Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Monday, August 16, 2004

Response to "Quentin..." Post

Dryden here--Apologies for absence, my dear dear wife managed somehow to foul up the internet access at the house where we're staying, so I've been incommunicado. In her defense, though I'm never the one to break anything, I'm also never the one to fix anything, connect anything, put anything together, or phone to have something set right. She does all this--and is therefore most probably a better person than I.

Now, as to the poster and his--I'm deducing the gender through a feat of Holmesian brilliance--comments:

First, Kubrick. Oy, this is a tough one. There's Dr. Strangelove, which may be the most important serious comedy ever made. (See "Riddikulus Redux" for how significant that is.) So that's definitely one for him in the "Genius" column. But in the "Not a Genius" column is, say, Lolita, of which he made a thorough hash--try watching the scene where Mason's Humbert Humbert and the porter try to fold out the bed in his hotel room and wonder idly what this has to do with Nabokov, or the plot, or anything. It's painful and wrong, and just because Kubrick found Sellars hilarious doesn't give him the right to highjack the film. Not to mention that it's a deeply, unfairly misogynist film. (Though what's a "fairly" misogynist film, you ask? Don't bait me into revealing my own bigotry, wise-ass.) So, that's a check minus, I'd say. On the other hand, we have 2001, and if anyone tells you it's dull, you can safely dismiss that person from your company and your life without a second thought--he/she was doing you no good, sucking all the intelligence out of the room like that. Brilliant, brilliant. But then there's Barry Lyndon. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful film. Pity Kubrick couldn't be bothered to, you know, direct any of his actors--Ryan O'Neal, in the part of a dashing, picaresque rogue, is robotic to the point of catatonia--the only reason he's not the worst thing in the film is that Kubrick apparently decided to cast a slightly posable wax effigy as Lady Lyndon. No--beautiful photography doesn't make a good film--if it did, everything Ridley Scott ever did would be good, and Hannibal wasn't. We could go on. Clockwork Orange--good. Full Metal Jacket--brilliant first half, feeble, sub-Oliver Stone second half. Plus a staggeringly vanilla Matthew Modine in the lead. Overall verdict? Not good. Eyes Wide Shut? I liked it--but man, was I alone at that meeting. The Shining? Well, Stephen King hates it, and hates it for a reason I have to agree with--the horror of the story is the degeneration of Jack Torrance. When he's already flashing that Nicholsonian edge-of-insanity grin from the get-go, what' s the point? Plus which, the portrait of Wendy--poor, poor Shelley Duvall--is, again, deeply misogynist. We should not be rooting for Jack to put an ax in her head just to shut up her whining and hyperventilating, m'kay? 'Kay. Kubrick, in short, is a deeply mixed bag. Too mixed, I think, to be listed among the greatest-of-greats. (I have the same problem with Robert Altman, by the way.) On the other hand, if someone twisted my arm and said "Do it! Put him in there!", I wouldn't struggle too long. However--

I'm baffled as to the anonymous poster's inclusion of Lucas on the list of great directors. Lucas has never produced a work of, shall we say, high artistry. Now, nobody can tell me that Star Wars isn't a great flick--derivative as hell, but aren't they all?--but could it have been cast better, shot better, edited better? Well, yes, yes, and yes. The only thing that could not have been done better is (are?) the special effects--Lucas's greatest strength and his Achilles heel. Impressive for its time and it holds up well, but apart from that, what else has Lucas done? Well, American Grafitti was pretty swell, and people keep telling me that THX-1138 was brilliant, though I can't sit through it myself--but then? We're not talking about what happened to Welles, who was denied the ability (read money) to shoot the films he could have--Welles didn't burn out, he was SHUT out, and proved with Touch of Evil that he could take awful source material and produce great work. The pictures since STAR WARS have been agony--Lucas has completely lost the ability to hold an audience. Influential? Sure, yes, absolutely--but more for what he did to the studios (sent them chasing after low-brow blockbusters) than for anything he did to directors.

Coppola? Well, after The Godfather I & II (both justly revered) and Apocalypse Now (the original, not the 'let's-tack-on-another-hour-because-you-can't-have-too-much-of-a-good-thing' version), what else is there? I think the last thing he directed was Jack with Robin Williams. And frankly, for those who want to call Lucas the greatest traitor to his audience in film history, I say this: Godfather III. No. Call it personal. Call it petty. But, in the words of talk-backers across the Internet: F--k Coppola. F--k him right in the ear.

