Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Heaven’s Gate

Three men and a camera

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Bill Cunningham

What does it mean to be an uncompromising artist? Over the last two weeks, we’ve lost three very different men whose careers feel like a series of case studies in how to approach that unanswerable question. One was Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer whom I once described as possibly the sanest man alive, and who maintained his creative and personal freedom for decades by paring his life down to the essentials in the heart of New York City. Another was the director Michael Cimino, who helped establish the Hollywood auteur era of the seventies with The Deer Hunter, and then singlehandedly destroyed it with Heaven’s Gate. The third was Abbas Kiarostami, who managed to do innovative work for more than thirty years in his homeland after the Iranian Revolution, in large part by being so persistently odd and original that his government didn’t know what to do with him. Each man is worth scrutinizing closely, either as a role model or as a cautionary tale, and for all their surface dissimilarities, they all tried, in their own ways, to crack the urgent problem of how an artist is expected to live in the world. (Because of the timing of their obituaries, I’ve been especially struck by the parallels between Cunningham and Cimino, who might otherwise seem to have nothing in common. Both were products of the Ivy League whose backgrounds remain shrouded in mystery, and both guarded their private lives so obsessively that they were asked pointed questions about their sexuality in interviews, which they both dodged, rightly, as irrelevant to the issue at hand.)

And none of them ever quite conformed to the expectations of their admirers. One of the recurring themes in the loving tributes to Cunningham that filled the New York Times over the weekend was that he was a gentle, generous man who could also be a huge pain to work with. Here are a few excerpts from the oral history:

The best thing you could do with Bill Cunningham was to get out of his way…He was a control freak to a large degree, but in a very unusual way. He was just all about the work…The assistants that the art department assigned Bill to do his pages—he went through a long string of people, and it was a love-hate toward Bill. John [Kurdewan] was one of the more long-suffering people in that role. Protecting his pages was very important to him.

Kurdewan himself remembers: “Art directors were dealing with Bill, and because it was so complicated they were complaining. It was ‘Just have John do it.’ I said to the art director, ‘What do I do?’ They said, ‘Whatever he wants.’” This might all seem slightly out of tune with the way we remember and think about Cunningham, but in fact, it’s perfectly consistent. The best reason to simplify your existence, declare your independence from money, and rigorously efface yourself is that it allows you to refuse to compromise when it truly matters. And Bill Cunningham understood this better than anyone.

Abbas Kiarostami

This isn’t an approach, to put it mildly, that would have made sense to Michael Cimino, who seems to have confronted every challenge with one of my favorite lines of dialogue from any movie, which he wrote for The Deer Hunter: “I’m gonna will us out of here.” And his career is less interesting for its ultimate failure than for the fact that he got away with it for as long as he did. The debacle of Heaven’s Gate, which lost $40 million and destroyed the old United Artists studio, has been told elsewhere, most notably in Steven Bach’s classic book Final Cut. Yet it’s worth remembering that it became a paradigmatic example of excess not because it lost money—plenty of films have lost more—but because Cimino was so scandalously willing to place his vision above the concerns of the executives whose careers he ruined. He was punished, not for directing a flop, but for daring to expose the helplessness of the systems that had been designed to prevent such an implosion from occurring. (Which isn’t to say that his critics weren’t right. The Deer Hunter strikes me today as an ethically problematic movie saved only by its sheer technical facility, both from Cimino and from his extraordinary cast, who seem to have spun their characters out of nothing. Heaven’s Gate is every bit the waste of resources that its reputation suggests. And the only movie by Cimino that I’d watch again today is Year of the Dragon, which suffers from the same racial obliviousness as The Deer Hunter, but at least takes the trouble to create an exciting story with a worthy antagonist. Cimino is hard to admire, much less to like, but he was far from a talentless or uninteresting director.)

