The Invisible American Genre Directors

soderbergh1Steven Soderbergh’s baseball statistics movie Moneyball was shelved by Sony a few weeks back, mere days before shooting was to begin. Budgeted at $57 million and with Brad Pitt slated as the lead, its abandonment seemed to signal that mid-range, artistically ambitious projects will suffer the most in the current financial crisis. As ace Variety blogger Anne Thompson has noted, “Hollywood is moving in two simultaneous directions: behemoth event pics, and smaller personal films — with little middle ground.” One would expect that along with Soderbergh, Michael Mann and David Fincher will find it increasingly difficult to get their visions onto the screen. This is lamentable, regardless of your opinion of the filmmakers (I’m partial to Fincher, but an admirer of all), who each bring an ambitious pop sensibility to the screen. But what of the genre directors? These mid to low-budgeted spectacles (the Transporters, House Bunnies, and Hangovers) will always be cranked out, and will generally be profitable. If nothing else, the espousers of the auteur theory taught us to ignore the boundary between “high” and “low” art, to scavenge in every nook and cranny of the American cinema for possible artistry.

The Independent’s Kaleem Aftab expands Thompson’s reasoned analysis into a confusing screed about the lack of “great American directors”, and he ignores genre films as well. Below the fold I offer a list of my favorite contemporary genre operators, a group of under-the-radar auteurs and purveyors of quality pulp. First though, I have to take Aftab to task. Aside from the fact that he lists 20 or so “great” directors in his own piece, he clearly has no idea what an “auteur” is. His definition: “a director whose films had to be watched no matter what they were about or who was in them.” He goes on to say that after the auteur theory hit, “Suddenly, it was the director rather than the producer, the studio or the lead actor who became the star.” Aside from the fact that this is blatantly false (only Hitchcock could be considered a “star”, everyone else the New Wavers or Sarris championed were anonymous genre operators: Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller), it never discusses the films themselves, only their popularity.

He equates auteur status with box-office success, and so he has little interest in Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, or Wes Anderson, because “none are household names, and none command guaranteed box-office.” The ignorance of this line is breathtaking – a studio head couldn’t have encapsulated the triumph of commerce over art better.  Nothing tops the line in his discussion of Judd Apatow though….witness: “It’s unusual for a comedy director to gain auteur status…”. Yes, if you ignore Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Blake Edwards, Preston Sturges….

That’s enough negativity for one post. Let’s think pretty thoughts – ones involving bodily fluids, but pretty nonetheless.STICK IT This list is not supposed to act as a counterweight to Hollywood doomsaying. I agree that the majority of Hollywood’s output has suffered terribly since the studio days, and that kind of effortless craft is probably never to return. Consider this an addendum to Sarris’ chapter in THE AMERICAN CINEMA on “Subjects for Further Research”, a hodgepodge of encouraging voices from the disreputable realms of the action, comedy, and horror realms, and in no way tracking any trends. Just a few names I’ve gained plenty of pleasure from on the lower end of the Rotten Tomatoes rankings, and those that will continue to reside in-between the “behemoth event pics and smaller personal films”. These guys (and girl) make up the ignored middle ground.

1. Adam McKay (Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008)):

Adam McKay has a clear directorial personality and style: he places emphases on group improvisation and the psychoses of men in arrested development. His comedy skews anarchic and prefers digression to clean narrative lines. He’s the only true inheritor of the Marx Brothers’ manically performative aesthetic, even their relatively lax visual style. Absurdities build up until they burst out in insane setpieces (the anchorman street fight, the Mountain Dew-sponsored dinner, the Catalina Wine Mixer). Step Brothers is the purest distillation of his aesthetic thus far. Directed best episode (#5) of Eastbound and Down. Curious to see how a film without Will Ferrell would turn out…

2. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank (2006); Crank: High Voltage (2009)):

The cleverest action-film fanboys on the screen (apologies to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino). The two Crank Stathamfilms are marketed as action films but end up as comedies about the action genre. The plot in both concerns Chev Chelios’ heart failure. In the first he needs shots of adrenaline to stay alive, in the second, shocks of electricity. Both reflect on the audience’s need for constant titillation, and do so in resourceful ways. Jason Statham proves to be a deft deliverer of wisecracks and pratfalls, as he shimmies to “Achy Breaky Heart” or tumbles onto a horse track. Sequel is funnier, less moving than the original. Next up for them is Gamer (2009).

3. Peyton Reed (Bring it On (2000), Down With Love (2003), The Break-Up (2006), Yes Man (2008)):

By far the most successful director on this list, he’s possibly the most unknown. The only director who could resurrect the romantic comedy as a viable genre. Had the gall to end The Break-Up with an actual break up, as well as filming arguments with bite and verve. Handles female performers well: see Kirsten Dunst’s exuberant performance in Bring it On and Renee Zellwegger’s last charming turn in Down With Love (including a bravado 3 minute or so monlogue). Shows a talent for brisk pacing and actual witty dialogue. Have yet to see Yes Man.

