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.