Tuesday, 1 December 2009

On directors and their reputation

I read an article in The Guardian yesterday about the new film from the Coen brothers, A Serious Man. Or rather, A Serious Man was the starting point for a wider argument about filmmakers who suddenly makes a film which comes as a surprise because it's so very different from what they've done earlier. The writer Joe Queenan argues that A Serious Man is such a film, and then continues with the mentioning of The Age of Innocence (1993) by Martin Scorsese, The Bridges of Madison County (1995) by Clint Eastwood, Green Card (1990) by Peter Weir and Hulk (2003) by Ang Lee, among other films. It's an interesting angle, rather a good one. Perhaps the gist of Queenan's argument is in this quote "It is as if the film-maker abruptly decided to take a holiday from his own personality and make a film in somebody else's style." Now, I haven't seen A Serious Man yet so I won't talk about it, but I've seen the other films Queenan talks about and in hardly any case do I agree with him, which I think is interesting.

I agree that Age of Innocence is different from, say, Goodfellas (1990), and I haven't seen it for a long time so I won't dwell on it. Queenan says that there's "nary a gangster in sight", but it's not the first time Scorsese has left the world of the gangster, in fact, he's made a lot less gangster movies than you might think. When he did Age of Innocence he had made a film about a struggling single mother, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), far from the streets of New York. He had also made the musical New York, New York (1977) and a Biblical epic, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and various other things. So in a way, Age of Innocence may or may not have been different, but regardless of which it shouldn't come as a surprise that Scorsese would try a new genre.

Hulk was made three years after Ang Lee made the material arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long), and after he made a western, Ride With the Devil (1991). So he isn't all about Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Ice Storm (1997), which, incidentally, begins with Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) discussing the finer points of the comic book heroes Fantastic Four, closely related to Hulk. And Hulk, like so often in Ang Lee's films, is about family and father/son relationships.

Green Card on the other hand is a very typical Peter Weir-film and not in the least bit off. Most of Weir's films is about a man who finds himself in a completely alien environment where he doesn't fit in and so has to leave in the end. Which is exactly the story of Green Card, where the man this time is a French bohemian artist suddenly in a posh New York society. Visually Weir's films differ from one to another, depending on the milieu, which is fitting, because perhaps the most important theme in Weir's films are the effects the environment has on the individual, and how space has a personality of it's own.

As for The Bridges of Madison County, this is where I very strongly disagree with Queenan. Queenan talks about the fact that nobody dies, that it's "the only truly romantic picture he [Eastwood] has ever made" and that it has "absolutely nothing in common with Unforgiven, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, White Hunter Black Heart or even Bird" All of this could be argued concerning Eastwood, yes, but not any more, not in reference to The Bridges of Madison County in 1995. Let's take the case instead to 1973, when Eastwood made Breezy. It's a very sweet and touching film about a young hippie girl, Breezy (Kay Lenz), who is looking for some love and guidance, and perhaps a father figure. She finds it in the bitter, late middle-aged man played by William Holden. There isn't a horse or a death in sight, just two lost human beings looking for love and companion and finding it where they least expected it. And Eastwood has also made films such as Bronco Billy (1980), about show people travelling the country with a rodeo, and Honkytonk Man (1982), about a country singer dying of tuberculosis. And so on and so forth. (And isn't the basic set-up in The Bridges of Madison County actually rather similar to, say, Pale Rider (1985) and High Plains Drifter (1971). A stranger comes to town, played by Clint Eastwood, stays for a while and then leaves, never to be seen again. There are obvious differences of course, such as the fact that the preacher in Pale Rider and the stranger in High Plains Drifter are ghosts coming back for revenge, but I feel there's a western air to The Bridges of Madison County.)

In the article Queenan also mentions other films and directors, but I'll not go on any further. It's partly a question of interpretation, but I also feel that a part of the reason why he argues that these selected films are so different is because he doesn't really compared them to the directors' other films, but to the popular myth of these directors. Which is perfectly fine I guess.

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