425 and Done: Robert Altman for Short Cuts

ROBERT ALTMAN FOR SHORT CUTS (1993)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List

Jane Campion for The Piano

James Ivory for The Remains of the Day

Jim Sheridan for In the Name of the Father

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I need to get into the habit of promising “in the next couple of days” when I end these projects, as I seem to have a refractory period between the viewing of my very last film and writing about it. Reluctance for it all to end, perhaps? Sheer exhaustion? Or the challenge of grappling with the great work I choose to save for the finish? I suspect the latter most of all, as I keep mulling over Short Cuts in terms of everything Robert Altman ever directed and every film the Academy ever nominated for Best Director. I’m still swimming around in the world Altman created, but rather than ruminate forever, I suppose I ought to get words down and draw this quest to a close.

I’ve explained at length my reasons for saving my favorite director’s Last Great Film for the end of my Best Director project. After engaging with dozens of different directorial visions over the past month, Altman’s film seemed to have sneakily lain in wait just for me. I’d played out the movie countless ways in my head over the last several years, but I couldn’t have anticipated the moments featuring Alex Trebek, Captain Planet, or the 1960s Batman TV series that seemed to speak directly to me. Before I get too solipsistic, though, I know that these sensations were just symptoms of another rich cinematic reality Altman had put on the screen, one enmeshed in another time and place (medflies, smoking, photo kiosks) even as it connects directly to mine.  Altman’s eternal project is to create a piece of reality, replete with details and hidden connections only we can appreciate but also extending far beyond the edges of the frame.  As I sat down for the beginning of Short Cuts, I was struck by how long I’d gone without seeing an Altman film for the first time, and how wondrous it was to see his familiar technique moving in strange and new ways, tracing a new world to explore.

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9 Down, 1 to Go: Steven Soderbergh for Traffic

STEVEN SODERBERGH FOR TRAFFIC (2000)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Stephen Daldry for Billy Elliot

Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Ridley Scott for Gladiator

Steven Soderbergh for Erin Brockovich

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light bluee indicates those who were nominated.

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This must unfortunately be a capsule review, as I’m flat out of time to head off to Westwood for the conclusion of my Best Director Quest.  But apart from the elusive Drag and the swiftly approaching Short Cuts, the film viewing is done!

Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic shows off the director’s famously versatile talent, breathing rich meaning into every frame of even slightly subpar material.  Stephen Gaghan‘s screenplay has some strengths but some considerable weaknesses, including the incredibly contrived Michael Douglas storyline that seems like it’s trying to cram too much political discourse into one perspective.  I have it on good information that Simon Moore’s teleplay for the original British miniseries is the superior work, and I look forward to catching up with it sometime soon.  But Soderbergh intelligently uses a prodigious expertise with editing (thanks to Stephen Mirrione‘s colossal efforts keeping everything straight) and cinematography (finding nuance in the at-first obvious visual schemes for the separate storylines) to probe the heart of each character’s experience.  I was a particular fan of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ rudely awakened drug lord wife and Benicio Del Toro‘s Oscar-winning turn as the morally beleaguered Mexico undercover agent.

 

THE VOTE

Despite Soderbergh’s estimable work on both this and the intriguing Erin Brockovich, and the interesting range of choices offered by Ridley Scott’s spectacular Gladiator, Stephen Daldry’s charming Billy Elliot, I have to hand this one to Ang Lee for his opulent period drama Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–perhaps not the finest wuxia film ever made, but certainly the most simultaneously sweeping and subtle.

And now, off to see Short Cuts!  If you’re in the neighborhood and can make it over in the next ten minutes, drop by!

8 Down, 2 to Go: Terrence Malick for The Thin Red Line

TERRENCE MALICK FOR THE THIN RED LINE (1998)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan

John Madden for Shakespeare in Love

Peter Weir for The Truman Show

Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Whew, dashing this off during a break before the last half hour of Traffic—just in time to bolt out the door! As my word choice probably indicates, these will be pretty quick and instinctive posts, but I’ll do what I can to do justice to both films!

The principal sacrifice I made in setting my June 7th deadline for this Best Director project was passing up the chance to see The Thin Red Line on the big screen. Watching the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray on a 65-inch screen was a pretty decent substitute, but I regret that my first trip to one of his transcendental cinematic planets could not be in the dark asylum of a movie theater. From the very first shot of an alligator gliding into the scummy pond, Malick captures a lyricism that somehow has eluded every filmmaker before or since. Much credit goes to the brilliant cinematography of John Toll (on a hot streak after back-to-back wins for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, but the fact remains that Malick has managed to elicit the same kind of magical aesthetic with three generations of collaborators–even the bombastic Hans Zimmer‘s is tamed by his pacific outlook.  The film is ultimately a testament to an immaculate directorial vision for the ages.

