Thursday, November 3, 2016

Old timers

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

If you read enough about film, especially the kind of writing that’s driven by a concept of the director as author, you tend to come across a fair bit of divided commentary on the value of a particular filmmaker’s later work. Both pro and con camps frequently share some common observations: as a director ages, the pace gets slower; the narrative less tightly controlled; echoes of earlier works abound; the camera and editing technique are often simpler, less ambitious. The differences come in the value you choose to place on these developments. The pro argument: nearing the end of his career, all youthful impulsiveness expunged, the director strips things down to their essence, allowing his essential themes to emerge with greater clarity than ever. The con: he’s run out of juice and just can’t hack it any more.

Among the directors who’ve been debated in this light: Alfred Hitchcock (everything after Psycho), John Ford (everything after The Searchers), Billy Wilder (Fedora), Howard Hawks (everything after Rio Bravo). There are foreign examples too, but the poles of the argument don’t seem as divergent there.

More recently, aging directors simply seem to fade away, or at best to go and work for HBO. Norman Jewison, who’s 77 now and still going strong, almost stands alone. His new film The Statement is his first since The Hurricane in 1999. It’s not the most successful film by conventional measures, and plainly looks like the work of an old man. So can the case be made here for Jewison as an aging auteur?

Norman Jewison

By virtue of his fame and longevity in Hollywood, supplemented with having founded the Canadian Film Centre and maintaining a presence close to home, Jewison is now generally regarded as one of Canada’s greatest directors. His film In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar (although he didn’t win for directing), and he came close again with Moonstruck and A Soldier’s Story. His varied career also takes in musicals (Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar), violent science fiction (Rollerball), comedy (Best Friends, and his early work with the likes of Tony Curtis and Doris Day) and contemporary satire of various kinds (And Justice for All, Other People’s Money).

It’s a body of work almost as perplexing as it is eclectic, with little artistic personality beyond a consistent sense that Jewison means well. He was reportedly upset when The Hurricane failed to gain any Oscar nominations bar for Denzel Washington’s performance, but it was a hackneyed, almost insultingly simplistic effort, which looked sadly anachronistic next to that year’s Being John Malkovich, Three Kings and Fight Club. The film was lucky to get the respect it did.

But The Statement again arrived with Oscar-related ambitions. And again with no small dose of anachronism. It certainly has some characteristics of an aging auteur’s work. War criminal Michael Caine has spent forty years evading justice, hidden by the Catholic Church. In some ways he’s been deadened by this life, but in others he remains defiant, revealing the same cold-bloodedness that made him a willing collaborator. Now he’s in danger of discovery. The film is essentially a chase thriller, but Caine easily runs out of breath when chased; he looks bigger than usual here, and rather doughy, exactly like a man who’s lived primarily in the shadows.

The Statement

The film has an inordinate amount of talking, particularly among the group that’s looking for Caine. There’s a sense of compulsive contemplation about it, which matches the plot’s claustrophobic qualities. On the other hand, it doesn’t convey any particular brooding qualities. It’s the work of a resigned man, apparently accepting events as the inevitability of time eventually running out. The film barely has any real suspense, and when the end finally comes, it’s surprisingly sudden and low-key. In the classic style of the aging auteur, Jewison visibly pares down the film.

But whereas Hawks and Wilder and others in parallel circumstances filled the resulting space with their own ruminations and shadings, Jewison flails around like a confused fisherman. He fills scenes with pointless exchanges and gimmicks, presumably meant to add colour but instead resembling the brainwaves of a village hall dramatist. He never finds a coherent angle on the Caine character, making it difficult to determine whether he’s perpetually cold-blooded or merely frightened or reactive (Jewison’s summary in a recent TV interview that the character “isn’t a very nice man” seems fairly reflective of his take on him).

The Statement’s various “aged” qualities make it way more interesting than The Hurricane, but they wind through the film, rather than providing it with artistic definition. In a way, Jewison’s too spry for his own artistic good. The film needed to be more fatigued; it needed to be more fully seized by the desperation of time running out.

Big Fish

Tim Burton’s latest film feels too like the product of an older man. Burton is known for a zesty visual panache crossed with a wistful affinity for outcasts and dreamers. He was a near-ideal director to revive the Batman franchise, although his indulging of Jack Nicholson in the first film showed his passivity with actors. Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood are probably his high-water mark. Most recently, Mars Attacks was a mere doodle, Sleepy Hollow little more than that (substantially redeemed, as are so many films, by Johnny Depp) and Planet of the Apes a comprehensive bore. With that last film, Burton threatened to become entirely ordinary, a mere calculating technician.

But Big Fish is a much more personal work – indeed, that’s almost its undoing. It’s an ambling narrative built around father-son reconciliation. Billy Crudup is the buttoned-down writer who has long been ashamed by his overbearing parent’s tall tales; Albert Finney is the dying patriarch and Ewan McGregor plays him in flashback as a younger man. Finney’s stories include giants and circuses and witches with eyes that see into the future and magic towns hidden in the woods. They’re tall tales, but not so absurd that they might not have some glimmer of truth to them, Crudup longs to get past all this, to understand the man behind the myths (and thereby himself), but of course, he gradually realizes Finney isn’t just a blowhard, that his storytelling might just be a more compelling life strategy than mere reality.

The movie meanders along, never provoking more than a passing smile from all its contrivances, often skirting boredom. Burton has been talking in interviews about the experience of being a first-time father (with Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays the witch here) and how that’s prompted him to reflect on his own paternal relationship. Maybe this then is his first grown-up movie, and we all know about Hollywood’s screwed-up, sententious sense of what being grown up means. Still, it would be dishonest of me not to admit that I found the film’s final stretches remarkably moving, regardless of how far away you see it all coming.

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