From First To Last: Old Farts

If some filmmakers outstay their welcome, Quentin Tarantino won’t be the one to judge.

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Some older fimmakers make boring films (in many respects they are like a lot of young filmmakers) and some older filmmakers need to be praised for continuing to create. I want to see filmmakers grow old. Some stay interesting, others slow down (though that’s no bad thing) and some stay the same. And staying the same can be very boring indeed.

Martin Scorsese once professed he was a fan of Howard Hawks – no surprise – but he also really rated Land of the Pharaohs, a lesser film from the great American director. Scorsese said with pride that “I watch this movie over and over again”. Fair enough. Pharaohs is a slow-moving and bloated film, filled with effects, its thin story is stretched beyond endurance, though Joan Collins is very good in it.

Now it feels like Scorsese is making Land of the Pharaohs himself, over and over again… clichéd, hung up on style, flat, tiring, way too long, his latest films lack the immediacy and individuality that he once brought.

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At least Hawks returned to form with Rio Bravo, but that began a cycle of self-referential work… and that seems like Scorsese, too: his films have been homages before (Visconti’s Rocco And His Brothers, J Lee Thompson’s Cape Fear), but more often recently they’ve been homages to himself and his own past glory. It was sort of okay for him to repeat so many other tricks he’d seen, like an archivist turning up some great research, or reminding us of other director’s visionary work (Hey look at this black & white photography, like an Italian Neo Realist! Yay!), but, after that, what was he for? He’d run out of actual themes or the spark to ignite something visually inventive had died and he didn’t seem to be able to get anything green-lit, noted Paul Schrader, unless it starred the boy wonder (who thankfully has grown older). Without a theme driving his work all of his films started to tell me about something else – another film, like he was recommending it to me… one I’d rather watch. “Ah, this is about Howard Hughes, I wish I was watching Hell’s Angels instead, that film is still far more exciting than this one and feels much more essential as a piece of cinema.”

I am sure as a filmmaker he’s still hungry, works really hard, overcomes challenges and that this keeps his work looking good – they still have that mannered editing style featuring soft cuts and overlaps, slow transitions and fast fade-outs, rapid montages, etc. and his camera still prowls around everywhere, looking into faces mostly… but… so? His films don’t have anything to prove anymore, his ticks feel redundant… and his work feels ‘heavy’. Not heavy like ‘serious’, but heavy like you’ve eaten too much and need a shit, or you’re carrying a corpse down a flight of stairs and the deadweight is making you sweat. His films don’t have the same need that they used to have. He can’t make a little film, a cheap film anymore. When he takes time out and looks to other cinematic forms to recharge his creative batteries it’s to make a tiny-huge concert film with The Rolling Stones.

I appreciate he’s made some great, fascinating work in the past, but I just don’t feel the need to see anything he makes now, people say “It’s much better than ____”, or “It really reminds me of _____” and “it’s the best things he’s done since ____”. There’s no reason for him to make films if they’re reminiscent of his own past. That past is still there. He should be moving forward. There’s nothing to see and nothing essential in his work.

Plenty of directors of his generation are still making films. Many of them unable to achieve the kind of funding and distribution he can. A lot of those filmmakers continue to make puzzling, curious work, still feel the need to tell stories where audiences can even get angry, saying: “this isn’t like his old stuff!” These directors are frustrating. De Palma continues to piss audiences off, to make low-budget European films and big budget American productions (some of the time, though less often) and while his tics and mannerisms, his narrative style may remain consistent, his story world is broader, his fascination with genre (particularly the many brands of ‘thriller’ from Giallo to Noir) seems to tighten his tale-telling, to give it pace. Though sometimes he goes completely wild, shoots a film set in America in Eastern Europe (money… the studios don’t seem to really love him any more) and goes completely off the rails with fantastically operatic tableau – The Black Dahlia is so unlike the studio and audience friendly L.A. Confidential. Good. Mind you, it’s frustrating. But sometimes he’ll make a Passion or a Femme Fatale – films equally mad and far more successfully so. He takes risks.