Yet it’s Kiarostami whom I’ve found myself thinking about the most. I’ve only seen a few of his films, but it seems safe to say that his artistic evolution—from realism to audacious formal experimentation—was a reaction to the political climate in which he was forced to spend most of his career. Of his reception by the Iranian regime, Kiarostami said: “The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past ten years. I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them from being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out.” It’s a particularly bittersweet kind of success, but he still threaded that needle for longer than anyone could have thought possible. Kiarostami was sometimes criticized as apolitical, but he molded his audience in profoundly radical ways. As he once observed:

In my films, I try to give people as little information as possible, which is still much more than what they get in real life. I feel that they should be grateful for the little bit of information I give them. If they were as inquisitive when they come to watch my films as they are in real life, they’d make my life easier.

His movies are training grounds for empathy and the imagination, even when he deliberately frustrates any attempt at interpretation, as he does in Certified Copy, which is one of my ten favorite films of the decade. The problem of survival in the world also lacks a single definitive answer, as the lives of these three men suggest. But the first step, it seems, is to do whatever it takes to ensure that nothing comes between you and the camera.

A recipe for remakes

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William Hurt in Altered States

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What do you actually want to see get a sequel or a remake?”

Whenever the old debate starts up again about Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy, in which franchises and sequels have taken the place of original material, someone always pipes up to point out that nothing has really changed. The studios have loved remakes and seemingly safe bets from the beginning: the version of The Maltese Falcon that we know and love was actually the third movie made from Hammett’s original novel, and sequels were already a proven idea long before Son of the Sheik. As I’ve said before, the movie business is so predicated on risk and uncertainty that you can’t entirely blame it for trying to minimize the unknowns wherever it can. Even the cinema of the 1970s, which is usually held up as a period of unusual creative experimentation, was really an attempt to replicate a few big outliers, like Easy Rider. What made those years distinctive was less an idealistic embrace of artistic freedom than a pragmatic decision to turn over the keys to the kingdom. The studios no longer knew what audiences wanted, so they briefly trusted the likes of Robert Altman and Dennis Hopper to figure it out—although they were happier when they could throw something together like Exorcist II.

A more justifiable complaint is the fact that the movies that get remade are rarely the ones that need it. There’s a perverse kind of natural selection at work here: for a movie to stand out enough in retrospect to attract an enterprising producer’s attention, it’s usually one that holds up perfectly well on its own, when flawed or mediocre ideas that might actually benefit from a second attempt are forgotten soon after release. This only means that memory alone isn’t a useful guide, and might even be an actively poor one, when it comes to finding stories that would be promising candidates for another pass. I think it’s William Goldman who says somewhere that if he were put in charge of a major studio, the first thing he’d do would be to hire someone to read all the scripts they owned but had never made. Screenplays can be optioned, developed, and shelved for all kinds of reasons, including internal disputes or succession issues that have long since been rendered irrelevant—so there a probably a few neglected gems in every studio’s archives. It’s only a matter of looking for them. And the same is true of remakes.

The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent

Let’s pick a year at random—say, 1980, which happens to be the year I was born. It’s also a transitional moment, since it saw the release of both Heaven’s Gate, which destroyed what little remained of the auteur system in Hollywood, and The Empire Strikes Back, which vindicated the franchise model forever. A glance at the most successful movies of that year reveals a bunch of titles that have already gotten the remake, reboot, or belated sequel treatment: The Blues Brothers, Friday the 13th, The Fog, Fame, Prom Night, even The Shining. (And I’m not even counting movies like Airplane! or Caddyshack that had sequels released shortly thereafter.) Scroll down a little further, though, and the titles start to jump out at you: flawed movies with decent concepts that deserve another look. I’d love to see a remake of Altered States, for instance, using modern digital and practical effects. A contemporary take on William Friedkin’s Cruising could be fascinating, although I can’t imagine a studio these days that would want to touch it—much less De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. And movies as different as The Formula and Brubaker flirt with issues that might well be worth revisiting today.

