Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Looking back and moving forward with the "Rebels"

The book came out about seven years ago but here I am just talking about now. The book is Rebels on the Backlot which was written by Sharon Waxman. It dabbles into the worlds of six indie filmmakers who garnered a lot of attention in the '90s and wound up working with major or mid-major studios. Those filmmakers included Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, and David Fincher.

I had avoided the book for some time after it came out. I was very much aware of its existence in 2005 but I was just started to really become a fan of filmmakers like QT and PT Anderson. I've liked Tarantino since I remember watching grownup films on a more regular basis which was probably around 11 or 12. I think I had seen Pulp Fiction when I was around 7 or 8 as it was on pay-per-view (don't ask how I was able to see ppv channels back then, if you grew up during that era you know exactly how). But around 2004/2005 when this book came out, that was when I really started to pay attention. I was 16/17 and re-discovering Tarantino as a late-teen was one thing... discovering PT Anderson soon after was a revelation. When I heard Rebels on the Backlot didn't exactly show those filmmakers in a positive light, I knew I wasn't ready to hear dissenting words from filmmakers who I now consider heroes of mine. Now though, after joyously reading Easy Riders Raging Bulls from Peter Biskind a few months ago, I couldn't resist the urge to read Rebels. So I did.

This isn't a review though. This is more an overview of the book and the changes from the filmmakers then and now.

For me, Rebels didn't really tell me anything I didn't know, but it did dive deeper into the filmmakers relationships with the studios that tried desperately to get along with them. The good lot of them were a young, cocky bunch. Soderbergh refusing to go Hollywood for a decade until he sucked it up and made Out of Sight in 1998. David O. Russell who became a critical success with his first two films (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster) was now having to answer to the pressures of a major studio in Warner Brothers as well as getting into fist fights with George Clooney for the movie Three Kings which came out in 1999.

It was also quite fun to read about Spike Jonze's completely lack of awareness of pop culture before the Gen-X era as well as the fact that he was so far from being well-read that it took a few times to get through Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich script... he ended up being enthralled enough to want to make it. On the same note, it's fun to read about how that script circulated Hollywood for years with everyone saying "this is fantastic, but no one will ever make it." A testament to just how shitty Hollywood can be especially since the film finally came out in 1999 and is now a contemporary classic as far as I'm concerned. In fact, it's funny to think of it as being a '90s film since that and Fincher's Fight Club seem to fit right in with the 2000s.

 There's just something about those two films in particular that seem to be talking exactly about that generation in that point in time. It was that awkward pre-9/11 period of 1999-2001 where technology was moving at a breakneck pace and everyone was feeling perhaps a little too cynical. Things just seemed a bit looser then too... and then a great tragedy occurred and it woke a lot of people up. I don't mean that in a good way either. 9/11 was a deeply tragic event that I'll never forget, but the looming American mentality since 9/11 has been forever changed. It was nice, for a brief time, to remind ourselves why we lived in America and why our country is so great, but that nationalism and patriotism went too far into some people's heads. Now we're at the point where everyone has their own opinion of what being an American means and what the American way is, I really feel like we've gone too far to the other side compared to our mentality in the late '90s. For awhile, we had a happy balance, and now as a collective whole, we pretty much have gone insane. American politics has become a joke, our 24 hour news networks constantly pump into our brains all kinds of misinformation. We've gotten fatter, we consume more and more, we're still at war, women's issues have become a hot button topic yet again. There's a whole side of this country that have gone so far to the right on social issues that it really feels like we've lost sight over what it is we need to fix in this country.

So it's interesting to watch Fight Club or Being John Malkovich or even Three Kings and be reminded of that era just before 9/11. Another film that was talked about often was Soderbergh's Traffic which is brilliant from both a technical and story point of view. Soderbergh opened up the discussion of the drug war that's been going on between America and countries in Central America. Again, once 9/11 happened, the War on Drugs suddenly took a backseat and the War on Terror had begun leaving the issues that are presented in Traffic to remain more-or-less the same as they were back then.

