Tuesday, February 26, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different...

The following films all represent a change-of-pace of one kind or another for their directors. The film's departure may be one of genre, or it may be thematic or stylistic. But, in each case the work is more in the nature of a one-off experiment than a springboard for further explorations in a given direction.

1. The Great Moment (Preston Sturges, 1944)
The seven films Sturges made between 1940 and 1944 represent (arguably) the highest achievement of the American situational comedy, so what to do for an encore? Before taking a three year hiatus, Sturges makes one more picture. The result: what has to be considered a rather ordinary biopic. The Great Moment traces the rise-fall-rise pattern familiar to viewers who've seen any of the countless dull retreads of the formula (Ray, Walk the Line) that have become the recipients of much unreflective critical praise in recent years. Still Sturges' film, which details the efforts of a 19th century dentist to invent a workable anesthetic, manages to present its familiar narrative arc with surprising emotional pull and complicates its conventions with a sliver of moral drama as well. Far more staid a film than we'd expect from Sturges - and played almost entirely straight - The Great Moment shows him capable of handling dramatic material with rather impressive (though perhaps not surprising, given his facility with the less comedic elements in Sullivan's Travels) assurance. Still, after a three year pause, Sturges returned to the format he helped to define, helming several more comedies before being run out of Hollywood and ending his career abroad.

2. Knightriders (George A. Romero, 1981)
In between the second and third parts of his famed Dead series (now at five films and counting), Romero crafted this overlong, but fascinating look into an undiscovered corner of American popular culture: the life of motorcycle jousters. Living by a rigid code of honor, these modern day knights travel to Renaissance Fairs where they purvey their unique artform in front of surprisingly rabid fans. When one of their number gets the chance to increase the group's exposure (and seize the spotlight for himself), he runs afoul of the incorruptible leader - the King of the group, whose resistance to commercial pressures is based partly on notions of integrity and partly on a desire for control. Either way, Romero takes a break from his socially conscious zombie pics to offer a personal reflection on the various temptations (money, fame) that can sidetrack the artist from his more elevated pursuits. Along the way, he creates a fully imagined world that fascinates through its granting of voyeuristic entry into a unique subculture at the margins of American life.

3. Secret Honor (Robert Altman, 1984)
There are no shortage of possibilities for inclusion on this list when we scour the Altman filmography; here is a director who enjoyed a great variety of achievement - continually reinventing genres, engaging in fascinating one-off projects. For all Altman's artistic restlessness, though, he remains fixed in the public imagination as a creator of ensemble films, concerned with the exploration of large cross-sections of humanity that characterize some of his most celebrated pictures (Nashville, Short Cuts) as well as some of his least known offerings (A Wedding, HEALTH). What could be further from these vast canvases than Altman's intimate adaptation of the one-man stage show Secret Honor, which confines its sole character (Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon) to a single, claustrophobic setting. But, perhaps the film isn't such a departure when we situate it properly in Altman's filmography. Released in 1984, Secret Honor comes in the middle of a long stretch of scaled down productions from the director, all based on stage plays. Then, the question of political corruption had long been a particular concern of Altman's. Still, as Hall rants and pleads to the camera for all of the film's 90 minutes, the filmmaker achieves a directness of address and a singularity of viewpoint that stand out even in this anomalous section of his oeuvre.

4. Almanac of Fall (Béla Tarr, 1985)
Tarr had filmed in color before (1981's The Outsider), but it never looked like this. One of the more radical explorations of the possibility of onscreen color, Almanac of Fall surrounds its characters with vast fields of red, green or yellow, a scheme that the filmmaker reconfigures for every scene. With the film consisting of a series of dialogues between any of the five people sharing a dilapidated mansion (and all preoccupied with the possibility of personal gain), Tarr frequently divides the screen into two fields of color, each encircling a separate character. Thematically, the chromatic coding follows no consistent schema, but experientially the bright bursts of color add emotional resonance to a dryly told, cynical tale of the pursuit of individual gratification. In his subsequent films, Tarr would retain Almanac's sarcasm and bitter view of humanity, but aesthetically he moved in another direction entirely (despite his claims to the contrary). Having made some sort of ultimate statement about color, the director chose to stick to black-and-white from here on out, increasingly experimenting with long takes, intricate camera choreography and a focus on the minutiae of daily living.

5. I Want to Go Home (Alain Resnais, 1989)
Alain Resnais' 1980s films are a rather diverse lot, but they all share several essential features. They focus on restricted settings which grant the pictures the intimacy of chamber pieces. They feature the same cast, the four actors who came to represent Resnais' stock company. And they're all pretty heavy going. That is, until 1989's freewheeling comedy I Want to Go Home which wrings fresh laughs from a familiar set-up: the boorish American in Paris. That the boorish American is eminently redeemable is clear from the fact of his profession; a newspaper cartoonist (whose creations assume a life of their own in the film and converse freely with the characters), Joey Wellman (Adolph Green) comes to Paris both for a retrospective of his work and to reunite with his estranged daughter. The film represents several notable departures for Resnais - it's mostly in English and it's unapologetically silly - but it makes sense in light of the director's lifelong obsession with comics, a medium which he claims as the primary influence on his editing style. In the end, the plot sticks pretty closely to The Ambassadors: the younger generation returns to America, while the older, more adaptable one stays on. All told, it's a fairly slight, but thoroughly likable, change-of-pace from one of the greatest of all filmmakers.

No comments: