Sunday, August 9, 2009

Overreaching: When Directors Stretch Bad Things Can Happen

I make no secret about my admiration for Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel. Just check out my top ten list on the left. I think the woman is a genius - nothing I've seen this year even comes close to the visual and narrative rigor of "La Mujer Sin Cabeza" ("The Headless Woman"). The film makes the viewer work hard, no question. It provides no easy answers. But that's the point. She keeps you in the dark about many of the details of the story but her intent is not to entertain you. Rather, she's aiming at your conscience, asking you to put yourself squarely in the shoes of the privileged protagonist. In this way, she makes the audience a full participant/accomplice and elevates the artform to something beautifully experiential.

So naturally, I felt some trepidation when I heard the news that her next project will be... drumroll, please... a science fiction flick! Yup, she has decided to take on "El Eternauta" ("The Ethernaut"), a film based on a popular series of 1960's Spanish-language comics written by Francisco Solano López. The story concerns a deadly extraterrestial invasion to Buenos Aires whereby most of the population was eradicated save for a few survivors.

Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying Martel is selling out - just that this will probably constitute a radical shift from her elegant, socially conscious films. And to be honest, I'm a little worried. While I applaud her impulse to stretch her cinematic canvas, I also fear that she will never, ever return to doing what she did well. Of course, if she stays on her current track she might eventually grow repetitive and tiresome. So I guess for both our sakes, this is probably the right course of action.

Martel's choice made me think of the many instances in which directors have shifted gears and ended up with awful results. (There are exceptions, of course, like Steven Sodobergh who has tackled different genres with equal skill and made a career of it but those are few and far between). So I decided to compile a list of the top ten films that marked a disastrous change of pace by some of the most important and acclaimed directors of our time. Here's hoping Martel doesn't follow in their footsteps:

10. Jane Campion: "In The Cut" - The worse part about it is Campion trying to explore female sexuality and promiscuity within the constraints of a very conventional, thrill-less thriller. "Holy Smoke" does a much better job of that, even though I'm not a huge fan of it either.

9. Chan-Wook Park: "I'm a Cyborg, But That's Ok!" - Park followed up his brilliant, tense, and energetic vengeance trilogy with what amounts to a bland chamber piece set in a looneybin. Change of pace? How about no pace at all? Bo-ring! He's now trying to regain his footing with Cannes-winner "Thirst."

8. Robert Altman: "Popeye" - I hope the money was good, that's all I have to say.

7. Francis Ford Coppola: "Captain EO" - Starring the late Michael Jackson (wow- that's a weird thing to write), Coppola made this sci-fi musical on the heels of "The Cotton Club." While his career has certainly been eclectic (his recent indie makeover notwithstanding), this was just way out there and entirely forgetful. I blame it on George Lucas' script, someone I never thought had any talent.

6. Ang Lee: "The Hulk" - A disaster in every sense of the word. The intended anti-war message just didn't register and the psychological father-son subtext was trite. The scale of the film seemed beyond his grasp. And what about that "24"-style picture-in-picture editing. Awful. The saddest part about it is that "Hulk" tarnished Lee's reputation as a director who could tackle anything.

5. Brian DePalma: "Bonfire of the Vanities" - For satire to really work, you need a subtle hand - or else you'll veer dangerously into caricature territory. Every scene in "Bonfire" felt over-directed, as though he was trying to apply the same muscle he used in "Scarface." Obviously it didn't work. DePalma is a noir stylist and he was clearly out of his league on this one.

4. Roland Joffe: "The Scarlet Letter" - After the greatness of "The Killing Fields," "The Mission," and the underrated "Fat Man and Little Boy," Joffe opted to do this Demi Moore studio vehicle. He's never been the same since.

3. Rob Reiner: "The Story of Us" - "Ghosts of Mississippi" was the last film that garnered Reiner any meaningful attention. Apparently he thought he needed to do more serious fare to reclaim his "A Few Good Men" stature and decided to direct Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis in this overblown, melodramatic lemon.

2. Luc Besson: "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" - Granted, "The Fifth Element" was wildly uneven but there was enough originality in it to sustain my interest. But this follow-up is just plain lazy, a by-the-numbers, uninspired period piece made to capitalize on Milla Jovovich's looks. Besson, who arguably made a very original masterpiece, "La Femme Nikita," sure has disappointed ever since "Messenger."

1. Michael Moore: "Canadian Bacon" - Stick to what you know. 'Nuff said.

This list is based solely on films I'd seen so I'm sure there are many worthy omissions. The point is that sometimes directors can take a wrong turn and get lost in the wilderness.

* Update: In a recent interview with indiewire, Martel said that she was working on a script she had been working on before she started "writing 'The Headless Woman.' I think we should put it in the fantasy genre. It is a strange kind of invasion. A threat to [a] garden. Unwanted or unknown relatives that appear in our houses and live in the garden. Real monsters." That doesn't sound to me like the plot of "The Thernaut," so maybe she's dropped plans to direct that film. However, it appears she's switching gears nonetheless so I guess this column is still somewhat relevant.