Scorsese disappointed the living s--t out me with that Godawful Gangs of New York sack of month-old puke. But Mean Streets, Raging Bull, After Hours, Goodfellas? Yeah, OK, he's in--except that he's not dead, and there's still time for him to f--k up his legacy. (And if--retch, heave--Gangs is any indication, he just might. Marty, please just make the Dean Martin biopic we're all dying for--please, Marty, I'm begging you.)

Spielberg? BOY, what a mixed bag. All hyperbole aside, Schindler's List is a GOOD movie. Great script, GREAT cast (Liam Neeson got screwed out of an Oscar because Tom Hanks decided to die of AIDS that year--way to go, Tom, it's not like anyone else could have played that part!), and it's brilliantly shot because Spielberg stole from all the right people: Welles, Truffaut--and yes, Ford. (Ford, by the way, was the first director after Griffith to understand how really to use EXTERIORS to tell a story. When everyone else was still on back-lots, Ford recognized that the OUTDOORS was the only way to open up the possibilities of the screen. There would be no Lean, say, without Ford. Granted, he worked with the Duke quite a bit, but that doesn't render his films automatically dismissable. On the contrary, he's a large part of the reason Wayne is an icon--by using him better than anyone else, he raised the man to the level of a Cinematic Emblem. Plus which, there's always Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. No, no, Ford stays in. I am right. The End. Back to Spielberg.) But while recalling Schindler's List, let us not forget, however, Always. The Color Purple (better known as "Give me an Oscar! Give me an Oscar!"). A.I. (wonderful until the end, which completely cut the balls off of the entire story--Stephen, if you want to be like Stanley, learn to eschew sentiment.) Hook. Saving Private Ryan (read William Goldman's deconstruction of that overrated piece of dreck in The Big Picture). The thoroughly pedestrian Minority Report and Amistad. The Spielberg of Jaws and Close Encounters and Raiders--three films directed with nothing less than masterful wit and the infectious enjoyment of story-telling--might have made the cut. The man who shows no signs of going back to the strengths of his youth--and who has acquired no compensatory maturity--does not. I've enjoyed his more recent, smaller films, but it doesn't feel like he's going back to his roots, it feels like he's playing it safe. Like Lucas--possibly more than Lucas--Spileberg has been deeply influential in the Biz, and much more creatively imitated than George, but as an artist, I think Spielberg is going to stay on the B-list.

Other random thoughts: I confess to having no idea about Miyazaki--I defer to a superior knowledge, there. Gibson is not on a par with with Eastwood (loved Braveheart! loved it! but I don't think he's done quite enough to be considered anything other than lucky--let's remember that, shudder, Kevin Costner was mistaken for someone with talent once upon a time, thank God we all woke up out of that national nightmare)--Robert Redford is actually much better--much more an actor's director, The Horse Whisperer aside--the only film in which he acted while directing, and unsuprisingly the only really bad film he's made. (One might also blame the Oprah's Book Club script. Sweet mercy, when will that woman stop her evil influence over the reading habits of stupid housewives?) Robert Zemeckis--well, take what I said about what should happen to Coppola, and double it. He stopped being a crazy genius soon after Roger Rabbit, and sold his soul to the Devil of Academy-Pleasing Bathetic Tripe the second he started filming Forrest Gump. Now he's just a wretch who forces things like Contact and What Lies Beneath on us, when not trying to win Hanks his 3rd Best Actor trophy for losing a whole lot of weight for a part. Eastwood--sigh--Eastwood voluntarily directed The Bridges of Madison County. There's just no excuse for that. Mystic River makes up for a lot, though, and Unforgiven, of course. Michael Mann may--may--be the best compositional director ever. His films are just so visually perfect that it's scary. His serious rival (wouldn't fight too much with someone who called him 'his equal') is Ridley Scott. Again, all these guys are alive, and thus able still to improve or decay. Their danger zones: I think Ridley is a bit too much of a talent-for-hire--I think genius requires a bit of an 'auteur' sense of completeness in terms of script, cast, etc. On the other hand, Mann's Ali was pretty weak--an instance of letting the visuals overwhelm the story--from starting the movie after his conversion to Islam to ending it long before the man had to quit because of Parkinson's, one never really got a sense of what made this man tick, and talk about a wasted opportunity! But, that said, go see Collateral. Don't ask, don't argue. Go. Now. Stop reading this. I'm serious.

