Film-making is not for the elderly, says DONALD CLARKE
WE PROBABLY shouldn’t pay too much attention, but Quentin Tarantino has suggested that he may retire after making three more films. If he leaves a similar gap between future projects as he put between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, it will be 2030 before QT – then a plausibly pensionable 67 – finally hangs up the megaphone.
His general thesis is, however, worthy of some consideration. “Directors don’t get better as they get older,” he said. “Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end.”
This sounds like an outrageous generalisation, but it’s not so wide of the mark. Mathematicians and popular musicians famously excel when young. Novelists achieve great things late in life. Film directing does, by way of contrast, seem like a middle-aged man’s game.
Draw up a list of the greatest film-makers and ask yourself how many avoided late-career decline. John Ford slouched through the leaden Cheyenne Autumn and the misconceived Young Cassidy. Francis Ford Coppola has been embarrassing himself for decades. After hits with late epics such as Ran and Kagemusha, Akira Kurosawa announced dotage with the truly awful Dreams. Jean-Luc Godard lost the film plot 40 years ago.
Some directors manage to function effectively at about 75 per cent of their optimum operating capacity. Most of us enjoyed Shutter Island, Hugo and The Departed, but few of us rate those Martin Scorsese films beside early masterpieces such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.
More often than not, however, the story is one of total decline. Why is this so? Charles Dickens and George Eliot improved as they aged; why not Billy Wilder or Alfred Hitchcock?
Unlike novelists, film-makers – harried by producers who want large audiences – are forced to indulge the whims of the zeitgeist. In the early 1960s, having just made Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds, Hitchcock was at the height of his powers. Foolishly persuaded to get on board with the voguish espionage craze, he embraced decline with the slack Torn Curtain and the hopeless Topaz. By the close of the decade, Hitchcock looked like yesterday’s man. Wilder also had trouble surviving the swinging decade.
The near-universal praise for Michael Haneke’s recent Amour points us towards two ways of avoiding a slump in old-age. Now 70, Haneke has never made films that adhere to contemporaneous tends. Also, he had the good sense to start late. Having released his first movie at 47, the Austrian has been in the feature business only a year or two longer than Tarantino. He still seems fresh.
This does not offer much consolation for the film-maker already deep into a potentially lengthy career. To paraphrase the old mildly racist joke about the Irishman giving directions, well, I wouldn’t start from here.