Movie lovers like me often make the director of a film our main point of interest. I don’t allow myself such nonsense as having a “favorite” director. But I can tell you that I have seen every feature film Robert Altman ever directed. (even the TV movie “Nightmare in Chicago,” which has never been issued on commercial video), most of them more than once. The main reason I prefer Buster Keaton’s movies to Charlie Chaplin’s is that I find Keaton the superior director. Both of them were superb screen comics but the direction elements in Keaton’s films are among the most inventive and satisfying of the entire silent film era.
Since Altman’s death, I’ve been paying attention to the directors of films I love, hoping for someone whose work I would enjoy as much as his. When I saw Michael Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” I thought I had found a new top genius. (Hearing him speak in New York once reinforced that impression. And I was already a great fan of his music videos.) But although I also loved Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep,” I was deeply disappointed by “Be Kind, Rewind,” which he wrote. It was a marvelous conception carried out carelessly and without focus. And as much as I enjoyed “The Green Hornet” (the departures from comic book orthodoxy not bothering me at all because I’ve never cared much about comic books), even Gondry’s imaginative work didn’t make it a great film. I was finally forced to recognize that Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script had as much to do with the success of “Eternal Sunshine” as the direction.
Kaufman’s directing debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” struck me as a masterpiece. But he hasn’t had a chance to direct since, and if he goes on writing unconventional scripts like that one he may never.
One of my favorite films of recent years was the Pixar animated masterpiece “Ratatouille.” I have watched that one repeatedly with ever-increasing admiration for it, and for its director Brad Bird. Bird had also directed Pixar’s excellent “The Incredibles.” Was he going to become a favorite director? Curiosity has just driven me to see Bird’s live action debut, the latest installment in the “Mission Impossible” franchise. I should admit that, although I do enjoy a good action movie sometimes, I would probably never have gone to see the fourth movie in this series if I hadn’t been curious about Bird’s work. And reviews were pretty good.
It’s a disaster. The “plot” is ridiculous and incoherent. The story makes no sense at all. There’s no apparent continuity between one scene and another except that good guys are chasing bad guys and trying to keep the world from being destroyed. Characters’ motivations are barely even referred to, and then so cursorily that you can’t really understand what bugs are up their respective asses. Perhaps if I’d been paying better attention by the end of the movie, I might have understood why Ethan, Tom Cruise’s character, finally reunited with his beloved wife, waves to her at a distance as she smiles at him and enters a building with someone else. But by then I didn’t care.
Did Bird’s contribution to this stupid mess make any difference? I don’t know. The various explosions and stunts were all pretty noisy and gaudy, but since there was no emotional involvement with the characters or the situation they didn’t mean anything to me. When Cruise was trying to climb up the side of the top stories of the tallest building in the world and one of his magic adhesion gloves failed, I hoped he would fall and put an end to the picture. And as the renegade atomic missile streaked through the stratosphere and the magic timer counted towards zero, I was hoping it would blow up and put us all out of our misery.
OK, any great artist is entitled to a flop here and there. Beethoven, after all, not only wrote “Wellington’s Victory,” he proclaimed it one of his best works. (I’m not alone in considering it one of the worst pieces of crap ever written by a great composer.) But “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” left me strongly suspecting that “Ratatouille” was the product of a great creative team, among whom the director was merely a successful technician rather than a major motivator.
This experience actually does not help me answer the question posed by my title. Frankly, I can’t answer it. Of course, a great artist like Akira Kurosawa managed to infuse many films with his personal vision as well as his technical skills, and the films are his films. But if you think “Casablanca” is a great film, tell me who directed it. (I remember this one: Michael Curtiz.) And if you can do that, answer my favorite movie trivia question. In 1939, the year of “Gone With the Wind,” its director made one other film. Name it. I’m not even asking for the name of the director, since most people who do manage to answer the question will not know the director’s name. The film was “The Wizard of Oz,” and the director was Victor Fleming. Go figure.
Right now I’m keeping a hopeful eye on Sylvain Chomet, the French-Canadian animator now working in Scotland. His first film, “The Triplets of Belleville,” was one of the most satisfying movies of recent decades, one I’ve watched repeatedly and shared with numerous friends. His follow-up, “<The Illusionist,” a tribute to Jacques Tati based on an unpublished script of his, was even better, a significant evidence of artistic growth and a more deeply emotional and involving experience. I can’t wait for his next movie—but I’ll have to. After the success of “The Triplets,” it took Chomet eight years to make “The Illusionist.”