Thursday, November 08, 2007

Richard Lester: Still Alive

Lots of artists go from being overrated to being underrated, but Richard Lester, who was interviewed this week by the Onion A.V. Club, must be the movie director with the all-time weirdest reputation trajectory.

In the '60s, he was somewhat overrated -- routinely acclaimed as one of the world's great cinema masters, prematurely written up in movie studies textbooks -- even though his work was uneven and somewhat limited in range. Oddly enough for a guy who made his reputation directing the Beatles in two musical comedies, his weakest work tended to be in musicals and comedy: a lot of his subsequent comedies really aren't that funny, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum kind of wrecks the musical numbers with all the fragmentation. But his best films deserved the acclaim they got, his techniques were very influential (not only the cutting and flashbacks/flash-forwards but the gimmick of making period settings look somewhat drab and dirty and "real"), and his best movie, Petulia, is one of his least goofy. He was a good director, not a great one, who -- like Irvin Kershner and others -- lost his way when he took on too many anonymous big-budget projects.

But now he's insanely underrated, because all most people seem to know about him is that he was the guy who finished directing Superman II. Look at his Imdb comments board; it seems to consist mostly of Superman threads, with many posters denouncing him for ruining the vision of Richard Donner. There are various levels of weirdness here, including the idea that Richard Donner is a genius and Richard Lester is a hack, when for most of their careers the truth has been more or less exactly the opposite. But Donner's version of Superman means a lot to many people, and there's not much doubt that the sequel would have been a better film had he been allowed to finish it (I don't think the "re-cut" version really helps much, though). But the idea that finishing up one project, plus soloing on another bad Superman film, makes Richard Lester the Worst Director Ever is kind of a commentary on how franchise-ism -- obsession with particular movie franchises or characters -- is starting to play too much of a role in the way we evaluate filmmakers.

Though of course, back when Superman II was released, auteurism was king, and that caused some critics to say some rather silly things; you would get critics who assumed that the sequel had to be better because the Great Richard Lester directed it, though a) they couldn't provide any evidence that Lester's personality was reflected in most of the film, and b) they had a tendency to pick out Richard Donner's scenes and declare them to be brilliant Richard Lester touches.

So maybe someday Lester will go back to being overrated again. I think he kind of deserves it after the unfair beating he's taken on the internet.

1 comment:

Michael Sporn said...

I've couldn't be more in agreement with your comments. Lester seems to have been miscast on so many films. He did poorest on his big studio films (yes, including Superman) but on the small, more independent films (How I Won the War) he was excellent. Petulia is still one of my favorite films of the 60's. The Tony Walton sets & costumes, the John Barry score and the excellent cast all come together well. However, that film, like Lester, seems to be all but forgotten these days.