[8 May 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For film, summer is the season of hyperbole. Everything is bigger, better, and more groundbreaking than what came just a short nine months before. Critics complain about the lack of originality and then soil themselves whenever a motion picture product proves beyond the middling and mediocre. One of the mantras you hear over and over, from the latest installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman revision to another Michael Bay explosion-fest is: ‘make sure you see it on the big screen’ - as if watching worlds collide and robots ransack the planet demands an experience 70-feet high. Sure, visual splash sells better when not compacted onto a home theater system, but for the most part, video assist has guaranteed the experience will always feel format friendly. In fact, few filmmakers today really ‘get’ the notion of playing to the silver, not the smaller venues.
There are directors, however, who comprehend the needs of the epic. They visualize their ideas in larger than life swatches, switching gears and driving their designs to the very edges of imagination. Sometimes, their narrative demands such range. In other instances, possibility and its motion picture presence are measured out in vast, viable inventions. For us, these filmmakers represent some of the best optical experts ever. Their conceits demand the kind of Herculean housing that only a movie theater can provide. While there are many more one can name (and feel free to do so in the comments section), we’ve picked the 10 that we believe best exemplify the careful balancing act of storyline and scope. If you can, catch them during their often celebrated retrospectives. You and your waning cinematic aesthetic will be glad you did.
So, in alphabetic order, here are our choices for the 10 Filmmakers Whose Work Must Be Seen on the Big Screen:
Often called the Mediterranean Master of Suspense (in deference to his chief inspiration and indirect mentor, Alfred Hitchcock) early Argento is a 70-foot feast for the eyes. From the opening murder of Profondo Rosso to the Technicolor terrors of Suspiria, his macabre vision fills the screen with a kind of nightmare noir. It’s the darkest of dreams and the most potent of paranormal states. Granted, by the mid-‘90s, his vision began to wane a bit, belied by a need to fit the foreign market’s need for home theater product. In his prime, however, he was perfection.
Cameron is all about big ideas and big vistas. His first two Terminator films played the potential end of the world against the oversized rigors of the action genre, while True Lies and Titanic took the spy film and the disaster effort and turned them into elephantine spectacle. It was the amazing transformation of CG and sci-fi into Avatar, however, that secured his position as a creator of mammoth canvases desperate to be viewed in all their several story glory. Watching his movies on even the biggest flatscreen set-up doesn’t do them justice. Instead, Cameron’s compositions, like is talents, are out of this world.
Since he started out as an animator, crafting the unusual and surreal out of his drawings and cut-art creations, it was a natural for this expatriate Python to make the grand leap into directing. Who knew the images he saw in his mind’s eye would require so much pressure/problems from the studios he worked for? Time Bandits covered both differing eras and places on the planet, while Brazil and Baron Munchausen went even further into the fictional firmament. Even when dealing with pseudo-realistic material—Fisher King, 12 Monkeys—he manages to be both grounded and visually arresting.
There would be no such thing as auteur theory had the French not fallen in love with what the true Master of Suspense was dishing out. Indeed, Hitchcock never met a concept he couldn’t capitalize on, creatively, from a disaster on a carousel (Strangers on a Train) to a murder victim’s pre-death shower (Psycho). But in efforts like Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest that he took his predilection toward visual storytelling and optical wonderment to its most meaningful ends. He remains the most meticulous of the Golden Era greats, a man whose immense size shadowed a unique approach to movies and their ability to mesmerize.
It’s clear to say that Stanley Kubrick never made a movie for the small screen. Even with his proclivity toward the 1.33:1 open format, his framing and composition suggests someone who understood the power in size. From Spartacus’ epic battle scenes (mimicked, magnificently, in the later, languid Barry Lyndon) to the shapeshifting nature of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, few filmmakers explored the boundaries of the big screen like he did. This is especially true of his sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey and his harrowing haunted house exercise, The Shining. In everything he did, the meticulous and majestic became the masterful.
No one name is more synonymous with ‘the epic’ than British icon David Lean. Oddly enough, it wasn’t a label he wore throughout his entire career. While early efforts, usually based around the work of Charles Dickens, would only hint at his visual aplomb, it was his latter works, including Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and The Bridge on the River Kwai that announced who he really was. In fact, it’s safe to say that if you haven’t seen these three films on a normal theatrical screen, you’ve never seen David Lean at his best. The man oozed optical wonder.
From the very beginning, David Lynch wanted to be an artist. He envision a world where his paintings and his films could co-exist, perhaps even appear in the same frame. After a series of seminal shorts, he crafted Eraserhead, turning his waking nightmare muse into the stuff of celluloid legend. From there, he mastered surrealism, dramatics, and the fine line between incongruous images and visual perfection. With only a few films—including the amazing Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr. , and Lost Highway—he turned the standard genre tropes on their pointed, preposterous heads. He is a true national treasure.
Now here was someone who was certifiable crazy and creative. He got his start working for the BBC, building unusual approaches to standard biographical documentaries and docudramas on famed artists. Soon, he was unleashed on movie screens around the world, his confrontational craft at all things reverent and self-righteous knocking sacred cows off their huffing hooves. For Women in Love, The Devils, and his take on the Who’s Tommy alone, his talents transcend his TV beginnings. As his mythos grew, should did his balls. Eventually, he was exiled from the artform he came to redefine, his visions too big for the basics of an ‘80s or ‘90s entertainment.
He is capable of making ‘small’ movies, especially when you consider that some of his subjects warrant such compact canvases. But as he proved with last year’s Hugo, no one understands the balance between story and spectacle better than Scorsese. He can take even the most minor aspect of a script—say the introduction of a collection of characters sitting around a bar—and turn it into a pastiche of sound and vision. As a matter of fact, Scorsese is one of the few filmmakers who understands that music can function to make things epic. There is greatness in everything he attempts.
They’ve only made five films, and three are part of one of the most popular (and polarizing) trilogies of all time. But only their debut feature, the lesbian tinged Bound, argues against their visual flair (even though it is technically brilliant from a framing and composition standpoint). No, it’s the Matrix movies which will come to define what Andy and his ‘brother’ Lana can do behind the lens, a complex collection of F/X ideas and artistic inspiration that merges to form an unforgettable cinematic experience. Sure, many consider Speed Racer to be of lesser, illegitimate quality, but the car contests literally leap off the screen.