The Movie Brats

Following is a list that talks about directors of the 60s generation, the last great tide of filmmakers in Hollywood. Directors who, if they’re still around, have nothing but a mere trickle of muse in 2013.

What happened? Is there a common thread in their artistic decline (generally speaking)? Maybe. For the would-be filmist, here’s a cautionary taley.  It pays to be young, in more ways than one.

Woody Allen

He is as famous as the Brooklyn Bridge: a neurotic nebbish, tied to a clever muse (Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson). After some overreaching (the “spare” tragedies of September and Interiors), and some lovely reminiscing (Radio Days), it’s clear that Woody wants to be someone else.

Ingmar Bergman.

He strains for tastefulness. Like Mel Brooks, a fellow Jew and comic-turned-director who riffs on movies and genres, Woody was irreverent at first, his appropriations fond and funny.  bulletsoverbroadwayNowadays he takes himself a bit more seriously. Morality and the modern intellectual idiot tend to be his subjects. Sporting the Merchant-Ivory virus, Allen is pseudo-classicist. He’s too old for his time.1

Zelig told much: The folly of freaks who want to fit in, fitting in because they don’t — Woody’s take on Hollywood and Self. And Tinseltown loves him. His movies make just enough money. His dialogue (his resume) makes actors pant.

Still, there is no daring. It flew the coop a long time ago.

Robert Altman

Altman pissed on forms he informalized. Too hip to go for bourgeois notions of entertainment – too hip to ignore them – he went for comic realism, a dry offhandedness that spurned convention. Praised for dialogue that overlapped, his films (which, by and large, were dinner parties, happenings, hangouts) let actors improvise freely. He had a loose, liberal style, a tendency to revel in mosaics.

MASH (1970) was a long-haired take on the college hi-jink film of the 40s. It was dark screwball, a backslider’s view: cynical, funny, sharp. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) was an impossibly sad Western and one of his best films. The movie whites out.

Nashville (1975) sought to be a record of something, a crazy quilt, but it got sideswiped by the director’s contempt for his subject (fictive country musicians and assorted hangers-on). Compare Nashville to Woodstock (1970). The latter was a conscious hype, but its documentarians mirrored the energy. Hanging on the outcome, moved by the music, they worked to produce a document true to its source. mccabe_and_mrs_millerThe music in Nashville is atypical. It shows nothing of real Southerners2. The “scene” is a powder keg of hazy politics, a dumb substitute for America and the star-maker machinery of Hollywood. As such, the movie is bogus.

The 80s saw Altman retreat from Hollywood. (Movie execs began to loathe him.) He came back strong with The Player (1992), a poke at the coterie he could never really join. Propelling this look at the dissolution of L.A. (which started with The Long Goodbye [1973]), Short Cuts (1993) piled on a few good subplots. Gosford Park (2001) was Marxist tripe. His last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), put me to sleep. I woke up; Bob did not.

He left a mixed body of work. In many ways the Altman circle was closed to what makes Hollywood tick (i.e., generic celebrations of archetype and dramatic, plot-driven fare). Too often his observations are rudderless; characters arrive complete, but situations bore. I can’t train myself to like him.

Still, aside from MASH and McCabe, I like his photographs of the 60s.

Michael Cimino

The Deer Hunter (1978) is The Great American Film. Cimino got an Oscar, but it went to his head. He lost it in the details: Heaven’s Gate (1980) had a runaway budget, but the film has no center. deerhunterYou see it to rubberneck. In The Year of the Dragon (1985), all you get are shootouts, ten minutes of power in a morass of crap. Everything is done for the epic tone. Nothing makes sense.

The storytelling is gone.

What a waste, that so much talent could happen to such bad judgment.

Francis Ford Coppola

Pre-Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola was a god. He’s been off since. The Cotton Club (1984), Tucker (1988), Rumble Fish (1983) — these are good films. (The first five minutes of Dracula [1992] is his best work in a long time.) But none of them are sustained efforts.

Coppola is a writer. He directs to protect his scripts. Like Hal Ashby, he can band talent together; he has a discriminating eye. This makes him a director, not a king. He guides. He lets his films breathe.godfatherii

But he was king. He began to live his movies, and he second-guessed himself. Plus, he had a weakness for gimcracks.

