Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fallen II: five more directors I no longer follow

Tim Burton: Pee Wee Herman? Yessiree. Beeltejuice? ... ok. Edward Scissorhands? Oh yes. Ed Wood? Bloody hell, yes! Sleepy Hollow? Looks nice. Anything else? Everything else. It took a few outings to take Tim Burton from promise to visually talented hack to directionless style-loop. The rot for me is there in Beetlejuice as soon as it gets cute. No, not the football team at the end doing Banana Boat Song. That is cringey enough. No, the bit in Limbo when Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis have to show how scary they can look and distort their faces into goofy joke shop masks which even in a comedy should have been stronger images. That almost ruined it for me. Casting Michael Keaton as Batman was a good idea because he was a superhero who visibly thought. But to me that was being fifteen all over again and wondering at the rust on the spaceships in Star Wars only to have to live through the rest of it right up until the cute awww bit when Chewbacca roars at the medal ceremony (only fifteen but cringed). I don't think Burton has lost any of the talent he had at the beginning but there's only so much apparent lack of self-awareness on the emperor's part that I can take. You're starkers, Tim. Get inside!

Hal Hartley: Having recently taken delighted delivery of the new blu-ray of Trust and had a good success showing The Unbelievable Truth and Henry Fool at Shadows, I wonder at my own choice here. But Hartley must make this list as the only films of his I've been interested enough to pursue sight of since the noughties have been exceptions in an increasingly meagre field. No Such Thing commits suicide half way through and Fay Grim plays like an apology for Amateur. But there's a problem with Hal Hartley as a stylist. It's the kind of problem I'll usually refer to as one of fairweather cultists who lose their champions as quickly as assume them. Hartley's style of deadpan delivery and brainy one-liners and well orchestrated quirk ran for his early features enough that his fans wanted more and awaited any development of the style they so loved. When Hartley gave them the latter in Amateur and Flirt they kicked him into the oubliette and left him there. They liked his newness but wanted it to stay the same. I'll have to sheepishly put my hand up to doing this very thing with this filmmaker and chide myself for being both fanlike and shallow. But, Mum, every time he tries something new, it's crap!

Peter Greenaway: The Draughtsman's Contract knocked us all for a six by looking like a costume drama and acting like the Glass Bead Game. And it only got tastier with Zed and Two Noughts. After a very few more titles appeared that showed different stories with the exact same obsessive approach we settled in comfortably and put him in the auteur box. Arthouse retrospectives of his earlier works like Revolution and The Falls only cemented this. After falling a little into disuse he was able to come back with succcesses de scandale like The Cook The Thief His Wife and her Lover and The Baby of Macon, all splendid with the same grand canvas tableaux methods he put on all the others. So, what went wrong? It's hard to say beyond simply stating that I got bored with it. I'm one who likes to see a defiantly obsessive artist at work, having championed even Bela Tarr's seven hour epic Satantango which is stylistically identical to everything else he's done or David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE which proved indigestible even for fans. So why single out Greenaway whose skills at doing what he does well seem in no ill health? Dunno. Just doesn't grab me anymore. The point I think this occured was the Pillow Book. I think...

Atom Egoyan: A friend back in the early 90s handed me a vhs copy of Next of Kin an extraordinary tale of a withdrawn youth who escapes from a small family frozen in therapy and into a world of explosive emotions and open dysfunction in an Armenian family also in Toronto. He has infiltrated them by pretending to be the long lost son and brother they sought through a personal ad. He, Peter, is all Canadian English and doesn't resemble his assumptive parents or sister in the slightest but he is such a calming and appealing presence that they quickly accept him. A lot of this is recorded with his video camera.

Roll on Family Viewing (which did the mix sitcom laugh track with serious dialogue years before Oliver Stone did it in Natural Born Killers), Speaking Parts, The Adjuster and Exotica. All strong, fresh, penetrating and disturbing outings which pointed to what appeared to be an effortlessly auteurist director. Then came The Sweet Hereafter which, despite strong themes of parental guilt, incest and liability for a mass fatality, could not reach a peak nor conclude convincingly. Felicia's Journey similarly let serial murder and an Irish woman's guilt over her decision to abort turn into something soggy and unengaging. All have had great moments but these have been features in a barely textured landscape. By the time of Where the Truth Lies I gave up, defeated by the conventionality that fairly smothered the Egoyanian ethical minefields of the early material. It was plausible where Next of Kin was preposterous but Next of Kin remains the better film. I would have to check the imdb to tell you what he's done since and have no idea if he's still making films.

Woody Allen: Ok, I'll admit this is like pointing at a barn door. Allen has had so many falsely-called returns to form recently that it's a wonder anyone still recognises him in the street (assuming they do). That "recently" by the way covers the lion's share of almost three decades. I may as well admit here that the concept of a return to form is something that has fallen from my sensibility when it comes to film directors. It has gone from being a respectful smile of a phrase to a shrieking Pollyannaish grimace. Woody Allen is a good case for dropping the phrase for everyone else for evermore.

But there's also something strange going on here. While I have winced through the labour or frowned at the slightness of Allen's offerings from the mid 80s onward I have wondered if I am witnessing a fall from grace or if it is I who have changed and now can no more ingest a Woody Allen film than tuck into a teething rusk.

In 2011 while planning the program for what was to be the final spring season of Shadows I sought out Annie Hall on dvd. I couldn't find a copy to save my life so I hired a swag of 70s Allen movies from the local vid shop and tried them out to find a substitute. Big mistake. The one title I had been calling immutably funny, the indestructible gem was Bananas. I put that in and stopped it after twenty minutes due to cringe. I had either cleared my memory of the laboured gags and strained wit or they just no longer appealed to me. See also Manhattan. Nothing. I stopped it before the hour mark. The ABC played Sleeper. I watched to the end but without enthusiasm. A later purchase of Annie Hall on blu-ray turned this around. It's a great piece of work.

I do have a lingering fondness for Stardust Memories as it entered more serious territory to strong effect and the wit when it appeared felt deadly. This is the film where the phrase "earlier, funnier films" comes from which is now used for anyone whose output has altered over time from Spielberg to Cronenberg. I won't look for a copy of Stardust Memories, though, the ones I have will do fine.

PS -- forgot to add before: Stardust Memories was touted at the time by Allen himself as his last film. That was in 1980. When Ellem Klimov said the same after Come and See and Bela Tarr after The Turin Horse they meant it.

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