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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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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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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Best Director Home Stretch: Roman Polanski for Tess

ROMAN POLANSKI FOR TESS (1980)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Robert Redford for Ordinary People

David Lynch for The Elephant Man

Richard Rush for The Stunt Man

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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As with stories set in the future, period pieces are projections of the present day, and often wind up reflecting the time of their production more than the time in which the story is set. It’s a rare historical film that can seem to step straight out of its era, and I was surprised to see Roman Polanski’s Tess do just that. From Rosemary’s Baby to The Ghost Writer, Polanski’s directorial vision has always seemed to grapple with the troubles of the present day; even Chinatown feels like a projection of 1970s disillusionment and paranoia back to the dusty days of boomtown Los Angeles. For his adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, though, Polanski seems content with the staggering forethought of Thomas Hardy’s social critique, presenting the exquisitely inlaid brutality of English society through the alternately splendid and wretched world of the late Victorian era. Forgoing the familiar faces and places of the impending Merchant-Ivory-led renaissance of British costume drama (even sidestepping England proper to film in Brittany), Polanski’s film presents a searing look at class and gender, one that resonates all the more because it seems to emanate not from a modernist gloss on the past, but from within the cruel regime of the era itself.

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Best Director Home Stretch: Richard Brooks for The Professionals

RICHARD BROOKS FOR THE PROFESSIONALS (1966)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Fred Zinnemann for A Man for All Seasons

Michelangelo Antonioni for Blowup

Claude Lelouch for A Man and a Woman

Mike Nichols for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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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A locomotive chugs backwards across a desert bridge, chased by horseback riders on the bridge below. The image says a lot about both the core message of The Professionals, a painstaking reversal of the classical Western adventure tale, and form it takes, a combination of spectacular visuals and unsubtle metaphors. Richard Brooks’ 1966 adaptation of Frank O’Rourke’s pulp novel is a rare chance for the writer-director to shine outside of the shadow of the source material’s author (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Sinclair Lewis). How much liberty Brooks takes with “A Mule for the Marquesa” is unclear to me, but somewhere Brooks finds both incredibly memorable imagery of the Old West and a methodical rethinking of American mythology that almost keeps pace with the brasher volleys of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.

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Best Director Final 50: Peter Yates for The Dresser

PETER YATES FOR THE DRESSER (1983)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment

Bruce Beresford for Tender Mercies

Ingmar Bergman for Fanny and Alexander

Mike Nichols for Silkwood

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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Here’s a fun fact for Oscar nerds: The Dresser shares the distinction with the next year’s Amadeus as the last films—to date—to earn dual Best Actor nominations. This trivial connection reflects a deeper resonance between the films. Both Ronald Harwood and Peter Shaffer adapted the screenplays from their own stage shows, which set a capricious artist against an onlooker who beholds him with a mixture of resentment and self-loathing awe. However, as the titles suggest, the stories diverge in where they place the weight in this relationship. Shaffer & Forman’s sumptuous period drama places the character of Mozart (an offstage presence in the play) firmly in the center of the screen, presenting Mozart as a man favored by the court and loved by God, his genius issuing forth effortlessly before the eyes of an impotent Salieri. Yates’ modest wartime drama, meanwhile, has the actor known only as Sir toiling away as the head of a theatrical troupe at the height of the Blitz, his faltering talent extractable only through the heroics of his devoted backstage attendant. And that’s the key difference between the two films, evident in their titles: where Amadeus is fundamentally about the majesty of genius, The Dresser is about the tremendous sacrifice needed to support such a white elephant. Yates’ film is an intimate psychological contemplation of the faithful rather than the deity.

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