Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hugo and Haywire: Great Directors on the Precipice

In this imperfect world, where it sometimes seems that no good deed ever goes unpunished and kindness costs you dearly, we look to the movies to lie to us with charm. People who are not movie fanatics don’t realise that for some of us movies are not just a pleasant way of passing the time, they’re a psychological necessity. Without them we’d lose hope. Even great, honest movies like All the President’s Men, American Beauty and 12 Angry Men ‘lie to us with charm’; they take a depressing reality and give it uplift that it doesn’t actually have. Without that sugar-coating, it wouldn’t even be a movie.

And maybe the older you get, the more you need movies to blot out the disappointments of real life. By middle age, you’ve probably come to accept that most people will always be very conscious of what they should get in life and not at all interested in what they should give, and to dilute your own cynicism you need to see examples of good and generous behaviour. That’s why when ‘creative’ people are selfish and try and sell us something they haven’t thought through or worked very hard on, we howl so loudly. That’s why so many people experience the Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean movies as abominations. We expect that kind of crassness from bankers and politicians, but film is supposed to be art, it’s supposed to be better than that.

And that’s why, after the OK but overrated Contagion and the lazy piece of nonsense, Haywire, my sense of disappointment was vivid and personal, and I felt a bit angry at Steven Soderbergh. Since he can make films as good as King of the Hill, Out of Sight and Traffic, and since he seems to have more artistic freedom than just about anyone else in Hollywood, why doesn’t he do a lot better? Soderbergh doesn’t seem like he’s even trying these days. Haywire is a ‘thriller’ without any tension whatsoever. It wastes the talents of about 10 fine actors - including newcomer Gina Carano - because the director couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed. It has the humdrum, couldn’t-care-less-vibe of a 1970’s Elizabeth Taylor TV movie, and I was astonished at how kind critics were to it.

I felt the same way about Hugo: just astounded at the good reviews it got. To me it was completely inert and contrived for the first 80% of its running time. It was definitely the worst film Scorsese has made since The Age of Innocence (1993) and perhaps even since Boxcar Bertha (1972), the one film in his career that even Scorsese completists should avoid. After seeing Hugo I started to worry that one of my favourite directors may be standing on the same kind of precipice that Hitchcock stood at in 1963, after he’d made four brilliant films - Vertigo (1958) North by Northwest (1959) Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) - and before he followed that up with four terrible ones - Torn Curtain (1966) Topaz (1969) Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). (Marnie, in 1964, was a fairly good but not great film that acts as the transition point). It’s the same precipice Coppola fell off in 1980, after a string of masterpieces in the 70’s, or Jean Renoir fell off in 1940. (The latter may be a more controversial opinion, but to me his films in the 30’s are so good, and everything he did after that so uninteresting, that it represents a similar sudden falling off of talent). With Soderbergh, after Contagion, Haywire and now Magic Mike (I haven’t seen it but it sure doesn’t look like it’s going to reverse the trend) there are definite signs of the rot setting in, and he needs to have a major re-think. With Scorsese, the problem is just with one picture so maybe I’m over-reacting, but all I can say is: please, Marty, make sure your next film is a lot better than Hugo!

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