On pigeonholes

In my last post I ruminated on the importance of a filmmaker having someone around to question their worst creative impulses.  But what if those impulses are essential to getting the film made?  Once upon a time, studio output could be fairly accurately identified by what you saw on the screen.  At the most basic level, you could determine the studio based on the casting.  If you knew Great Garbo was the star, then you knew the film was made by MGM.  If it featured Deanna Durbin it came from Universal.  At a deeper level, elements of style were fostered by groups of craftsmen working together and developing a “house” approach to telling a story.  Production designer Cedric Gibbons, for example, imparted a distinctive look to MGM films for over thirty years, while Alfred Newman encouraged a continuity of musical approach at 20th Century Fox for twenty years.

Today, however, freelancing is the norm.  Most filmmakers have to put together financing in whatever way they can, and they don’t generally have the opportunity to work with the same people in the same place for an extended period.  This has all sorts of consequences on the eventual product, not the least of which is the self-indulgence of certain players who manage to acquire enough cultural capital to get their work produced.  That’s part of the issue I discussed last time.  The topic gets even more interesting, however, when you flip it on its head.

If I mention Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Oliver Stone, even casual filmgoers will immediately be able to pigeonhole those directors in distinctive ways.  Stone focuses on left-leaning political narratives.  Anderson makes quirky, intimate, comedy-dramas.  Tarantino loves violence, hyper-referentiality and “Tarantino dialogue”.  These tendencies are so extreme that we all understand the use of invented terms like “Wes Anderson-y” and “Tarantino-esque”.  That isn’t to suggest that someone in the Fifties couldn’t refer to something as “Ford-ian” or “a Deanna Durbin type vehicle”, but it strikes me how essential the adjectives now are to the production and promotion of particular films – and how limiting that can be.  The cults of personality that develop around these directors are predicated on them hewing to their particular identifying quirks.  Could Tarantino make a musical?  Can Stone make a film absent political content?  Can Anderson make a science-fiction movie?  The answer might be “yes” to all of the above, but will they ever really be able to find out?  Even given their success, each of them is beholden to a certain fan base with certain expectations, and the cost of breaking outside of their acknowledged pigeonholes might be felt in reduced budgets, critical backlash and an attendant loss of popularity.  Once the merry-go-round starts spinning, it’s awfully hard to get off.

Given that, however, it’s important to acknowledge someone who claims that he’s had enough, and who seems to be getting off the ride with conviction.  Steven Soderbergh’s reputed “last feature film” is out today.  He’s said for some time that he would stop when he turned fifty, and now he’s reached that point.  Unlike the filmmakers mentioned above, he’s never exactly established a particular niche (or attendant throng of rabid supporters).  Instead, he’s ambled along at his own pace, working on things which interested him and producing a lot of interesting work in the process.  Over the last 25 years he’s done “independent” (sex, lies and videotape) and “popular” (Erin Brockovich, Traffic and the Ocean’s series), but also been willing to experiment with casting (mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano in Haywire and porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience), distribution (Bubble was essentially released simultaneously in theaters, on television and on dvd), a variety of genres (science fiction with Solaris, historical drama with The Good German, “art film” with Eros – we might even consider Magic Mike a musical) and otherwise unconventional narrative structures (the four hour, two part Che).  Not all of these films work, but Soderbergh has definitely not bent to anyone’s expectations, and the hits have enabled him to maintain enough freedom to experiment with the misses.  So, as he rides off into the sunset this week (at least as things stand now) I’m happy to tip my hat to someone who hasn’t managed to have his name or career adjectivized while still getting it done.  May all of our careers be as unpigeonholed.

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