When watching a movie from the Alien quadrilogy, you can immediately tell who directed each of them. Well, except for the first one. Ridley Scott has been working for well over four decades and has directed 25 theatrical features and a bunch of other stuff during that time. How many of those 25 movies could you name? Okay, Alien, sure. Blade Runner. Gladiator. His movies range from 25% (A Good Year) to 97% (Alien) on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s quite understandable that you don’t immediately remember all the completely forgettable or mediocre movies.
The movie that prompted me to talk about this was Drowning by Numbers by Peter Greenaway. I sort of picked it up from my piles of unwatched movies and just put it on without too much thinking. There’s a lot of movies on those piles I’ve bought for some specific reason, but don’t exactly remember why, so I wasn’t aware that the movie was by Greenaway (although I probably was at some point), but that became apparent pretty much immediately. The long shots, the angles and compositons of the shots, the music, the dialogue all just scream Greenaway.
When I try to remember directors and figure out if they have this kind of clear style, I only seem to be able to ones who have. Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, or going back a little more Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Sergio Leone… all seem to have clear trademarks. Is it only that it’s easier for me to remember these directors than someone like Scott? Or is developing these trade marks part of becoming a great director? Maybe their movies are memorable just because they have that style?
The style can change as well. Peter Jackson’s early work is quite different from his later work. Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead don’t feel anything like his work from Heavenly Creatures forwards. I’m not even sure he’s work is easily recognizable these days (although, I guess he’s retired from directing).
Should a director have a clear style? Many of the more famous ones do, even if it isn’t quite that obvious at first in some cases. I can’t see it as a requirement, though. I guess from the point of view of commercial appeal, it might be better to be just a good craftsman. I guess this would depend highly on personal goals and abilities. Back in the “golden days” of Hollywood, directors would often be there just to handle the actual shooting of the film, while the producer made many of the central artistic decisions.
In a way, this is the direction the tentpoles are moving today as well. According to some stories I’ve heard, the big set pieces of Marvel movies are storyboarded before the director is even chosen. I guess this explains why some of them feel a bit out of place. Iron Man Three comes to mind. I don’t know if it received this kind of a treatment, but looking back it might have.
However, even Marvel largely uses directors with their own vision. Edgar Wright’s Marvel career didn’t go very far, because his vision clashed with the bosses (even though Ant-Man does in parts look like his movie and he is listed first in the writing credits). They still do hire these people, like Taika Waititi, James Gunn and Shane Black, which has also been clearly a good idea as they have made excellent movies in some cases out of subjects that might have felt kind of stupid at first glance. The first two Thor movies were hardly hits and were very disliked critically, while Guardians of the Galaxy was largely an unknown property.
On the other hand, the Russo brothers are hardly such auteurs, but they did manage to make some of the bigger hits of the Marvel franchise. On the other hand, in ten years time, which of these movies will I remember? Waititi’s take on Thor will probably be much higher on my list than any of the Avengers movies. How interested is Marvel in this? Probably not very. Also, I might be in the minority anyhow.
4. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (France 1928)
(Passion of Jean D’Arc)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
We all know the story of Joan of Arc (hopefully – even if there seems to be grave misunderstandings in most tellings), but this isn’t about her rise. It’s about her trial and is based on the actual records, although condensed from 29 different occasions over a year and a half period into one scene.
With all the new technology and technique we have invented in the last 90 odd years, it’s amazing we have movies like this that still hold up this well. It’s also a shame that the actor playing the titular part never did other movies. Her performance is definitely something to behold. I guess the stage was just that much more lucrative in those days.
Dreyer made several decisions, which were groundbreaking at the time. New lighting techniques and film stock allowed him to film more details in his actors faces. He used this to make many characters seem scary, while Jeanne herself received a very different treatment with softer light. He would also play with camera angles, often filming from below the subject to make them look more powerful or – again – scary.
