Monday, November 10, 2008

Eight Favorite Directors

Most moviegoers probably don't know many directors by name. For the great majority, a director's name is not a sufficient draw for a movie. They may know such names as Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and Tarantino, but beyond that I have my doubts. They probably still think of Clint Eastwood more as an actor than as a director. Few, I suspect, go to the trouble of identifying a director with a film they've enjoyed. They're unlikely to follow the director of Beverly Hills Chihuahua to his next project, for instance, unless it's the sequel. That probably wouldn't be a mistake, since in contemplating a film of that kind we come against the limits of the auteur theory that has dominated film criticism for the last half-century. The theory (or doctrine) dictates that a film's director is its principal author, and that the finished product (ideally) should reflect the director's ideas and career-long thematic concerns. Common sense tells us that the theory applies more to some directors than others. Certain directors have always aspired to creative control of their work, and once they have enough power or security to pick their own projects, they can definitely be considered auteurs. Others cannot be considered that way, and need not be thought of that way by critics or ordinary audiences. If some future film is advertised as "from the director of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, fans of that film would be right not to care unless the new project had something to do with talking dogs.

I offer the above as a caveat to my own ranking of favorite directors. If you like a film, the director shouldn't necessarily get most of the credit. In the days of the Hollywood studio moguls, directors were often treated like interchangeable parts, and their work was subject to re-writes, re-edits or re-shoots beyond their control. While the "Golden Age" studio system is pretty much dead, that doesn't mean that every film you see represents a director's personal vision. But you should know a real vision when you see it. The eight I like best today had and have such visions. It's customary to round up to a top ten, but while I was thinking about this I realized that there were only eight that I felt absolutely certain about -- today, that is. I offer them in alphabetical order, and you can draw your own conclusions about my tastes from the list.

Joel & Ethan Coen (1954-present). Some of you will already draw conclusions from this first entry. The Coen Bros. are a love-them-or-hate-them proposition. Many dislike them, finding their films cold, mocking and inhumane. But I appreciate their satirical vision, and I don't have the middlebrow's need to "care" for the characters in a movie. I can recommend all their films until their weak run of films from The Man Who Wasn't There through The Ladykillers. No Country For Old Men was a comeback and a change of pace, and Burn After Reading showed them their old selves again, albeit impatient with their old material. The Coens are probably the funniest guys on my list, which says something about my sense of humor, I suppose.

Kinji Fukasaku (1930-2003).My appreciation of this Japanese genre genius dates back to my purchase of a grey-market videotape of his late-career stunner Battle Royale, a film pretty much unshowable in public in the United States due to its students-with-guns storyline. DVD allowed me to discover his classics from the 1970s, including the "Battles Without Honor or Humanity" series (aka Yakuza Papers), the World War II expose Under the Flag of the Rising Sun and the historical epic released here as Shogun's Samurai. Fukasaku has a violent visual style, filming brutal action scenes with handheld cameras, that gives his movies a gritty vitality. The "Battles" films are said to have demolished the popular myth of the honorable yakuza, and are sometimes equated with the Godfather films. Allowing for cultural and budgetary differences, that's a fair comparison.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-99). Same as with the Coens, Kubrick is accused of inhumanity and contempt for his characters, but I needn't repeat myself on that point. I admire his visual rigor, the perfection of his compositions that others find cold and forbidding. He didn't make enough movies, and Eyes Wide Shut hints that he was losing it toward the end (AI, had he done it himself, might have confirmed this), but let's be grateful for The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. Lots of directors made many more films but have fewer classics to their credit. Killer's Kiss, Spartacus and Lolita have their moments, too. Barry Lyndon is still much underrated, but it rewards a patient viewing with a final duel that's one of the most nerve-wracking sequences on film just because it's done so slowly and deliberately.