4. Jessica Bendinger (Stick It (2006)):

She’s only directed one film, but it shows a flair for Busby Berkeley-esque montages of bodies in motion as well as other offhanded bits of visual wit, like when the lead gymnast blocks out her annoying competitor in the background by blotting her out with her sneaker in extreme close-up. Not to mention the exuberant performances by a slew of unknown teen girls in Jeff Bridges’ struggling gymnast camp. And to further not mention the strikingly visualized theme of girls taking power over their own bodies in the beautifully anti-climactic finale. Bendinger primarily made her mark as a screenwriter and script doctor, having her hands in Bring it On (her debut), Mean Girls, Sex and the City, Freaky Friday, Hitch, among others.  Stick It is superior to all of her written work, despite its modest box office returns, and I dearly hope she’s allowed to make another mid-range teen film soon. Her first book will be published in November, a paranormal romance called The Seven Rays.

5. Ti West (The Roost (2005), Trigger Man (2007), The House of the Devil (2009)):

houseofdevilIn thrall to 80s horror without devolving into camp, Ti West makes solidly unpretentious scare films that actually take the time to build tension. Trigger Man creates suspense out of a few guys in the Delaware woods, the sound of gunshots, and gallons of fake blood. Impressive scenes of wandering, small talk, getting to know you stuff. The kind of laid back character work needed to lay the hammer down later (Full disclosure: I work for Kino, the company that put this out on DVD). James Whale knew this, John Carpenter knew this, and now apparently, this indie director knows it too. The House of the Devil (image left) was picked up by Magnet Releasing (a subsidiary of Magnolia), a satan-worshipper film that bewtiches for its set design and performances as much for its gore. The long delayed sequel to Cabin Fever is still in post-production, and here’s hoping he won’t have to cut his films to ribbons upon his entree to Hollywood.


0 Response The Invisible American Genre Directors
Posted By Eric P : July 7, 2009 5:50 pm

not familiar with ti west, so i’ll check those films out. thanks for this. it’s added greatly to my netflix queue

Posted By Eric P : July 7, 2009 5:50 pm

not familiar with ti west, so i’ll check those films out. thanks for this. it’s added greatly to my netflix queue

Posted By Medusa : July 8, 2009 7:22 am

Great list and choices that will expand our appreciation. I’ve got another list of movies to watch now! Thanks for some interesting inclusions!

Posted By Medusa : July 8, 2009 7:22 am

Great list and choices that will expand our appreciation. I’ve got another list of movies to watch now! Thanks for some interesting inclusions!

Posted By Michael J. Anderson : July 8, 2009 11:33 am

Thank you for this list of Rob-teurs. Your analyses of McKay, Neveldine/Taylor and Peyton Reed are all AMERICAN CINEMA worthy – as I am sure is the Ti West blurb (I am a +1 in never having seen any of his films). In excluding Jessica Bendinger, I am not knocking what is additionally a fine little write up, but I can’t help but feel that she does not belong on this list, at least until she directs a second film. I say this, however, as someone who disagrees substantially with Mr. Sweeney’s appreciation of her first film.

Also, I found your take down of Kaleem Aftab, and what strikes me as a substantially stupid piece of writing, quite delightful. If this is what passes for film writing at the Independent, I can only hope that the UK’s newspapers are in the same dire straights that the US’s are.

Posted By Michael J. Anderson : July 8, 2009 11:33 am

Thank you for this list of Rob-teurs. Your analyses of McKay, Neveldine/Taylor and Peyton Reed are all AMERICAN CINEMA worthy – as I am sure is the Ti West blurb (I am a +1 in never having seen any of his films). In excluding Jessica Bendinger, I am not knocking what is additionally a fine little write up, but I can’t help but feel that she does not belong on this list, at least until she directs a second film. I say this, however, as someone who disagrees substantially with Mr. Sweeney’s appreciation of her first film.

Also, I found your take down of Kaleem Aftab, and what strikes me as a substantially stupid piece of writing, quite delightful. If this is what passes for film writing at the Independent, I can only hope that the UK’s newspapers are in the same dire straights that the US’s are.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 8, 2009 2:42 pm

Eric – I haven’t seen West’s THE ROOST yet, so if you see it, report back here and let me know what you thought!

Mike – I wanted to select someone with a longer track record than Ms. Bendinger, but couldn’t think of anyone I liked as much. I have affection for Paul W.S. Anderson, but need to see Death Race, et. al before coming to any conclusions. I also really liked Wayne Kramer’s RUNNING SCARED, but that was a one-off.

Are they any more suggestions for worthwhile American genre directors? I’m always on the lookout…

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 8, 2009 2:42 pm

Eric – I haven’t seen West’s THE ROOST yet, so if you see it, report back here and let me know what you thought!

