I thought I’d take a break from nuts-and-bolts stuff and talk about something I’ve noticed in the last few years, regarding the work of “geezer” filmmakers. Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola have all achieved some hefty commercial and critical success over the years. Between them they’ve probably directed about twenty or so of my favorite American films. They’re like the “geezer” rockers – bands like the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Motorhead, Leo Reed, Pink Floyd, Metallica (the youngest of the bunch)… they know how to craft artistic films while also packing in the crowd.
In the last few years, it seemed like these guys were going to go on directing interesting but ultimately minor works like “The New World,” “The Rainmaker,” “Scoop,” “Shutter Island,” “Robin Hood,”… these weren’t bad films, but they were like finger exercises for master pianists, or the old chestnuts the aforementioned geezers play to the crowd at the end of the show. “Free bird!”
Then something interesting happened. First Coppola made “Youth Without Youth” (2007). This is an amazing film that divided critics and audience members. It’s almost impossible to describe the plot – an old Romanian scholar (Tim Roth), who’s spent his entire life writing a book on the origins of language and human consciousness, is struck by lightning in the late 1930s. Instead of being killed, he ages backwards in the space of a few weeks until he looks like, well, Tim Roth. Then he stops aging, and witnesses (and sometimes participates in) the horrors and pleasures of the 20th century. It was slow, mysterious, ambiguous, twisty… a lot of people walked out of the theater. I saw it with a number of friends, and only Ben Wolf and I wanted to see it again. Right away.
Then last year, Malick came out with “Tree of Life,” which somehow zooms from the beginning to the end of… well, I’m not sure if its earth or of time itself, while still focused on the childhood of the protagonist. Allen somehow crafted something genuinely new out of his old obsessions (perhaps even commenting on them) in “Midnight in Paris,” where a struggling writer is somehow transported back to the Paris of the 20s, his favorite hotbed of intellectual fervor. Interesting how the nature of time plays heavily into these films, no?
Then came Scorcese with “Hugo” – after years of working on pretty much only adult themes, he tackles a children’s story – one that also weaves in his old obsessions over film preservation and history. And Scott gives us “Prometheus,” a sort-of prequel to “Alien” that sets up some big questions – where do we come from? Did someone/something make us, and why? And, most importantly, how fast can I run after having had emergency abdominal surgery?
These films are all wonderful to look at. You know you’re in the hands of master craftsmen here – there isn’t a shot or a cut that feels sloppy. It’s like watching Mick Jagger strut around on stage – the old man still has the energy and knows how to work the crowd (interestingly, Scorsese directed a “concert doc” about the Stones a few years ago). But what’s more exciting about these films is that they’re reaching for something bigger. The stories are messier, with bits that don’t fit together 100%. When you first start learning something new – a different swimming stroke, another rhyming meter, or a new genre – your output may suffer a little bit. But those wrinkles and imperfections are sometimes the most fascinating bits in the resulting work. Other times they’re just flaws.
“Hugo” has amazing moments, especially during the flashbacks to Melies’ heyday in his “dream factory.” The depiction of his black-and-white magnificent fantasias, using the latest 3D technology, was so layered and “meta” while managing to be very moving. This is where it all began – without him and his wife’s work, we wouldn’t be sitting here watching this! The film seems to teeter on the brink of the “modern moment” – mechanical clocks and men mix with book shops and libraries, and the train station itself is a wonderful melange of the “new” and old. Unfortunately, the child’s story is lost somewhere in the mix. And left out altogether is the girl’s story – she’s reduced to being a conduit of sorts (presumably she goes on to write books about “Hugo.”)
“Prometheus,” likewise, has stunning moments – particularly the opening – but suffers from a second and third act that seems like Scott and the screenwriters tried to do a medley of their greatest hits. Or the moment when the geezers bring out a Very Special Guest and try to belt out a cover. Everything is off. The characters run around without much thought to what they’re doing (hey, aren’t most of these guys supposed to be scientists – you know, the people who think for a living)? The sense of menace present in the first hour devolves into pure silliness by the end. The film as a whole lacks the physical stakes of Scott’s best work – by the end of “Kingdom of Heaven” I felt like I’d been in the seige; by the end of “Black Hawk Down” I was ready to throw up (in a good way). Only the “replicant,” David, holds your attention – and shows that Scott still finds something in the sci-fi universe that he’s truly interested in.
These last two films were both shot in 3D, and I feel (though I don’t know) that this is a contributing factor. Scorsese has admitted in interviews that it’s like learning filmmaking all over again. Perhaps the transition to 3D (the first for both of them) was simply too distracting – it led them away from the tight storytelling that they’re capable of.
The other three films revel in their ambiguity. Even “Midnight In Paris,” perhaps the most accessible of all the films, has its moments of the unknown. How does the time travel work? How much of this takes place in his head (the film seems to suggest that desire creates nostalgia, which creates a fabrication of the past that isn’t quite the same as the past)? The films seem to say “we’re not going to explain anything. Figure it out, you’re smart.” In “Youth Without Youth,” there really isn’t an outside perspective – the film stays with its protagonist throughout. He doubles himself at various points, and though it’s pretty clear that this double is a psychic projection, it seems to be able to be able to move things around. The second and third act seem connected more thematically than narratively, and the political commentary comes and goes in a strange way. In “Tree of Life,” we seem to be watching a fairly realistically drawn childhood – but then the mother flies through the air. Or you notice that the father never changes his clothes, even when he’s fixing a car. These wonderful details contrast with the unfortunately empty “present-day” moments – Sean Penn walks around unsure of what he’s doing in the movie. It’s only when we move into Penn’s interior life – his walk along the beach towards the end – that he finally comes alive.
What’s really exciting about all these pieces is that the directors are working through their respective obsessions, and finding new things to create. That’s a big achievement, one which we can all strive for. Of course, they could also also just call David Cronenberg (69), David Lynch (66), Ken Loach (76), or “junior geezers” Agnieszka Holland (63) and Neil Jordan (63) – all of whom never stopped making interesting films (even the duds are fascinating) – and ask them the secret of their creative spark. Like Mick Jagger asking Leonard Cohen for career advice, it probably won’t happen, but it would be an interesting conversation.