Rainer Werner Fassbinder, at the age of 16, filled out a questionnaire required of schoolchildren that asked them about their plans for the future. He replied that his goal was to become a filmmaker, and make such a large amount of films that his life itself would become a film. With all of the well-publicized sexploits, drug use, and provocative press statements (that would give Von Trier a run for his money) it seems he accomplished his teenage goal insofar as he was always on the screens of the media and his films saturated the movie houses. He was born in 1945 in Germany, three weeks after the Third Reich surrendered to the Allied Forces. Over the course of his 14-year career, 1968-1982, he made over 40 films across every conceivable medium dealing with the lingering specter of Nazism and the exploitation of emotions within Germany of the 1970s.
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Eisenstein reportedly commented, “What a monument you would have raised in my memory if I had died straight after The Battleship Potemkin! I’ve made a mess of my own biography!” While this may be a bit of an overstatement, Eisenstein was correct that he peaked early in his career. However, Eisenstein tended to exhibit some of the autocratic control that his films sought to expose in various governments, overseeing every aspect of his films to the point of obsession, a quality that hindered much of his later work.
Internal and external conflict furthered restricted his genius. As a young man, he and his father were at odds during WWI and the October Revolution in Russia, resulting in irreparable harm to their relationship. As an artist, he frequently found himself being chastised by the new Soviet government and often fought with producers and studios. Perhaps because of these experiences, conflict—both societal and personal—is at the front of all his great films. In examining the role of government in the lives of the proletariat, Eisenstein was a pioneer in using mood, lighting, and montage to convey heroism and villainy. In a time when silent films were usually one-reelers, he crafted epics, filled with sweeping crowd scenes and disturbing images, some of which couldn’t be shot today, such as the plummet of a live horse from a raised drawbridge into the river below.
Despite a relatively small filmography, Carl Theodor Dreyer is truly a revered figure in cinema history; his emotionally draining storytelling and mysteriously slow output rate have afforded him an almost mythic status. The illegitimate son of a Swedish housekeeper, Carl Dreyer would pass through multiple foster homes before his placement in the care of Carl Theodor and Inger Marie Dreyer, around the same time as his biological mother’s accidental death. Dreyer would later estrange himself from his adpoted family as a teenager, and though dismissive of the impact of his childhood in interviews, his past seems unquestionably tied to his cinematic ruminations of sorrow, interpersonal disconnect, and martyrdom.
On March 7, 2010, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally recognized a woman as being worthy of the title ‘best director’ for the first time in the 81-year history of the Academy Awards. Even as a constant Hollywood critic, Deren would have loved to have seen that moment, if not receive an achievement award from the Academy (which should happen). Originally from the Ukraine, her family came to America five years after her birth. After college, she made her way to New York City where she did a thesis on poetry, worked as a photographer and assisted a choreographer. She then made her way out to Los Angles, finding a kindred spirit in Czech Alexander Hammid, who became her second husband and collaborator on Meshes of the Afternoon, which alone would have assured her place in film history.
The most polarizing—and under-appreciated—director of the New Hollywood, Brian De Palma’s ultimate legacy may be that of being the first post-modernist director in American cinema. While the so-called “movie brats” of the 1970s may have reveled in their cinematic upbringings, none did so more explicitly than De Palma. Referencing movie lore visually and orally may be business as usual in 2011, but back in 1973, when De Palma made the Hitchcockian Sisters, more than a few eyebrows were raised. He did himself no favors by continuing to draw comparisons to the Master of Suspense, and the primary argument by De Palma detractors is that he is simply an imitator, as opposed to an innovator. De Palma would probably never deny this as he has made a point out of exploring the nature of copying and doubles in films like the claustrophobic Body Double and the erotic thriller Femme Fatale. Throughout his career he has shown a fascination with what can only be deemed as “possession”. Whether it be the cross dressing killer of Dressed to Kill (1980) (which not coincidentally features a now iconic shower scene with Angie Dickinson) or the identity disorder of Mission: Impossible (1996), De Palma seems mystified by the idea of taking over someone else’s life. His “imitation” therefore should be studied as a symptom of post-modernism: who are we really in a world largely influenced by the media?
// Notes from the Road
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