Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Career discontinuities, part two: The nosedive

In one of my earliest blog posts, I wrote about a phenomenon that has troubled me all my auteurist life: one discovers a director with an identifiable sensibility that operates over the course of his or her career; and then one sees a film by that director that a) doesn't seem to partake at all of said sensibility, and b) one actively dislikes. Trying to be open-minded, I speculated in that post that perhaps the discontinuity has to do more with the viewer than with the director - that a different viewer might say to me, "What are you talking about? Look, there's the director's typical compositional style, typical acting preference, etc." And I would say to that hypothetical different viewer, weakly, "Yes, but it's just not the same...." Weakly, because the all-important idea of "sensibility" is less quantifiable than the identification of elements of style, and may therefore reflect our subjectivity all too easily.

And I'm officially still open-minded in this way. But the film life is all about what we like and what we don't like, and when a director jumps from one side of that line to the other, you just have to take it seriously. Maybe it's partly about the viewer, but maybe it's about the director too.

If too many discontinuities crop up in one's appreciation of directors, then it's legitimate to wonder whether one is cut out to be an auteurist. And therefore, if even one discontinuity crops up, the seeds of identity crisis have been sown.

Of course, it's possible to be completely into directorial style without being too invested in the continuity among a director's films. The continuity itself isn't what makes the films good; but it provides a confirmation that one is on the right track, that one isn't simply making the director's identity out of whole cloth. Of all the auteurists I know, I'm probably the one who bases his auteurism the most on the content of individual films, rather than on career analysis. And yet I get rattled when that little je-ne-sais-quoi goes missing between projects.

A particular kind of career discontinuity is currently on my mind: the nosedive, the point where a good director becomes bad and stays bad. It would be better for auteurism if this were an unusual case. But I am forced to admit that it happens to me a lot, and has always happened a lot. In fact, the nosedive is so common that I live in fear of it: every time I see a new film by a director I love, I worry.

I'm currently having a run of bad experiences from good directors. I don't want to get too deeply into particulars at the moment. But:

  • Last night I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved Chopper to death, really thought that Dominik was a distinctive new voice. By the time Coward was over, I thought it likely that I would never enjoy one of his films again. And yet once in a while I saw a framing or a rhythm that I could imagine in Chopper. It didn't matter, because I was having such a hard time with what I perceived as the sensibility behind the film.
  • I know lots of people really like Secret Sunshine, and I've liked every one of Lee Chang-dong's previous films. In this case there was a lot of style continuity with the rest of Lee's career. And yet suddenly I felt a coarse sensibility at work, one going for superficial, hackneyed effects on the small scale. Because the style hadn't shifted that much, I found myself thinking, "Did I ever like any of this guy's films?" Now I'll need to go back and confirm - which is a tricky business in such cases; one really has to clear one's mind.
  • The most horrible black-hole disappearance of directorial personality I can recall is Married Life, which I saw at Toronto. Here I'm less sure that I've seen a nosedive, because the discontinuity is so spookily absolute. Maybe Ira Sachs will return to me.

I do believe that I am really an auteurist, that I have the calling. But the phenomenon I'm discussing is not at all part of the mythology of auteurism, and I see no way of harmonizing it with that mythology. It stands as a qualifier to my auteurism, an asterisk.

P.S. Of course, you can't be sure until later that a bad experience is a nosedive. Sometimes one is pleasantly surprised by the way things turn out. For instance, a few years back I saw Hur Jin-ho's April Snow at Toronto, and diagnosed the submergence of what I then considered a minor talent. But at Toronto 2007, Hur winds up and delivers Happiness, decisively his most exciting and confident film. A good discontinuity is just as perplexing to my auteurism as a bad one - but it's a lot more fun.


Eric said...

I've seen all three of your examples, but I am strongly with you on Secret Sunshine. All through TIFF, I talked to people who found it to be one of their top films at the festival, but with the exception of the lead performance. I thought it basically seemed endless, one thing happening after another on rather extreme levels. Where others saw emotion, I just saw a soap opera.

In the case of Jesse James and Married Life, that was my first experience with both directors, so I can't exactly be on the same level with you about those, but I did get something out of both of them. Jesse James was made extremely well, but maybe it faltered a bit in the second half. And Married Life was carried by the actors, and they made it completely worth it-especially Chris Cooper. I have a desire to read the original pulp noir novel that its based on, and at the Q&A Sachs was saying how the book ends on a real noir note-characters killing each other and whatnot. I thought it was pretty neat how he took a pulp noir book and turned it into something that was strangely heartfelt and even a tender at times. I enjoyed both films.


Eric said...

And as an afterthoughts, two recent films I can think of on the same topic (bad new experiences by otherwise good directors) would have to be both Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. When I finished watching "Margot at the Wedding," I just had a sour feeling in my mouth, and could not made head or tails of if I liked the film or not. And as time goes by, and with intense reflection, I kind of just hated it. Baumbach goes for the same "naturalistic" style of "Squid and the Whale"-snippets of awkward conversation, natural lighting, handheld camerawork, etc-but here it just seemed like he was throwing the style at the audience, forcing us to accept it as his own-it seemed less natural because of it.

In the case of Wes Anderson, I liked "Darjeeling Limited," but its a massive disappointment after his last three films, all of which I adore-and I credit "Tenenbaums" for the beginning of my interest in film-I had to be 12 when I saw it, but it showed me that there was more out there. Alot more.

Dan Sallitt said...

Eric - I haven't seen the last two movies that you mention, but I'm looking forward to The Darjeeling Express. I've become fond of Anderson ever since Tenenbaums. And I'm a sucker for "This Time Tomorrow," which dominates the trailer.

I'm kind of sorry I used individual examples of nosedive films: the problem is really between me and the filmmakers, and I don't expect anyone else to have the same profile. In general, I prefer to write about things that work for me in films: at least that gives the writer something to describe, a completed circuit of pleasure delivery. Even if I'd gone into more detail about what bothered me about the films I'd mentioned, I'd basically be finding elaborate ways of saying "I don't get it." Which can sometimes be useful as a way of starting a conversation (and you gave me something to think about with Married Life), but it's not a peg that I want to hang my hat on.

Anonymous said...

Heavens, critics are bores. Reading Eric M, you would think he is about to enter a blackhole. Lighten up!

Anonymous said...

Jesse James is basically another useless showcase of half-assed Pitt posturing and worship given a western twist after Troy, so of course it ALSO sucks massively. This new Affleck is a joke of a lead actor, alright? An unfunny joke who I'm practically certain will never ever be turning in a show of range like a Changing Lanes or a Chasing Amy.

Not that this Dominik emperor was wearing many articles of clothing to begin with. I'm afraid Chopper isn't anywhere near as extraordinary as you believe, Dan. It's a strictly middling film that looks more dogshit than usual, really. (I'm reminded of Patty Jenkins' Monster here, which is a horrible film that looks more dogshit than usual.) Agreeable enough I suppose, but way too hushed and airless for a study of a MURDERER to be anything near great, or even that good. Bana basically kept behaved like a nice little Aussie without really challenging himself to any degree, and every movie of his since has rightfully unmasked him for the mediocre, banal and uninteresting actor he is. My temptation to watch Chopper again is absolute zero.