Three Contemporary Great Directors in America

Although this section is about American directors, I must say I struggled with my choices. What is one to do with Peter Weir, the Australian who has been making films in America since "Dead Poet's Society" and "Witness"? And what of Sam Mendes, the British theater director who is responsible for two great American films—"American Beauty" and "The Road to Perdition"? What needs to be said is that Hollywood has always been the creative home for immigrants and even temporary visitors. The first Academy Award went to a film called "Sunrise" (1927), which was directed by the German F.W. Murnau. Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, and Alfred Hitchcock all immigrated here, and the latter two were famous in their native countries (Germany and Great Britain, respectively). William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann, Billy Wilder, Milos Forman, and Paul Verhoeven all emigrated from Europe and each made significant American films.

When I look at the films made over the past 30 years (excluding the work of the directors we will discuss shortly), I can identify ten great films made by great directors: Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" (1981), Robert Altman's "The Player" (1992), Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1994), Paul Anderson's "Boogie Nights" (1995), Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1998), Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie" (1983), Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" (1997), Oliver 58 Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994), Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" (1997), and Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" (2003). All are great films by great directors.

My choice of directors to discuss here was based on their work over the last 30 years. Each director has, on an ongoing basis, used a director's idea that has powerfully amplified the experience of his work. We will look at each in turn: Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.

Francis Ford Coppola's films "The Godfather" (1972), "The Godfather: Part II" (1975), and "Apocalypse Now" (1979) share a common director's idea: to view the narrative events of each film not as believable but rather as an opera, which requires an intensification of dramatic events. "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II" each revolves around Michael Corleone as the main character. The choices Michael must make are between his career (professional) and his family (personal). In each film, Michael chooses the professional option and sacrifices his family. As in opera, where celebrations and crises are the focus, Connie's wedding, her husband battering her, the assassination attempt on Don Corleone, the assassination of Sonny, the baptism of Connie's baby, and the killings of all those responsible for acting against the Don and his business interests all mark the original "The Godfather." The assassination attempt on Michael on the day of his son's confirmation, the assassination attempt on Hyman Roth, the Cuban revolution, the discovery by Michael that his brother Fredo betrayed him, and the settling of all accounts, including the murder of Fredo, mark the sequel, "The Godfather: Part II." Both films treat these events as set pieces so there is a ritual feeling to these narrative events. The focus on the intensity of death, love, and life events supports the operatic feeling. Stylistically, Coppola takes a very deliberate, slow approach to all of these set pieces. The result is the antithesis of realism, a theatricality I suggest is more opera than film.

The "film as opera" director's idea is equally at play in "Apocalypse Now." War films tend to present realistically, with a focus on the main character's survival. Coppola's operatic approach posits the war as madness, and the main character from the outset struggles to hold onto his sanity. The soldiers' progression up the river to deliver an assassin to kill the rogue officer, Kurtz, approximates a series of set pieces on the river Styx. By the time we reach Kurtz's camp, the feeling is that we are in hell, and by the time the 59 main character obeys his order to kill Kurtz we fully believe he may be a good soldier but is madder than a bat in hell. He has accomplished his mission but lost his mind. This is Coppola's view of the effect of the war in Vietnam on America. By using an operatic director's idea he has made even more extreme the narrative events of "Apocalypse Now" and created a film experience that functions as a war film on a narrative level but is transformed into an internalized psychodrama commenting on that war. Coppola's voice is loud and clear.

Woody Allen's director's idea is equally as powerful and enhances the film's voice just as it did for Francis Ford Coppola. Allen's director's idea is to be both a performer (stand-up comic) and a character in his films. When he is acting as stand-up comic, he speaks directly to the audience, breaking down the wall between the film's character and its audience. When he assumes the role of a character in the film, he remains in character and relies on the narrative strategies to invite the audience to identify and empathize with his character. In brief, Woody Allen's director's idea is as a writer/performer/director to step out of the film from time to time to comment on the ongoing narrative. In this sense, he is closer to the Marx Brothers as a comic persona/performer than he is to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Jerry Lewis.

Woody Allen is also profoundly influenced by the great filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. The consequence is a series of homages such as "September" (1987) and "Stardust Memories" (1980), and their influence can also be seen less directly in most of Allen's work, such as "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989) and "Broadway

Danny Rose" (1984). In "Crimes and Misdemeanors," the darkness of human behavior, so central a theme for Bergman, manifests itself in the ophthalmologist who gets away with commissioning the murder of his mistress. Faith, or the loss of it, is also addressed in the work of both filmmakers. A circus (or clown) theme is prevalent in the attitude and work of Fellini, just as it is in Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose." Closely related to the circus idea is the magic of the movie media, the theme of Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," a film that echoes Fellini's "The White Sheik."

But it is in Allen's films about love and relationships that we see his director's idea most powerfully at play. Looking at "Annie Hall" 60 (1977), "Manhattan" (1980), and "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986), we can see that each focuses on different variations of relationships. First, in "Annie Hall," we see the relationship between a Jew and a Shiksah, a gentile very different from himself. In "Manhattan," the focus is on the relationship between an adult and a teenager, where age, not cultural background, is the barrier. Finally, in "Hannah and Her Sisters," the difficult relationship is between a married man and his sister-in-law. Allen plays a central role in the first two films and a more subsidiary role in the third. Each film explores the need for love (a relationship) in the ultra-urban, upper middle class society of modern New York. In each case the love is crucial and intense, but the relationships are doomed to failure, so the focus is on the bittersweet outcomes of the relationships. Two of Allen's later films, "Husbands and Wives" and "Deconstructing Harry," focus on lonely characters, survivors of doomed love relationships.