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Other directors have failed to maintain recognition and respect as they grow older. Dario Argento (who has a fan in Scorsese, but less so in De Palma it seems, who borrows more from Sergio Martino), is forced to make films he has little investment in; he hasn’t originated the stories, he has to work for a much lower budget and without a guaranteed distribution strategy from a major studio. But his works remain idiosyncratic, unpredictable and often his choices are bizarre – no other director would agree to the wild ‘dual casting’ decision of Argento’s Giallo, starring Adrien Brody, which almost sinks the entire film, but Argento carries on regardless, as if he’s curious, excited to see what will happen if… The risks he takes seem to blow up in his face. The lack of funding denies him his stylistic interests the space they need to flourish, I suspect. But he still goes for it and doesn’t look like he’s going to quit.

So, if idiosyncrasy and narrative style are not enough to secure most ‘older’ filmmakers longevity or critical acclaim, box office is. Scorsese is about box office. He has enough marketing and sales support to secure that, thanks in part to the long-held belief that casting will sell (or partly sell) each of his films, largely on the strength of just one cast member, what’s-his-name, from Titanic (I suspect that Scorsese sees DiCaprio as a stand-in for himself).

Tarantino once made the (ridiculous) statement that directors stay on the stage for too long, don’t know when to quit. “I like the idea of leaving them wanting a bit more. I do think directing is a young man’s game, and I like the idea of an umbilical cord connection from my first to my last movie.” Tarantino wants audiences to see him just as virile on his bow-out as he was on his arrival on the scene. There’s something incredibly arrogant about it. Plus he makes the same mistake that one of his shouty characters once attempted to illustrate: when you assume you make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’. He assumes that this umbilical cord is broken when a director refuses to retire, when he or she just goes on and on. This is untrue. There are plenty of examples of older directors still operating to make interesting and essential cinema and some who have had long and distinguished careers (like Eastwood, but without talking to empty chairs):

Agnes Varda is in her 80’s – her work has remained vital because it seems so personal. Ken Russell continued to make films long after he was side-lined by the ‘proper’ film industry, because he had to. Manoel de Oliveira died at 102 and made his first feature in 1942 and his last in 2012 (he made a short doc in 2014).

And that central idea, that a first film and a last film are connected, is perhaps true – maybe you can judge the value of a filmmakers career by comparing the two?

Tarantino made a spare, dynamic, structurally interesting but talky first feature. He maintained the talky quality, expanding the dialogue into long speech making, until well over half the running time of all his films are scenes where people sit around chatting. His final film will be his 10th, he’s promised! And it must surely be three or four hours long and consist of a single scene where a bunch of loud men discuss tipping their waitress, who is the best superhero and quote from the bible. It will be the same film as before but in different clothes. And that buys him success: People fear change the way Tarantino fears growing old in public.

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I think the first film of a director and their final film (or latest if the old farts are still with us) are often the most fascinating. They can reveal a director as a conservative artist, or a creative one. Nic Roeg’s Performance (with Donald Cammell) is an amazingly fresh experiment in identity and creation and he applies that same desire to experiment and to collaborate in Puffball. The results might not make everyone happy, but they’re indicative of a thematic body of works that constantly explores ‘ideas’. It’s easy to say: “Oh, he’s not as good as he used to be when he was in his 20’s…” or “The film isn’t as exciting as his first…” but his desire to make things, to remain creative, is impressive and is a present force in the work itself. Maybe people could say: “But the multi-million dollar movies of Scorsese with the huge studio support and massive crews are much better looking…”

But they’re not.

I imagine that older directors like to work shorter days – so they prepare better, they like to shoot less, therefore and don’t fuck about as much in the edit suite. Their films become ‘solid’ and they like to have more toilet breaks during filming. Maybe their films look ‘slower’, or are longer? Maybe. Muscular features like Don Seigel’s The Lineup, with a manically murderous Eli Wallach, made when the director was a young 46, ran for a tight 86 minutes and Escape From Alcatraz made when he was nearing 70 was just under 2 hours long. Alfred Hitchcock’s early British career was filled with tight little features, but his last finished film, Family Plot, was 2 hours long. Most of his American films were around 2 hours long or more. When he left England he’d been able to make spare works and though he was about to make his masterpieces in the USA they were all a lot longer. Something had happened. Success? A need from a studio to make something ‘proper’, more ‘legitimate’?

