, might get a second look), but maybe not all of the history books will state, “Not everyone was a fan”. History is written by the winners, as the saying goes, and let’s face it, George and Steven have fought their battles (sometimes even among their own fans), but they will always come out victorious in the end.

One manner of this victory is in the legacy they leave us, in this case the films made by the currently under-40 filmmakers who grew up with Lucas and Spielberg. These guys spawned more filmmakers than the Velvet Underground did bands; there are extremely few under-40 directors who didn’t see STAR WARS, RAIDERS or E.T. as a child and experience some kind of epiphany. Countless filmmakers or wannabe filmmakers have spoken about how these films (and, to be fair, many other films) changed their lives and put them on the path they are today. Even those who have gone onto another path of filmmaking, the Joe Swanbergs and Andrew Bujalskis, are working their ways out of the shadows of these cinematic father figures. It was a similar thing for Lucas and Spielberg, who grew up revering Hitchcock, Disney and Kurosawa, and for their contemporaries (Cameron, Scorsese, Coppola, Romero, Dante, Landis, Zemekis, De Palma, Woo, Carpenter) who likewise grew up the children of Fellini, Bergman, Minnelli, Ford, Hawkes, Harryhausen, Kubrick, Corman, Universal horror, Famous Monsters and countless others to create works that would also prove highly influential. Every filmmaker has their influences and you can often trace a director’s themes and style to that filmmaker they revere the most. Thing is, we now have a generation of filmmaker feeding off of another generation of filmmakers who wanted to make movies just like the movies their idols did. We’re getting third or fourth generations of stories and themes that have been around the bend a few more times than most of us care to count and for those of us who see a lot of movies, that’s not good. And what’s worse (to me, at least), tribute are being made to eras in filmmaking that weren’t all that great to begin with. As a reaction to the likes of HATCHET, I wrote a little piece at the AMC Monsterfest blog last summer about how a lot of 80s horror movies sucked and it was not that well received by the readership. I’m just waiting for the day 20 years from now when someone pays tribute to torture porn to stop watching movies altogether.

The under-40 directors of today have huge advantages that their idols never did: Tremendous leaps in technology that allow for digital filmmaking and editing; DVDs of thousands of great films with pristine transfers and supplemental features; more outlets for distribution and investors than ever before. And yet, movies aren’t better. Why is that? Are these filmmakers too lazy to find their own style or simply not good enough to develop it? Certainly there are some tremendously talented directors out there and some legitimately great films, but with so many opportunities afforded them, why are there more Shawn Levy and Brett Ratner-types than not? Hollywood certainly isn’t a place that fosters artistic growth, but even among the indie sector you’ve got directors who started out looking like they would make something of themselves but have either given up, sold out or have lost their spark. Robert Rodruiguez pretty much showed us all he had with EL MARIACHI and has more-or-less been making the same film ever since. Kevin Smith seemed to have a singular voice about him; his 90s work showed intelligence and an creative progression, from the crude but sharply-observed CLERKS to the slicker but smarter (and more heartfelt) DOGMA and CHASING AMY. His work this decade, however, has been extremely lazy and running on fumes, as though he has nothing left to say about much of anything. Jason Reitman went from the wicked satire of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING to the mush that was JUNO while M. Night Shalmyan proved he had a cinematic storyteller’s gift with THE SIXTH SENSE and the underrated UNBREAKABLE but has been coasting on fumes ever since, from the uninspired SIGNS to the utterly ridiculous LADY IN THE WATER, where he cast himself as the savior of mankind. But the most tragic of all (as far as I’m concerned) has been John Singleton. BOYZ N THE HOOD was like a much-needed punch in the gut back in ’91, and while its melodramatic elements have aged it a bit, it’s still a solid piece of filmmaking. His 90s follow-ups weren't in the same league, but at least they stayed on the same course of social outrage as BOYZ; with the exception of 2001's BABY BOY he’s been more of a studio director for hire this decade, albeit a talented one (I have to admit that I was most entertained by FOUR BROTHERS). He gets points for having produced Craig Brewer’s HUSTLE & FLOW and BLACK SNAKE MOAN, but just knowing that he’s directing the movie version of THE A-TEAM (a show that even I didn’t think much of as a lad) tells me he’s more interested in the deal than anything else. I’m sure he disagrees, but these things speak for themselves.

However, bright spots abound. I mentioned Swanberg and Bujalski and the possibilities there leave one with hope, though I think it’s still a little too soon, although the fact that the whole scene that they’re part of (I’m not going to say the name… don’t ask me to say it… OK, OK, it’s called “Mumblecore”, are you fucking happy now?) is a minimalist, character-based Cassavetes/Dogma one embraced by young filmmakers. Films the likes of FOUR EYED MONSTERS and THE PUFFY CHAIR (which I wasn’t especially impressed with, though others were) wear their indie badge with pride, but they’re refreshing mainly because of what they’re not – studio product - unless they’re really awful, and let me tell you, a bad, pretentious indie movie is as depressing as any Ice Cube family comedy can be. But the two filmmakers who I believe are going to prove to be the best of our generation are both, oddly enough, named Anderson : Wes and Paul Thomas. They both make unique and distinctive films and both have styles that are very much their own. P.T. Anderson’s early works certainly owe a debt to the likes of Altman and Scorsese, but his last two features, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD have been very much his own original creations and are unquestionably masterpieces, with BLOOD taking my vote as the best film of the decade thus far. Both tales of obsessed men who finally explode after years of repressed emotions - one by love and one by hatred - P.T. Anderson is exploring some unique psychological territory that very few American filmmakers (especially those his age) are into and it's important that we don't get in the way of whatever direction he's headed in. Though THERE WILL BE BLOOD seems to owe a bit of a cinematic tip of the hat to Kubrick (I get this weird 2001 vibe every time I watch it) it truly is its own work and a stellar one at that, putting P.T. Anderson on a cinematic trail that one hopes will continue to be as exciting to view as it's been thus far.

As for Wes Anderson I see him as something of a fantasist, a Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam sort who happens to make comedies about dysfunctional men, usually in relation to family, and again, this is territory that he seems to have the market cornered on. Folks have come to be turned off by the whimsical elements to his work, but that's what I think is so wonderful about them, that there is a very positive undertone to almost every film he does. His films all see the world as a place where redemption is possible for even the most self-destructive of us, and the films never lean towards being too "cute" or phony. I also love that he's very possessive of his style; like Burton, his attitude seems to be, "There are my films, take them or leave them", and no matter what flaws you seem to think you find the first time you see them, by your inevitable second viewing they'll be gone. And like P.T., Wes also understands the power and importance of music in his films, which often contain some of the best soundtracks around. He's an impossible filmmaker to dismiss and I have no doubt he still has a few more classics in him.

But do the two Anderson's make up for all the Brett Ratner's of the cinematic world? No, not really, but I'm still incredibly happy to have them here in this day and age. It certainly possible that interesting new directors may come up in the next few years to rival their talents, and if they do I certainly look forward to their arrival. But in the here and now I don't exactly take a lot of pride in the filmmakers of my generation, especially if they see their childhood heroes as their co-directors. What's also troublesome (though far less so) are the cheerleaders, the fans and the press of my generation who have put them on pedestals and knocked them down with equal aplomb. They're something new for a different age of moviegoer and maybe not a positive thing. We'll get into that in Part III.

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