In his moonlighting career as a director of steely, even mulish focus, the perpetually weathered, stern Tommy Lee Jones has taken the Clint Eastwood route of imbibing in the great American traditions, although he does not share Eastwood’s masculine commitment to the Sam Fuller get-in-and-get-out storytelling method. Jones imbibes so much, in fact, that he catches his nation’s favorite tradition, the Western, when the genre is looking the other way with its pants down. In his previous directorial work The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he pursued the sociospatial region of the modern American small-town – a space forever clinging to its past and stubbornly, cantankerously refusing to examine itself – as an avenue for comment on the history of the American imagination. Continue reading
John Sturges, mostly famous for his two later rugged process-driven films, The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, drew out a mostly forgotten niche of manly not-quite-action films. They weren’t really violent, but they had the soul of action entertainment in their braggadocio and mechanics-first brand of raspy storytelling. His two most famous films are given at least the repute of minor-classics, but he is not particularly associated with them. He was a man who worked with groups of talented actors, and they often dwarfed him in the final analysis, not because he was appreciably under-skilled, but because he always subsumed his skill to the mechanics of the narrative, and we as a society tend to focus on actors and narrative at the expense of directors. He didn’t have a truly unique style, so to speak, but he was an ultra-competent director, and arguably the ultra-competent director. And his competence never tipped over into out-right genius quite like it did in Bad Day at Black Rock. Continue reading
One of the Coen Brothers’ most popular works, and with good reason, No Country for Old Men opens up as a dark-hearted thriller with a suitably soul-churning slow-burn style and some stunningly subfuscous cinematography from long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, and concludes as a burning bullet into the American soul and a deliberate, deeply textured dissection of Western iconography and the myth of the American Dream. For all its thematic heft, it’s an astoundingly sensory motion picture, where theme and content merge with form, and style becomes substance; every image and sound, no matter how slow and cavernous, coalesce into an abominable whole that attains a sort of lurching, poisonous, unspeakably despairing propulsive forward movement. It’s an indefinably visceral motion picture, the kind that feels humanity’s worst sorts in its very bones, and it sits back and shakes its head with a sense of hopelessness. For everything crawling under its skin, it never feels obtuse or over-written, and looking back on the 2000s, few cinematic achievements find craftsmanship so pure and perfected. Continue reading
Update 2018: I know Coppola’s film is famous for its sound, but there’s an indescribably elegant moment in the middle of the film that not only encapsulates The Conversation but sums up the American New Wave. When Hackman’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder after a drawn-out waiting game, a bloody hand lashes out at the frame, the film graphically matches to Hackman’s hand rising in terror, and the rest of a scene which had so elegantly wound-up its suspense in perfect continuity style now unwinds itself into a pit of abjection, the continuity of the editing ripping to shreds as if the film is scratching at its own celluloid in itchy paranoia. Hackman returns into his hotel, his fears clarified, but he can not ensconce himself in the safe haven of continuity cinema anymore. The film practically undoing itself before our eyes, it’s an incredible visual, and an even more incredible visual metaphor for the US in the ’70s.
Francis Ford Coppola arguably had a more sterling streak than any American director, or any director bar nation, throughout the 1970s. Partially, this is because he brought only four films to screen during that decade, but this argument elides the quality of those films. 1972 brought the most famous, the romantic, classicist The Godfather which moved with rhapsodic, soulful flourishes, and its 1974 sequel only went further by adding on narrative heft to the point where it functioned less as a film and more as American opera of capitalism and criminality.
Not content to release one of the grandest statements of all time on the American condition without also almost killing himself in the process, Coppola then had to set out to do exactly that on a four year trek that nearly claimed his sanity and the lives of many crew members. The production of Apocalypse Now famously became the story of the film, replicating the jungle-fueled haze of the narrative as Coppola and company became lost in disease, destruction, and their desire to put to rest the ultimate American story of the ’70s and to create and perfect the very of idea of opulently grimy filmmaking in the process. The voodoo of location worked its magic on them a bit too well, but the location was not the jungles of the Phillipines; it was the jungles of the mind. That mind was one of the most committed, perfectionist directors of the ’70s, a mind that almost got the better of him but one which took America to task in a way few other New Wave directors even attempted.
Having finished the extended yearly New Wave series that somehow held me hostage until well into the mid ’90s, I’ve decided to go back to a couple of reviews I had milling about but didn’t make it into the yearly bit. Both are related formally in that they star Gene Hackman and more existentially in that they illuminate important realities about the cynical ’70s that frighten like few films we can think of, and which may be more relevant today.
Viewing The French Connection in 2015 is a tall order, for the time period it exists in and its rampant amoral cynicism toward roguish individualist heroes seems increasingly ungainly today (even as it still pervades and even anchors our individual-smitten culture). The 21st century likes its cynicism to be of the slightly-masqueraded-by-humanism variety, and not the primal and primitively muddy variety exhibited by the early ’70s. William Friedkin’s The French Connection wholly defines this milieu, and increasingly stumbles into problems with its racist hero and its cautious way of staring him down without necessarily coming to terms with him. In today’s concerned world, The French Connection increasingly seems like a naively cynical product out of time with a none-too-well-guised fascist streak, a movie unwilling to address its problems and indebted to a form of cynicism perpetually stuck in a state of arrested development.
Many have gone out to bat for Foxcatcher’s particularly dour format of carefully positioned gloominess, and they are right to focus on the film’s meticulous craft. It’s a stolid, compartmentalized film, assured and close to perfectionist in its specific, highly detailed character, its rigid delineation of human frailty, and its formal precision backing up an intentionally cold-and-clinical dissection of American inequality. Grotesque millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) fancies himself an American hero and plays with Olympic wrestler Mark Scultz (Channing Tatum) from beginning to end, but director Bennett Miller would not have you think of it as play. Through his eyes, the film is as detached and despondent as humanly possible, perhaps fitting for the films’ themes of mechanical people sleepwalking their way through life with bored non-momentum. Yet style and story clash and never occupy the same film, smothering clinical precision with the film’s weepy, drippy “important story” narrative and sacrificing the sweat and spit of genuine emotion for a staid waxworks show. Foxcatcher is a perfectionist film, but it gives perfectionism a bad name. Continue reading
Or: a couple of short reviews I had penned and linked together in one of my patented “just made up on the spot” combinations, namely that they are both products of 2005, they are both depressingly cynical and nihilistic modern reflections of the long history of their respective genres, and they, respectively, fit into the genres I’ve covered in the past couple months: the western and film noir. Again, don’t think too much about why I posted these films together. Just enjoy the ride.
The significant resurgence of the Western genre since about 2005 (for reasons I’m not entirely sure of) is one of the few truly surprisingly revelations from the cinematic world to be found this past decade. It’s all the more notable particularly because the Westerns themselves have taken so many different forms, from pure, effervescent myth-making, to black-hearted heaving gasps of grimy moral decay, to slowly gliding, almost Impressionist location tapestries where characters serve merely as extensions of the environment, to plain ol’ rootin-tootin shoot em’ up character studies.
One of the first, and among the absolute best, in this trend was John Hillcoat’s rusty nail mauling of the gaping, open wound flesh wound of Australian history, The Proposition. It wouldn’t emerge the best Western over the past ten years (my vote would probably go to the sensuous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but it’s within earshot of the title. Considering the film’s swaggering aimlessness and rough-around-the-edges decay, it may even graze that ear. Continue reading