July 7, 2009

Steven Soderbergh’s baseball statistics movie Moneyball was shelved by Sony a few weeks back, mere days before shooting was to begin. Budgeted at $57 million and with Brad Pitt slated as the lead, its abandonment seemed to signal that mid-range, artistically ambitious projects will suffer the most in the current financial crisis. As ace Variety blogger Anne Thompson has noted, “Hollywood is moving in two simultaneous directions: behemoth event pics, and smaller personal films — with little middle ground.” One would expect that along with Soderbergh, Michael Mann and David Fincher will find it increasingly difficult to get their visions onto the screen. This is lamentable, regardless of your opinion of the filmmakers (I’m partial to Fincher, but an admirer of all), who each bring an ambitious pop sensibility to the screen. But what of the genre directors? These mid to low-budgeted spectacles (the Transporters, House Bunnies, and Hangovers) will always be cranked out, and will generally be profitable. If nothing else, the espousers of the auteur theory taught us to ignore the boundary between “high” and “low” art, to scavenge in every nook and cranny of the American cinema for possible artistry.

The Independent’s Kaleem Aftab expands Thompson’s reasoned analysis into a confusing screed about the lack of “great American directors”, and he ignores genre films as well. Below the fold I offer a list of my favorite contemporary genre operators, a group of under-the-radar auteurs and purveyors of quality pulp. First though, I have to take Aftab to task. Aside from the fact that he lists 20 or so “great” directors in his own piece, he clearly has no idea what an “auteur” is. His definition: “a director whose films had to be watched no matter what they were about or who was in them.” He goes on to say that after the auteur theory hit, “Suddenly, it was the director rather than the producer, the studio or the lead actor who became the star.” Aside from the fact that this is blatantly false (only Hitchcock could be considered a “star”, everyone else the New Wavers or Sarris championed were anonymous genre operators: Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller), it never discusses the films themselves, only their popularity.

He equates auteur status with box-office success, and so he has little interest in Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, or Wes Anderson, because “none are household names, and none command guaranteed box-office.” The ignorance of this line is breathtaking – a studio head couldn’t have encapsulated the triumph of commerce over art better.  Nothing tops the line in his discussion of Judd Apatow though….witness: “It’s unusual for a comedy director to gain auteur status…”. Yes, if you ignore Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Blake Edwards, Preston Sturges….

That’s enough negativity for one post. Let’s think pretty thoughts – ones involving bodily fluids, but pretty nonetheless. This list is not supposed to act as a counterweight to Hollywood doomsaying. I agree that the majority of Hollywood’s output has suffered terribly since the studio days, and that kind of effortless craft is probably never to return. Consider this an addendum to Sarris’ chapter in THE AMERICAN CINEMA on “Subjects for Further Research”, a hodgepodge of encouraging voices from the disreputable realms of the action, comedy, and horror realms, and in no way tracking any trends. Just a few names I’ve gained plenty of pleasure from on the lower end of the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, and those that will continue to reside in-between the “behemoth event pics and smaller personal films”. These guys (and girl) make up the ignored middle ground.

1. Adam McKay (Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008)):

Adam McKay has a clear directorial personality and style: he places emphases on group improvisation and the psychoses of men in arrested development. His comedy skews anarchic and prefers digression to clean narrative lines. He’s the only true inheritor of the Marx Brothers’ manically performative aesthetic, even their relatively lax visual style. Absurdities build up until they burst out in insane setpieces (the anchorman street fight, the Mountain Dew-sponsored dinner, the Catalina Wine Mixer). Step Brothers is the purest distillation of his aesthetic thus far. Directed best episode (#5) of Eastbound and Down. Curious to see how a film without Will Ferrell would turn out…

2. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank (2006); Crank: High Voltage (2009)):

The cleverest action-film fanboys on the screen (apologies to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino). The two Crank films are marketed as action films but end up as comedies about the action genre. The plot in both concerns Chev Chelios’ heart failure. In the first he needs shots of adrenaline to stay alive, in the second, shocks of electricity. Both reflect on the audience’s need for constant titillation, and do so in resourceful ways. Jason Statham proves to be a deft deliverer of wisecracks and pratfalls, as he shimmies to “Achy Breaky Heart” or tumbles onto a horse track. Sequel is funnier, less moving than the original. Next up for them is Gamer (2009).

3. Peyton Reed (Bring it On (2000), Down With Love (2003), The Break-Up (2006), Yes Man (2008)):

By far the most successful director on this list, he’s possibly the most unknown. The only director who could resurrect the romantic comedy as a viable genre. Had the gall to end The Break-Up with an actual break up, as well as filming arguments with bite and verve. Handles female performers well: see Kirsten Dunst’s exuberant performance in Bring it On and Renee Zellwegger’s last charming turn in Down With Love (including a bravado 3 minute or so monlogue). Shows a talent for brisk pacing and actual witty dialogue. Have yet to see Yes Man.

4. Jessica Bendinger (Stick It (2006)):

She’s only directed one film, but it shows a flair for Busby Berkeley-esque montages of bodies in motion as well as other offhanded bits of visual wit, like when the lead gymnast blocks out her annoying competitor in the background by blotting her out with her sneaker in extreme close-up. Not to mention the exuberant performances by a slew of unknown teen girls in Jeff Bridges’ struggling gymnast camp. And to further not mention the strikingly visualized theme of girls taking power over their own bodies in the beautifully anti-climactic finale. Bendinger primarily made her mark as a screenwriter and script doctor, having her hands in Bring it On (her debut), Mean Girls, Sex and the City, Freaky Friday, Hitch, among others.  Stick It is superior to all of her written workdespite its modest box office returns, and I dearly hope she’s allowed to make another mid-range teen film soon. Her first book will be published in November, a paranormal romance called The Seven Rays.

5. Ti West (The Roost (2005), Trigger Man (2007), The House of the Devil (2009)):

In thrall to 80s horror without devolving into camp, Ti West makes solidly unpretentious scare films that actually take the time to build tension. Trigger Mancreates suspense out of a few guys in the Delaware woods, the sound of gunshots, and gallons of fake blood. Impressive scenes of wandering, small talk, getting to know you stuff. The kind of laid back character work needed to lay the hammer down later (Full disclosure: I work for Kino, the company that put this out on DVD). James Whale knew this, John Carpenter knew this, and now apparently, this indie director knows it too. The House of the Devil (image left) was picked up by Magnet Releasing (a subsidiary of Magnolia), a satan-worshipper film that bewtiches for its set design and performances as much for its gore. The long delayed sequel to Cabin Feveris still in post-production, and here’s hoping he won’t have to cut his films to ribbons upon his entree to Hollywood.

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