Mike – I wanted to select someone with a longer track record than Ms. Bendinger, but couldn’t think of anyone I liked as much. I have affection for Paul W.S. Anderson, but need to see Death Race, et. al before coming to any conclusions. I also really liked Wayne Kramer’s RUNNING SCARED, but that was a one-off.

Are they any more suggestions for worthwhile American genre directors? I’m always on the lookout…

Posted By Jenni : July 8, 2009 8:00 pm

Although I haven’t seen it yet, I have read that Katherine Bigelow’s new movie, “The Hurt Locker” is excellent, and perhaps she is a rising star in the action movie genre.

Posted By Jenni : July 8, 2009 8:00 pm

Although I haven’t seen it yet, I have read that Katherine Bigelow’s new movie, “The Hurt Locker” is excellent, and perhaps she is a rising star in the action movie genre.

Posted By Eric P : July 9, 2009 10:37 am

@ R Emmet, I’ve moved the roost to the top of my queue. I’ll let you know what I thought.

Posted By Eric P : July 9, 2009 10:37 am

@ R Emmet, I’ve moved the roost to the top of my queue. I’ll let you know what I thought.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 9, 2009 12:02 pm

Eric – it’s his debut, so try and be kind.

Jenni – Bigelow has been around for a while now (POINT BREAK!), she’s just had trouble getting her work funded in recent years. I’m on the fence with her (and have yet to see NEAR DARK, K-19, among others). Despite the raves, I am not a big fan of THE HURT LOCKER, which to me is just a jumble of war film cliches, shot with handheld cameras for that now formulaic sense of “immediacy”. Jeremy Renner is great as the adrenaline-junkie lead, though.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 9, 2009 12:02 pm

Eric – it’s his debut, so try and be kind.

Jenni – Bigelow has been around for a while now (POINT BREAK!), she’s just had trouble getting her work funded in recent years. I’m on the fence with her (and have yet to see NEAR DARK, K-19, among others). Despite the raves, I am not a big fan of THE HURT LOCKER, which to me is just a jumble of war film cliches, shot with handheld cameras for that now formulaic sense of “immediacy”. Jeremy Renner is great as the adrenaline-junkie lead, though.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 9, 2009 5:36 pm

I haven’t seen West’s THE ROOST yet, so if you see it, report back here and let me know what you thought!

I saw it at the LA Film Festival a few summers ago and it just doesn’t work. The inclusion of Tom Noonan as a horror host commenting on the events is a clever idea that is stretched waaaaaay out of any useful proportion and the movie really doesn’t deliver. In the presskit and pre-screening talks, West (who seems like a genuinely nice guy) went on at length about how the barn seen in the film had been used by Hitchcock in Marnie but he doesn’t really get his money worth out of it. Not squandering your own natural resources should be the first law in the indie horror filmmaker’s handbook.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : July 9, 2009 5:36 pm

I haven’t seen West’s THE ROOST yet, so if you see it, report back here and let me know what you thought!

I saw it at the LA Film Festival a few summers ago and it just doesn’t work. The inclusion of Tom Noonan as a horror host commenting on the events is a clever idea that is stretched waaaaaay out of any useful proportion and the movie really doesn’t deliver. In the presskit and pre-screening talks, West (who seems like a genuinely nice guy) went on at length about how the barn seen in the film had been used by Hitchcock in Marnie but he doesn’t really get his money worth out of it. Not squandering your own natural resources should be the first law in the indie horror filmmaker’s handbook.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 10, 2009 11:57 am

Thanks for the tip RHS. Tom Noonan is in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL as well (as a creepy cane wielding patriarch)- and that movie certainly delivers. It should be coming out later this year, I think you’d like it.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 10, 2009 11:57 am

Thanks for the tip RHS. Tom Noonan is in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL as well (as a creepy cane wielding patriarch)- and that movie certainly delivers. It should be coming out later this year, I think you’d like it.

Posted By Eric P : July 11, 2009 9:55 pm

I watched The Roost and Triggerman tonight and Triggerman was definitely the stronger of the two. The Roost is a bit too campy for my tastes (vampire bats which turn you into zombies), but the acting and script was natural, i felt, concerning the set up and circumstances of plot. The Roost is worth watching once I think, but I wouldn’t buy the movie.

Posted By Eric P : July 11, 2009 9:55 pm

I watched The Roost and Triggerman tonight and Triggerman was definitely the stronger of the two. The Roost is a bit too campy for my tastes (vampire bats which turn you into zombies), but the acting and script was natural, i felt, concerning the set up and circumstances of plot. The Roost is worth watching once I think, but I wouldn’t buy the movie.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 13, 2009 3:59 pm

That seems to be the consensus Eric. Thanks for checking back in.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 13, 2009 3:59 pm

That seems to be the consensus Eric. Thanks for checking back in.

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