I don’t actually remember much of what happens in the movie, but I do remember the feelings: Jeanne being overwhelmed, afraid, but ultimately trusting of her divine backing. There is a certain expressionistic feel with all her surroundings feeling alien and threatening.
Sadly, but actually kind of obviously, it was also a huge flop. Dreyer had an immense budget for the time, but the public just wasn’t interested, even though Jeanne d’Arc was fairly prominent at the time, as she had been canonized after WWI as well as adopted as a patron saint of France. This probably contributed to the film being lost for many decades, until the original version was found in mental hospital in Oslo. This is probably just me, but I do have feeling that quite often these lost films are found specifically in mental hospitals. Its now in the public domain and can easily be found on YouTube, for example, so you don’t really have an excuse not to see it.
And why wouldn’t you? It’s just gorgeous in it’s simplicity.
3. Fight Club (United States 1999)
Director: David Fincher
I am Jack’s urge to start every line the same way. Gladly, I can fight this urge. And gladly I’m the first ever to joke about this recurring theme in the movie.
For those five people (yes, I counted), who haven’t seen this movie: Our unnamed protagonist has trouble sleeping, but gladly finds that other people’s misery helps him, so he starts to frequent various support groups. In those he meets Marla, another “tourist”, whom the Narrator confronts, because her presence keeps him from getting the dose of peace he requires. They divide the various groups amongst themselves, but soon the Narrator meets Tyler Durden with whom he ends up living with after our Narrator’s apartment burns down. Together the pair starts just having fistfights, which leads to a larger Fight Club, which in turn soon gets out of hand.
Weirdly enough, when I first saw this, I wasn’t really impressed. I remember not paying much attention to it, as the situation wasn’t really conducive of this kind of a movie experience. Obviously my views have since changed.
For some reason’s 9’s affect people. People make major decisions at ages 19, 29 and so forth. I decided to fully commit to our company at 29, leaving my career, and we sold the company when I was 39. So, when the year is 1999, we – as a society – will feel that this is somehow important, even if it isn’t anything more than just a number. There were all sorts of weird fears. Although that’s not mentioned in any way in this movie, that seems to resonate in all of it. We look for meaning in these things just like the men in the movie look for meaning in their lives.
Now, there is no perfect movie, but there are movies that feel like the perfect implementation of whatever idea they are based on. Maybe this could have been better, but the margins are going to be quite thin. What if – for whatever reason – we would have had a lesser director? How badly would this have gone? How stupid would have the twist felt? How fast would all this have turned to a farce or a simple action movie? Fincher might not always work with the best scripts (Benjamin Button, anyone?), but he does elevate the material.
In my youth, there was this weird opposition to music video directors moving into feature films. Looking back, that’s really weird. Besides Fincher, we have such luminaries as Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Michael Bay… oh, I see… In many ways these people revitalized movies. Not Michael Bay, but the other three. They were able to hone their skills and test out their weird ideas in less risky form, which obviously has lead to very interesting movie careers.
And Fincher just may be the best director working today. It’s actually kind of weird. He doesn’t produce or write his movies, as many directors of his caliber often do. Before Mank, which he also produced, at least. Not all of his movies have been great, but that might be, because he lacks some of the control. I can’t really say. He does have a very distinctive style, which has been apparent since his very first movie.
How about Fight Club, then? At time of it’s release, it didn’t do very well. I remember talking to some of my fellow students back in the day, and they seemed to dismiss it as some sort of exploitation simply based on the name of the movie. It did find an audience through the – at the time – budding DVD market and has become one of the most respected movies of all time.
Fight Club was an important movie in many ways. It marked a beginning of a new era in how it used CG and editing to tell the story, while it also presaged a change in the political mood in the US, where the financial institutions and greed are no longer revered as they used to be. There was also the important theme of feeling lost, which in a globalized environment, where traditional values and order has been largely antiquated. How does someone live up the expectations of set on them, if those expectations don’t lineup with their own true needs in any way?
