Big Smart Messes: When Directors go for Broke

 

It’s rare these days that directors are able to retain complete control over a film with a massive budget. Sure, Chris Nolan had quite a lot of power over the recent Batman trilogy and Inception, but they were still studio friendly movies. Gone are the days when a 2001 or a Apocalypse Now would be given major funding – well, not quite gone. Every once and a while (and it’s getting rarer and rarer), a director will be given a lot of money to make a film where they exercise complete control over every detail – often times to its detriment. The results are often big, bloated, interesting, but ultimately flawed films. That’s not to say that these films shouldn’t be made. They absolutely should be made. In fact, more of them should be made.

These opuses often provoke discussion, bring up interesting ideas or concepts, and almost always contain bravura filmmaking. They are showcases for directors flexing every filmmaking muscle they have. They try and throw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen, and the results can be mixed, but they are almost always fascinating. Sometimes they turn out to be genius, other times they are kind of weak, but what they aren’t are cynical, cash-grabbing movies that are typical of big budget films. And that is why more of them should be made. But, given the box office returns on these type of films, it’s likely they’ll continue to become increasingly rare.

For your consideration, here are a few modern examples of these big, beautiful, smart messes.

Magnolia (1999) – P.T. Anderson’s second major effort, with an emphasis on the major. Running at a daunting 188 minutes, Magnolia is a massive sprawling film that deals with multiple story lines. The film is more of an opera than a movie. Parts of it are truly exhilarating and some of the best stuff Anderson’s ever put on screen. Other parts, however, can be frustrating. The singing scene is particularly egregious to me. But you can’t deny Anderson’s sheer audacity (raining frogs?!). Definitely not PTA’s best film, but a must see for any film fan.

The Fountain (2006) – Six years after he broke through with Requiem For a Dream, Darren Aronofsky returned with The Fountain, a gorgeous mess of a movie. The film jumps between three timelines, with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz playing different but similar characters in each. The film is cryptic and not easy to follow, but it’s still fascinating. The special effects Aronofsky uses for the space sequences are worth the watch alone. Even if the story doesn’t quite make sense, the film is simply marvelous to look at.

The Tree of Life (2011) – Terrance Malick’s beautiful and poetic film has been equally praised and dismissed. Yes, it is indulgent and pretentious, but the sheer scope of the film (starting from the beginning of time) is breathtaking. The scenes involving Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and their family are beautifully evocative, and some of the best stuff Malick has ever put on screen. Sean Penn looks a little lost, and the dinosaurs are a little unnecessary, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything this audacious in scope since Kubrick’s 2001. 

These films might not be perfect, but they are important. They are important because they attempt things outside the norm. They swing for the fences. Sometimes they swing and miss, but they’re swinging nonetheless. That’s a lot more than can be said of most filmmakers these days. And they deserve our support for it.

Modern Auteurs: David Lynch

David Lynch isn’t exactly modern. He’s been making films since the late 70s. However, he’s one of my favourites, and he’s modern enough. Lynch started out as a painter, but began experimenting with film in the late 60s. He was given a grant, and with it he created his first feature length film, Eraserhead in 1977. Eraserhead quickly became a cult classic, catching the attention of Mel Brooks (yes that Mel Brooks). It was Brooks who gave Lynch his big break with the film The Elephant Man (1980). That film earned Lynch two Academy Award nominations: for directing and adapted screenplay. From there, Lynch went on to become one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation. So distinct, in fact, that the term “Lynchian” was coined to describe his style.

Lynch’s films tend to be dark, surreal, and frightening, but with dashes of bizarre humour. It can be off-putting to some, but riveting to others (see this infamous debate over Blue Velvet). Lynch often likes to explore the underbelly of the American dream. Small towns (or big cities) are cheerfully shown, then layers are stripped back to reveal disturbing elements. Many of his films can be difficult to get through as they don’t usually follow conventional movie rules. There can be scenes that pop up that don’t appear to fit with the film. There can be random extreme close ups of objects. A lot of seemingly random things happen in Lynch films. However random they may seem, though, they work. They work with a sort of dream logic that Lynch is famous for. Lynch has stated that he often doesn’t think of the meaning behind his work, preferring to operate on feeling. It’s a dangerous system to be working with, but Lynch is able to pull it off.