OK, if you're still here, you obviously have no respect for me. It's reciprocal, MF--I'm out.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sputter, sputter. Here I am engaging in what I thought might be some coffee talk, but indeed realize that this is instead a tavern. How else to interpret the gauntlet thrown down at my feet?

Pardon the brevity of my previous comment. Writing a quality three-page film history overview is not the easiest thing to do at work. In the spirit of controversy, I just threw out my thoughts without my justifications. Since JD took the bait, I will now try to organize my rationales and attempt to present them with my limited English composition skills.

(Please note that since I am not responsible for this Blog, I feel no compunction to entertain the readers with provoking declarations.)

First, let me explain that I am rating these auteurs as filmmakers, and not merely on their directorial talents. Simply put, my criterion was who has made original, groundbreaking movies of such quality that they will be remembered twenty, thirty, and fifty years from now. And not just film school classes.

A List – A consistent pattern of making ground breaking films
A- List – Hit or miss, but still with at least 3 ground breaking films
A--/B++ List – Had at least 2 films that will hold up to the fifty years test

George Lucas
Could Star Wars have been better directed? Undoubtedly, but as a film, it provided a transcendent experience to an entire generation. Can you doubt Lucas’ abilities when he created the most passionate group of fans in all of cinema history? I was just talking with someone who told me he saw episode IV seven times in the first five days of release back in 1977. The Star Wars universe entered our daily conversations as kids for almost a decade. That’s impact. Maybe Lucas’ genius was/is in igniting our imaginations, rather than writing sparkling dialogue.

Lucas’ genius for connecting with his audiences was also evident in his collaboration with Spielberg in the Indiana Jones trilogy (quadrilogy?). Even though Spielberg got the director’s credit and Lucas got the producer’s credit, if I’m not mistaken, you’ll see both of them in the desert, working over the storyboards in the “making of” snippets.

Stanley Kubrick
Let me ask you, JD, do you hold your literary gods to the same scrutiny as your cinema gods? (Wasn’t that the juiciest piece of bait ever?) So what if Kubrick wasn’t perfect? Multiple films of his will stand the test of time as part of the list of the greatest films ever made. Do you think that all 146 films that John Ford directed can hold up to scrutiny? Wee Willie Winkie, anyone? (That said, after a review of his filmography, I’ll include Ford since he made enough quality non-Western films for me to forgive him for the vastly over-rated The Searchers.)
Not that IMDB’s ongoing poll should be considered the be all/end all, but did you know that Paths of Glory is #40 on IMDB’s top 250 list? I’ll have to borrow a copy from said dvd box collection.

Francis Ford Coppola
Maybe I just have a soft spot for Peggy Sue Got Married (did that blow whatever cred I might have scrounged up?) as an enjoyable flick. Anyways, beyond GF:I, GF:II, and ApocNow (just these three would qualify him for the A- List), Coppola has other credits of which to be proud. Produced/Exec-produced THX-1138, American Graffiti, Kagemusha, and Koyaanisqatsi/Powwaqatsi. Rightly criticize him for subbing his daughter in at the last minute for an injured Winona, but he has also shepherded Sofia’s promising filmmaking career as producer of The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. And finally, he co-wrote the screenplay for Patton.

Steven Spielberg
Again, I’ll admit a soft spot for AI and Saving Private Ryan. This man definitely meets both the impact and 3 films criteria for the A- List. Nuff said.

Robert Zemeckis
As I’ve previously divulged to JD, Contact has moved into my personal Top 10 list. So what if the alien was her father!!! That movie has a lot more soul than 99.99% of Hollywood releases. In addition, Ellie Arroway is one of the most fully developed female characters of the past twenty years.
Even my wife, who is about as harsh a critic of non-Reese Witherspoon movies as there is, said that Castaway is a movie that she could watch every year. And yes, Hanks absof__kinglutely should have won his third Oscar for that performance. It’s a much better performance than his Philadelphia turn. If he couldn’t win his third for Castaway, then he’ll probably have to wait twenty years like Jack.
And who can doubt Zemeckis’ contribution of nurturing Peter Jackson, especially in teaching Jackson to seamlessly use special effects. Can you imagine how LotR would have turned out if Jackson had not worked with Zemeckis on The Frighteners and Jackson’s only filmmaking experience was Heavenly Creatures? Yikes!

