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Running on almost empty

Monday | February 5, 2007   open printable version open printable version

3-kings-500.jpg

Three Kings (1999).

DB here:

Why, asks Sharon Waxman in the New York Times, have the much-touted directors of the 1990s slowed their output so drastically? Kimberly Peirce released Boys Don’t Cry in 1999; her second film, Stop-Loss, will come out this spring. Darren Aronofsky followed Requiem for a Dream (2000) with The Fountain, which hit screens last fall. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is over four years old. David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Baz Luhrmann, and several others of their generation have, Waxman points out, “taken long hiatuses before stepping back up to the plate.”

Immediately, exceptions spring to mind. Some filmmakers who built their careers in the 90s are pretty prolific. Soderbergh is the prime instance; he sometimes releases two movies a year. Christopher Nolan has given us several one-two punches: Memento in 2000 and Insomnia in 2002, Batman Begins in 2005 and The Prestige in 2006. James Mangold is now doing postproduction on 3:10 to Yuma, his seventh movie since 1995. Kent Jones reminds me that Richard Linklater has finished twelve features in under 16 years!

Still, the slow pace of some heralded filmmakers is noteworthy. Waxman’s explanations, culled from interviews with Hollywood cognoscenti, intrigue me. Probably no one explanation will provide the answer, but it’s worth thinking about the many forces at work. I’ll run through Waxman’s five main points, commenting on each. Then I’ll toss in a few of my own.

1. Filmmakers undergo closer scrutiny and quicker judgments than at earlier times. Critics, audiences, and studios pounce on every failure, and with investments becoming more precarious, a single weak showing can push the director down the list.

Seems plausible to me, given the dumping of Shyamalan after Lady in the Water. Shyamalan is ambitious in his storytelling aims, trying to turn genre movies into art movies/ event movies à la Kubrick. Unlike Kubrick, he’s not winning a secure place as a person you want to be in business with. Strange as it sounds, a director who has earned over a billion dollars at the global box office is making the rounds trying to sell his newest idea.

2. Filmmakers are pressured to write lucrative scripts rather than direct questionable projects, or to direct sure-fire franchise hits (e.g., Bryan Singer and Superman and X-Men).

Partly true. But a producer friend commented to me that a lot of indie filmmakers whom he meets sincerely want to direct big films. Bryan Singer, who admires Spielberg, hasn’t made a secret of his desire to be a mainstream filmmaker. Aronofsky was long involved with Frank Miller on a new Batman, and Karyn Kusama moved from Girlfight (2000) to Aeon Flux (2005).

3. An overindulgent studio culture lacks strong executives who would challenge precocious filmmakers to extend themselves.

Put aside the fact that this explanation is somewhat opposite to the previous one. It’s hard to claim that today’s executives are too complaisant; surely one reason for the delays in output is resistance from the studios’ to directors’ ideas. If executives might be reluctant to derail a project, certainly stars are willing to do so. Once a picture enters production, however, it is more difficult for today’s executives to curtail the pricey directors to the extent that classic studio-era moguls could. The director’s demand for final cut, for instance, is still a powerful chip in the game.

4. The 90s directors might not be capable of dealing with the big issues of a post-9/11 world. Waxman writes: “Perhaps Quentin Tarantino, child of the video culture, feels at a loss when faced with the war in Iraq and global terrorism.”

It might be too early, though, for filmmakers to come to an initial understanding of this ongoing crisis. The major films treating Vietnam appeared some years after we pulled out: Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and so on. Moreover, not all films need to deal with big issues, at least directly. What aspects of American politics did Pulp Fiction and Memento address?

5. There’s no shared creative community, in which filmmakers help and compete with one another. Three currently successful directors from Mexico, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuaron exemplify how a cadre of friends can offer frank criticism and spur one another on.