There’s another way it was ahead of it’s time. It’s satirizes toxic masculinity, which only became a much discussed issue in the last few years. Or at least I’ve become aware of the discussion, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t discussed before that actively. To me it’s weird that the movie has become central to the Men’s Right Activist movement, as the it’s laughing at that view of masculinity at least as much as it’s laughing at consumerism.
Pitt is in an excellent form here as the perfect specimen of a man cnojured up by the Narrator. Although he was a rising star, he hadn’t really achieved the status he now has, and it seems that this gave him some freedom with his roles. Now he’s often just cast as the Star of the Movie, which puts a limit on what he can do. After all, you can’t embarrass your star. Or maybe you just need someone like Fincher or Gilliam to get that kind of a performance out of him.
2. Trainspotting (United Kingdom 1996)
Director: Danny Boyle
Renton hangs with the wrong crowd. Spud is a loser drug addict, Franco is a violent sociopath and Simon is at least as much a sociopath as Franco but of a less violent breed, so he isn’t quite as dangerous to hang around, but will doublecross anyone for his own benefit. I’m not sure Renton is actually any better than any of them. This just happens to be his story, so he has a better chance to justify his actions. I guess Tommy is okay, but that can’t really last. Renton does try to ‘choose life’, but that’s just harder than it seems, as the world wants to pull him back to his previous life.
Actually, in the book Renton is much worse than he is in the movie. In the book he seems like a version of Simon with less resolve. He also isn’t as central, as the book is just a collection of short stories revolving around this particular group of people.
This is one of those movies where my reading of the movie has changed radically over the years. At 19, when I first saw it, I didn’t really see the point of Simon. I guess it was partly the marketing, but Spud somehow stood out to me. Now Spud feels pretty incidental. He’s just there for Renton to have someone to feel sorry for and guilty about. I guess Bremner’s performance somewhat elevates it or is good enough for us to actually feel sorry for him as well.
There’s so much that just goes right with the movie. The five main characters are just great (even if Tommy is somewhat muted compared to the others, but for a good reason). The actors just nail the characters. Franco is truly scary, Simon is charismatic, but feels just a little bit off, Spud is lost and Renton seeking. I guess the problem for the actors is that, despite all of them having distinguished careers, they can never really escape these roles. I mean, as I’m writing this (well ahead), I just saw Evan McGregor in the Birds of Prey trailer and my first thought was that Renton’s life has really taken a different turn.
There’s also the music. The soundtrack to this film is legendary. Pitchfork ranked it the third best soundtrack of all time behind Purple Rain and Super Fly (which aren’t collections of songs from disparate artists, but rather a singular vision of one). Using identifiable songs in the movie, without being distractive, is not easy, but the film pulls it off perfectly.
The world itself is bleak and it shows. The colors are muted and everything has a very lived-in feeling. The world also seems to be against our characters. They may catch breaks, but those breaks come with a price, which for Renton always seems to be about having to compromise parts of himself, once again. That is Renton’s life: there are moments of feeling good, but they always lead to him feeling awful bad whenever he is not within those moments. Of course, the drugs are the major element, but it’s not the only one.
I also like how the pace of the movie chances. It’s hectic when needed, but sometimes we just wallow in whatever misery is going on in the movie. There are certain wonderful depictions of drug usage as Renton leaves reality for a moment. I can’t say this is accurate, as I’ve never tried drugs (even my alcohol use stopped around my 18th birthday), but they do convey why someone might actually want to use drugs. Even the weird companionship it elicits, no matter how unhealthy those relationshpis are.
To me, this was a completely new way to do drama. Sure, there has always been some level of cleverness and creativity in this genre, which is in many ways quite stale and new developments usually happen in the subject matter rather than style, but Trainspotting didn’t really care about those limitations and making it all work.
In a way it’s kind of bittersweet that Danny Boyle never again managed to make anything as great as this. Sure, his movies have since been nominated and won Oscars, but he has never really reached the same level. The sequel is fine, but feels like an unnecessary nostalgia trip.