His combination of craft and concept is probably the main reason he is so successful. His concepts provoke, while his craft is undeniable. Being a painter, it comes as no surprise that Lynch shoots his films immaculately, and puts a lot of thought into what goes on in front of the camera. He also pays a lot of attention to the sound design of his films – not just the score, but the sound. There are very few other directors that put so much effort into the way their films sound. And Lynch’s films sound great.

Lynch also posses a very distinct personality. This personality, coupled with his film work, has made him into a sort of icon in the filmmaking community. Much like Werner Herzog, Lynch has a larger than life persona that makes him all the more fascinating (his story of meeting George Lucas is incredibly entertaining). His charmingly unique personality has made it easy for him to transition into other mediums with success. Most famously, his television show, Twin Peaks, was a phenomenon in the early 90s and is still one of the most important television shows ever made (X-Files certainly wouldn’t exist without it). More recently, Lynch as found some success in the music industry. He also continues to paint and sculpt, while also dabbling in still photography. So, you could say David Lynch is a bit of a Renaissance man.

So, where should one start in Lynch’s oeuvre? Here’s my rundown:

Where to Start:

Blue Velvet (1986) – Lynch’s first major film that is all him. He was given complete control, and it shows. This is a must for any film fan. It still remains controversial to this day.

Mulholland Dr. (2001) – A fascinating puzzle of a movie. One of, if not the best, Lynch film. Lynch again explores the underbelly of the American dream, but this time in Hollywood.

Where Not to Start:

Inland Empire (2006) – Three and a half hours of David Lynch experimenting with story and with digital filmmaking. Definitely a must for any Lynch fan, but a very bad place to start without seeing any of his previous films.

Dune (1984) – Lynch’s first and only attempt at a big budget blockbuster. Studio interference and other problems ultimately sunk the film (Lynch refuses to discuss it), but it still remains a fascinating entry in Lynch’s filmography, and a fascinating sci-fi film in general. I’m a fan, but it’s not the best representation of Lynch’s work.

Deep Cuts:

Wild at Heart (1990) – Lynch’s bizarre, delirious riff on road movies and The Wizard of Oz. Incredibly strange and filled with memorable characters (Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru being perhaps the best).

Eraserhead (1977) – Bizarre, dark, and creepy. Lynch’s first film is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Modern Auteurs: Quentin Tarantino

What more can really be said about Tarantino? The guy’s already a legend. His first two films created an unbelievable amount of imitation. His fast paced, pop-culture filled dialogue and nods to exploitation films are still trying to be replicated by both professional and student filmmakers to this day (sometimes making me rue the day Tarantino first put words to paper). However, Tarantino’s style is simply inimitable. Try as they might to write witty banter and steal shots from Hong Kong action films, no one can touch Tarantino’s genius – and genius is what it is.

Some naysayers may dismiss Tarantino as a mere copycat, appropriating scenes and shots from other movies and repackaging them as his own, but filmmakers have always been doing that. You don’t hear too many people leveling that complaint against Woody Allen, who’s made a career of borrowing ideas from Bergman and Fellini. Tarantino just borrows from trashier films. And therein lies his genius. He elevates what would be considered b-movie material into art. That is a hard thing to do, no matter how you cut it.

This post may be a little useless as almost everyone has seen the majority of Tarantino’s films, but I’m going to lay out a few of his best and a few of his worst (yes he made some not-so good movies).

The Best:

Pulp Fiction (1994) – Probably Tarantino’s best. Not only did it contain a few of the most quotable lines and re-watchable scenes of all time, he also resurrected John Travolta’s career and launched Samuel L. Jackson as a legitimate star.

Jackie Brown (1997) – Sometimes overlooked and under appreciated, Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s most mature film to date. The relationship between Pam Grier and Robert Forster is handled so well, and realistically, it’s hard to believe it’s in a Tarantino movie. However, the nonlinear storytelling elements, the quotable dialogue, and the colourful criminal characters quickly remind you that this is, indeed, a Tarantino movie.

