senior slump

the modern film auteur and the impossibility of following oneself

As a preface—did you see, Hail, Caesar?  (That’s a tricky sentence to write, incidentally, since the stylistic typography used by the Coen brothers for their most recent directorial effort is actually Hail, Caesar!, which is a devil of a thing to try to end an interrogative with, but there you are.) If you did, statistically you probably didn’t like it—it got a C- in opening weekend CinemaScore polls. In the interest of fairness, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody called it “scintillating” and “uproarious.” But let’s be honest—if you don’t really like the Coens, the whole thing was over before it began.

The reason the Coens (whom I, incidentally, like quite a bit) have been able to work with big studio war chests but are still trusted enough to make weird and wonderful movies that work outside the traditional story beats of establishment Hollywood is because they’re usually that damn good. But the fact that Hail, Caesar! is by any standard difficult to watch, and the fact that as a rule the Obama-era Coens don’t make movies that score below 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and that Hail, Caesar! did, makes it worth wondering—is giving auteurs the freedom they need really warranted? And do we even have auteurs anymore?

You can time them like clockwork. Look at four of the greatest screenwriter/directors to emerge in the last 25 years—the Coens, Quentin Tarantino, and P.T. Anderson. All released their best-received films within four years of their feature-length debuts (Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights), and all three wide-released their worst-received movies ever in 2015 (Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, and Hail, Caesar!). These movies were pretty well-received by any normal standard. The lowest-rated, Inherent Vice, has a 74 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But Anderson hadn’t gotten less than 86 percent on any of the three movies he made before that. Vice also flopped hard, as did Eight and Caesar.

Complaints were similar. Anthony Lane, in a mostly positive review in the New Yorker, said Inherent Vice was “exasperating” and failed to “wrap up.” Scott Marks, in the San Diego Reader, said Hateful Eight was “underdeveloped” and “could have easily lost an hour.” And Colin Covert, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, called Hail, Caesar! a “long, rambling shaggy-dog story.” And, perhaps most important for prestige-Hollywood, Vice and Eight combined for a grand total of no Oscars. Hail, Caesar! was only released in February, so the jury’s still out. But I’m skeptical.

The downside of the largely beneficial scenario whereby writers/directors of a certain stature attain full control over their work is the length of their leashes. Critics have said of nearly every modern auteur that they are capable of getting away with things no other director would “because of the respect they engender” (Variety article about the Coens from February). Anyone who is allowed to freewheel too long is bound to exhibit a decline in quality of work. (Otto Preminger spent years railing against the restrictive production code of the Golden Age of Hollywood—and he was dead right. But under the code, he made The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and Bunny Lake is Missing—all films made as a form of rebellion. After the restriction was lifted, he made Skidoo. Go figure.)

The current landscape gives us three curative ideals, all writer/directors who have also had some of their greatest box office successes in the past two decades: Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, and Richard Linklater.

Wes Anderson got his experimental, critically uncertain period out of the way in the middle of his career, back in the mid-to-late 2000s, with his two worst-received films, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The three films he’s released since then, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, have stuck to a few simple formulae. They’re released every three years. They all stick to similar themes to which the director clearly relates. And most importantly, they were all either released outside the traditional awards season or did not make an active play toward that arena whatsoever (but still got a total of 14 Oscar nominations).

Anderson’s films are often lampooned for leaning on recycled subject matter and visuals, but to the extent that that’s true it’s only because his vision is total. This is not only because he is a genius but also because he paces himself—he takes longer, more regular breaks than many of his counterparts in Hollywood, including, say, P.T. Anderson, who used to take five years, but has condensed it to two. Wes Anderson gives himself a regular three-year planning period before every project, allowing him the specificity to design his intricate worlds. Quentin Tarantino is currently thinking about making a “six-part podcast” about film in the 1970s. This is what happens when you don’t regiment your downtime.

Woody Allen makes a movie a year—he’s made 47, with another on the way in 2017.  You can call that crazy, and you’ll be pretty much justified. But it’s resulted in a new social attitude toward a Woody Allen film that judges it less as a work of cinema and more as a peek into the current life of the filmmaker—how’s Woody doing this year? And that creates a different standard under which he’s capable of releasing little meandering gems like this year’s underrated Café Society. If I knew another Coen brothers movie was coming a year after Hail, Caesar!, I’d be a lot more forgiving. So yes, Woody Allen makes a lot of bad movies. But he’s also released four Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” films in the past eight years. Neither Tarantino nor P.T. Anderson can say that.

If you didn’t see Hail, Caesar!, you definitely didn’t see Everybody Wants Some!! (two exclamation marks), Richard Linklater’s 19th film, from March. It flopped at the box office and starred precisely no one (important—Linklater trusts actors implicitly but doesn’t rely on them, as Tarantino does). It was, however, a critical darling: Jake Coyle of the Associated Press praised Linklater’s “light touch.” (Remember Colin Covert and the “long, rambling” Hail Caesar?)

Look at the context. Linklater hasn’t made a movie with a budget over $10 million since 2008. Keep in mind that this isn’t a director who’s indie because he has to be; this is the man who made School of Rock, until recently the highest-grossing musical comedy of all time. And he’s choosing to make delightful but little-seen films like Bernie alongside finishing up admirably ambitious projects like Boyhood—and come out of it with innumerable awards and, remarkably, fully intact street cred. He goes small—not always a bad idea.

Thus, to sustain a following as a writer/director in today’s Hollywood, it’s necessary to set clear, long-term creative goals and stick to them. I don’t know if the Coens or Tarantino or P.T. Anderson or Damien Chazelle or Nate Parker have plans, but it’d be nice to think they do. Or at least, nice to go see a Coen brothers movie I can actually talk to people about more than 10 months after it’s released. I can dream, can’t I?