Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Great Director For One Thing Only

I was talking to someone about a subject I've brought up earlier, how unfortunate it is that Richard Lester is now widely considered a hack solely on the basis of the Superman movies. (Though it may not matter much: anyone who would consider Lester a hack must be someone who knows him only from Superman, and the opinion of someone who hasn't seen anything except the Superman movies isn't hugely valuable.) The thing is, though, that while it's absurd to talk as if Richard Donner is a better director than Richard Lester, Donner was a better director for this particular franchise.

Donner is not a great director, and from the '90s on he wasn't even an effective one, but with Superman and his sections of Superman II, he figured out a style and approach that would make this character work on the big screen. No one else who made a Superman movie seems to have been able to do that as well, including people like Lester who are usually better directors than Richard Donner.

I think it sometimes happens that a director who isn't usually all that interesting will just prove to have the right touch when it comes to one particular franchise. The James Bond franchise provides two memorable examples. Terence Young directed three of the first four Bond films, taught Sean Connery how to be James Bond, and created the movies' combination of brutality and comedy. He was the greatest James Bond director. But outside of that franchise, he wasn't even a very good director, He made a couple of other hit films, but he was a hack, and not even a particularly successful hack.

Martin Campbell has a better non-Bond track record, but still, from his other films, you'd hardly guess that this is the guy who seems to have a special talent for Bond movies: he's re-booted the series with new Bonds not once but twice, and both times, the directors who followed him weren't able to do as well with the templates he helped create.

As movies become more and more franchise-dependent, I think we may see (or maybe we're already seeing) still more examples of this: directors who do extremely good jobs launching a franchise, and then prove to be uninteresting directors in their non-franchise work. And that's because adapting a franchise character to the screen takes a somewhat different set of skills than making a completely self-contained movie. Dick Lester had the skill to make a good self-contained movie (even The Three Musketeers, which the Salkinds probably thought might be a franchise, was really just one interesting movie split into two). But the very things that made him good at bringing a personal touch to movies made him less than good at working on the Superman franchise. Franchise moviemaking is a strange thing; there's some artistry involved -- because obviously good franchise movies are better artistically than bad ones -- but a lot of it is different from what we normally think of as art. Maybe "art" is even the wrong word for it.


Stephen Rowley said...

Spot on about Young but I hope the founding premise is incorrect. I know Lester is talked down on the DVDs built around the Superman II reconstruction, but surely people know better? He deserves his spot in film history for A Hard Day's Night alone.

To be honest I'm not convinced by Donner's work on Superman either. Parts of both the first two movies are really great, but I don't think either really holds together at all as a film. The first film is all over the place tonally, starting out as a grand epic and then turning very kitschy through its mid section. I know that kind of range can be fun, but I don't really think it works in that film.

IMO Christopher Reeve, not Donner, deserves all the credit for holding it together to the extent it does. Unlike Donner, Reeve shifts gears from the lighter moments to the heroic ones very smoothly.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I know Lester is talked down on the DVDs built around the Superman II reconstruction, but surely people know better?

I've seen a lot of talk on Superman-centric message boards blasting Lester as a hack and hailing Donner as a genius. I don't know how many people this describes, but there are people who are Superman movie fans but not movie history fans, and based on knowing only Lester's work from Superman onward, you'd probably reach the wrong conclusion about him.

Mr. said...

When you talk about art, aren't you using the wrong word. Aren't these guys really good craftsman?

Edward Hegstrom said...

There are also cases like the Harry Potter series, which started clumsily under Chris Columbus (though he does deserve credit for assembling a fine cast) but has only gotten better as different directors have come aboard. David Yates' work on the most recent entries has been perfect franchise work: solid, stylish, but slightly anonymous, putting the needs of the series ahead of any personal vision.

Oh, and as far as Lester's work on Superman III: Yeah, by any rational standards, that's a terrible movie, but his obvious contempt for what he had to work with still makes it kind of fascinating to watch. Better than Superman Returns, anyway.