The Worst (though not awful):

Death Proof (2007) – Liked by some, panned by others, I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s enjoyable to be sure, but a weak offering from Tarantino.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) – Again, enjoyable, and filled with some great scenes, but it relies a little too heavily on genre pastiche.

Sidebar: The last decade or so has seen a bit of a slip in quality from Tarantino. His films are still great, but they’re becoming more and more centered around genre throwbacks. Granted, genre throwbacks have been present in every Tarantino film, but lately he seems to be leaning on them as a crutch. Tarantino is more than capable of making a masterpiece of immense importance (see Pulp Fiction), but lately he just seems to be screwing around for his own enjoyment. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to see him attempt something a little ambitious. I’m a little uneasy about Django Unchained, but will obviously still see it.

Modern Auteurs: The Wonderful World of Wes Anderson

This is the first in a series of articles about modern filmmakers (started in the ’80s or later) who could be considered auteurs.

Auteur: noun. A filmmaker, usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.

The reigning king of hipster films. Wesley Wales Anderson, a Houston native, coolly sauntered into the film world (in slow motion, of course) with 1996’s Bottle Rocket. Since then, he has been making films that are both beloved and derided. To some, his films are brilliant, dryly comedic, and poignant. To others, they’re merely ironic, hipster quirk-fests, with little to offer beyond surface appeal. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, however, you can’t deny that the man has style. Anyone familiar with Wes Anderson can pick out one of his films within about 5 seconds. This makes him the very definition of an auteur.

Anderson is very, very detail oriented. Meticulous doesn’t begin to describe his visual style. Everything from his stage play-like camera framing down to the colour, font, and card stock of a notepad, are painstakingly fussed over by Anderson. The sheer amount of control he wields over his mise-en-scène is incredible, and it makes for a truly unique viewing experience. His very symmetrical shots are carefully blocked out and utilize deep focus. He contrasts these wide shots with personal, straight-on, closeups of characters faces. Thrown into the mix are zooms (rare these days) and the obligatory ramping shot (quick change from regular speed to slow-mo) of characters walking towards the camera. His colours are often primary or warmly autumn. And accompanying all these lovely visuals is usually a soundtrack heavy on ’60s music.

Most people can get on board with Anderson’s visuals, but when it comes to his stories, and the acting style he promotes, audiences become a bit more divided. His screenplays often involve dysfunctional, upper-class families – and there is almost always father figure issues. These stories always weave together a mixture of dry humour and understated drama, and are acted out in a muted style usually by a stable of actors that Anderson uses regularly. It’s this muted acting style and dry humour that can be off-putting to some, and, if you don’t get into it, you will be at a loss for as to why so many people love his films. I do love his films, and find them to be quite hilarious, but I can see why people don’t jive to his style.

If you haven’t seen a Wes Anderson film, there’s only one way to find out whether or not you’ll like them.

Where to Start:

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – Starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Luke and Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, and narrated by Alec Baldwin. Probably the best place to start for someone to looking to get into Wes Anderson. This could be considered his most mature film. The screenplay, by Anderson and Owen Wilson, was nominated for an Oscar.

Rushmore (1998) – Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Olivia Williams. Anderson’s sophomore effort about a rivalry between a precocious teenager and a middle aged businessman over a school teacher. One of the more purely comedic films by Anderson. Bill Murray’s deadpan performance is absolutely hilarious.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murray. Anderson’s first, and only (so far), foray into “family films”. The quotations are there, because I’m not quite sure how kids will really take to this movie. However, it’s a pure gem for anyone interested in seeing a finely crafted, and amusing, film. The stop motion work alone is worth the watch.

Where Not to Start:

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman as brothers on a spiritual quest across India in the wake of their father’s death. Maybe Anderson’s weakest effort, but still not without merit. Just don’t start here.

Deep Cut:

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, and Willem Dafoe. A fan favourite, but not for anyone. Bill Murray’s aging oceanographer is absolutely hilarious, as is the rest of the cast. A personal favourite of mine.