Unfortunately, it seems that true auteurs have a limited life span.
A couple of months ago, I posted a blog in this space “Is it a Wrap for Quentin Tarantino?”
To be modest, it inspired a firestorm of, shall we say, misplaced controversy.
In it, I mentioned that I had been one of Quentin’s earliest supporters, thought that he had directed two of the three best movies of the ‘90s, and what I was furious about was the mendacities of the Weinstein Company which, in a desperate attempt to save itself, was trying to turn a good movie into some sort of godsend.
To that end, they began an attack campaign on the press (me included) that this was Quentin’s “biggest movie ever” when, in fact, as TheWrap pointed out, that if you took ticket-price inflation into consideration, only half as many people saw “Inglorious Basterds” as had seen “Pulp Fiction.”
My concern was what would happen to Quentin. The question I asked was, with the Weinsteins’ in a downward spiral and Miramax having laid off 90 percent of its employees, where was he going to go?
Beyond Universal, Disney won’t work with him (they fired the studio head who had overseen “Pulp”), Warner’s isn’t into auteurs, MGM is out of business, Sony has frozen development for the next six months (meaning they couldn’t pay him even his $900,000 fee for “Pulp,” let alone the 25 percent of the gross he reportedly got for “Basterds”) and Fox passed on what he himself says was his best movie ever. That was my concern –where does Quentin turn now?
I mean, I’m worried.
So I decided to look at the careers of a couple other “auteurs” — John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg and Michael Mann.
Unfortunately, it seems that true auteurs have a limited life span. That doesn’t apply to hacks — heck, even Alan Arkush, who directed a “talking horse” movie for Steve Tisch in the ‘80s, is still directing “Melrose Place” episodes. But true auteurs like Quentin, John, Stanley, Steven and Michael have limited lifespans or — as my old professor at Columbia, Andrew Sarris, the American avatar of the auteur theory, used to put it, “arcs.”
In short, they labor for years before they break through — then have a brief period of fame before fading into the limelight. Take John Ford, the first acclaimed “auteur” (a word Truffaut made up back in the “Cahiers du Cinema” days of the ‘50s.) As Sarris translated, it meant that more than the producer, writer, studio or stars, the real “author” (hence, “auteur”) of a movie was the director. And like any artist, their career would go through an “arc.”
Obscurity, fame, failure.
In Ford’s case, he directed his first movie in 1916, but it was 1924 before he made one anyone remembers, “The Iron Horse.” He perfected his craft in ‘39’s “Stagecoach,” hit his stride with “Grapes of Wrath,” ‘41’s “How Green Was My Valley” and ‘56’s “The Searchers,” the template of the “film school” generation of Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas.
Then it was downward to episodes of “Wagon Train” for TV before, well, he finally died. (That’s what I’m worried happening to Quentin if he can’t pull out of the “Grindhouse”/ ”Hell Ride” spiral!)
The late Kubrick followed a similar path—beginning with such forgettable fare as “The Seafarers” in ’51 to “Killers Kiss” until finally breaking through in producer/star Kirk Douglas’ “Spartacus” in ’60, “Dr. Strangelove” in ’64, “2001” in ’68 and “A Clockwork Orange” in ’71. And, then, well, Ryan O’Neal still blames Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” on ruining his career; Kubrick may have done the same thing to Tom Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut.”
For Spielberg and Mann, the arc was a little different — they began in TV: Spielberg memorably with “Duel” in ’71 (actually, he’d made movies before like “Firefly,” but no one remembers — a key to an auteur!); Mann with ‘79s “Jericho Mile” (surprisingly, I remember it!). Then each made forgettables — “Sugarland Express” in Spielberg’s case; “The Keep” in Mann’s.
Eventually, they got a chance at bigger fish — Spielberg’s “Jaws” begat “Close Encounters,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” etc. But by the mid-‘80s he was back to doing unfunny versions of his earlier movies — “Raiders II” or turgid art films like “The Color Purple.”
And what’s he done since? Sure, the “Jurassic” franchise was one of the biggest ever — but can anyone remember a scene from it other than “Objects in the mirror are closer than they seem”? I guess you could count “Saving Private Ryan” as an artistic movie — but that was 11 years ago! Did anyone even see “Always” or “A.I.”?
Mann’s path has been equally as “arc-ful” as Sarris predicted — it took him longer to prove himself (he had to create “Miami Vice” before anyone took him seriously), but beginning with ‘92’s “The Last of the Mohicans” he ran off a string of movies worthy of Ford — ‘95’s “Heat,” ‘99’s “The Insider” and 04’s “Collateral” (almost saving Tom Cruise’s career from Spielberg in the process — alas, it was not to be).
Unfortunately, he made a worse “Miami Vice” movie that will go down with “The Keep” among losers and then, this summer, bombed with “Public Enemies.”
So who knows what the future holds for Quentin, Steven and Michael?
After all, Steven and Michael are in their ‘60s, and Quentin has announced he wants to retire before then. But on the “auteur arc,” I’ll admit Quentin’s certainly following their footsteps — like Steven and Michael, he had early films that he hopes no one discovers, like his uncredited rewrite of the Rutger Hauer straight-to-video “Past Midnight,” before he hit it big.
Then, as Sarris predicted, he had a period to kill for as writer/director/producer from 1991-5 with “Reservoir Dogs,” “True Romance,” “Killing Zoe,” “Natural Born Killers” and “Pulp Fiction.” But now, having run out of ideas, he’s following in his idols’ careers, repeating himself.
After all, Spielberg’s last turkey was “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull” (a sad attempt to re-create one of his hits); Michael proved he can’t revive “Miami Vice” and now I see in the trades that Quentin, like Steven and Michael, has resorted to pulling an old rabbit out of an even older hat.
His next movie is “Kill Bill III.”