Stephen Rowley said...

I've seen a lot of talk on Superman-centric message boards blasting Lester as a hack and hailing Donner as a genius.

Well, yes, but that's just people swallowing the DVDs story uncritically. Hopefully mostly people know better!

The real irony of those DVDs is that Donner's co-conspirator in bagging Lester is screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. Yet Bond fans tend to see Mankiewicz in a similar franchise-trashing role: he was a co-screenwriter for several of the worst Bonds in the early 70s.

J Lee said...

Sometimes, if you have a strong character and situation already established in the public's eye, you don't want a strong director who puts his or her imprint on it in an attempt to turn pop culture into some higher form of art. A workmanlike director who doesn't gamble very much has no problem giving moviegoers what they expect to see can handle franchises like Superman or James Bond better than a director who has their own unique vision, if that vision is totally wrong for the character (i.e. -- You might hit the jackpot in terms of box office, like Tim Burton's first Batman or Christopher Nolan did on the re-boot. But Warners had to reboot because Joel Schumacher's unique vision destroyed Burton's franchise).

Thad said...

Are you kidding? The latest Potter film was OCD filmmaking at its finest. Of course, I have huge problems with that series... Let's see, you can't disappear and reappear within the school, boys can't go up to the girls' dormitory... oh, but you can still kill someone here!

Anonymous said...

Lester's "The Knack and How to Get It", made between "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help", influenced several filmmakers with its risky cutting and its sharp pacing.

Rick Roberts said...

You hit the nail on the head with Young. He was very much a workman like director however in James Bond he some how took the trouble to set the atmosphere and create on the on-screen character. Many joked on the set Connery was simply doing a Terrance Young impersonation.

Campbell however I think is the superior director despite the fact Young established the atmosphere. CASINO ROYALE had the best direction ever in a Bond film, for once you feel a director was behind the lense in one those films. Also the brilliant choices of a B&W PTS and the scene were Bond is drugged. I can't compare the Non-Bond outputs very well between Campbell and Young. I have only seen Campbell's Zorro films and Young's Cold Sweat with Charles Bronson. So comparing only those films, Campbell wins by that first fun Zorro film.

In general the best type of directors are workmen. They aren't interested in making their marks, just a great film. However, you can't just get journey man director. John Glen's all too long tenure in Bond films for example. He by far the most boring director in the franchise's history. All his Bond films looked liked large budget TV shows.

"I've seen a lot of talk on Superman-centric message boards blasting Lester as a hack and hailing Donner as a genius."

Neither men would I call genius film makers however I will give Donner credit for driving good preformances out his actors. I mean, the Lethal Weapons films worked because of the fine chemistry and directon of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover thanks to Dick. The Lethal Weapons films themselves are really not that good at all, it's just Dirty Harry on steroids.

Rick Roberts said...

One more thing, it was a big mistake for hiring Marc Foster for Quantum of Solace. He wanted some sort of art house film and mixed in with horrid actions sequences. It just did not work and killed alot of the narrative.

Rick Roberts said...

"Yet Bond fans tend to see Mankiewicz in a similar franchise-trashing role: he was a co-screenwriter for several of the worst Bonds in the early 70s."

As corny as Mankiewicz's Bond films were, they actually had pretty damn good dialogue. He gets way too much crap, especially for The Man With The Golden Gun,

Anonymous said...

Lester's, "A Hard Day's Night", "The Knack....", "A Funny Thing Happened...", "Petulia", "Juggernaut", The Musketeer movies, and "Robin and Marion" are all better than anything Donner has directed.

Rick Roberts said...

I know I am late saying this but I think 16 BLOCKS is a very effective police thriller. Yes you can chaulk it up to Donner once again ripping off Eastwood (The Gauntlet) but I really liked the Bruce Willis-Mos Def chemistry.