Career discontinuities, part two: The nosedive
And I'm officially still open-minded in this way. But the film life is all about what we like and what we don't like, and when a director jumps from one side of that line to the other, you just have to take it seriously. Maybe it's partly about the viewer, but maybe it's about the director too.
If too many discontinuities crop up in one's appreciation of directors, then it's legitimate to wonder whether one is cut out to be an auteurist. And therefore, if even one discontinuity crops up, the seeds of identity crisis have been sown.
Of course, it's possible to be completely into directorial style without being too invested in the continuity among a director's films. The continuity itself isn't what makes the films good; but it provides a confirmation that one is on the right track, that one isn't simply making the director's identity out of whole cloth. Of all the auteurists I know, I'm probably the one who bases his auteurism the most on the content of individual films, rather than on career analysis. And yet I get rattled when that little je-ne-sais-quoi goes missing between projects.
A particular kind of career discontinuity is currently on my mind: the nosedive, the point where a good director becomes bad and stays bad. It would be better for auteurism if this were an unusual case. But I am forced to admit that it happens to me a lot, and has always happened a lot. In fact, the nosedive is so common that I live in fear of it: every time I see a new film by a director I love, I worry.
I'm currently having a run of bad experiences from good directors. I don't want to get too deeply into particulars at the moment. But:
- Last night I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved Chopper to death, really thought that Dominik was a distinctive new voice. By the time Coward was over, I thought it likely that I would never enjoy one of his films again. And yet once in a while I saw a framing or a rhythm that I could imagine in Chopper. It didn't matter, because I was having such a hard time with what I perceived as the sensibility behind the film.
- I know lots of people really like Secret Sunshine, and I've liked every one of Lee Chang-dong's previous films. In this case there was a lot of style continuity with the rest of Lee's career. And yet suddenly I felt a coarse sensibility at work, one going for superficial, hackneyed effects on the small scale. Because the style hadn't shifted that much, I found myself thinking, "Did I ever like any of this guy's films?" Now I'll need to go back and confirm - which is a tricky business in such cases; one really has to clear one's mind.
- The most horrible black-hole disappearance of directorial personality I can recall is Married Life, which I saw at Toronto. Here I'm less sure that I've seen a nosedive, because the discontinuity is so spookily absolute. Maybe Ira Sachs will return to me.
I do believe that I am really an auteurist, that I have the calling. But the phenomenon I'm discussing is not at all part of the mythology of auteurism, and I see no way of harmonizing it with that mythology. It stands as a qualifier to my auteurism, an asterisk.
P.S. Of course, you can't be sure until later that a bad experience is a nosedive. Sometimes one is pleasantly surprised by the way things turn out. For instance, a few years back I saw Hur Jin-ho's April Snow at Toronto, and diagnosed the submergence of what I then considered a minor talent. But at Toronto 2007, Hur winds up and delivers Happiness, decisively his most exciting and confident film. A good discontinuity is just as perplexing to my auteurism as a bad one - but it's a lot more fun.