They Slum To Conquer

A special pleasure often results when high-aspiration filmmakers sink into the commonality of genre. Those who’ve made their bones doing ambitious, high-reaching dramas or super-cool high-style pieces…whose natural inclination is to crank out critical favorites or award-winners or arty-farties for their own sake…when the elites sink below their station, it’s always a huge kick.

The upshot is that the best kind of popcorn genre films are usually those made by those who don’t live in the neighborhood, so to speak, and are demanding high achievers.

“Meh” reactions ricochet when Jason Statham, say, makes an action film with some journeyman director, but the crowd always salutes when Michael Mann directs Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in an actioner like Collateral.

The artfully inclined, Oscar-winning Steven Soderbergh directing Haywire, a kick-boxing martial arts film that’s basically about a tough girl kicking male butt, resulted in a beautiful, lean-and-mean high. But more or less the same thing was attempted in Columbiana, a female-hero actioner with Zoe Saldana and directed by Olivier Megaton, and it was crap.

One of the best futuristic apocalypse dramas with three of the best action sequences seen in many years, Children of Men, was made by Alfonso Cuaron, a guy who doesn’t exactly rub shoulders with Michael Bay and Tony Scott and James Cameron, and whose best film before Men was Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Francis Coppola was always a hired gun, but in the late ’60s he had it in him and was apparently inclined to favor sensitive meditative dramas like The Rain People, and then five years later The Conversation. But when he was hired to direct The Godfather in ’71, he was obliged to shoot a pulp novel about primal forces and primitive plot twists, and it became his best film ever.

For me, the most satisfying movie from Germany’s meditative, solemn-mannered Wim Wenders was when he stepped down into a genre piece about corruption and contract killings and noirish ennui called The American Friend.

If Bela Tarr was to make a cop drama and was forced by his producers to pick up the pace a bit, something exceptional might result.

Disaster films were all the rage in the early to mid ’70s, and they were all fairly cheesy and obvious and mostly a slog to sit through. And then along came the gifted Richard Lester with Juggernaut, a drama about bombs aboard a luxury liner, and suddenly there was a disaster film that was pretty damn good.

You know who needs to direct a nice sleazy genre film? The DescendantsAlexander Payne or Moneyball‘s Bennett Miller. With the right material the results might be astounding.

  • mybrainismelting

    I loved the man and all his work but I’ve been dying to see Paul Thomas Anderson do a balls-out action movie. Or thriller. Or horror.

  • mybrainismelting

    And for me, the pinnacle was Kubrick with The Shining. Yes, he had done films that were commercial successes before but he not only embraced the genre whole-heartedly, he made one of its best entrants ever (despite the fact that he jettisoned most of the book).

    I feel PTA could do the same.

  • mybrainismelting

    And I’m not trying to hijack the thread but why is it “slumming”? I got news for y’all, the greatest films of all time are mostly “genre”.

  • Josh Massey

    I wouldn’t be surprised if PTA considers There Will Be Blood to be his horror film.

  • Rashad

    Tarantino made of the best action movies of the decade with Kill Bill Vol. 1.

    And Mann doesn’t belong with your premise Jeff. He’s always been about genre, and Collateral is probably his least crime/action oriented since so much of it is just talking about non-criminal things.

  • actionlover

    “Juggernaut” IS a cool film, but when I was a kid I hated it. I really was digging the disaster flicks and thought this one would kick ass. The poster was one of the bullshittiest of all time as it was a painted illustration of what it WOULD HAVE looked like had the main bomb gone off.

    I thought I was gonna see some epic boat ‘splosions. “They defused the bomb! It never went off! Sucks!” So, it was off to “Airport ’77” for some real quality.

  • BobbyLupo

    I would think Mann’s exception/genre picture is ‘The Keep’, but ‘Collateral’ was definitely a return to genre filmmaking after a few films away from it.

  • Noiresque

    @mybrainismelting ‘I got news for y’all, the greatest films of all time are mostly “genre”.’

