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In my last post, I introduced Michael Mann and why his work is important to me. While I find much to admire across his oeuvre, the Mann film that impresses me the most is The Insider, an epic rendering of subject matter that does not seem overly dramatic. Yet by focusing on intimate details and conveying a cumulative and pervasive sense of threat, bewilderment and betrayal, The Insider turns the account of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the journalist who told his story Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) into a sweeping, enthralling and gripping thriller of corporate, legal and human skulduggery. The criticism of corporatism is handled deftly without being naive or didactic, and the film provides a sober meditation on life within Information Age late capitalism.
While The Insider is Mann’s finest work, it is not the best introduction to Mann’s oeuvre nor my personal favourite. The quintessential Mann film, the one that serves as the perfect introduction to this singular body of work, is my favourite film of all time, Heat.
Despite the iconicity of Heat‘s central pairing, the most annoying thing about responses to the film is the reductive view that it is all about Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meeting on screen for the first time. If you ever needed proof that great actors do not equal great films, look no further than Al and Bob’s (we hang out all the time) subsequent collaboration, Righteous Kill (2008). Heat‘s majesty is elevated by the central performances, but they are two in a wide ensemble that includes Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Natalie Portman, Amy Brenneman and many others. The different plot lines for these characters – many of whom never encounter each other – cause Heat to resemble Los Angeles-set network narratives such as Magnolia (1999), Boogie Nights (1997) and Crash (2004), albeit with a more generic central thrust. Mann has a long-standing association with the crime genre and Heat is a major part of that association, but the film does not sit comfortably within generic confines. Rather, the film pushes against these confines and uses the tropes of a cops and robbers thriller to create an intricate, existential and sociological portrait of life in a late twentieth century metropolis. Tensions around gender, race, class and work abound, while the frequent motion of the narrative, the characters and the camera creates a sense of transience and instability, despite the imposing concrete structures of the buildings and freeways.
Neil McCauley (De Niro) describes LA as the city of lights, but what he neglects to mention and that the film highlights is that these lights are isolated and disconnected, as are the inhabitants. Relationships fracture and fragment across the film, often due to violent action such as the opening heist, the incredible central gun battle and the final chase through LAX. But away from the bullets, personal differences also drive people apart, these differences exacerbated by this environment of disconnection and inconstancy. At least six intimate relationships are destroyed over the course of the film, largely by the actions of intractable men who neither know how nor want to do anything else. Nor does the film neglect its female characters despite their relatively brief screentime, as it is the women who recognise and lament what Justine (Diane Venora) describes as ‘the mess you leave as you pass through’. Heat is a sweeping, intricate and enveloping story, intensely detailed, stunningly visualised and thunderingly rendered, representing many concerns that run throughout Mann’s work, making it the archetypal Mann film, and one of the finest crime thrillers of the 1990s.
For Part Two of our tour through my favourite filmmakers, I turn to that great divisive figure who attracts adoration and revilement in equal measure; he who has pushed the boundaries of film technology and created some of the most indelible images of recent cinema history; he who has been the target of great scorn and derision for his crass and offensive cinematic crimes against humanity. I refer, of course, to David Cronenberg. Sorry, wait, David Cameron. No, no, that’s wrong – James Cameron. Got there in the end.
James Cameron is probably the director whose work I enjoy most consistently. It is very hard for me to pop in a DVD of any Cameron film just to watch a bit of it, because I end up watching more, and more, and before you know it I’ve watched half the film (more if the scene I particularly wanted to see was early on). I think this is central to why I love his work – the flow of images and continuity is so fluid that I want to be carried along with it. For me, that is one of the chief joys of cinema. Cameron has (not unreasonably) attracted much criticism for his simplistic plots, archetypal characters and (apparently) bad dialogue, suggesting that he is not a sophisticated writer of stories. He is, however, a superbly cinematic storyteller, demonstrated by his constantly roving camera, smooth editing and highly detailed mise-en-scene. As I’ve mentioned before, plot, character and dialogue are not major concerns for me – I am an intensely visual cinematic consumer and if the visual elements work for me, I am a happy viewer. I won’t say that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar is a three-dimensional character, or that Jack Dawson’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) line “you’re the most amazingly, astoundingly, wonderful girl, woman, that I’ve ever known” is the height of romantic poetry (but then again, Jack isn’t exactly a poet, he’s an uneducated street artist, so at least his dialogue is consistent). But these are not problems for me – Cameron makes absolutely gorgeous films that explore themes which interest me, including gender, vision, technophobia/philia and age-old questions of identity and humanity.
Picking my favourite Cameron film would be tricky, and I have posted on both Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) previously (twice in the case of the latter), which I adore and admire in equal measure. Therefore, if I were to introduce a newbie to a Cameron film, where to start? Despite his prominence, Cameron is hardly prolific, having directed only eight films in a career spanning over thirty years. Nor is he happy just directing, as Cameron has written all of his films and produced most of them as well, as well as editing a few. As his career has progressed, the budgets as well as the box office receipts of his films have expanded exponentially, and this has led to sometimes justified descriptions of his films as baggy, bloated and excessive. This started with The Abyss (1989), and continued through Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic and Avatar. While Cameron’s films have steadily progressed in terms of technological innovation and jaw-dropping spectacle, it is easy to be cynical about such grandeur. Therefore, as introduction to Cameron’s oeuvre, I would pick the film he regards as his debut, having disowned Piranhas 2: The Spawning (1979). The introduction Cameron film is, of course, The Terminator (1984).
Shot for a mere $6.5 million, The Terminator is a lean, mean entertainment machine, that delivers blistering action sequences and a stark, tech-noir vision. It is also unremittingly bleak, which also makes it unusual in Cameron’s oeuvre. From The Abyss onwards, hope and optimism is a recurring theme, and even Aliens (1986) is a (just about) successful survival story. But in The Terminator, there is no escape, the trope of relentless pursuit extending beyond the eponymous cyborg. Brad Fiedel’s electronic score continually returns to the ‘Terminator Theme’, its percussive bass line ostinato expressing the relentless advance of omnipresent technology. Most tellingly, the theme returns in the final scene of the film, after the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has itself been terminated. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is really the central character, around whom the entire narrative revolves, pursued across time by both the cybernetic assassin and her saviour/lover Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). But even after their deaths, Sarah left with John Connor growing inside her, the relentless pursuit continues, the Terminator theme playing as Sarah drives towards storm clouds. These represent the coming apocalypse, the war between humans and machines which is still coming, relentless and unstoppable. Subsequent instalments and Cameron’s career may have provided more hopeful futures, but The Terminator remains as pitiless and remorseless as its eponymous character, truly the nightmare that won’t end.