Maybe the real reason Argento can’t get films off the ground, with screenwriters who want to collaborate, is because of money and ego? Maybe. That makes him a bit like Lynch, who doesn’t want to work unless the price is right. But Argento can’t find the cash and seems bullied by fans – every screenwriter he’s worked with recently (largely American) claims to be his number 1 fan – and then the same fans complain when the films he produces don’t resemble the ones he used to make. Great, Argento is still developing at 74!

I will wait around to watch the next Argento film, even if it’s a predestined disaster (all the wise oracles will tell you it is shit years before it is even edited), I will hope to see an older filmmaker working in the fringes of popular cinema, carrying on long after many think he should have stopped (to maintain a Tarantino-esque, mythic quality control). But… Scorsese doesn’t need to make anything, not because he’s rich, not because it is too easy, but because he’s said everything he can say and his success at being able to make films appears to limit him. His last film could be tomorrow, or next year, or even last year. It will be the same thing.

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I like the idea that as things get harder for a filmmaker, their work is stronger. Just as when they began, things weren’t easy. Out of that hard work come real rewards for audiences. Some directors have the messiest careers and you always hope they’ll make it back from the brink (Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento), but to do that they mustn’t quit.

Tarantino has about two more films to go before he quits (he promised to go after 10 films. I assume he doesn’t count Four Rooms as a film at all and thinks of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 as two separate works).

Let’s assume that Tarantino means that the “umbilical” connection between first and last film is a golden thread! He certainly wants his last film to be as good as his first. But the journey of a filmmaker who lives long enough should be a rocky road of discover and development and the industry they came into will change around them as they grow. And as they grow they will learn. So unless that director makes only one film, then quits (and the subject of one hit wonders is worth exploring, too), there will be as many misadventures to match the adventures.

Terry Gilliam still makes films like Jabberwocky, where story is wild, structure, while important, can be ignored, even let go of, so long as he is able to explore. He rambles interestingly and his films are filled with the same energy he came with at the beginning of his career.

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That umbilical cord: Ken Russell started out making shorts and experimenting, he took the jobs he was given until he had the space to make the films he loved. His career ended as a mirror – he closed his career experimenting. Luchino Visconti made films about societies under pressure from his first to his last, made while he was suffering from the impact of a stroke. Raoul Walsh was fascinated by authenticity and it informed his first features, from the uncredited The Life Of General Villa all the way to the military hypocrisy he hated in his last, A Distant Trumpet – he made films he cared about. Robert Hamer’s great British films are keen studies of marriage and the battle of the sexes – from the haunted mirror of Dead Of Night, Pink String And Sealing Wax, all the way through to School for Scoundrels, his career was far too short, booze killed him. J Lee Thompson started out and ended up making tough B-movies, from Murder Without Crime, through Tiger Bay, Cape Fear, to slasher films like Happy Birthday To Me (with it’s incredible climax!) and Charles Bronson tough guy noirs, like 10 to Midnight and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. He didn’t stop, the films he was able to make he made, they stayed tough… though not always likeable.

Like Scorsese John Carpenter is a fan of Howard Hawks.

John Carpenter’s last film is likely to be the under-appreciated The Ward, a ghost story set in a 1960’s mental institute where a psychiatrists alternative therapy threatens the young women who reside there as much as a malevolent spirit that lives there. It doesn’t break any new ground – but that doesn’t mean it fails to entertain.

Carpenter’s directing technique creates a sense of claustrophobia, characters getting on each others nerves, tension building, wide shots monitor the empty spaces and corridors creating an atmosphere filled with potential and dread, prowling cameras, performances given space. This is also the case in his first film, minus the prowling camera, in Dark Star. Here the claustrophobic environment is just as deadly, the camera stares down gloomy corridors within a space ship, potential danger looms, but the characters are more busy bickering and getting at each other. Carpenter is interested in characters under stress, cornered, vulnerable. It’s the way Howard Hawk’s would have wanted it.

CHRIS COOKE

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