To examine more closely how the director's idea works, we turn first to "Annie Hall" (1977), in which Allen assumes the role of narrator to comment on the narrative action, on being a Jew in a gentile society, on his relationship with his mother, or on other dimensions of feeling like an outsider. Allen feels free to intersperse such commentary freely throughout the narrative. Another strategy is to have the characters themselves address the audience directly, as he does when he introduces his classmates from junior high school to the audience. Visually, each is five years old, but they tell us what they are doing or have become as adults. The contrast between the angelic visuals and misanthropic futures—"I'm on methadone," "I'm a prostitute," etc. —is startling and makes the point that life disappoints and is not what it seems to be in one's childhood.

A third strategy Woody Allen uses to break down the wall between film characters and audiences is probably the most famous scene in "Annie Hall." Allen is in line to see Ophul's documentary, "The Sorrow and the Pity." Behind him two academics chatter on, the man trying to impress the woman with a flood of McLuhanesque observations and interpretations. Allen's character grows increasingly frustrated and eventually walks away, only to reappear with the real Marshall McLuhan, who proceeds to tell off the academic, after which he leaves the scene. This intervention in the narrative serves to bring the real world into the film.

The performer/character strategy is used to heighten the romanticism in "Manhattan" and to give the characters in "Hannah and 61 Her Sisters" the opportunity to confess, in a therapeutic fashion, their desire and their guilt. In both cases, the strategy amplifies the narrative and transforms it from a love story to a commentary on a particular time and place — New York, today. In a sense the director's idea has made Allen not only an impassioned storyteller (Fellini) but also a modern philosopher on our lives and times (Bergman).

To understand the director's idea that operates in the work of Martin Scorsese, we need to review the films of Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, and Yasujiro Ozu. In their films, characters who have an inner drive to be valuable and to be validated find the world a disappointing place. In "Open City" (Rossellini, 1945), the disappointment is in the realpolitique of fascism operating to corrupt a society and its individuals. In "Mouchette" (Bresson, 1970), it is found in the indifference and cruelty of communities and families to a simple, underprivileged young girl. In "Tokyo Story" (Ozu, 1953), it can be seen in the selfishness of one generation (children) toward another generation (parents). In each story, a character operates or lives by a moral code that simply does not help them. It is as if a character seeks or lives within a state of grace (spirituality) that the family or community or society does not share. The consequence is disappointing but on another level is tragic.

This tragedy, the gap between the inner life of a character and the lives of the character's surrounding family, community, or society, is the thread that runs through the work of Martin Scorsese. His characters seek a state of grace but what they find is a material world, a political world that cannot nurture them. Indeed, it is a world that does not accept them, and the results are often tragic. The search for a state of grace is Scorsese's director's idea.

This director's idea is clearly at play in Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1987) and "Kundun" (1999), his film about the life of the Dalai Lama. In a more subtle way, it is the subtext of Jake LaMotta's journey in "Raging Bull" (1980) and Travis Bickle's search in "Taxi Driver" (1976). The casting of Robert De Niro in both roles further underscores the restless, searching inner life that amplifies the director's idea.

Much has been made of the tone of Scorsese's films. Implicit in his director's idea is the clash between what the character wants and 62 what the character gets. It has been said that Scorsese has a propensity for creating film noir, but I believe this not to be the case. The tone is dark in "Taxi Driver," "Mean Streets" (1973), and "Casino" (1995), but I believe that the darkness has more to do with the narrative outcomes than a deliberate attempt to produce film noir. In "Raging Bull," for example, LaMotta is no longer a champion. He has lost his family due to continual wife battering and is alone. We see him rehearsing a monologue for a nightclub routine and realize that he is a man exploiting his own fame and former glory to make money to pay off his debts. In this scene, Scorsese presents a man who has fallen from the state of grace he enjoyed within the aesthetic of combat in the ring. That was LaMotta's moment, and when he lost it he was set adrift in the material world. This is LaMotta's tragedy. He has fallen from that state of grace that allowed him to associate with something larger than life. The ring, the combat, and being the middleweight champion meant everything to him.

Another aspect of Scorsese's work needs to be addressed—his style. Scorsese uses an active, searching, moving camera, such as in the nightclub entry shot in "Goodfellas" (1990), the balletic tracking shots in "Raging Bull," and the dynamic preparation for battle shots in "Gangs of New York" (2002). Scorsese uses the camera, together with chiaroscuro lighting, to create energy and to imply the restless search. The energy is the desire, the moving camera the hope, and the lighting the anxiety that hope will be dashed and desire will be disappointed. This stylistic approach underpins the director's idea. It articulates how very much the character hopes he will find a state of grace, and the use of lighting indicates how difficult the goal truly is.

Each of these directors transforms his narrative into something bigger, deeper, and different through his director's idea. In the case of Coppola, his operatic approach turns a gangster story into a powerful evocation of immigrants (the Corleone family) who are steeped in family values at the outset but lose their way. Power corrupts Michael Corleone and he loses everything that he and his father valued. Under Coppola's direction, their saga becomes a tale of America as paradise lost.

In the case of Woody Allen, his performer/character director's idea allows Allen to comment on the importance of love and relationships to his characters and how, because they are outsiders (e.g., Jewish or a writer), his characters remain outside the possi- 63 ble realm of enduring love. Consequently, his films capture the paradigm of contemporary American life —material success and spiritual ennui.

Martin Scorsese also is concerned with values in American life but by using his director's idea, the search for grace, he deepens the paradox. In this successful place, America, the divine is always elusive and the inevitable disappointment leads his characters to violence and self-destruction. They suffer the fate of living outside grace.

These dark perceptions of American life have powerfully countered the popular image of American life that includes success, material wealth, and power unprecedented in world history. These three great directors have asked important questions and provided alternatives to prevailing and popular views.

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