August 24th, 2008


thoughts on film makers

Mike Nichols
There are few film makers in Hollywood with careers as depressing to watch unravel as Mike Nichols. His career as a director began with such promise with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, followed by The Graduate in '67 and a few years later, the wonderful Catch-22 in '70. After that, he seemed to become the go-to guy for big budget films chomping at the bit for an Oscar nod. He struck gold with Silkwood in '83, but after that it was all downhill. The cute but problematic Working Girl, the cloying Regarding Henry, and the embarrassing Postcards From The Edge. The Birdcage was funny but uneven and more recently, Closer was just plain awful.

Robert Altman
I won't pretend that I've made it all the way through Altman's long list of film achievement, but I do have my bases covered on a lot the high points. It's safe to say I have a love/hate relationship with Altman films. On the one hand, his peculiar style, especially with respect to dialog was groundbreaking. Between the improvisation and the intentional use of overlapping conversation, the really good Altman film welcomes second and third viewings. On the other hand, it's this very style which makes his films difficult for a lot of moviegoers to tolerate, especially since the plot and character development is moved almost entirely through dialog and not action. Most all Altman films examine institutions: MASH (war, western medicine), Short Cuts (Los Angeles culture), The Player (Hollywood), Gosford Park (the Victorian British class system and Victorian murder mysteries), and Nashville (country music industry) are all good examples of the Altman style. Oddly though, my favorite is 1973's The Long Goodbye which breaks from these usual trappings and tells a good old-fashioned private eye story with a wise-cracking Elliot Gould in the lead role.

Jim Jarmusch
I don't get what people find so appealing about Jarmusch movies. Coffee and Cigarettes had its moments but as a whole was pretty boring. Broken Flowers was tedious to watch and I couldn't even make it all the way through Down By Law before turning it off in frustration. A big part of it is the snail's pacing of his movies, but also just that he's not very adept at moving the story without dialog, something which he attempts to do with frequency and fails miserably at it. There are often long periods without dialog where the viewer is expected to rely solely on the unspoken acting of his actors under his direction or the scenery/set under his direction, neither of which he seems able to do very well. I've gotten to a point that Jarmusch is dead to me. It will take a LOT of good things said by people I respect for me to watch any more of his garbage.

Billy Wilder
Whether as the screenplay writer, the director, or both, few could argue Wilder's impact on film-making. If I was pressed to list my top five film makers, he'd be there. He won Best Picture/Best Director Oscars for The Apartment in 1960 and won several other Oscars for screenplay and director in his career. He's responsible for giving us pop culture touchstones like Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate in The Seven Year Itch and the line "All right Mr. DeMille. I'm ready for my closeup" from Sunset Blvd.. The list of classic films he was behind just goes on and on: Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, Stalag 17, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, and A Foreign Affair. He even lent uncredited writing help to films such as Casino Royale and the original Ocean's Eleven. If your experience with older films is limited and you've never seen a Wilder film, you're really missing out on one of the greats of the industry.

David Fincher
Catch me in the right mood, and I'll argue that Fincher is the single most influential director of the last quarter century, and he did it with a single movie. He cut is teeth in the burgeoning CG effects side of the industry in the early 90s and used his powers to change not only the way CG is used, but the way people direct movies. At the time of its inception, CG was used for big budget effects as in, for instance, Twister. Fincher saw a different way it could be used, as a tool to achieve impossible compositions and camera movements, blended seamlessly with live action. A great example is early in Fight Club, when the "camera" moves through the window of the skyscraper, plunges dozens of stories, down through the pavement and ground, into the basement garage below the skyscraper and into the van to show the explosives - all in a single "shot". That sort of shot is so common place today that we think nothing of it, but it was a revolutionary bit of film making at the time. Another good example is in Panic Room. There's a really long tracking shot that begins outdoors, moves through a window, through the handle of a coffee pot, up the stairs of the house then through the banister rails and into a bedroom, stopping finally to show a pebble of plaster bouncing on a baseboard. Camera trickery aside, you also cannot understate the far reaching influence of The Game, Se7en, and Fight Club on the thriller genre as a whole: gritty yet stylish with the obligatory surprise revelation near the end.