Register Tuesday | January 21 | 2020

Auteurs Gone Wild

I went to see a screening of a new movie by one of those Hollywood “golden children” last night. (I can’t tell you which movie because I don’t want to be branded as some sort of press guy and thus blacklisted from these preview screenings…) Let’s just say it was the latest film from a guy who made a truly great film a few years back. It wasn’t a huge hit, but those who saw it absolutely loved it. (The first time I saw it was in the Miramax screening room in New York, where an executive had managed to borrow an advance print and invited a few dozen people. After the movie was over, the entire audience shouted “Show it again!” And they did. People stayed another two hours. I’d never seen that before and never have since.) It became one of my favorite movies of all-time and the first DVD I bought when I got a DVD player. It even ended up as one of those special “Criterion Collection” films. The movie was so well respected that big name actors were clamoring to be in his next picture, which, though not as good, was loved by many and featured an all-star cast. (That should be enough hints for you…)

So I was hopeful and excited about this movie. So much so that I went to the theater ninety minutes early to make sure I got a good seat. And I was not the first one there by any stretch. By the time they opened the doors, the line wound down the block and around the corner, consisting mainly of film buffs and fans of the director’s work. We shuffled inside and took our seats, and you could feel the anticipation in the room. We all loved this guy’s stuff. The lights went down. The screen lit up. And the movie began.

And it sucked. I mean, it really sucked. Within the first ten minutes, I started to feel restless and annoyed. None of the jokes were working, despite coming out of the mouth of one of my favorite comedic actors. The audience, desperate to laugh, mustered up a few chuckles along the way, but after twenty minutes it became clear this movie was an absolute train wreck. Of course, there were a few very funny moments, and the style maintained the signature of the director, but there was so little to grab on to that it became quite painful. Remember watching the beginning of the first “new” Star Wars? When it begins with those long paragraphs about taxation and then goes into an interminably boring stretch featuring council members spouting really stiff dialogue? It was that painful. Maybe worse. It’s rare that I feel tempted to walk out of a film, but this was one of those moments. The only reason I stayed was out of respect for the director and the hope that there was going to be some upcoming scene of such hysterical brilliance that the entire movie would be redeemed. But it never came.

I could tell the people around me hated it too. It wasn’t just me. My friend to my left said, “Oh my god, that sucked.” I asked my friend to my left: “I hated it.” So it was virtually unanimous. (However, some people, inexplicably, did applaud at the end). Unfortunately, there was no Q&A session with the director afterward. No chance to ask: “What the hell, man?!” Outside, in the lobby, you could see disappointed faces everywhere.

What went wrong? I can only take a guess. Here’s the unfortunate reality, a paradox of sorts. Hopefully this will make sense: A young auteur director emerges with a truly original voice and style. Everyone wants to be in his movies. And because he has the blessings of several big stars, he can do whatever he wants. The studios, which rely almost entirely on the marketability of the project (read: cast) to decide which movies to greenlight, cannot say no. They would look like fools. But if they say “okay,” then they get to look like a studio that actually puts out something original and interesting once in awhile. And the fact that there are major stars in the movie gives them a chance of making their money back and thus eases their pain. Take “I Love Huckabees” for instance. A classic example of a film that never would have been made if not for the all-star cast wanting to work with that director. So this auteur writes a script that, despite its obvious flaws, no executive is willing to criticize for fear of looking like they don’t get it (and besides, they’ve got the cast so it’s all good anyway), and the picture goes forward without enough real development to have any chance of being a good movie. (The “new” Star Wars movies are a classic example of a script that no one was allowed to see and therefore the director never got any critical comments that could have improved it.) So this movie, that under normal circumstances would NEVER get made, gets made and maybe some actors and producers along the way wonder if it’s going to be any good but they trust the “genius” of the director so much that they go along for the ride.

And what you get is a complete train wreck.

I’ll be very curious to see what the reviews are for this film. If they are positive and glowing I may just have to reexamine my entire taste in movies and my career in general. I’m sure there will be some who love it. I just can’t imagine who.

But it’s a classic example of the current paradox that exists in the movie business today. There are a few young directors right now who can do whatever they want because enough actors want to work with them: Paul Thomas Anderson, David Gordon Green, Wes Anderson, Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, etc. And these guys are important for American film, because they are the few who get to do truly original, thought-provoking, studio-financed work. I suppose the price we pay is that not every film will be brilliant and some will be downright terrible. Do they deserve our support? Probably. It’s a tough business and there are few visionaries. But there is such a thing as too much support, too much adoration, to the point where no one questions the script and the work suffers for it. Sure, for a writer there is such a thing as too many “notes,” but there is also the danger of “too little.” But as a storyteller, you have to take your audience into account before shooting. I can’t help but feel like this director took his adoring audience for granted. That’s how I felt. He may discover that we aren’t there for him next time.