Such grandiose pronouncements seem almost quaint at a time when our most ambitious auteurs are just as likely to be TV showrunners as big-screen directors, when what was once worshiped as artistic vision now looks like self-indulgent impunity that needs to check its privilege.
The baddest boys at Cannes today — and they are overwhelmingly boys — usually hail from Europe and Asia, not America. That said, the hottest ticket this year was for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood,” which takes viewers on a dreamy, obsessive ride through Hollywood’s sunniest boulevards and most haunted canyons. And over the course of a four-decade career, Spike Lee has developed a bold, bravura, urgently personal visual language and voice that are insistently compelling, even when they go wildly over the top.
Tarantino and Lee are those rare brand-name directors who are given the budgets and free rein to even approach the top, let alone to go over it. With few exceptions, that kind of freedom seems unavailable to a new generation that is either quickly co-opted into making comic book movies or sucked into the streaming universe of Netflix and Amazon. The next generation surely doesn’t lack ambition: Damien Chazelle recently announced plans to make a sweeping period piece about 1920s Hollywood that could be his “Apocalypse Now.” But will his equally gifted contemporaries — directors like Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, Greta Gerwig and Lulu Wang — get to make theirs? And if they don’t, will our culture only be known by the IP branded content and binge-worthy series it leaves behind?
Put another way: If emerging filmmakers are to develop their gifts, they must be given room to get messy. Despite its problems, “Apocalypse Now” actually did well with critics and audiences, earning eight Academy Award nominations, with wins for cinematography and sound design. The following year, Michael Cimino — fresh from the success of his Vietnam movie, “The Deer Hunter” — released “Heaven’s Gate,” which cost a fortune to make, alienated critics and audiences alike, and immediately went into the record books as one of the most epic fails in the history of cinema.
Of course, epic fails are perhaps the most cherished chapter of that history, many of them originally considered disasters, only to be more generously reassessed in the fullness of time: “Heaven’s Gate” has been subject to just such rehabilitation, as have Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” Steven Spielberg’s “1941,” Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” Elaine May’s “Ishtar” and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days.”
May and Bigelow are rarities on lists that are usually dominated by men: A key part of the auteurist myth is the heroic artist who goes down fighting for his vision, however misguided or commercially doomed. That combination of naked ambition and unblinkered self-belief is itself the by-product of the hubris it takes to make a truly magnificent failure — and to convince others to finance it. As the boat skipper Tracy Edwards observes in the recent documentary “Maiden,” about the first all-female crew to compete in an around-the-world yacht race, money tends to follow men.
The profligacy of the 1970s and 1980s made it harder for everyone to manifest their wildest visions. But women and filmmakers of color have historically had even less room to maneuver than their white male peers — one perceived misstep and they’re consigned to movie jail, as the lacunae-filled careers of Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Gina Prince-Bythewood and others attest. And the fact that they usually have smaller budgets and fewer technological bells and whistles means they’ve done more with less, carefully hemming in their creative visions rather than allowing them to run gloriously amok — the cinematic equivalent of respectability politics.
This has resulted in brilliant films, all the more admirable for being controlled, well-judged and doing way more with much less than they deserve. Movies like Boots Riley’s crazy-wonderful-mess-of-a-comedy “Sorry to Bother You” and Kelly Reichardt’s breathtaking revisionist Western “Meek’s Cutoff” demonstrate how limited resources can coexist with fearless ambition. With their directorial debuts “Lady Bird” and “The Farewell,” Gerwig and Wang made the kind of small, reality-grounded movies that look easy on the surface but are deceptively difficult to get right. Not only do we need to give those kinds of films the canonical respect we reserve for filmmakers who make a show of swinging for the fences, but we also need to give them bigger fences to swing for.
At a time when the movie business is being dramatically consolidated and disrupted, it’s more difficult than ever to convince financiers to back a passion project that might be considered a cult classic in 20 years. (Where’s the back end in that?) Overblown, unruly crapshoots can’t be marketed to presold audiences. All they have is controversy — their expense, their inevitably “troubled” production, the overweening egos and willingness of their makers to be despised — that sells them by daring the audience to watch them and be offended. When Darren Aronofsky’s horror spectacle “Mother!” — a spectacularly bonkers cri de coeur about environmental destruction — received a rare “F” rating from the CinemaScore audience poll, the filmmaker took it as a point of pride. “How, if you walk out of this movie, are you not going to give it an F?” he told John Horn, host of the podcast the Frame, adding, “Filmmaking is such a hard journey. People are constantly saying no to you. And to wake up every morning and get out of bed and to face all those no’s, you have to be willing to really believe in something.”
Then again, sometimes the people saying no are right. As Orson Welles reportedly suggested to his fellow director Henry Jaglom, the enemy of art is the absence of limitations. There’s nothing wrong with filmmaking that obeys the classical Hollywood rules of aesthetic legibility, linear narrative sense and a relatable emotional journey. Still, especially in an era when those values have been distilled to the most ingratiating form of fan service, a touch of madness here and there is the healthy sign of a medium that can still be pushed to its expressive limits, and maybe even beyond.
That kind of exploration needs intrepid enablers. Annapurna Pictures, a company founded by 33-year-old billionaire Megan Ellison expressly to support the work of such visionary directors as Bigelow, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson, is reportedly scaling back budgets and widening its focus to include projects with more obvious commercial potential (rumors were rampant last year that the company would close entirely). The indie distributor A24 has built a strong brand around acquiring work by audacious emerging directors, including Ari Aster (“Hereditary,” “Midsommar”), Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”) and Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”). But they finance relatively few films, and even the most artist-friendly patrons, like Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, are unlikely these days to underwrite the kind of enormous fiscal and aesthetic risk that’s too eccentric or flawed for an Academy Awards campaign, or too niche to find purchase in the all-important international market.
Netflix, eager for industry bona fides, financed an extravagant awards campaign for Alfonso Cuarón’s financially modest but artistically formidable film “Roma” last year. Now the company will reportedly spend around $200 million to make and market Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating crime drama “The Irishman,” which will either be a magnificent home run, mortifying wipeout or (let’s hope not) something in between.
With its recent loss in value and subscribers, whether Netflix will curtail its generous spending is a bigger question than ever. It may be that the safest space for go-big-or-go-home overreach can be found in the genres that Hollywood still relies on to coax audiences into theaters: horror and, especially in the near future, science fiction. Curious fans are eagerly (and, it must be admitted, apprehensively) awaiting the arrival this fall of the star-studded sci-fi adventure “Ad Astra,” which writer-director James Gray has described as a cross between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Apocalypse Now” and which he promises will give viewers the most realistic depiction yet of space travel.
Meanwhile, Denis Villeneuve is preparing to release the first half of his star-studded, Imax 3-D version of “Dune” next year, bravely taking another stab at the property that notoriously brought David Lynch to his commercial and artistic knees.
Each has the makings of a potential masterpiece or disasterpiece. But one can only hope they’re touched by madness. The industry might need to be rationalized to survive. But as an art form, it needs irrationality to flourish.