In following with the recent trend of taking these Facebook memes that I get tagged in and using them for Sunday bloggery, here’s my selections on the Director’s thing.
I guess I should first explain how it works. “Hollywood” Don Adams and Scott Phillips (both fine directors in their own rights) tagged me in this fashizzle, in which they had ruminated on their favorite film of a specific director (Don had the amazing John Carpenter and picked the incomparable The Thing; Scotty had Paul Thomas Anderson and went with the new classic Boogie Nights)
So here we go:
Don tagged me with Peter Yates, British legend and master craftsman of such films as The Deep, the excellent Murphy’s War, the immensely underappreciated Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Hot Rock, the 70’s car-centric classics Mother Jugs and Speed, Robbery, and goddamn Bullitt. Into the 80’s, his output slowed, but stayed top-bloody-notch with flicks like Suspect, An Innocent Man, The House on Carroll Street and The Dresser, for which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director in 1983. He also directed motherfuckin’ Krull, every 80’s kids idea of the greatest looking movie in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the VHS racks. Guilty pleasures rarely come more pleasurable.
Yates continued on into the 2K’s, and ended his craeer with an acclaimed version of A Seperate Peace. He died in 2011 at the age of 81 and left no greater legacy than his other Academy Award nominated classic, 1979’s Breaking Away.
Breaking Away was pretty much the template for every buddy movie and John Hughes coming-of-age flick that came after it, a hilarious, touching and sometimes even inspiring story about a small-town kid who dreams of being a world-class bicycle racer, hopefully on the championship Italian team. Dave (Dennis Christopher, somehow time-channeling 90’s era Beck 15 years early) wants this so much that he actually acts like a stereotypical Mastroianni disco-era Italian, which really chaps the ass of his down-to-earth dad (played by Paul Dooley who would later define the “hapless Dad” character in Sixteen Candles). Also along for the ride are a very young Daniel Stern, an undeniably charismatic Dennis Quaid and Jackie Earle Haley, not long out of his Bad News Bears era, stealing innumerable scenes. These young townies (here called “Cutters” in reference to the closed-down rock quarry that employed most of the town, which these boys now use for a swimming hole) have just left High School, unsure of their futures, in an era of extreme disquiet in middle America. Of course they run afoul of the obnoxious students of the local University, they have girl problems, family problems, sexual problems, identity problems, so on and so forth. This is one of the first films I recall having the Caddyshack-style sense of humor, coupled with an actual dramatic undertow, characters that do more than toss one-liners and serious issues tackled gently with comedy. If you haven’t seen it, get to it. To say this is my favorite film from the guy who made Bullit and Krull, you know I’m talking some serious excellence.
Now on to #2, which is a slippery slope indeed. Scotty was either cruel or wise enough (perhaps both) to saddle me with the King Of Film himself, Steven Spielberg. How the hell do you whittle down that body of work?
Spielberg began, like most of his generation, making his own Super 8 films as a kid, then heading off to Film school in the 60’s. By the age of 24 Big Steve was already directing TV (including serious prime-time fare like Marcus Welby MD and Columbo, as well as episodes of Night Gallery and now-classic TV movies like Duel). By 1975, still shy of his thirtieth birthday, Spielberg had unleashed Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the world, forever changing Film, Entertainment and Pop Culture in his wake. What followed, through the 80’s and 90’s, was probably the single greatest body of work in the history of Film. From 1981 to 2005 Spielberg directed no less than 21 films, all of which were either massive hits, near-perfect examples of the art of film making, or both. Even the films that failed to burn up the box office, like 1989’s Always, still tended to be beautiful, heartfelt and endlessly enjoyable. I won’t comment too much on the total misstep of 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or the box office failure of 2011’s Tintin, or even the arching over-dramatic treacle of the recent War Horse. I could argue that each of those films had their audience and still provided more entertainment value than most films in wide release today. The man has produced more than 130 films, directed close to 50 and written at least two other of my favorite 80’s flicks (that he may or may not have also directed: Poltergeist and The Goonies). In the end, how to you possibly pick a single title out of that list to be above the rest?
Me, like many of you, will go immediately to the coolest flick of 1981, the one that set the bar for very action movie that came after. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much as George Lucas’ pastiche of WWII flicks, samurai movies and Flash Gordon had redefined the 70’s and ALL science fiction to follow, Raiders rewrote the book on action flicks. Lucas’ influence is all over it, sure, but Spielberg undeniably shapes the tales of Dr. Henry Jones Jr (Indy to his friends and lovers) into the same kind of labor of love and playfulness that fills every other film in his ouvre. At once a two-fisted Doc Savage clone, and a wry, smart-mouthed Humphrey Bogart adventurer a la The African Queen or Across The Pacific, Indiana Jones is a man of mystery from the very first frames, his back to us, that iconic hat perched just right. As the film progresses, we come to love Indy more than any action hero before or since. He is funny, smart, tough and even sensitive. He personifies a well-established mode of loose American morality – he can steal, he can maim and he can flout the rules of any other government. Hell, he can even kill with impunity… as long as he’s doing it for the right reasons. He’s the handsome, talented, worldly man we all wish we could be, and that every woman wishes she could hold on to, even for a single night.
The rest of the cast is just as pitch-perfect, from fire-brand Marion Ravenwood (fiesty Karen Allen, becoming the freckle-faced dream-girl of a generation) to Paul Freeman as the venomous Belloc and the ever-enjoyable John Rhys Davies as egyptian pal Sallah. Even Alfred Molina (in his very first appearance that ends very badly ten minutes in) is memorable and absolutely suited to the film. The action pieces are unparalleled. Every element of this film is pretty much fucking flawless. Spielberg at his best, his most fun, and his most enjoyable.
I remember seeing Raiders at the Drive-In when I was a mere 7 year-old. I also vividly remember it playing on every one of a hundred screens in an electronics store (which seemed like it’s own endless warehouse of arcane treasures) when I ventured out with my parents to get our first VCR. It has always held a special magic for me, led me to a whole world of its influences and imitators (just this Christmas I picked up a DVD copy of cheesy 80’s TV rip-off Tales of the Golden Monkey). My kids love Indy. We have the Lego Indiana Jones video game, I have a half-dozen books on the making-of, behind-the-scenes, and even the props of Indiana Jones. I once bought my best pal a porcelain headpiece to the staff of Ra. I have action figures from three different decades. I studied, and almost majored in, Archaeology. I’ve owned a total of 16 wide-brimmed fedoras over the years.
I’m wearing one right now.
Raiders of the Lost Ark FTW.