In defense of old movie directors.

The joy of blockbusters.
June 28 2006 3:17 PM

The Viagra Auteurs

In defense of old movie directors.

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Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Vincent Sherman died last week, just a month short of his 100th birthday. Unless you are a cinephile, you may not recognize his name, but you have almost certainly seen one of the 31 features he directed: The Hard Way (1943), with Ida Lupino; Mr. Skeffington (1944), with Bette Davis; Adventures of Don Juan (1948), with Errol Flynn, Viveca Lindfors, and some of the most stylish Technicolor photography ever committed to film.

Movies are supposed to be a young person's medium, or so the steady stream of propaganda out of the youth-courting studios and the Sundance Film Festival would have it. But Sherman's death is a reminder that movie directors can be a cussedly long-lived lot. John Ford died at 79, Howard Hawks at 81, Raoul Walsh at 93. And often, they remain active long beyond the mandatory retirement age in most industries. Sherman, for one, continued to direct episodic television until 1983, when he was 76.

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Many film buffs have a special affection for the late works of the masters, even when those films—like Hawks' Rio Lobo (1970) or Ford's 7 Women (1966)—lack the obvious appeal of their midcareer work. These wintry films often have a stark, pared-down quality, a sense of cutting to the essence, that can be tremendously moving—at the same time, they seem a bit sketchy and remote. The glow of seeing Carl Theodor Dreyer's startlingly direct Gertrude, made in 1964 when the great Danish director was 75, temporarily makes all other movies look sentimental and overfurnished. The final film of the great French director Jean Renoir, who died in 1979 at the age of 84, functions almost literally as a last will and testament. The Little Theater of Jean Renoir, a four-part production made for television in 1970, takes us on a tour of Renoir's career, from the poetic realism of his early films (the first episode, "Le dernier révillion"), through the high stylization of his middle period (the second, "La cireuse électrique," is an operetta about a floor waxer), through an object lesson in the director's love for actors (Jeanne Moreau sings "Quand l'amour meurt," alone in front of the camera), and finishing with a classic Renoir parable, "Le roi d'Yvetot," about an old man who passes along his mistress to a younger rival. The mistress is, of course, the movies.

Sherman's death comes at a moment of resurgence for old man's movies (and I use "old man" advisedly, having found few female directors allowed to continue beyond their 50s. One exception is the Czech Republic's Vera Chytilová, who currently has a project in production at the age of 77). The latest film of the 81-year-old Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion, is presently playing theatrically; 16 Blocks, directed by Richard Donner (76) has just been released on DVD; and Find Me Guilty, a courtroom comedy by the venerable Sidney Lumet (81) is due on DVD on June 27. And Clint Eastwood, 76, has twofilms in postproduction, Flags of Our Fathers and Red Sun, Black Sand (together, they tell the story of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese points of view), being readied for release at the end of the year.

For the most part, these filmmakers are doing what they've always done, but infused with more of a calm and contemplative quality. Those latter two adjectives haven't often been applied to the work of Richard Donner, a high-powered studio director who has been in the game since X-15 in 1961 and whose work includes The Omen (1976), Superman (1978), and the "Lethal Weapon" franchise that began in 1987. 16 Blocks stars another aging veteran of the '80s action scene, Bruce Willis, here playing a character close to his own age (51)—a broken-down New York City detective (described as "a self-medicating depressive") who stubbornly decides to fulfill one final mission. He will transport a government witness (Mos Def) 16 blocks downtown to a federal courthouse where he is to testify in a police corruption case, despite the armed opposition of what appears to be the entire New York City police force.

As a screenplay (by Richard Wenk), 16 Blocks seems like a compilation of surefire themes and techniques lifted from a Screenwriting 101 manual: the character in need of last-reel redemption, the interracial buddy-movie bantering (which ends with Def and Willis presenting a united front), and even a ticking clock (the witness has to be at the courthouse by 10 a.m. or the case will be dismissed). Donner greets these contrivances as old friends, as indeed they are to him, but he seems less interested in hammering them home as slam-bang entertainment (the action scenes are restrained, the violence relatively realistic) than in examining them as mechanisms and extracting their valid emotional undercurrents. Like a lot of old man's movies, 16 Blocks seems at first like a movie that you have seen a million times before, and probably done better, but as the movie progresses, its modest sense of scale and absence of rhetorical flourishes (no MTV editing here) gains the upper hand. Donner seems to be deliberately searching for the kernel of truth that lies behind the formulas, and he finds it: Willis' stubbornness in pursuing his goal becomes genuinely moving, the more so since it reflects Donner's own stubbornness in pursuing his chosen line of work.

The bad news about Prairie Home, 16 Blocks, and Find Me Guilty is that all three films come from outside the studio system. Prairie is an American indie, financed by a coalition of four different production companies; the other two films were picked up ready-made by American studios (Warner Bros. and Fox, respectively) and financed by a bafflingly complex network of interlocking companies that somehow seem to boil down to the "GmbH" in their copyright lines, indicating ultimate German ownership. Hollywood remains reluctant to employ its senior filmmakers, and even Eastwood, a reliable Oscar-winner and box-office force, broke away from his longtime association with Warner Bros. when the studio initially declined to finance Million Dollar Baby. In revenge, he is releasing his next two movies through Paramount.

Eastwood, Altman, and Lumet have been around long enough to acquire a certain mythic status, but the situation is graver for the generation of filmmakers who came after them. Directors like Walter Hill (The Warriors), Joe Dante (Gremlins), and John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), who came of age in the '70s and '80s, have been finding it almost impossible to land studio projects. Instead, they have turned to cable television, directing occasional episodes of Deadwood (Hill), writing for Rome (Milius), or, in the case of Dante, creating Homecoming, a brilliantly personal episode of the Showtime anthology series Masters of Horror—a series that has also given opportunities to John Landis, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Larry Cohen.

These are not doddering codgers, but individuals in late middle age who would still have been working regularly under the regimes of the old moguls, who knew the value (economic and artistic) of experience. The new MBA masters of Hollywood push seasoned (and proportionately expensive and hard to handle) talents aside in favor of inexpensive and pliable young filmmakers straight from Sundance or the film schools. I want to see Walter Hill's Rio Lobo and I want to see John Milius' 7 Women—but where is the studio that would finance them, when Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) and J. J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III) are available? In Europe, where cultural monuments still enjoy some degree of governmental protection, elders like Jean-Luc Godard (75), Eric Rohmer (86), and Manoel de Oliveira (97) are still going strong, issuing new films on an annual basis. But the only subsidies our soon-to-be senior directors are likely to get are their Social Security checks, which, by that point, will barely cover the cost of a new cassette for the camcorder.

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