Friday, October 19, 2007

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Today I read an interesting interview in GQ.
Well, actually is was a re-post on my subscription to GQ was rejected due to massive "un-coolery" (their words, not mine).
Nevertheless, it was an interview with Francis Ford Coppola and here is an excerpt:


"I met both Pacino and De Niro when they were really on the come," Coppola tells GQ's Nate Penn. "They were young and insecure. Now Pacino is very rich, maybe because he never spends any money; he just puts it in his mattress. De Niro was deeply inspired by (Coppola's studio American) Zoetrope and created an empire and is wealthy and powerful.

"Nicholson was — when I met him and worked with him — he was always kind of a joker. He's got a little bit of a mean streak. He's intelligent, always wired in with the big guys and the big bosses of the studios.

"I don't know what any of them want anymore. I don't know that they want the same things. Pacino always wanted to do theater ... (He) will say, 'Oh, I was raised next to a furnace in New York, and I'm never going to go to L.A.,' but they all live off the fat of the land."

Not one of the actors would comment (De Niro and Pacino were on the set of Jon Avnet's crime drama "Righteous Kill").

Some might ask Coppola how he has challenged himself lately. He admits he has been focused on his vineyard and on his resorts in Belize and Guatemala. He's coming out with an art film, "Youth Without Youth," for the first time in 10 years, a period when he has mostly executive-produced daughter Sofia 's pictures and, ironically, De Niro's "The Good Shepherd" last year.

"I think if there was a role that De Niro was hungry for, he would come after it. I don't think Jack would. Jack has money and influence and girls, and I think he's a little bit like (Marlon) Brando, except Brando went through some tough times. I guess they don't want to do it anymore.

"You know, even in those days, after 'The Godfather,' I didn't feel that those actors were ready to say, 'Let's do something else really ambitious.' A guy like (38-year-old "Before Night Falls" star) Javier Bardem is excited to do something good: 'Let me do this' or 'I'll put stuff in my mouth, change my appearance.' I don't feel that kind of passion to do a role and be great coming from those guys, because if it was there, they would do it."


This got me thinking. I think I agree with him. And as far as those who would claim that he is being hypocritical, I don’t know if I totally see it that way. On the one hand, yes, I do think it is important to remember that this is from the director of JACK- but let’s not forget that this is a filmmaker who has always taken big risks for his art. He has put his own money into his films repeatedly- even after having lost it many times over. You gotta respect a man who is willing to do that. Let’s also not forget that he has invested in many amazing filmmakers over the years- producing many amazing, risk taking films. Everything from American Graffiti to Jeepers Creepers (child molesting directors aside).

Most importantly however, is the notion that I agree with which is that it is better to take a ten year absence from filmmaking then make ten years of Showtime, Two For the Money and Something’s Gotta Give. Does it take more courage to do this? Debatable. I’d say yes but it is arguable that at least in making bad art there is always the slim chance that you could perhaps ACCIDENTALLY make something good- or that maybe there was something other than the money that motivated those actors to take those roles. The chance to work with another actor (Diane Keaton? Dustin Hoffman?) or director (Andrew Niccol?) they respect, a screenplay that was of some amount of quality at some point before studio meddling (15 Minutes?). These arguments might have some weight if it didn’t seem like Pacino, De Niro and Nicholson didn’t look so bored while they did it.
When I watch a movie with some of the more exciting actors today like Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell and (as Coppola said) Javier Bardem- you can see that they love what they are doing, even when the movie is subpar. I defy you to watch a Christian Bale movie and tell me that he is not good in it- or at the very least giving it his all. The only problem with this is that it can give you a career or great performances in busted- or at very least, deeply flawed movies. Example: 3:10 To Yuma, American Psycho, The Machinist etc. This brings up another part of this debate- which I call the “Daniel Day-Lewis Factor” – in which you have an actor who has so much integrity that he only makes one movie every five years or so as long as it is one he is passionate about thus created a nigh flawless resume (the exception being Gangs of New York – which I will give him because… uh, it’s a Martin Scorsese movie so… why wouldn’t he do it?).

The bottom line for me is that De Niro, Pacino and Nicholson all have the power. They can nod and get movies made. Even someone with what is almost universally called the 2nd greatest movie ever made like Coppola doesn’t command as much power as any one of those three. Movies are made because those guys agree to do them. Films are crafted around these men and their larger than life personas- allowing them to go through half a career without even really having to act at all. Let’s be honest, when was the last time that any of these guys made a movie wasn’t just filled with the same old tricks that they’ve been pulling since the mid 80s. The intensity button (De Niro), the manic energy switch (Pacino) and the smarmy charmy lever (Nicholson). In fairness though, About Schmidt had probably one of the very few Nicholson performances that hasn’t just been Jack being Jack in a VERY long while. But, my point remains the same.