Coppola had a dream. He’d be the titan at Zoetrope, his film house. Out of the desert (Old Hollywood), he would lead the turks of New Hollywood. They would be independent. But the blandness of the studios got a spinal tap and a face lift: Because of their success, the anti-establishment became the establishment de novo. And Coppola was the spearhead.

Zoetrope was supposed to break the mold, but it broke the bank. Coppola tried to be the beneficent don, everything to everyone. Needless to say, he failed.

. . .

Apocalypse Now is the movie brats’ film. The highs are in the finished product. The lows are documented in Hearts of Darkness (1991), a film about the making-of.

Apocalypse Now took a dump on the auteur theory that it pumped. The personal fallout was bad, but Coppola got enshrined for having lost it in the jungle. He had used real corpses. He’d goaded Martin Sheen into getting drunk and cutting himself. (Said my dad: “Jack, this is NOT how you make a movie.”) Francis took his ego to the shedding limit. He willed the film, but it cost him the rest of his career. I don’t think he can get it up.

Now, deep in the heart of Alexander Valley, you can find him stomping on grapes and tossing feta cheese at the locals.

Kiss the ring — goodbye.

Martin Scorsese

His antiheroes are battered saints, his best films asthmatic and personal: The violent young mooks of Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990) are nervy New Yorkers full of regret, if not guilt. Before Tarantino, Marty was the acolyte of pop trash who wanted to make Films. The clash between art and pulp shades his work.

Scorsese is a stylist. New York, New York (1977) was dire showmanship. Raging Bull (1980) was the art film side of Body and Soul (1947, dir. Robert Rossen). It jabbed brilliantly (e.g., taut edits and a blunt portrayal of manimal magnetism), but it needed sweetening.taxidriver In Taxi Driver (1976), Robert De Niro’s nutjob is a bit tender. In Bull the actor is a grotesque. He never crosses the identification gap for the viewer. It’s a poor expose of macho pigs, but a fine showcase for De Niro.

Like Casino (1995), Cape Fear (1991) and Bringing Out The Dead (1999), The Departed (2006) was pure mechanics. The Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home (2005), was flat and astounding (dig the Pennebaker footage). Marty and Bob peaked a long time ago, and they almost killed themselves getting there. Out of the wilderness they became craftsmen. No longer riddled with coke, the 71-year-old Scorsese may want to dial down.

Let’s hope he doesn’t.

Steven Spielberg

Spielberg puts feeling into spectacle with an almost religious zest. Like Cecil B. DeMille, he knows how to make an entertainment. For DeMille, though, entertainment won out. He loved to be crass; he was honest about it. He never sported a higher agenda.templeofdoom

Spielberg f*cked up.

Now, I love Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom (1984). It makes fun of movie fun. It may be his best, most adrenalized film, and it doesn’t stop for a moment. (Leaner and meaner, Duel [1971] is a close second. Or maybe Jaws [1975].) But after Temple went sour for a lot of people, he tried to “say” something. It was inevitable. He grew up. In doing so, he equated art with seriousness, and only Schindler’s List (1993) can be said to work that way. The gravity of the subject is too personal.

The moral of the story? When corn is cold, it doesn’t pop.

Robert Towne

We often think the director is a buck-stopping genius (but you’re only as good as the people you work with). Bob Towne was the first screenwriter to get this kind of star treatment. Shampoo (1975), Chinatown (1974), The Last Detail (1973), even doctored scripts like The Godfather (1972): The guy can write.chinatown He fathers dialogue that sticks and burns. It looks easy. And Chinatown is a classic — why? Everything about it feels necessary.

Today he is on Tom Cruise’s payroll. He’s back to pushing pencils on the spy farm (cf., his work on Mission: Impossible [1996] and 1964’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), a regression from the leap he made in the 70s. The reason?

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).

For years Bob rapped about this f*cking Tarzan movie. It was his baby. During production he (allegedly) blew his mind on coke and his directorial debut, the very good Personal Best (1982), flopped. His marriage waned. He was a paranoid mess.

Greystoke had no ending. It was an unfilmable script. Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) signed on to direct and Towne was crushed. In the end he took his name off the picture and used a pseudonym: P.H. Vazak, the name of his dead dog.

Towne has nothing to prove now. The man who wrote Chinatown is flab.

1Mighty Aphrodite and Bullets Over Broadway feel younger.

2Another reading: The songs are inseparable from the characters they reveal. Perhaps I need to give the film a third look.

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