Of course though, PT Anderson and Quentin Tarantino were the stars of Rebels on the Backlot. The book talks about how QT came to make Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as well as PT Anderson's start into becoming the wunderkind of the late '90s with Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia coming out in quick succession. It wasn't easy for any of those filmmakers even for the young Anderson who constantly battled with the studios in order to keep his vision in those films in tact.

What's interesting now is that all six filmmakers seemed to have grown up a lot since then. Most of them are in their 40s, some have already entered their 50s. Soderbergh is reaching the end of his filmmaking career, or so he claims. Spike Jonze has been taking forever in between projects, but showed with Where the Wild Things Are that he can make a good film without a Charlie Kaufman script (although, it's not as great as Malkovich or Adaptation).

David O. Russell took a long time between Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees and an even longer time to finally come out with The Fighter. He made a film in between Huckabees and The Fighter called Nailed which seems to be forever stuck in movie jail. There's high doubt that we'll ever see that film, it had one day of filming left and that day was to film the most crucial part of the movie. In 2007, Russell's antics on film sets became a topic yet again when video of him lambasting Lily Tomlin on the set of Huckabees had surfaced. It was some pretty intense stuff and gave off the impression that Russell is quite the hothead. Still, he seemed to have redeemed himself in a big way with The Fighter in 2010 which won two Oscars and earned him a Best Director nomination.

In fact, aside from Spike Jonze, all five other directors have managed to get nominated for Best Director. Tarantino had already been nominated for Pulp Fiction, but got the nom yet again for Inglourious Basterds. Fincher was nominated twice in '08 and '10. O. Russell for The Fighter in 2010. PT Anderson was finally nominated for Best Director in '07 with There Will Be Blood. Soderbergh won the award in 2000 for Traffic. It seems that these directors have come full circle and have earned the respect and adulation of both fans, critics, and of Hollywood.

At the end of the book, Waxman kinda took a dismissive tone towards Paul Thomas Anderson's film Punch-Drunk Love which was the last film he made before the book came out. She seemed to have something against the man as she wrote that film off considering it always had favorable reviews from the critics, even at the time. It even won Best Director at Cannes in 2002. It's even funnier now though since that film is now held in high regard and he followed that up with There Will Be Blood which many consider to be among the greatest films of the last decade. The book paints PT as a diva, a drug user, and self-indulgent who perhaps was losing his spark. We know now of course that's not true. PT Anderson's new film The Master is about to be released to much anticipation and the few reviews that have come about regarding the film have been either overwhelmingly positive or positive with some reservations. It's clear now that the man can't do any wrong except that he takes a long time between projects.

Quentin Tarantino had made Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown within 5 years from each other but then took six years to make the Kill Bill films. Judging from Basterds, I'd say he's more mature and has grown a lot as an artist since those early films. His new film Django Unchained sees him boldly tackling a subject that few filmmakers would dare to go near, that is slavery in America.

David Fincher's filmmaking oeuvre has been greatly bolstered after a five year break when Panic Room came out in 2002. Since then he's made Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He's proven himself to be one of the best studio filmmakers and perhaps the best director-for-hire that is out there currently. He may have been prickly and tough to talk to when Fight Club came out in '99 and, you know, it appears as though not much has changed since then when it comes to his attitude towards studios. Still, he has had enough success over the past few years that should never stop him from making great studio films for the rest of his career. The Social Network has so far been the peak of his critical and awards success and it was the most profitable. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in many ways felt like a stylistic companion to The Social Network and it demonstrated David Fincher's firm grip on his style. He's at the top of his game now and even though he has no films currently on his slate (he's working on a tv show for Netflix right now), can't help but get the feeling that the best is yet to come for him.

After David O. Russell made The Fighter, he went right back at it and now his next film is coming out in November, The Silver Linings Playbook starring Bradley Cooper and Robert Deniro. The film's finished and Russell is already in the midst of working on yet another film which is tentatively titled American Bullshit (which will change before it comes out, for sure). But it seems as if The Fighter has really marked a new phase in Russell's career. He wrote the screenplay for The Silver Linings Playbook but not for The Fighter or American Bullshit. The Fighter proved he can handle material that isn't his own pretty well. It'll be interesting to see what kinda career he winds up ultimately cultivating for himself because right now his filmography looks really eccentric, in a good way.