Akira Kurosawa (1910-98). Some critics say that he's too "American" for a Japanese director and thus inferior to more culturally embedded makers of more mundane stories. But I won't judge Kurosawa (or Fukasaku) by a standard of Japanese-ness any more than I judge the Americans on my list by some standard of Americanism. Cinematically Kurosawa is a citizen of the world, as best proven by his Russian film, Dersu Uzala. That he didn't get to film Runaway Train in the U.S. in the '60s despite extensive preparation is a tragedy of film history. I don't apologize for preferring action epics and just plain epics from Seven Samurai through Ran to dramas of families sipping tea. Kurosawa's modern-dress thrillers, including The Bad Sleep Well and High And Low, are just as good, and Ikiru proves that he could do slice-of-life as well as anybody. He has some clunkers in his filmography (The Idiot and Dreams come to mind) but those are overshadowed by his masterpieces.

Fritz Lang (1890-1976). He made Metropolis, but his two Niebelungen films from earlier in the 1920s are even better. I'm willing to say that Lang is the best director of the silent era -- not as fancy with the camera as some, but probably the most effective cinematic storyteller without sound. He mastered sound with M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse before fleeing Germany, eventually landing in the U.S. to help invent film noir. Lang spent about 20 years here and had problems with the studio system but still managed to make strong films from Fury, in which Spencer Tracy plots vengeance on the men who tried to lynch him, through While the City Sleeps, in which sleazy journalists compete to track down a serial killer. He tried his hand at everything from westerns to war movies, but in America he did his best work chronicling the criminal impulse and its consequences.

Anthony Mann (1905-67). His reputation is steadily growing stronger as people rediscover more of his output from the 1940s through the 1960s. Mann made his name with intense films noirs ranging from the more-relevant-than-ever Border Incident, which portrays the perils of illegal immigration, to the one-of-a-kind Reign of Terror, a noir set during the French Revolution. In the '50s he became a Western specialist, leading the evolution of the genre in a more mature direction, making Jimmy Stewart a plausible antihero in films like Winchester 73, The Naked Spur and The Far Country. Then he tried his hand at full-scale epics, and his El Cid is probably the best of its kind. He may be the best director of outdoor action ever. He jumped the shark with The Fall of the Roman Empire, but that film still has much to recommend it, especially compared to Ridley Scott's overrated knockoff effort, Gladiator.

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73). John Woo cites Melville as a major influence, but don't hold that against the Frenchman. Melville's work is quite unlike Woo's hysterical exaggeration. His crime films have a stark, almost clinical quality that still lets you feel for doomed protagonists like Lino Ventura in Le Deuxieme Souffle ("Second Wind"). Stripped of the melodrama typical of many American films, Melville gives you the feeling that you're discovering a genuine underworld of real people rather than archetypes. He directs with an unpretentious clarity that enhances the suspense of his stories. He was often ignored in this country while he was alive because he wasn't really part of the "New Wave" of more intellectual, experimental French directors, but he's come back from the grave with a vengeance. His Resistance thriller Army of Shadows (1969) wasn't even released theatrically here until 2005, and then some critics said it was the best new film of the year.

Michael Powell (1905-90). In the middle of the 1940s this British visionary was most likely the best director on the planet. He combined a Romantic sensibility with an overpowering eye for art direction for a streak of films culminating in the fantastical A Matter of Life and Death, the feverishly exotic Black Narcissus and the ballet-world tragedy The Red Shoes. There was yet to come the pioneer serial-killer movie Peeping Tom, a contemporary of Psycho that caused a scandal in Britain that effectively ruined Powell's career, but is now considered a masterpiece. His are some of the most beautiful movies ever filmed. Martin Scorsese treated Powell like a guru, and in some films you can see the great American straining for effects that Powell achieved seemingly by magic.

So there are my eight directors. It's probably not the most adventurous list, lacking as it is any really transgressive, bad-good or plucked-from-obscurity choices. But it isn't meant to stake any controversial claims. It's only here to give you a clue of where I come from aesthetically and thematically when we come to the more high-end films. My standards for evaluating grindhouse product are another story entirely, and for another time.

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