Odd Films From Mainstream Directors
Graham Greene used to divide his novels into ‘entertainments’ and serious books, and the entertainments were better. Sir Arthur Sullivan spent his life worrying about being more serious, and when he finally wrote ‘Ivanhoe’, his serious opera, it was a horrible flop, and he remained best-known for his work with Gilbert. When creators aim for seriousness what they produce is often less revealing than what they produce in fun.
We know certain film directors by their greatest hits, but it’s fascinating to look at their entire careers and check out their so-called minor films, because they often tell us more about the directors’ passions. In many cases, the overlooked films in their canon are the ones I prefer to their crowd-pleasing hits.
John McTiernan is famous for ‘Predator’, ‘Die Hard’ and a court case that took a bizarre turn which resulted in his incarceration and virtual destruction, despite efforts to free him. The whole drama can be explored here. But his very first film is the eerie ‘Nomads’, starring Pierce Brosnan as a French anthropologist who moves to Los Angeles and starts to suspect that an ancient tribe is still around, living among society’s outcasts in the backstreets. As he starts to follow them and explore their rituals, he’s drawn into unforeseeable danger. In a split time frame time, the nurse who admits him to hospital starts to suspect that his ramblings about a secret nomadic clan are real…
It’s a genuine oddity, this – unusual in construction and subject matter, with some set-pieces designed to unnerve. Like the underrated ‘Wolfen’ it looks at how ancient myths might find ways of surviving in modern urban environments, and is well worth checking out.
Robert Zemeckis has such a string of hits to his name that it’s easy to forget his three comedy flops. ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ is a delight, the story of four Beatles fans who crash the Ed Sullivan show to try and catch a glimpse of their idols. ‘Used Cars’ is a battle between two secondhand car salesmen that climaxes in a desert chase with a platoon of vehicles being driven by high school students under tuition.
‘Death Becomes Her’ is the best of all, as two ageing Hollywood stars (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) take elixirs of life to preserve their beauty and fail to follow the rules of their contract. Many of the lines from the film have become catchphrases in our household. Isabella Rosselini feeds Streep the potion and watches her greedily swallow it. ‘ Now a warning,’ she says. ‘Now a warning?’ cries the horrified Streep, looking at the empty bottle. Bruce Willis hilariously plays against type as Hawn’s husband.
Michael Lehmann, the director of ‘Heathers’, also made the disastrous flop ‘Hudson Hawk’, in which Willis times his cat burglary to the exact length of lounge songs and chases after a Leonardo Da Vinci invention while and Andie MacDowell gets to impersonate a dolphin. It’s terrifically odd fun and very silly.
Ken Russell’s best films were, in most critics’ minds, his Arena films about composers and ‘Savage Messiah’, about the young French sculptor Henri Gaudier. The problem with Russell is that he flew into everything at full speed, becoming madder, more overblown and more vivid with each film. This worked well in ‘Tommy’ and parts of ‘The Music Lovers’, not at all in ‘Lisztomania’ and quite brilliantly in ‘The Boy Friend’, re-imagined from its origins as a fringe stage play by Sandy Wilson, melded with every back-stage movie’s dialogue into the perfect meta-musical, but it’s only for audiences who get its period styling and dry humour.
Richard Attenborough did something similar with ‘Oh What A Lovely War!’, which plays out like a surreal tapestry of World War One, its horrors and paradoxes. He was the least likely director to create a bitter satire, especially one with such a long running time, but the cumulative effect is devastating. The film is populated with a gallery of British stars; Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Maggie Smith and at least three Redgraves.
It seems that almost every decent director has one really quirky film in their back-catalogue…any favourites I should check out?