Thursday, August 1, 2013

Quick Review

Here's an interesting problem in American cinema -- call it the Orson Welles conundrum: in a career of more than four decades, how is it a director of once considerable reputation can end up with only two good movies?  Not to say there can't be interesting failures along the way, and lots of other interesting work, but what is it in either the system of making American movies or in the prodigies produced either because of or in spite of it that there should be more than a few of our more famous names who end up with so little to show for all that early promise?  That may seem an unfair question, and I don't mean to suggest a statistical significance I couldn't prove even if I thought there was one, but think about even this short list, in addition to Welles: Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Cimino, even Francis Ford Coppola, and finally, William Friedkin.  There's not a name there that hasn't made an important and hugely popular film or two, and not one who has directed a major movie in years, if not decades.  How's that happen?

Part of the answer can be found in the new memoir by William Friedkin.  After years of yeoman work in television documentaries and a series of not very successful features, Friedkin directed one of the seminal hits of the early Seventies, The French Connection.  It may not be easy for anyone seeing this 1971 film for the first time now to appreciate it's importance, but in its day, Friedkin's first hit was something of a revelation.  Everything, or nearly everything about the movie looked and felt shockingly new: the abrupt cuts, the relentlessly paced action, the brutality of both the dialogue and the lead characters, the sheer testosterone-fueled cynicism of the thing made it hit with the impact of both an exeposé and a new style of action movie.  Seemingly overnight then, Friedkin went from being just another guy lucky enough and talented enough to be allowed to direct movies, to being numbered among the young lions of his generation.

Then, in 1973 came The Exorcist.  Number three on the AFI list of "most thrilling films" of all time, still one of the greatest horror films ever made, and nearly as frightening when I went to see the 40th Anniversary showing as when I snuck in to see it for the first time with a few of my older sister's girlfriends (almost none of whom actually watched most of the film, and the little they did, they watched through their fingers while screaming.) William Friedkin took what was one of the more embarrassing bestsellers of the day, William Peter Blatty's pot-boiling paean to the worst species of superstitious irrationalism, and made a great movie out of it.  Moreover, he did this with the novelist right at his elbow, without offending either the author, the Catholic Church or the intelligence of his audience.  Hell of a hat trick.

Here we are then at the conundrum.  Friedkin's next was an unfortunate remake of someone else's fairly minor masterpiece, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear (La Salaire de la peur.)  He followed this with a rather pedestrian caper movie, and then one of the worst films any major American director ever made, 1980's Cruising.  I was particularly interested to read what the director would now have to say about this one, the movie that wrecked his career, the one that sent him into exile, directing operas, TV movies and whatnot for years.  All but the very worst of Coppola's minor movies, Bogdonovich's disastrous musical, even Cimino's epic bore, Heaven's Gate, they all have their defenders.  I've never read or heard a kind word said of Friedkin's Cruising, nor would I expect to.  The movie is indefensible.

According to Friedkin, the movie came about from his reading of some Village Voice articles on a series of murders in New York's gay S/M scene of the late Seventies.  (Not Felice Picano's 1979 novel, The Lure, as was widely assumed at the time, and by me.)  In his memoir, Friedkin describes some hilariously straight-faced expeditions the director and an ex-cop pal o' his made into the gay leather scene of the era; wandering wide-eyed among the slings and glory-holes at Ramrod, the Anvil, etc. -- their first outing on "jock-strap night," which required our brave explorers to go native, even if Friedkin is now at some pains to point out they remained chaste as Margaret Mead among the Samoans through-out.  From Friedkin's book we also learn that the protests from the Gay community actually started before the film was even being made.  Keep in mind, years before, it had been Friedkin who had directed the film of The Boys in the Band, already seen, and rightly so for all my personal affection for it, as an ugly anachronism in 1969 by the rising Gay Liberation Movement.  Now the director had decided to make a hyper-violent murder mystery, about a hopelessly straight and hopelessly miscast Al Pacino losing his straight little mind as an undercover cop plunged into the gay S/M sex scene.  What could go wrong?

Everything.  From the premise to the performances, to the often opaque cinematography and the ridiculous, even willfully stupid plot, one would be hard pressed to name a worse movie about the gay community, or for that matter, a worse movie from a major director and studio.  (Just to make the trifecta, and this took some doing, this movie also has by far the worst performance Al Pacino ever gave on film.  The one still bearable scene, of unintentional hilarity, has to be Pacino's dancing amidst what looks to be a virtual redwood forest of leather queens.)  Cruising is an ugly, dumb and well neigh incoherent mess, and this from the same man who made The French Connection roughly a decade earlier?

