Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

On losing it (and keeping it) as a director. Woody? Francis?

Many British publications have had fun this week comparing the later career of Woody Allen with the autumn years of Francis Ford Coppola. Woody’s Whatever Works opened here this week also, but Coppola’s Tetro will not be with us until …

Sat, Jun 26, 2010, 19:12


Many British publications have had fun this week comparing the later career of Woody Allen with the autumn years of Francis Ford Coppola. Woody’s Whatever Works opened here this week also, but Coppola’s Tetro will not be with us until next Friday. We, therefore, won’t say too much about the latter just yet. It is, however, interesting to note how British critics — offered both films yesterday — treated the two great men. The general consensus is that FFC Lost It decades ago, whereas there is still something worth savouring in Allen’s career. Reviews of Allen’s European films on this side of the Atlantic were nowhere near as enthusiastic as they were in the US — last week, Barry Norman called Match Point the director’s “worst ever film” — but most everybody likes at least one of the New Yorker’s recent pictures. For the record, I got on very well with Deconstructing Harry and Something Else and felt that — while slight, familiar and dubious — Whatever Works is pretty darn funny throughout.

So, Woody just about escapes the suggestion that he might have Lost It. That condition can be a terrible, terrible thing. When a director teeters over the edge, he almost never manages to claw his or her way back. Mind you, I feared  the Coens had entered the dark place when they made The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty, but they  rose again with two of their very best films: No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.

Sometimes, in a director’s last few years, we glimpse just the thin end of the Losing-It wedge. In my estimation, Stanley Kubrick Lost It precisely half-way through Full Metal Jacket. The second half of that film was dodgy. Eyes Wide Shut played like a nervous breakdown made cinematic flesh. Lord alone knows how frightful the next film would have been. It’s a shame he didn’t live longer. But it seems unlikely we lost any more masterpieces.

Every now and then, a director Loses It so badly that they go from being among the most thrilling creative presences of their time to genuine, bona fide menaces. The later career of Wim Wenders is so grim — Faraway So Close, Million Dollar Hotel, Don’t Come Knocking — that you find yourself questioning the brilliance of early masterpieces such as Alice in the Cities and The American Friend. In Don’t Look Now, Nic Roeg made one of the best films of the 1970s; In Puffball, he made one of the worst of the current century.

Some versions of Losing It manifest themselves in such odd ways that they almost become valid independent art works. It’s been 40 years since Jean-Luc Godard moved from willful eccentricity to full-on, eye-swivelling, hyper-Marxist lunacy. The Cannes screening of his latest film, Film Socialisme, was like watching 2,000 people listening to a beloved friend babble insanely after his eighth pint of Pernod. Sure he made no sense, but it was still nice to have him around.

The odd director experiences a slight decline, but still manages to produce material of interest. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost hardly bears comparison with Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby. It is, however, a clever film that looks unlike the work of any other contemporary director. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and Shutter Island don’t occupy the same exalted strata as The King of Comedy or Taxi Driver, but I’d still cross the road to see them again. (A narrow, quiet road anyway.)

Every now and then — during the 1960s particularly — a film-maker appears to be abandoned by the era. A glance at Psycho, The Birds and (to a lesser extent) Marnie suggests that Hitchcock was near the height of his powers 50 years ago. Then he got swept along by contemporary film-making practices and by the voguish enthusiasm for spies. The problem with Topaz and Torn Curtain wasn’t that they were bad Hitchcock films; it was that they were barely Hitchcock films at all. When he returned home to the East End, he delivered a horrible minor masterpiece in Frenzy. If Mr Hitchcock lived longer, the great man might have fully recovered “it”. Billy Wilder, superb well into early old-age, also struggled with the social changes of the 1960s.

So, let’s raise a cheer for those directors who appeared to weather the years with their talent largely undimmed. Here’s five.

1. Ingmar Bergman
Okay, he pretty much retired from films for the last 20 years of his life. But his last major feature, Fanny and Alexander, is among his very best films.

2. Luis Buñuel
The great surrealist’s final picture, made when he was 77, was That Obscure Object of Desire. Need we say more?

3. Werner Herzog
Still a mere youth at 67, but notable for never becoming any less eccentric or any less enthralling. Bad Lieutenant deserves a place beside Fitzcarraldo (if not quite beside Aguirre: Wrath of God). His documentaries are equally fabulous.

4.David Cronenberg
Also 67 and equally undimmed by the passing decades, David recently served up two impressively queasy gems with Eastern Promises and A History of Violence.

5. Carl Theodor Dreyer
Produced a masterpiece in the 1920s with The Passion of Joan of Arc . Produced a masterpiece in the 1960s with Gertrud. Then he died. You qualify, sir.

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