    Exactly. There are as many, if not more, minutely crafterdmiddle-brow Oscar bait bores as there are. The great thing about genre films is that the tenets of it are so familiar that a surprising and smart film is able to play with themes and ideas along side it whilst keeping an audience.

    The same applies to literature. Even in the 20th century, middle-brow book of the month authors and populist writers reveal so much more about society and humanity than the forgotten critics’ darlings of the day. W. Somerset Maugham, Patrick Hamilton, Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) and Stefan Zweig have all been variously out of print and ‘rediscovered’ over the past decade.

    The contemporary novels read 100 years from now will not be by Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith and other “literary” authors who write for the sake of writing, but more likely regional authors, speculative fiction and thriller writers.

  • Ponderer

    “…Alfonso Cuaron, a guy who doesn’t exactly rub shoulders with Michael Bay and Tony Scott and James Cameron, and whose best film before Men was Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

    “I think what is incredible about what they did is they talked to David Fincher, they to Jim Cameron – I connected Jim and Alfonso for that. And what Alfonso is trying to do in Gravity is so insane and Jim said, well, you know, look, you’re about five years into the future.” – Guillermo Del Toro, 8.16.11

  • Ponderer

    (And the point of that is just that Cameron loves hanging out with those guys. He had a great partnership with Soderbergh on Solaris, for instance, and you can hear them absolutely click on that DVD’s commentary – not to mention that Soddie was one of the original big boosters for Avatar. Your points about Bay, et all, are well taken, but Cameron’s always going to have a bunch of Corman DIY in him, and likes hanging with that crowd.)

  • Krillian

    I remember reading a pan of Last of the Mohicans where the critic called it Miami Vice in the Woods. I wanted to find the guy and scream, “Did you even WATCH the movie?”

  • Glenn Kenny

    “If Bela Tarr was to make a cop drama and was forced by his producers to pick up the pace a bit, something exceptional might result.”

    Tarr’s already made a few “exceptional” films.

    I love how you sometimes get this notion that it would be cool for a producer to bully a distinctive director into doing something completely inimical to that director’s mode. It’s like your mental revenge on them or something. “Get a strong PRODUCER to make Malick stick to the SCRIPT, yeah, that’s the ticket.” Not gonna happen. As for Tarr, he’s done making movies, so the first thing you’ve gotta do is find a producer to bully him into getting behind a camera. Good luck with that.

  • Gabriel

    Let’s also acknowledge the dark side of this suggested course, which is when someone like David Gordon Green sinks into the commonality of genre and never returns.

  • eddie mars attacks

    Wes Anderson’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

  • Nick XX

    God, the David Gordon Green story is depressing.

  • actionman

    what’s depressing about a guy (DGG in this instance) showing everyone that he can basically direct a film in EVERY genre?

  • Jericho Cane

    The fact that he does it so poorly, and shows his limitations as a result.

  • LexG

    Did Wells even see COLOMBIANA?

    I thought it ruled, it’s a GUARANTEE he would hate it, but you KNOW even if he didn’t see it (which I’m 90% sure he didn’t) he’d still proclaim it sucked, as he just did.

    I don’t really give a shit, and again it’s a 100000% GUARANTEE JW would hate it, but it’s kind of a DICK MOVE to make these proclamations about thinks when you didn’t actually see them from FADE IN TO FADE OUT.

    Which of course Jeff does constantly. I love Wells, but let’s face it, when he blows off B-movies or SKIPS OUT OF THINGS HALFWAY then still reviews them, that’s kind of shady.

    Plus it’s not like he’s in any kind of hurry to get a job or something that a bad movie is wasting his precious time.

  • JR

    LexG said:

    “…but it’s kind of a DICK MOVE to make these proclamations about thinks when you didn’t actually see them from FADE IN TO FADE OUT.”

    I agree with this 100 percent. It is very dickish to pass judgment on films unseen, but it is very common on HE as well as other movie blogs. I made this point on a War Horse thread just the other day and it caused a ruckus, but it is really inexcusable to do this.

    See the movie in its entirety, then fire away. Otherwise, STFU…

  • JLC

    Laying the groundwork for David Fincher’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea in 3D, I see.

