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Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles’

Nature vs. Nurture: Creativity or Experience?

May 26th, 2011 No comments

Unformed or Informed…?

In the last For Bards Blog post, I mentioned a friend had asked the question “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?” My glib answer was instantaneous: “It’s called the “Citizen Kane” effect.” I did  put in my defense of experience and wisdom by citing filmmmakers like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, or Alain Renais, all of whom  in the last year or two delivered the most mature works of their careers. But my friend’s answer was equally quick – and equally glib: “Yes, but no one  goes to see those.” So why is it that so many creative artists do their most audacious work at the beginning of their career, and what filmmakers have managed to have avoid this pitfall? (Or is it a gift…?)

Enfant Terrible?  –  Seasoned Vet?

Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane” serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale to filmmakers, because it signifies the limitless creativity of genius and the relentless demands of commerce at odds with one another. Arguably Welles’ best film (if not anyone’s), “Citizen Kane” showcased Orson Welles’ ample talent and vision and has thrilled audiences ever since its release; but it was not a commercial success, mainly due to the efforts of William Randolph Hearst, who, probably accurately, perceived Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles’ story of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane as a personal attack. The resulting film is a cinema classic, but its arthouse creative ingenuity cost Welles industry work for years. Despite 9 Academy Award nominations, “Citizen Kane” won only for Best Original Screenplay for Mankiewicz and Welles (a credit that its director and co-writer contested for years). Orson Welles’ next directorial effort, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was taken over in editing by RKO, which savagely re-cut Welles’ original version. Resorting to hire himself out as an actor or wine spokesperson, Welles as a director failed to recreate the cinematic brio of “Citizen Kane,” although he came closest in his 1958 film noir “Touch of Evil.”

Woody Allen is 75 years old. And he still makes movies – almost one a year. Some would argue that his best films are behind him: his “early funny” movies (to quote a sycophant from Allen’s “Stardust Memories”) are a distant memory, and his storylines have tended toward similarity over time. Yet Woody Allen is currently garnering his best critical reaction in years for his latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival recently. Compared by some to his comic fantasy “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Midnight in Paris” stars Owen Wilson as an Allen-esque writer whose present-day Parisian vacation changes when he is transported back to the romanticized Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s, allowing him to rub shoulders and exchange bon mots with the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway. In a way, it’s  a melding of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Woody Allen: the protagonist is Allen’s Everyman nebbish stand-in, but the film’s setting and sensibility is the ‘new’ Woody, who left his native New York City to shoot all his films since 2005 in England or Europe. His next film, starring Penelope Cruz, will be shot in Rome. 

 

The Argument Continues…

So why is it that some folks do their most evocative  work when they are clearly ‘making it all up?’ Is that naivete? Or pure creativity? And what about a lifetime of experience? John Huston’s two greatest films were probably the first and last he directed (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Dead” in 1987) – 46 years apart! Alfred Hitchcock was limited by film technology when he started directing, embraced it by mid-career and was bored by it at the end – but he delivered films that fall into both the best-work and worst-work categories during each of these phases (among the bests: “The Lodger,” “Notorious,” “Psycho;” among the worsts: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “I Confess,” “Topaz”). But in all these cases – and those of countless other writers and directors, their first project – or even ‘sophmore effort’ – displays a yearning to ‘dream big’ and make a mark. One of the bon-vivants of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, famously said “There are no second acts in American lives,” alluding to the enormous success he experienced with the publication of “The Great Gatsby” in 1924, when Fitzgerald was only 28. Although he struggled to recreate that phenomenal early success, Fitzgerald was forever held to the impossible standard of ‘Gatsby.’ How ironic, then, that yet another adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is in the works for the big screen starring Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan and directed by Baz Luhrmann – the 5th version of Fitzgerald’s classic since 1926. Although alcoholism and a hard life brought about his demise at age 44, Fitzgerald’s masterwork lives on. The moral of the story? Create. Then, create some more. Who knows? – you could be the next John Huston… Or, God forbid, F. Scott Fitzgerald, although I suppose worse things have happened…

 Hopefully I’ll see you at the 2012 opening of “The Great Gatsby.” No second acts, indeed…!

George Hickenlooper 1963-2010

November 19th, 2010 No comments

 

As we wrote earlier in For Bards Blog, film director George Hickenlooper died of natural causes in Denver on October 30, 2010. He was there to screen his latest film, “Casino Jack,” starring Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey as disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. George Hickenlooper’s cousin, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who was just elected Governor of Colorado, made the sad announcement of George’s passing.