Robert Redford versus Mel Gibson
Quiz Show and Ordinary People versus Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ
I’ll agree that Redford deserves entry into the actor/filmmaker category. Still, he was “merely” the director of Ordinary People so Quiz Show is really his only complete standout filmmaking experience. Add to that the fact that Quiz Show came out ten years ago. Ordinary People 24 years ago! Gibson meanwhile will produce a film called Warrior that sounds to be similar in tone to Braveheart. It’s focused on the story of warrior woman Boudica, posthumously crowned first queen of the empire after leading Britain against the Romans in 61 A.D..
Side note: Mad Max: Fury Road comes out next year!
Redford’s newest project is Aloft, seemingly a collaboration with Terrence Malick. Promising, but not too thrilling of a concept. Tracking the flight patterns of Peregrine falcons?

There, two pages will have to do for now. JD, you can respond in the comments if you wish. There’s no need to muck up the broad quality of your blog with continued film commentary.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

Hmmm. Those who know me may be surprised by what follows--I'm actually willing to concede one or two significant points. First, upon reflection (and PATHS OF GLORY helped tip the balance), I admit that yes, Kubrick belongs in the top pantheon--that he is, in fact, a "genius." Mainly because one cannot deny that, succeed or fail, he views his work as art, and treats it as such--thus generating films that, while they may not always achieve greatness, are unquestionably more exciting and intellectually engaging than the successful films of others. So, concession made.

Lucas--no, I'm sorry, I can't. By your logic, J.K. Rowling is the greatest living author because HARRY POTTER created a phenomenon that changed the landscape of publishing and general readership. Not even she would make such a claim. No--Lucas captured lightning in a bottle with STAR WARS, but it's looking more and more like luck--having cool ideas does not make you a genius--EXECUTING those ideas brilliantly needs to be taken into consideration. And we'd be ignoring the fact that Lawrence Kasdan actually wrote the scripts for EMPIRE and JEDI (the latter a seriously inferior piece of work, as all fan-boys know) and RAIDERS (the only decent movie of the Jones trilogy), and Irving Kershner directed the former two. Lucas simply isn't an artist--he's a guy with great ideas that he very quickly loses control of. As I say--Influential, yes. Hell yes. Important? Undoubtedly. Occasionally inspired? Quite brilliantly, at times. Really, genuinely talented? No. And so, not a genius. Doesn't really belong on the list, actually--but we might compromise by admitting him onto a parallel list of "Most Influential."

Zemeckis sucks. I'm sorry to you and your wife, and you can go ahead and love the movies--really, I realize the folly and the, frankly, meanness of telling someone not to love something innocuous. But can you really claim that No-One else could have shot "Castaway" equally well? What was distinctive about it--artistically, I mean? What made it a work of art rather than, at best, a story well told? (And I have serious problems there--let me get this straight--a guy has a picture of his fiancee on his island, and, rather than talking to her--keeping open that emotional lifeline that keeps him sane--he talks to a volleyball? Oh, please.) As for "Contact"...well, again, like the movie if you want, but anybody could hhave shot it. And this is my point--Zemeckis is just a shooter. Now, there's no shame in being competent--indeed, it's seriously damn hard to be a competent director. But competence isn't genius. You don't see a Zemeckis film and react BECAUSE of the fact that Zemeckis directed it. You react because of the script, or the actors--actors who, even with another director, would give good performances. (And Hanks didn't get robbed of the Oscar. He was fine, but kick the living hell out of anyone and you're going to fell SOME pity. Unless it's Ethan Hawke, then you'll just cheer. It was a weak crop of nominees, overall, and personally I'd have given it to Ed Harris for POLLOCK.) And helping Jackson along is nice of him, sure, but it doesn't really add artistic luster to his own star. (Does help him become more 'influential,' though.)

Spielberg--another guy who's willing to be a shooter too often. But OK--you want him in the 'A-' category, OK--but only because of JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, RAIDERS, and SCHINDLER. And, of course, he and Lucas might vie for top spot on "most influential" of the past 50 years or so.

I don't know about Coppola. If he'd quit entirely after those first movies, and run off into the hinterlands to join J.D. Salinger, maybe I'd be less conflicted. But if he ever had it, he lost it--that might mean that if he WAS a genius--and that I'd be willing to consider--he isn't any longer.

Which is really my main point. These guys need to be dead before we start to assess them as artists. Only then can we stand back and say--well, on the whole, I think he made more great movies than awful--let's give him the thumb's up.

I'm still holding out for the Coens on this point--please God, don't let the last two movies be the sign that they've lost it...

10:36 AM  

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