Thursday, August 02, 2007

A modest proposal

While meditating this morning on the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, I found myself remembering something Billy Crystal, of all people, said to me during a 1992 interview. We were talking about show business – appropriately enough, since he was promoting Mr. Saturday Night at the time – when Crystal, sounding more amazed than egocentric, remarked: ''When The Tonight Show ended, when Johnny Carson's reign ended, show business as I knew it stopped, and a new show business began. And my group of contemporaries -- Robin (Williams) and Jay (Leno) and (David) Letterman – we are now show business. Like it or not, it's us, until our faces start to fall. You know what I'm saying? We're show business now.”

True enough. And when Jay Leno steps down as Tonight Show host two years from now, I assume there will be yet another changing of the guard, or passing of the baton. But let’s focus on right now: Who are the heirs to those esteemed filmmakers – some living (such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer), most dead (Bergman, Antonioni, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, many others) – who came to prominence during the post-WWII era, who I would label The Art House Elders? And looking ahead: Who’s next? Who will be the Conan O’Briens to those Jay Lenos?

In my view, the natural heirs to the Art House Elders are those filmmakers I would collectively define as members of The Renaissance – as in “Hollywood Renaissance.” That is, filmmakers who came to prominence during the period roughly defined by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as the 13-year stretch between Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Heaven’s Gate (1980). Mind you, that definition should, I feel, be sufficiently elastic to include auteurs who, strictly speaking, started making movies prior to ’67 – think Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and John Cassavetes – but completed many (if not most) of their best and most enduring works during the 1967-80 period. Among the other MVPs, living or dead, in this division: Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah, Bob Fosse, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and, near the unofficial cut-off point, Ridley Scott (whose Alien was released in 1979) and Oliver Stone (who made his directorial debut with 1974’s Seizure, but remained best known as a scriptwriter until 1981’s The Hand).

Yeah, I know: That list – a tentative one, by the way; please feel free to add other names – doesn’t include many international directors. That’s why I also propose a separate but equal grouping – The Cannes Club – for other influential filmmakers of the same period. Such as? Milos Forman, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog… and, of course, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But if you want to lump both groups together under Renaissance (or some other label), fine by me. Either way – these are, I repeat, the natural heirs to the Art House Elders, because theirs are the movies that, collectively or separately, have equal (if not greater) impact and influence on audiences and other filmmakers today. They are the Jay Lenos of the movie world. (Well, OK, those of them who are still alive.) Indeed, you could argue they've claimed that position for a decade or two -- only now, it's more or less official.

And after them? Well, excuse me while I suggest another label: The Sundance Generation. (A disclaimer: I’m talking more about a state of mind, or a filmmaking philosophy, than a literal Sundance Festival connection.) In this category, I would include Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Hal Hartley and, arguably, John Sayles (whose 1980 Return of the Secaucus 7 can be viewed as a seminal influence for the entire group). Once again, I’d also propose a separate but equal category – The Toronto Generation – for equally prominent international filmmakers (many of whom work, periodically or frequently, in the U.S.) who have been either launched or elevated at the You-Know-Where Festival: Ang Lee, John Woo, Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, Patrice Leconte, Tom Tykwer and others. (Cannes would like to claim them, too, but never mind: That festival already has its own category.) These are filmmakers who, while continuing to produce outstanding and (here’s the key word again) influential work, are ensuring that they, too, will have their day as grey eminences. Or Conan O’Briens.

Are these categories arbitrary? Absolutely. Could some names be shifted from one category to another? Well, if you can make a strong case for it, sure. (It's like, some folks want to group Jean-Pierre Melville with the French New Wave; most don’t.) And should other names be added? Almost certainly. (Where do we put undeniably influential directors such as John Hughes? Or James Cameron?) All I have tried to set out here is a modest proposal for a new way of looking at generational shifts and lines of succession in regard to classic and contemporary cinema. Your suggestions and (constructive) criticisms are most welcome.

And, of course, if anybody would like to toss an advance my way to develop all this into a book, what the hell, I'm willing to take a meeting.

7 comments:

rosa said...

what about Paul Thomas Anderson, gus van sant, wes anderson, or the coen brothers? where do you feel they would all fit into this?

and, seriously, john sayles, hal hartley, and, for god-fearing movie-loving fucks sake, robert rodriguez, were mentioned before the above?

cool idea though. i would like to see john hughes, john carpenter, james cameron, john mctiernan, paul verhoeven, tim burton, and rob reiner to be some sort of crystal pepsi generation or something...

Noah Forrest said...

Good stuff, Joe. The most difficult part to me, I think, is where to draw the line. If we think of this chronologically, do we draw the line at 1996 so that the class of '99 doesn't mix together with the Sundance generation? Or do we lump them all together as one solid generation?

I like to think of it as a high school. You have the Sundance Generation, as you called it, as the seniors who fuck around a lot but are more experienced, Tarantino could be school president. The class of '99 are like sophomores/juniors. And then the directors that emerging now, like the Judd Apatows and Zach Snyders and Paul Greengrass' are the freshmen.

Then you have Scorsese, Spielberg, et al as the school administrators. My only problem is trying to figure out where a director like David Lynch fits in or Spike Lee. Any suggestions?

Joe Leydon said...

Rosa: Paul Thomas Anderson, Gus van Sant, Wes Anderson and Joel and Ethan Coen definitely would qualify for membership in the Sundance Generation.

Noah: I agree, it's difficult to draw the line regarding who goes where. But I am reluctant to start picking names for inclusion in The Next Wave because, frankly, making a handful of great and/or promising films is not enough. Put it another way: If were were having this conversation in, say, 1974, I would argue that, just on the basis of Targets, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, Peter Bogdanovich obviously was going to be a major force and influence for generations yet unborn. It hasn't quite worked out that way, however. Mind you, I have enjoyed some of his later films, but I'm not sure even he would say he still belongs on the list of the influential.

Anonymous said...

Aki Kaurismaki should fit in there somewhere. The man *is* Finland's film industry...

scooterzz said...

i think bogdanovich most def keeps his place on the list of influential directors...but as a cautionary tale, not someone to emulate..... i've always thought that his idolization of and obsession with welles led him to imitate some of the same behaviors that killed welles' career......and their careers (and personal lives) have much in common as a result.......my point being that he continues to be a major influence (just not a positive one)......

Joe Leydon said...

Scooterzz: Good point. Here’s a pertinent snippet from a piece I did on ‘70s movies for Stereophile Guide to Home Theater:

One could argue that Peter Bogdanovich didn’t fall from grace because he made Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love. Rather, he fell into disfavor because of his highly publicized romance with the star of those box-office flops, Cybill Shepard.

Because he and Shepard “were very successful,” Bogdanovich griped in a 1982 interview [with me, BTW], “and because she’s very attractive, they thought we were just a couple of spoiled Hollywood brats, running around and spending money. But it wasn’t true. We were working very hard.”

On the other hand, Bogdanovich admitted, “We weren’t very diplomatic. We didn’t know how to deal with the situation, and we sort of blundered through it. I think the thing Cybill and I did badly was handle the press. And we didn’t handle ourselves that well.”

Anonymous said...

please dont forget BRIAN DE PALMA (my personal favorite american director) ... berg