Oddly enough, James Mottram’s book The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood maintains that just this sort of community exists among several 90s directors. The book opens with a meeting of the Pizza Knights, a cadre of young filmmakers who gather every month to watch 70s classics. The group includes Fincher, Jonze, Anderson, Peirce, and Payne (p. xv)—the very directors whom Waxman lists as surprisingly unproductive. They may not bond with older directors, but according to Mottram they constitute a pretty tight group.

Some other possibilities strike me.

*Maybe this particular batch of directors is just an easygoing demographic. Tarantino took his time moving from Jackie Brown (1997) to Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). The Virgin Suicides came out in 1999; does Lost in Translation (2003) look like a movie it took four years to make? They don’t call it Gen X for nothing.

*We should consider the possibility of burnout. Dwight Macdonald once remarked that the stress of making one film is much more intense than painting a picture or even writing a novel. It’s deeply exhausting on many levels. MacDonald speculated that across their careers filmmakers are likely to slow down or burn out or just make weaker films. We can all think of exceptions (Manoel de Oliveira is still turning out extraordinary films at age 98), but filmmaking does require a lot of energy. This might be especially the case if a director achieves early success, because the demands of each new project can escalate before the director finds her or his comfort level.

*Making just one film takes a long time. Aronofsky’s years of effort to produce The Fountain are well-known, as are Luhrmann’s problems with a life of Alexander the Great. Even a midrange project might be years in preparation before it finds backing. Once the project is approved, there can be months of preproduction, several months of shooting, and over a year of editing. To launch any big film, the director and stars will be meeting the press, traveling to foreign markets for promotional events, and preparing the DVD supplements. A lot of this will be happening just before or soon after the film’s release, slowing progress on the next project. The avalanche of such demands can only increase your respect for the stamina and multitasking abilities of Spielberg and Soderbergh.

Hong Kong and Japanese directors can be more prolific because the industry is more small-scale and there isn’t the same demand to promote the film afterward. Johnnie To turns out two films a year, Miike Takeshi more than that. They get to develop a body of work that, despite its ups and downs, has a texture lacking in one- or two- or three-shot wonders.

*The market has consolidated. An earlier wave of indie directors like John Sayles, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Oliver Stone, and the Coens faced a fairly diverse marketplace. Their films benefited from the emergence of home video, overseas television outlets, mini-majors, and small but fairly well-funded distributors. They quickly built up individual identities–brands, if you like–that still give them some clout with studios and make them more productive than the group Waxman profiles. Although there are many distributors on today’s landscape, most are tiny. The younger indie auteurs, I think, face a more homogeneous system, with studios and their boutique divisions controlling a larger share of funding and more distribution outlets. There are fewer cozy niches for small, quick projects.

*Finally, there’s critics’ hype. Perhaps too much was expected of these rather untried directors. If you’re called a genius on your first or second outing, how can you top that? Consider these heroic descriptions:

With their films, the rebels of the 1990s shattered the status quo, set new boundaries in the art of moviemaking, and managed to bend the risk-averse studio structure to their will. They created a new cinematic language, recast audience expectations, and surprised us—and one another.

Quentin Tarantino, the rabble-rousing writer-director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction . . . very early in the decade broke every rule in moviedom.

The movies of the new rebel auteurs . . . played with structure, wreaked havoc with traditional narrative form, fiddled with the film stock, and ushered in the whiplash editing style true to a generation of video game children.

In the perspective of film history, these claims are sheer nonsense. (I try to show why in The Way Hollywood Tells It.) They aren’t good prophecy either. I ♥ Huckabees and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t exactly bend the studios to their directors’ will. In any event, such guff overheats the creative climate. Filmmakers aren’t granted a more gradual and modest exploration of their strengths and limits. When they fail, they may fail spectacularly.

By the way: the author of the souped-up passages I just quoted? None other than Sharon Waxman. (1)

(1) Sharon Waxman, Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), x-xi.

PS Monday: Based on some intriguing box-office data, Karina Longworth gives a sharper-tongued rebuke to Waxman in her lively post here.

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