[7 October 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He the most unlikely of potential auteurs, especially when you consider that (a) he only has a trio of feature films in his oeuvre, and (b) so far, his fame is a work in progress. Still, if Terrence Malick can be considered the second coming of Kubrick for only making five films in the last 37 years (yes, you read that time frame correctly), Mark Romanek can be considered the same with only three in the last 25. Heck, even the ever elusive David Lynch has done 10 in the same approximate time frame, which begs a specific question. Is it better to be prolific and pedestrian, or selective and sanctified? Naturally, many would argue that it depends on the director. Martin Scorsese has made over 30 films in his illustrious career and few would call him ‘ordinary’. On the other hand, someone like Terry Gilliam has been given only 11 chances since starting at around the same time as Lynch, and he’s still respected…even revered.
It’s an odd argument, almost situational in its potential responses. Hollywood is overrun with journeymen, joke names like Shawn Levy, Dennis Dugan, Brett Ratner, Brian Levant, and Paul WS Anderson tapping into enough commercial zeitgeist to warrant return after return to the director’s chair. For them, it’s not a question of art, or even artifice. It’s a paycheck, a pre-assigned release date, and a table at a fancy upscale restaurant. They don’t suffer for their muse; they make the audience do that. So maybe there is something to not seeing a David Lynch film every 18 months, or hearing that, once again, Paul Thomas Anderson is making another of his Robert Altman inspired cinematic canvases. Sure, sure, it’s quality over quantity. But in the case of the limited oeuvre, it’s more than that… seemingly much more.
Let’s take Romanek as an example. He made his first film, the comic drama Static, just a few years after graduating from Ithaca College and the prestigious Roy H. Park School of Communications with a degree in cinema and photography. While in school, he had acted as second assistant director to Brian DePalma on his experimental student exercise Home Movies. It was there where he met actor Keith Gordon and the two became fast friends. Romanek eventually took on Static at his new pal’s behest, and the unusual film about an inventor who creates a device that can—reportedly—show live images of Heaven itself became a quirky cult hit. It looked like Romanek would go on to try his hand at more mainstream material. But with MTV offering seemingly infinite opportunities to ply your craft, the director fell into the music video trade - and thus the motion picture lost him for nearly 20 years.
With such seminal examples of the craft as En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind”, Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”, “Scream” by Michael and Janet Jackson and Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer”, Romanek became a preeminent short form God. Along with Mark Pellington (Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”), Chris Cunningham (“Come to Daddy” by Aphex Twin), and Michel Gondry (The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl”), he was constantly name checked as a natural to make the leap into (or should that be, BACK into) feature filmmaking. Fans and film pundits waiting for this eventual decision, and were excited to hear that he had landed on something called One Hour Photo, a surreal suburban character study revolving around a department store photo processor who becomes obsessed with the family snapshots of his customers—uncomfortably and almost fatally so.
With his unique perspective, eye for visual depth, and an undeniable way with actors, Romanek managed to transform his one commercial compromise—star Robin Williams—from an albatross into an asset. He used the sterile setting of a K-Mart like chasm to argue for the emptiness of life in the guise of a gated community. Part Fatal Attraction, much more Hitchcock as halting humanist, One Hour Photo would earn the director a great deal of accolade, if little to limited box office appeal. While some tried to suggest that the studio mucked with Romanek’s vision, the filmmaker stated that, even with the differences between the script he co-wrote and the final product, there were no editorial constraints. As it showed up on several yearend Best-of’s, it looked like One Hour Photo would be the film that would finally launch his career.
And then, nothing. Sure, there were offers all around: a chance to helm the Tom Hanks project A Cold Case; an adaptation of A Million Little Pieces (James Frey’s controversial and eventually discredited “memoir”); adaptation of scripts he wrote between Static and One Hour Photo. None of them came to pass. Then Universal was looking for an unique filmmaker to forward their desire to “reinvent” the classic monsters, and Romanek was hired to bring The Wolfman to life. With a story set in Victorian, England and a mood and atmosphere that was far more frightening than audience friendly, many saw this as his long deserved step toward more mainstream success. Then “creative difference” caused him to leave the project, making room for the decidedly non-specialized talents of Joe Johnston.
As the final version of The Wolfman uneventfully came and went from theaters, Romanek stumbled into what would become his greatest achievement yet. When he lost the genre job, his name was still being bashed about as someone who could bring Kazuo Ishiguro’s fragile sci-fi novel Never Let Me Go to the big screen. The story of clones raised in an alternate reality future where science has extended life almost indefinitely, Romanek’s task was to accent the humanity while downplaying the dystopia. This was not meant to be a splashy speculative epic where technologically advanced cityscapes dwarf the characters. Instead, the book and Alex Garland’s script adaptation focused on the duplicates - the sad, naive young people who become fodder for such specialized social engineering.
Like a Merchant/Ivory film married to The Twilight Zone, Romanek used the opportunity to prove he was more than an interpreter of a musician’s lyrical logistics. Like a poet, every scene in Never Let Me Go is like a stanza in a longer sonnet, each moment building upon another until the entire work suddenly and sharply comes into focus. With each sequence, intriguing questions are raised while equally absorbing answers are given (or at the very least, suggested). Critics have responded favorably to Romanek’s approach, with online experts like Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles and Movie City News’ David Poland declaring the film a masterpiece. While some have argued with the way in which Ishiguro’s themes have been (mis)handled, the end result speaks volumes for Romanek’s proto-auteur status.
So perhaps there is a value in not whoring yourself out to every job opportunity that comes around. Maybe it’s best to pick and choose your projects wisely. Not everyone is an artist like Werner Herzog or the near flawless Coen Brothers. Even their lesser efforts and one-off in-jokes are better than most conventional moviemaking. Of course, the counterargument is that, with less output comes less cause for disapproval. After all, does Mark Romanek deserve commendation and/or condemnation for not taking more risks, for not trying his hand at each and every opportunity given, whether or not it meets with his aesthetic ideals? In light of One Hour Photo and Never Let Me Go, it’s clear that, as for now, a limited canon is the quickest way to cinematic sainthood - and Romanek has more than enough examples to back such an incredibly casual climb to the top.