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: 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.