George Hickenlooper, apart from having a remarkably distinctive name, was a talented and driven film director – and a nice guy. I actually met George at Yale back in 1983, where I had returned after recently graduating to write an article about the study of film at the university for the alumni magazine. During my time in New Haven I met with several students who were producing films, including “Flashdance” star Jennifer Beals, but it was the young sophmore Hickenlooper who caught my attention. The other students I spoke with recounted their film experiences or offered to show me their work, but young Hickenlooper produced a polished ‘Press Kit’ of his film career, dating back to his days as a super-8mm director in his teens, replete with press clippings and reviews. At the time, Hickenlooper told me his current project was “Newark Needs Insurance,” an oddly prescient 16mm film “black comedy about the arms race.” As he described it, the 50 minute color and B&W sound film told the story of the theft of a nuclear device from a terrorist group, and involved a budget of $6,000.

After graduating Yale in 1986, Hickenlooper interned for low-budget king Roger Corman, then in 1988 he made his professional bow as a director with “Art, Acting and the Suicide Chair: Dennis Hopper,” a short documentary for TV. His dealings with Hopper and Corman protege Francis Ford Coppola would pay off big-time for his next project, which is arguably the best ‘making-of’ documentary ever assembled. The film is “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” directed by Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola (whose on-set ‘home footage’ was the inspiration for the documentary), and is an incredible perspective inside the experience of filming Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a movie that almost killed its star, nearly bankrupted its director, and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes… Hickenlooper won an Emmy for ‘Hearts of Darkness,’ but the film, clearly an Oscar contender, was declared ineligible because of its HBO airings.

George’s next film, the 1994 short “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade,” catapulted writer/lead Billy Bob Thornton to stardom once  Thornton took his own story and expanded it to feature length, replacing Hickenlooper with himself as director. Thornton won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for an acting nod as well.

A TV-movie pilot followed for George, “Crosstown Traffic,” but the show was never picked up. Soon after, George made his theatrical feature directing debut with the Rory CochraneKyra Sedgwick-starrer “The Low Life,” about dissolute Yalies living in Los Angeles. His next film was a mystery drama, 1996’s “Persons Unknown,” starring Joe Mantegna. After that, Hickenlooper returned to short film filmmaking, sketching out “The Big Brass Ring”  in 1997, which would prepare George to make the feature length version of the story a few years later, in 1999. His next film was a documentary: a profile of iconic 60s filmmaker Monte Hellman in “Monte Hellman: American Auteur.” Equally adept at making fiction films and documentaries, Hickenlooper would alternate doing both for the rest of his career.

After the feature version of his “The Big Brass Ring” in 1999, which was based on an original story by Orson Welles, George set his sights on “The Man from Elysian Fields,” in 2001, which starred Andy Garcia as a writer who is seduced into a gigolo lifestyle by mysterious Luther Fox, played by Mick Jagger. The film was well-reviewed, and marked a welcome return to the screen for Jagger in a role that seemed custom-made for him.

George would only go on to make 7 other films, four of them documentaries: “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip” about L.A. radio legend Rodney Bingenheimer (perhaps the only personality with a name more distinctive than Hickenlooper’s) in 2003,  “Speechless,” in 2008, about the WGA Writers’ Strike, a 2009 short, “Out in the City,” and his 2009 documentary “‘Hick’ Town,” about his cousin John Hickenlooper, Denver’s mayor, as Hizzoner attempts to keep things moving smoothly during Denver’s hosting of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In between documentaries, George made the short “Bizarre Love Triangle,” in 2005, appearing onscreen as a director to whom actresses confess their sexual histories. His next feature film, 2006’s “Factory Girl,” starring Sienna Miller as ill-fated Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, revisited historical territory George covered in “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” a pattern he repeated often in his directing career.

George Hickenlooper was in Denver to screen his latest feature film, “Casino Jack,” which relates the story of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his brazen influence peddling. Produced by star Kevin Spacey, the film, which opens on December 17, is already earning critical plaudits. Unfortunately, the driving force behind the project will not be present when his film opens.

George Hickenlooper is survived by his wife Suzanne and their son Charles. “The light that burns twice as bright burns but half as long.” He will truly be missed.