Thursday, February 7, 2008

LOOK AT THESE ASSHOLES: American Directors Who Mattered in 2007

In 2007 a whole bunch of directors that I care about made plays for “maturity.” David Fincher, in direct contrast to the triviality of his last film Panic Room (2002), turned in what Film Comment deemed the film of the year, Zodiac. Another director who hadn’t put out a film in five years was Paul Thomas Anderson, following up the left turn into zaniness that was Punch-Drunk Love with another left turn, finally finding a proper milieu for his penchant for melodrama in the historical setting of There Will Be Blood. Perhaps most spectacularly, the Coens rebounded from the only slump thus far in their career (two duds in a row by my count) with what may turn out to be their masterpiece, No Country for Old Men. David Cronenberg continued what he started with A History of Violence (2005)—although less successfully—in Eastern Promises. (Although I suppose you could argue that Cronenberg’s true bid for respectability was Spider, back in 2002.) In utter opposition to this trend was the double-shot of celebratory B-movieness that was Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, and yet another installment of Steven Soderbergh’s totally superfluous Ocean’s series.

Where did Projectionist house favorite Wes Anderson fit into this spectrum? Did Wes intend for The Darjeeling Limited to be a departure? With that many slow-motion-Kinks-montages being thrown around, I can’t imagine Wes could’ve believed he was turning away from his signature style. Perhaps by returning his characters to the road he meant to return his filmmaking to the less precious and refined style of his first feature, Bottle Rocket (1996). Darjeeling is clearly a transitional picture for Wes. He brought on new co-writers and attempted to address issues of mortality and spirituality in a much more serious manner than his previous feature The Life Aquatic—or anything that came before it. On the other hand, almost everyone involved is a former collaborator on at least one other project.

The other Anderson, P.T., ditched all of his previous onscreen collaborators for a cast with period-looking faces and a chance in hell of keeping up with Daniel Day-Lewis. (For the record, I don’t believe Paul Dano really holds his own against the big guy, especially in that already-infamous last scene.) He also turned in just about all of his cartoony affectations without sacrificing his love of over-the-top performance and powerful sequences set to music. There is no doubt that the visions of violence in There Will Be Blood are more real, more in touch with physical reality and designed to be taken more seriously (for better or worse) than any depictions to be found previously in P.T.’s filmography. This then emerges as a common theme throughout the films of all of the directors under discussion here.

Where death may have been a joke in previous films by these directors, it is no longer so in these new ones. In Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan’s psychotic rages are disturbing, but still funny in a weird way, and the reality of the film is so skewed that his violence is accepted as part of a cartoon-like universe. In There Will Be Blood, when Daniel Plainview hurts someone—or someone is hurt by the mechanisms of industry under his control—we feel it. It hurts us. In The Life Aquatic, when Esteban is eaten by that shark, it’s hilarious. When the kid drowns in the river in Darjeeling Limited, it’s unbearably sad. The Coen Bros., too, participate in this trend. Pretty much the only thing their previous effort, 2004’s The Ladykillers, had going for it was a running joke about the cheapness of life. Every time somebody else would die, they’d just toss 'em over the bridge. No matter how many people Anton Suger kills in No Country for Old Men, you never stop feeling their deaths. David Fincher’s Zodiac took that inability to stop feeling past tragedies as its very theme, and it, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were all period pieces set in earlier times of strife and transition in America. The Coens also populated their cast with actors they’d never worked with before.

What does it mean that the filmmakers whose work I have come of age watching are all attempting to grow up and address those issues common to all humanity— mortality and spirituality? Probably only that I am getting older.


cinebeats said...

I've only seen Zodiac so far, but I'm looking forward to seeing No Country for Old Men, Darjeeling Limited and There Will Be Blood in the future. This is the first time in years that I'm actually interested in seeing multiple "Oscar contenders" which sort of makes me nervous and weary of the hype, but we'll see. I do think Zodiac was the best film I saw in 2007 at this point and it's been ignored during the award season.

I don't personally consider Cronenberg's latest body of work to be a bid for respectability, but I can understand how it would be easy to see it that way. I think he's an artist just exploring new avenues and I like the direction he's taking. There are lot of subtle layers to his new films that are being overlooked by critics, but Eastern Promises is a mixed piece of work for sure. I did like the film though (not as much as a History of Violence, but almost) and I also like the performances he's able to get out of Viggo. I'm curious where their working relationship will take them next.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Kimberly: Thanks for your comments.

I think I fell victim a little bit in this piece to trying to talk about the way that the critical world at large saw these directors, instead of focusing on what I thought. You can see that coming through in the somewhat cursory mention of Cronenberg here. I don't think his motivation for doing these films is anything or than following his muse, but that doesn't mean they don't represent a softening of his aesthetic, a middle-age calming.