None of these movies are especially likely to be made, of course—although I wouldn’t rule out Disney taking another crack at The Final Countdown. But I still think that the ideal candidates for remakes, which will always be with us, fall somewhere in the sweet spot between total obscurity and fond recollection. The originals aren’t so good that they fill us with reverence, or so forgettable that we might as well go with a fresh script. And at least one production company is exploring something along these lines: American International Pictures, founded by the late Samuel Arkoff, whose son has announced an effort to create a new shared universe out of such properties as Teenage Caveman, The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent, and War of the Colossal Beast. It’s the kind of idea that seems faintly ridiculous at first glance, then oddly plausible, if only because these movies had plenty of personality. (Whenever I think of Arkoff, I’m reminded of the famous exchange he had with Rex Reed shortly after the premiere of The Winged Serpent. Reed: “What a surprise! All that dreck—and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Arkoff: “The dreck was my idea.”) The world doesn’t need another Seven Samurai. But we could do a lot worse than a few old movies in slightly altered states.

How Hollywood learned to love the bomb

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Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds in R.I.P.D.

Why are we so fascinated by flops? Each year, there’s a race in the media to declare one movie or another the biggest disaster of the summer, and these days, the speculation seems to start weeks or months before a film’s release. In some cases, as with World War Z, the result blows past expectations to turn into a “surprise” success; for others, like The Lone Ranger, the early forebodings turn out to have been more than justified. At times, the media’s salivation over an impending bomb verges on the unseemly: the knives were out for R.I.P.D. long before it underwhelmed over this past weekend, to a point where a lot of potential audience members may have been discouraged from attending by the negative press. Nobody likes to back a loser. (It’s also worth noting that the definition of a bomb is more subjective than you might think: Pacific Rim has already made a number of lists of big-budget disasters, but fans on Reddit and elsewhere are equally eager to declare it a success, and the real truth is likely to land somewhere in the middle, especially once international grosses are taken into account.)

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else: God knows I’ve spent enough time on this blog writing about John Carter. And the media has been obsessed with high-profile flops for as long as we’ve been going to the movies. Still, there’s no denying that the cycle has accelerated in recent years, to an extent that goes hand in hand with our fixation with getting the weekend numbers as quickly as possible. I’ve always been a box office junkie: I’ve visited the sites Box Office Mojo and Box Office Guru twice a week for most of the last fifteen years, and I’ll frequently check the latter’s Twitter feed for the latest updates. For big releases, estimated numbers for opening day are often available online early Saturday morning, which leads to an extraordinarily rapid verdict on the movie’s ultimate prospects: Friday numbers can be used to project the weekend as whole, which can give you a decent sense of the final gross, meaning that a picture that took a studio two or three years to conceive, produce, and market can have its success or failure decided in less than twenty-four hours.

Taylor Kitsch and friend in John Carter

In theory, that’s great drama—greater, in many cases, than what’s visible on the screen. And you’d think it would only get more intense as the major studios continue to place all of their bets on a handful of big tentpole pictures, rather than the traditional slate of small- to medium-sized releases. It’s an article of faith in contemporary Hollywood that it’s better to invest everything in a single movie that costs half a billion dollars to make and distribute rather than to spread the cost over half a dozen smaller films. The risks are enormous, but the returns can be equally great. Until, of course, they aren’t. And the stakes involved mean that even otherwise forgettable factory products can seem like insane acts of hubris. A few decades ago, an epochal flop worthy of a book like Final Cut or The Devil’s Candy—which respectively chronicle the stories behind Heaven’s Gate and The Bonfire of the Vanities—seemed to only appear every five years or so, and now, you could write a book like this every summer.

After a while, though, they all start to blur together. A movie like Heaven’s Gate may be a disaster—and make no mistake, it is, despite the recent attempts to reevaluate it as a neglected masterpiece—but at least it was the product of a particular crazed vision, however misguided it might have been. These days, flops are just part of the cost of doing business, and if there’s a story to be told here, it’s less about any one director’s megalomania than about the bumps in what has turned out to be a surprisingly viable corporate model. The blockbuster mentality can be hard to defend from an artistic perspective, and it leads to a glut of sequels and comic book franchises, but from a financial point of view, it works. Universal may have taken a hit from R.I.P.D., but that’s more than offset by the gains from Fast and Furious 6 and Despicable Me 2. It’s a model designed to absorb big disasters, which are a necessary side effect of an industry that rounds everything to the nearest hundred million. Flops, in short, are no longer interesting even as flops. And that’s the saddest part of all.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2013 at 9:00 am

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