Why Charlie Kaufman is us

Glad to know plan B can work out - telling stories with Sufjan

Looking forward to: Brick (no NL release date yet, unfortunately)

Stuff I learned: even Nobel prize winners sometimes to switch their phones off
Listening to: Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
Thinking about writing about: Pleasantville
Not enthusiastic about: unexpected shower visitors
Wants to read: about one of the men who fascinate me most

From the vault: What should I read next?

Unrelated comment: 1 down, 4 to go. 1 more week until being DONE.

The Eccentrics

Armond White has a very interesting piece up at slate about the group of filmmakers he calls "the Eccentrics", prompted by Wes Anderson's brilliant AmEx ad. The filmmakers he labels as such are:

  • Wes Anderson
  • Spike Jonze
  • P.T. Anderson
  • David O Russell
  • Alexander Payne
  • Sofia Coppola
Now, I don't have any issues particularly with this list, although I think Sofia Coppola's inclusion is still up for debate, at least until I see Marie-Antoinette (luckily coming out soon already, the 8th of June I believe). It's not that I don't like her: I love Lost in Translation, and while I've only seen parts of the Virgin Suicides, I love the book and still want to see the whole thing. She just seems a little less ideosynchratic, cramming less strange details into her frames, keeping her themes more clearly separate, and maybe most importantly she invests her characters with psychological realism. I can understand why she'd on the list, though: like the others, she takes a long time to make a film, and like many of the others, she pays a lot of attention to which (pop) music she uses.

So, what about these eccentrics? White's point seems to be mostly that they take their time with their movies, out of perfectionism perhaps, but that this doesn't make for perfect films perse. He puts it quite critically: "It seems that the Eccentrics' own egotistical indolence has resulted in self-imposed limits to their skills". He contrasts them in this respect to another group, the "entertainment specialists", a list which I'm afraid I have more issues with. The names:
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • M.Night Shyamalan
  • Bryan Singer
  • Michael Bay
  • Brett Ratner
  • John Moore
First of all, according to White's own criteria, Quentin Tarantino is definitely an eccentric, and not someone who "turn(s) out updated genre vehicles as if on schedule". True, Tarantino's sensibilities are less "indie", less quirky than the others, but he definitely takes his time on every movie, and he also definitely ponders over every single detail, every single element of the frame, and, obviously, every single song. Second of all, I really have trouble lumping in Bryan Singer, who's shown to be able to see into the blockbuster genre and make it both more fun and more interesting, with the lover of explosions Michael Bay and utter studio hack Brett Ratner (I dread to find out what he did with the X-men...).

Finally, I really take issue with the suggestion that what these guys (Tarantino excluded) do, filming movie after movie, playing with genres, is better somehow, more satisfying than what the eccentrics do. I agree with White that for example "the Life Aquatic" was far from perfect: yes, it was clunky in parts, the pirate thing didn't work at all, the tone was uneven, but it also had moments of pure cinematic genius in it, and I think those are the result of the maybe slow development. Maybe these perfect details need time to grow, to ripen. In any case, I doubt whether working faster and smoother, and therefore necessarily with less attention to detail, will improve the films of not only Anderson but also Russell (I {heart} huckabees was a mess, but some parts were inspired, transporting even) and PTA (though admittedly Magnolia was overlong). In fact, I think it would flatten them instead, and there are enough flat films out there already. Enough Michael Bay's, in any case.

Another filmmaker that White mentions is Spielberg, as a professional, fast worker "whose ideas and reflexes keep flowing" because he gets the opportunity - from his financial success- to jump from style to style and from theme to theme. I think Spielberg is actually the perfect counterexample to White's argument that the Eccentrics should stop being "precious" and just work faster and more. There is no doubt that Spielberg is an extrordinary filmmaker, with more talent for suspense and storytelling than maybe any other living director, a craftsman who could direct and action scene in his sleep and still make it rivetting. Lately though, his films have been burdened by more than just his obsession with absent father and overbearing mothers, by more than just his sentimental impulses. Lately, his movies have started to be less interesting, to me at least, because the jumping from theme to theme means that every one of his movies has just one main theme, usually quite a simple one, and this removes all possible depth.

Take any Wes Anderson movie, any movie by Russell or PTA or Payne or even Coppola, and they're not just filled with visual details but also all kinds of thematic excursions. Yes, Anderson's movies talk mostly about dysfunction (surrogate) families, but also about success, love and jealousy, creative ambition, etc. Payne's "Sideways", while pretty straightforward on the surface, was allowed to meander a little bit. Spike Jonze's Adaptation took on all kinds of things.
"The Terminal" or "War of the Worlds"? Not so much. Munich restricted itself to even a single message, and one not as wise or enlightened as it apparently thought it was: "An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind", well, yeah, we knew that. (Just as an aside, I greatly admire Spielberg's refusal to take a side in this film, when both sides are angry at you you're doing something right, but I just didn't think the film was all that interesting. Plus, it had MAJOR perspective issues). I'll still go see any new Spielberg movie because he is so good at making things compelling, because he knows better than anyone how movies work (although he apparently still doesn't get that happy endings can just be wrong, and even if he's apparently still uncomfortable with sex scenes), but I'm more interested when I hear about a new Wes Anderson or Sofia Coppola or Tarantino project, because I know that while it will probably be flawed, it will be fascinating.

It's unfortunate, of course, that we have to wait so long every time, but I think it's rather worth the wait. I'm still waiting for the new Dave Eggers too, after all. Meanwhile, we can just watch the AmEx ad over and over again.