Monday, August 10, 2015

Artistic decisions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)

With hindsight, of course, we can identify all the major wrong moves of cinema history. Peter Bogdanovich has been profiled a lot lately, on account of making a modest comeback with The Cat’s Meow. It once seemed impossible a comeback would ever be necessary. In 1973, after The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon, he ought to have been unstoppable. Three years, three bad films, and much obnoxious behaviour later, it was all but over. How much has he wondered since then about the road not taken?

Michael Ritchie is a less dramatic and perhaps more interesting example of how the course of a career can change. In 1978, James Monaco’s book American Film Now profiled him (along with Cassavetes, Altman, Coppola and Mazursky) as one of five leading contemporary directors. The Candidate, Downhill Racer and Smile had established him, but Monaco noted with mild concern that Ritchie’s most recent film, Semi-Tough, was blander and less stimulating. After that, Ritchie made a few films in which you could vaguely see thwarted ambition (The Island, Diggstown) and a whole bunch of pandering, silly work (The Golden Child, Cops and Robbersons, A Simple Wish). The decline appears inexplicable, and almost deliberate. To my knowledge, Ritchie never expressed regret over it.

Career Lows

On the other hand, it’s long forgotten how Steven Spielberg stumbled early on with 1941 and then recovered his footing within a couple of years with Raiders of the Lost Ark. For that matter, just about all the big directors have a flop in there somewhere, but they get over it.

I remember someone saying that it’s incredibly hard and soul-destroying to make any movie, even a bad one, and then just a relatively little bit harder to make a good one. I’ve often wondered what it must feel like to invest yourself into a film for a year or more, to traverse all the thousands of decisions that go into it, and then to have it rendered instantly dead by a few bad reviews. I bet you didn’t know that Johnny Depp directed a movie some years ago. Called The Brave One, it even had Marlon Brando in a starring role. The film premiered at the Cannes festival in 1998, but got a horrible reception and has barely been released anywhere. But if those initial viewers had reacted differently, then maybe Depp would have gone on to direct again; maybe he’d be known now as much for directing as for acting.

Of course, this kind of speculation applies as much in any walk of life – we can all pinpoint key moments of fate or choice where, with retrospect, the direction of our lives shifted. It’s just that cinema, even more than the other arts, seems to have a remarkable number of under-achieving careers festooned across its history. To me this reflects its collaborative nature, the logistical challenges in realizing a vision – compared with say writing novels, it’s much more likely that one might simply run out of energy, or suffer plain bad luck.

Behind the Sun

Which brings us to Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending. Although it seems by now as if Allen has been in decline for as long as anyone can remember, it’s only this film and his last, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, that truly scrape the bottom of the barrel. Through his glory days in the late 70s and 80s, Allen communicated his dissatisfaction with mere comedy, letting it be known that his ambitions lay in greater things. He seems to have given that up now, but the flair’s all gone. It’s not just the movies – his recent humour pieces in The New Yorker struck me as unreadable, and his brief return to stand-up at the Oscars wasn’t much of anything.

One can stab at explanations – for example, he’s not working with the same creative team that sustained him for years. But you only need to look at Woody himself. He’s not even in touch with his own film. He gesticulates and stammers and does his shtick, but it’s sealed off in a vacuum. Hollywood Ending has the gimmick of Woody playing a director who goes suddenly blind, so he can’t look anyone in the eye. It’s appropriate in more ways than one.

That’s already enough on that. Walter Salles directed Central Station a few years ago – a Brazilian film about the relationship between an old woman and a little boy. The film was sensitive and well-handled, although somewhat soft-centered for all its grit (recent South American smashes Amores Perros and Y tu Mama Tambien have made this even clearer with hindsight). After that, I kept reading how Salles was going to make an English-language project, though nothing’s come of it yet.

His latest film Behind the Sun looks largely like marking time, although it also has a pandering quality about it that makes you wonder if it wasn’t conceived as a calling card for the studios. Two poor farming families carry out a deadly blood feud that gradually depletes their ranks. An eldest son is granted a month’s truce until the other family comes to kill him. He runs away and falls in love with a traveling circus performer, but then feels he must return. The film is baked in acrid yellow dust and glistening skin – it’s undoubtedly handsome.

Pull the plug?

But nothing in it really matters. The film attends to its grand mythic scheme at the cost of much immediate electricity. It has a distinctly flat quality, and lacks much of a pay-off. I’m not saying it’s a failure exactly – I think it’s possible that Salles achieved almost exactly what he was going for. Behind the Sun is substantially better than Hollywood Ending – it’s immaculately professional. But maybe, of the two, its failure leaves you the more somber. At least one can rationalize Allen’s film as coming at the tail-end of a career, after dozens of better memories gone before. Even if Hollywood pulled the plug on him now (and they haven’t – he has a new project shooting currently), we could be confident we’d had the best already.

And yet – it’s not that long since Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown – not Allen’s best, but not disastrously far-off either. If Robert Altman can make Gosford Park at 76 and Manoel de Oliveira can make movies at 94, should we give up on Allen yet? True, he feels further gone than Altman ever did, but cinema is full of surprises.

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