  • Floyd Thursby

    What mybrainismelting and Noiresque said is too true. Just watched The Big Combo for the first time in a while and noticed that it says more about failure, guilt, grief, diminished expectations, the pain of love, the whims of chance, etc. than any of the middlebrow tripe of 1955. Most of the most popular and critically acclaimed films of the 50s have faded, while those of Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Mann, Sirk, Fuller, Boetticher, etc. get better with age.

  • Ray

    Whoa, is Jeff praising ACTION FILMS?????

    Here I thought he HATED genre films.

    What mybrainismelting said is correct- GENRE FILMS RULE. What’s wrong with action films? Not every movie has to be about gay cowboys eating pudding but time and again that’s all Jeff and critics like him rave about, sensitive bullshit.

    I WANT GREAT GRAND ACTION MOVIES. Stuff that stirs the soul and makes you grip the seat and go DAMN THAT’S KICK FUCKING ASS.

    It’s not slumming at all when a great director does it. IT’S GREAT DIRECTING.

    Oh and yeah, since WHEN is Michael Mann NOT a genre director?? He ain’t Merchant Ivory for shit’s sake.

  • JR

    Jeff’s praise is very narrow and backhanded at best. Plenty of action films, even by guys who “live in the neighborhood,” are fantastic. They may not get recognized during Oscar season, but thank god somebody makes them.

    I love films like Tyrannosaur and Statham’s Transporter films – it really isn’t hard to love them both – and both kinds of movies sustain me in a balanced diet of the best of breed. I am leery of narrow-minded snobs, and many of these bloggers are huge snobs.

  • Mr. Blue

    The hillside assault on the machine gun bunker in The Thin Red Line was great, Malick could direct action.

  • Baron Munchausen-by-Proxy

    rashad: “Tarantino made of the best action movies of the decade with Kill Bill Vol. 1.

    And Mann doesn’t belong with your premise Jeff. He’s always been about genre, and Collateral is probably his least crime/action oriented since so much of it is just talking about non-criminal things.”

    Jee-zus.

    “Kill Bill” was *hardly* out of Quentin’s wheelhouse. You (quite typically) mistake Jeff’s entire premise. Your “Mann” description is, oddly, almost *more* apt for Tarantino.

  • CitizenKaned4Life

    I feel like the best films — or at least my favorite kinda movies — are the ones that kind of fuse this higher-sensibility auteurism with “down and dirty” genre pieces.

    Bonnie & Clyde, Pulp Fiction, The Unforgiven, Godfather 2 (which I vastly prefer to the original), etc. — and more recently pictures such as Inception, The American, Contagion, Splice.

    Wasn’t Scorsese pretty much a master of this back in his heyday? We were just sort of talking about this recently with Cape Fear, but has he ever really played a genre flick completely “straight?”

    You could probably make a decent argument for The Color of Money but, then again, you could probably make a similarly strong argument for it ranking as one of his lesser works — if not his least(?).

  • Alexander

    Amen to mybrainismelting, Noiresque amd Floyd Thursby.

    All one has to do to realize that one is not alone in the wilderness with this is to look back at Francois Truffaut’s ten-best lists. Hawks, Hitchcock, Cukor, Nicholas Ray, Vidor, Aldrich, Edward G. Ulmer, Preminger, Don Siegel, Sirk, Fuller, et. al. all sit, in cozy harmony, side by side with Resnais, Bergman, Rouch, Rossellini, Mizoguchi, Bunuel, Chabrol, Ophuls, Vadim, Renoir, Godard, Visconti, et. al.

    A well-balanced cinematic diet of the best–moreover, Truffaut and other New Wave observers were so wise and, I suppose one could say ahead of their time, compared to many American critics, that they saw through the superficialities of the Big Important Film that routinely garnered the most praise and the most well-crafted films which were at least gifted with a semblance of personality by those who made them, shedding light on their artistic personalities. The Big Combo is a wonderful example of that from Joseph H. Lewis.