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7 Down, 3 to Go: Richard Rush for The Stunt Man

RICHARD RUSH FOR THE STUNT MAN (1980)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Redford for Ordinary People

David Lynch for The Elephant Man

Roman Polanski for Tess

Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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I can only imagine what it would have been like for Richard Rush to make The Stunt Man, a film that implicitly presents the director as divine figure. Peter O’Toole claiming to channel David Lean in his creation of Eli Cross, presents the director as something between God the Father and God the Son, both serenely shaping reality to his will and fervidly preaching to his followers to accept his vision. I got a lot of pleasure out the film’s subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to Cross’ divinity—his sudden descents into the world of the other characters via crane and helicopter, the effulgent beams of light that frame his appearance, his divine voice booming out over the landscape. However, what really expressed this theme was Rush’s own bag of filmmaking tricks, which continually reasserts the director’s total control over the reality we see. The carnage on the beach, which tricks the assembled onlookers, spells out as clearly as possible the unguessable design behind our perception of reality. Even after this pattern is set up, though, I found my viewing habits so strong that I fell time and time again for Rush’s sleight of hand—particularly the hidden segue from one aerial stunt to a completely different setup, fused together because they were cut as though inside Eli’s completed film. All apparent danger in the film turns out to be mere mischief conjured by Cross and Rush in tandem.

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6 Down, 4 to Go: Bernardo Bertolucci for Last Tango in Paris

BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI FOR LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

George Roy Hill for The Sting

George Lucas for American Graffiti

Ingmar Bergman for Cries and Whispers

William Friedkin for The Exorcist

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Even forty years later, there’s little I can say about Last Tango in Paris that wasn’t said with flair by Pauline Kael, so I’ll refer you to her first. Kael’s iconic rave set the rallying point for the film’s defenders against the vocal legion of moral critics aligned against it. I quite understand the point of view of those who saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s tale of an anonymous love affair between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as depraved and indulgent. However, the beauty of the central relationship is shaped by precisely the dark possibilities of their free explorations–emerging a dream of Bertolucci’s featuring sex with an unknown stranger, the film leaves as much unanswered around its fuzzy edges and it explains. This unpredictability stems from a superlative performance from Brando, drawing upon every last fiber of his legendary improvisatory talents to breathe a spontaneous driving force into the grieving widower (a role turned down by Jean-Louis Tringtignant, in a serendipitous connection to my last post). Maria Schneider also does a fantastic job, intrigued and yet afraid of the alternative to her safe premarital world. For that matter, the fiancé played by Jean-Pierre Léaud presents a more surreptitiously dangerous path, casually probing her as a visual fetish to the more frank and egalitarian sexual partnership offered by the insistently mysterious stranger.

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5 Down, 5 to Go: Costa Gavras for Z

COSTA-GAVRAS FOR Z (1969)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy

George Roy Hill for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant

Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Costa-Gavras’ Z has the next decade of American political thrillers all figured out. The cool paranoia of The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor has direct roots in the sangfroid of this Best Foreign Language Film-winning fictionalization of a real political hit job, a real cover-up, and the real reverberations felt throughout Greece. The director’s dry perversion of the usual disclaimer, stating that any resemblance to actual events or persons “is purely intentional,” draws into focus the implicit political critique aimed at the Greek authorities for the duration of the film. Costa Gavras’ and Jorge Semprún’s adaptation of Vassilis Vassilikos’ novel rings with the truth of government ineptitude: in contrast to the omnipotent and airtight schemes of Hollywood’s conspiracy fantasies, the culprits in this story are a group of military thugs who have ham-handedly incapacitated the head of the opposition, then clumsily tried to cover it up. These figures are not scary because they’re criminal geniuses, but because they’re powerful. After Jean-Louis Trintignant rather handily exposes their crimes and indicts the lot, the conclusion to the film undercuts this triumph in multiple stunning reversals, producing a discordant conclusion bemoaning the brute political reality of subsequent Greek history.

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4 Down, 6 to Go: King Vidor for War and Peace

KING VIDOR FOR WAR AND PEACE (1956)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

George Stevens for Giant

Michael Anderson for Around the World in Eighty Days

Walter Lang for The King and I

William Wyler for Friendly Persuasion

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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I would venture to say any screen adaptation of War and Peace would be folly, but Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven-hour version (thanks to Khrushchev’s munifience, the most expensive film ever made), is apparently waiting to prove me wrong when I finally see it. But at half the length, Paramount’s truncation of Tolstoy’s irreducibly vast novel was a misbegotten dream. The film’s six credited screenwriters indicate the difficulty with which the studio attempted to cram the sprawling story into a *mere* three and a half hours, and the end result—for the most part—feels as though it’s reciting a series of quotes without grasping the underlying meaning of the text. Still, the redoubtable King Vidor manages to wring some highlights—and one masterful extended sequence—from this abbreviated epic. If the film cannot match the peerless quality of its source material, it at least musters up, in Vidor’s visual design, Audrey Hepburn’s ethereal beauty, and Jack Cardiff’s prismatic photography, a sporadic visual eloquence to suggest Tolstoy’s grand vision.

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