With Soderbergh, he seems to be tapping out after he makes the Liberace film with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. He already finished shooting "The Bitter Pill" which is to come out early in 2013 with the Liberace film to come out in either late 2013 or early 2014. Will he really retire or will he just take longer between projects? I have a feeling he will come back to filmmaking before the decade is over. Too many actors want to work with him. He seems to have struck a great friendship and rapport with Channing Tatum who got him to make Magic Mike. What has been great with Soderbergh since his retirement announcement is the fact that we've been able to get Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, The Bitter Pill, and then the Liberace film all within quick successions of each other. While Haywire and Magic Mike may have ultimately felt a bit slight and Haywire was kind of a flop, Soderbergh has been the type of filmmaker that has been completely unafraid to try everything. I don't know if he has a true bonafide masterpiece in his filmography but Traffic and, to a lesser extent, Che come pretty close. Che may have been a bit too uneven but Soderbergh's approach to making Che was definitely an epic undertaking. Overall, with an Oscar win, a couple of big hits in his career, and some interesting experiments, you can't really complain about Soderbergh's impending retirement. He seems to be bored with the craft and it shows a little bit with Haywire and Magic Mike. Conversely, I thought Contagion was his all around best film since Traffic. At the very least, he's been uneven. Uneven, but always interesting and always a filmmaker worth watching. If he's serious about retirement I hope he's able to find a way to get excited about filmmaking again. If he ever comes back to the world of film, it should be because he wants to and not because he's forced back into it.

Spike Jonze, in hindsight, may have been a poor choice for Sharon Waxman to talk about even if his story in the book is pretty interesting. Right now he's doing a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara but I feel like Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson would have been better since they both were rebels, more-or-less, and were coming up at the same time. Payne took awhile between Sideways and The Descendants and the latter film may have been his weakest (still great though), but he's a filmmaker that in any other era, the "indie films" he's making would be major works from Hollywood. He consistently makes great comedy-dramas and he makes well-crafted films. Wes Anderson's films are so distinct that I wouldn't even call them films, I'd call them worlds. You watch a Wes Anderson film and you are once again entering into the quirky precocious mind that is Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom was his strongest film yet and he looks to be wasting no time with his next film The Grant Budapest Hotel.

One last person mentioned in the book that's worth commenting on is Charlie Kaufman. Man, Charlie Kaufman from 1999-2004 was a force to be reckoned with. Writing the scripts for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He had his own fanbase and brought the best out of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Then he spent years sculpting his first directorial project, the overly ambitious Synecdoche, New York which demands to be seen more than once but is definitely a chore to sit through the first time. A good film and perhaps it's better than I currently think it is, but Kaufman has seriously slowed down his work output over the years and it's frustrating. Here was one of America's most promising screenwriters and probably was the best among his peers. He seemed to have delved too far into the abstract after Eternal Sunshine. Jonze and Gondry appear to be a bit lost without him (Jonze less so). Gondry keeps making visually interesting films with dull stories. While the Jonze/Kaufman relationship was great and inspired and we need to see more collaborations from them, the Gondry/Kaufman combo was fantastic and produced something so beyond anything else in the 2000s that a third collaboration between the two is a must (their first was on Human Nature which came out in 2001). The tone regarding Kaufman was understandably optimistic when Waxman wrote the book, it's funny to think that Kaufman almost feels like an afterthought when reading the book in 2012. That's not to put the man down, that's just a call to Charlie Kaufman to start making films at a faster rate!

It's interesting to delve into these filmmakers pasts and see how they continue to measure up since those early times. But the most interesting part has yet to come. These are still young filmmakers and they could potentially make enough films in the next 20 years that surpass the first few or maybe eventually they'll be considered has-beens. Who knows? All I know is that along with Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, those nine filmmakers that I mentioned including the six chronicled in Rebels on the Backlot are now the leaders. We have yet to see a new generation of filmmakers to take Hollywood and the rest of America by storm so all we have are these guys who all seem to be entering a new and interesting phase of their already-long careers. The quality of Hollywood films and films in general may have degraded over the past few years, but as long as those guys are out there making films, we won't be in bad shape.

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