Why haven’t these guys, with so much power and say-so in the industry, with the first pick of any script in the entire industry, with enough money and clout to give 1000 visionary directors their shot- what have they accomplished? Flaccid movies like “Analyze This/That”, “The Recruit” and “Anger Management”.

Where are the amazing films that gave these guys their power? I mean seriously, we’re talking about the guys who made “Taxi Driver”, “Dog Day Afternoon” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”! These are the guys that built a career on making classic films that broke rules and boundaries.

Frankly, there are more people that should be on that list of people who somehow in the course of the last 20 years lost their creative spines. If you google the phrase “greatest living actor” a list by Empire Magazine will show up and guess who the top three are?

Here are the top 20:
1) Robert De Niro
2) Al Pacino
3) Jack Nicholson
4) Paul Newman
5) Marlon Brando
6) Anthony Hopkins
7) Morgan Freeman
8) Dustin Hoffman
9) Clint Eastwood
10) Sigourney Weaver
11) Gene Hackman
12) Harrison Ford
13) Sean Connery
14) Meryl Streep
15) Ian McKellen
16) Christopher Lee
17) Sidney Poitier
18) Robert Redford
19) Alan Rickman
20) Judi Dench

I guess the list is old since Brando’s long dead- but even so, let’s just take a look at it, shall we? How many of the people on this list still have their integrity intact? Newman, Eastwood (even though I am not a fan, at least he hasn’t so willingly participated in garbage), Weaver (though she is a woman and for better or worse, aren’t given as much of a chance to sell out- but she DID defecate all over her cred by participating in one of those direct tv classic film parodies/sacrileges for Aliens), Hoffman (maybe… MEET THE FOCKERS!) Hackman (kinda… HEARTBREAKERS!), Streep, Poitier, Redford (Sundance has pretty much sainted him) and Dench. Now for the others. Hopkins. Freeman. Ford. Connery. McKellen (and of course the top 3) – when was the last time that any of these a-holes actually gave a damn about a movie or took a chance or even turned in a performance that posed any kind of real challenge? Can anyone honestly say they’ve even been surprised by a performance by ANY of the people on this list- even the ones that I exempt? Seriously?

And another thing- what the eff is CHRISTOPHER LEE doing on this list? We are talking about THE Count Dooku, right? The guy is like iconic for over acting! If they built a statue of him out of solid iron, it would STILL manage to gesticulate wildly and probably include a speaker that would boom out dialogue in ridiculous pseudo Shakespearian vernacular. It’s like he has two settings: “Off” and “Mustache Twirling Arch Villain”.

And as far as Alan Rickman goes, yes, we all loved Hans and his little dance as he fell from the top of Nacatomi Plaza. So- fine, he can stay.

But where is Day-Lewis? Where is Ben Kingsly? Tom Cruise, Ed Harris, Michael Cane, Richard Dreyfus and again, CHRISTIAN BALE deserve to be one here. Has anyone who voted on this list even SEEN movies before? Even Christopher Plummer deserves to be on that list before Christopher Lee! Hell, Christopher Rock deserves to be on that list before Christopher Lee does.

I could go on and on- probably segueing into directors who have sold out or somehow lost any sense of seeming relevant to the world outside of making weak or easy or just films that almost seem like forth generation copies of copies of their former selves. Spielberg? Lynch? Lucas? Burton? DEPALMA (who was never any good)? Stone (who once prided himself on being controversial and culturally acute)?

To say nothing of the last generation of interesting filmmakers who have already seemed to lose their spark (I’m talking to YOU M. Night!- I'd add the Coens but it looks like No Country for Old Men will be a return to form for them).

The only respectable filmmaker left who seems to still challenge himself is Scorsese and at least thus far P.T. Anderson and David Fincher- but only time will tell. William Friedkin won me back with "Bug" but he made a whole bunch of crap too. Even filmmakers I like have lagged a bit (Wes Anderson) and relied on stylistic crutches that have in some ways kept them from growing. Soderberg and Van Sant are sorta tricky, switching off on big obvious films to small almost overly insular movies about- well, who knows what (although I loved Solaris and even liked Elephant a little bit too.)

Is the only way to maintain true artistic vision to die before you get the chance to screw your legacy up (see: Stanly Kubrick)? I sure hope not.

ANYWAY- I’m rambling. The POINT is that I agree with Mr. Coppola.

This leaves me with only one question:
Why the hell did I lose the Zoetrope screenwriting contest, Francis?! TWICE?!

What ‘up wit dat?!

Sleep Well.


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