How's that happen?

The answer isn't, as I'd long assumed it must be, either drugs or a break-down.  Friedkin acknowledges the failures in his career, including Cruising, but unlike some of his earlier and less successful efforts, he clearly still doesn't quite see where it all went wrong.  The hubris of a much younger man he sees now, and regrets -- he once told his then producing partners that he thought this George Lucas kid's idea for a science fiction picture was stupid -- but the complete failure of taste, intelligence and craft represented by Cruising, he still doesn't quite see. (The idea that hubris is still being punished by the Gods is of itself laughable in a country where Donald Trump is invited on Meet the Press, Brett Easton Ellis is still published in hardcover and when Wall Street has yet to be reduced to a new Sinai.)   About the consequences of that one bomb too many Friedkin is entirely, and rather heartbreakingly honest.  He went into the wilderness and he's never quite been able to work his way back.

The way he writes about his craft, particularly with reference to his two greatest pictures, is inspiring.  He personally oversaw the printing of all the original copies of The Exorcist sent out at the time of the movie's initial release, taking the process away from Technicolor and his own studio because he felt the color was being ruined, and instead insisting it be done by a master craftsman at MGM, at no little additional expense.  Like all the other Sons of Orson mentioned here, Friedkin is clearly a serious student of his medium, and a dedicated artist.  He is also, just as clearly, not one of the intellectual giants of the industry.

It occurs to me that the man who is probably likeliest to be remembered as the greatest director this country ever produced, John Ford, was in addition to being something of a genius, also something like a pig-ignorant lout.  Both nurtured and confined by the old studio system, Ford was forced for some time to make pictures he didn't like, sometimes with actors he couldn't stand and or with scripts he thought banal and idiotic.  Eventually though, Ford became one of the few truly important studio directors who, within the restrictions of the censorship codes of the day, was able to make only the movies he wanted, from the materials he chose, with the company of actors he treated, by all reports, as badly as family.  In Ford's time however, there was always interference of one kind and another, from producers and executives, spies and watchdogs of every kind and description.  While this may well have marred some of even his finest films, the studio system may also have kept a director like Ford from indulging some of his worst instincts and ideas.  Some of his worst pictures, like the 1947 movie, The Fugitive, based on the Graham Greene novel, The Power and the Glory, and starring Henry Fonda as a Mexican priest (!) suffer from the kind of obvious and pompous piety that was one of the least attractive aspects of Ford's character -- admittedly after the alcoholism, the sadism, misogyny, and homophobia, etc.  Given his head and when not confined to the kind of genre picture he consistently elevated to art, Ford could make a clumsy hash out of first class literary material.  He was better off working with the stuff he understood.

Friedkin's generation of hothouse auteurs all studied their craft with an almost religious devotion.  To a man, I'd be willing to bet, they all know the history of cinema more thoroughly than any of the men and women who made the movies they all studied.  It's not clear however how many of them ever read a book they weren't looking to option, ever looked at painting they didn't imagine in a camera frame or listened to a piece of music for any reason other than to make suggestions for their soundtracks, at least not until they'd all failed rather spectacularly and found themselves with a lot of extra time suddenly on their hands.

So how does the director of The Exorcist end up being the same guy who made Cruising, and more recently, 2011's nearly incomprehensible gut-bucket noir, Killer Joe?  I suspect that that last looked like a pretty good job to the man whose last major movie premiered 1985.  As for the mystery of Cruising, that seems to me, even after reading Friedkin's book, less a case of hubris than of intellectual over-reach.  There might have been a good movie to be made from such materials, even in 1980, though I doubt it, but it would have required a smarter man to find it, to write and to direct it.  Someone like William Friedkin, a savvy, inventive and innovative filmmaker, with an artist's eye and a first-rate technician's command -- mostly -- of his medium, could elevate, and did elevate, a piece of pop shit like Blatty's book The Exorcist into an unforgettable cinematic milestone, and make a minor masterpiece out of a pretty pedestrian cops and robbers story like The French Connection.  What he couldn't do was appreciate that he couldn't then make something from nothing.

That then may be the legacy of all the Sons of Orson, and the great irony of film as an expressive medium -- maybe.  Certainly it is what makes Friedkin, who now seems a perfectly lovely man, such a singular caution, one would hope, to all the young cineastes now busily making imovies in their dorm-rooms at UCLA film school.

Maybe read a book, kids, maybe a little Shakespeare, just for fun.

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