Category Archives: Directing the Directors

Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Traffic

2000-traffic-05Logan Lucky, the comeback film of the formerly-but-not-really-retired Steven Soderbergh, is out this month, and the return to cinema of one of the great filmmakers of the past quarter-century is obviously something to celebrate. I’ll do so with a few reviews, the only way I know how. 

Nominated for two Best Director Oscars in one year, Steven Soderbergh won for Traffic, arguably his peak harmony of critical and commercial success and among the most piquant Best Director wins ever. Within reason, of course. It’s still an Issue film, so it’s in the Academy’s wheelhouse. (They’d never do the unthinkable and commit heresy by giving it to a genuine work of directorial singularity like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s, Edward Yang’s, or Bela Tarr’s films from the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s from the year before, Terrence Malick’s from the year before that, or David Lynch’s from the year after Traffic. You get the picture). But for a somewhat safer film, as well as a work where the “experimentalism” is programmatic and pampered enough to be immediately obvious to any viewer, Traffic is a volatile, agitated, uncovered nerve of a movie just waiting to be poked. Continue reading

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John Huston (also Un-Cannes-y Valley 1984): Under the Volcano

underthevolcano3It is immeasurably difficult, even impossible, not to crack the glossy lens of “keep it on the screen” in Under the Volcano, peering behind the frame to explore the harsh climate of personal disfigurement and torment in director John Huston’s life. The comparison isn’t unwarranted; it may even be begged for. Huston wanted the film, much as he actively pursued all of his late life projects (perhaps livid with his work-for-hire reputation). And the protagonist, an aging British diplomat in the perpetual downfall of alcoholism wasting away his time in the oppressive Mexican heat, bears an unmistakable imaginative resemblance (if not a physical one) to Huston himself, deeply sick at the time of production and nearing his last bow after decades of severe alcoholism and smoking had withered away his features and left what might be considered a husk of a man in their wake. The comparison catalyzes a reservoir of brutally tormented emotions and hand-crafted, personalized filmmaking on Huston’s part, no doubt, but it also elides the fact that, in Under the Volcano, the primed, pared-down potency of the screen most assuredly speaks for itself. Continue reading

John Huston: Wise Blood

470_film_originalJohn Huston’s career caught the literary bug, an inspiration that quickly, sometimes detrimentally, opened a Pandora’s box he couldn’t close. I mean, the dude erected his career in one fell, volcanic swoop with his debut feature, The Maltese Falcon, an adaptation of a famously convoluted and uncinematic Dashiell Hammett novel. Not to be outdone by his debut, Huston, perhaps in a fit of near-death delirium, concluded his career directing his daughter in an adaptation of that most holy of unfilmable authors: James Joyce (admittedly, Huston went for the big gun of the small gun short stories with “The Dead” from Dubliners, but reaching for something like Ulysses would have been sheer Icarus-inspired lunacy). Ironically, Huston himself was often compared to Hemingway for his no-nonsense virility and the tensile strength of his dead-on filmmaking, putting him at a stark remove from the likes of the infamously spindly, present-tense, tonally fluxional Joyce who was perhaps Hemingway’s polar opposite. Continue reading

John Huston: The Night of the Iguana

nightoftheiguanaDeeply, unremittingly accepting John Huston’s blithely woozy, boozed-out vibe in full flourish, the strung-out, rampaging The Night of the Iguana is probably a little farcical in its over-heatedness. But then, this is Tennessee Williams. At least we’re in the presence of a full-throated, deviant, near-hallucinogenic dive into haughty, drunken melodrama, much more synonymous with the post-Faulkner Southern-modernist Williams spirit than most other Williams adaptations, usually quasi-heated chamber pieces vaguely tied to false-naturalism. In comparison, Iguana is unapologetic and viciously lacking in timidity, rejecting the half-hearted naturalistic ticks of most Williams adaptations for a merry expression of demented, licentious, sinful goodwill. Unlike, say, the good but overrated A Streetcar Named Desire, where the Method acting bug (as it often did) turned performance into a calculated private experiment rather than a vocally external art, The Night of the Iguana isn’t afraid to be to-the-rafters cinema. Baldly, even oppressively cinematic, it treats the brambles of melodrama as a wellspring of possibility to wrap itself in rather than as a shopworn, past-its-prime memory of Old Hollywood to skirt around. Continue reading

John Huston: The Misfits

sjff_01_img0326A little upstart four-part series of reviews on less-remembered John Huston films.

As with a few of John Huston’s works, The Misfits feels a little over-determined in its willingness to suffuse the screen with agony, but at least its particular agony is full-throated. Released in 1961, a twilight year for both the Western genre and the Old Hollywood edifice, The Misfits is a little on the nose in its embodiment of the death throes of The Way Things Were, assuming of course that the film actually believes things were ever like The Way Things Were to begin with. The casual misery rampant during the film’s production infests the screen with a fell acrimony, with the on-screen result bearing testament to the declining glory of the Old Hollywood as Huston displays no qualms about doing his part to slay that particular beast. Which is to say, it is a film about the crumbling Old Hollywood ivory tower that is, via its corrosive production details, itself an embodiment of the crumbling Old Hollywood ivory tower. Continue reading

De Palma: Femme Fatale

MCDFEFA EC010Another of Brian De Palma’s swirling, gliding art-house exploitation films with a tempestuous relationship with the female form, Femme Fatale is perhaps Brian De Palma’s most swaggering embracement and censure of the genre-cinema project. De Palma’s film derives oxygen from cinema history – Euro-thrillers and film noirs most of all – much as his protagonist Laurie (Rebecca Romijn) draws energy from the stereotypes of women in classic cinema: using them for air only to douse them in a ferocious breath of fire. Continue reading

De Palma: Snake Eyes

220px-snakeeyesposterA full-throated assemblage of directorly misconduct, Snake Eyes is a devious, delightful marriage of form and content that discovers visual subterfuge around every corner. Dancing in similar company with more overtly sense-refracting films from the same era – your Being John Malkovichs and every other 18-year-old film connoisseur’s favorite new discoveries, almost all of them released the year after Snake Eyes – but De Palma’s film is the lone perceptual study that also manifests its analysis primarily through camera movement, from long takes to De Palma’s trademark bifurcated screens. What a thought: a film about seeing things anew that actually demands we, you know, see.  Continue reading