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Visionary Valhalla: Film's Future Exalted Ones

Who will the film fans and cinephiles 50 years from now praise as their undeniable masters of the medium? Such a determination may be much more complicated than you think.

With loss, there usually comes reflection. One buries the grief long enough to see where they stand, either socially, personally, or ideologically, depending on the situation. So it’s within the context of last week’s passing of motion picture giants Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni that this latest round of considered contemplation occurs.

It’s been shocking to see the lack of respect given to these undeniable masters by members of the so-called blogosphere. What’s been equally surprising is the number of people picked out as being actually worthy of posthumous praise. The usual suspects have all been mentioned -- Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg -- while a few have ventured outside the mainstream to herald Jodoworsky, Godard, and Herzog. Again, such aesthetic introspection is not unexpected. It is part of the passing of time, connected to the process of perspective and consensus.

Yet there remains a sticking point in trying to determine the future exalted greats -- many have already been predetermined. Indeed, from the list above, it’s safe to say that everything up and through the early ‘80s is pretty well covered. Certainly there are names that can be added to the list -- Wenders, Von Trier -- and arguments over the aforementioned conclusions, but with a wealth of significant cinema behind them, those offered as possible icons will hold a special place in the cinephile’s awareness come obituary time.

Some may even gain the status reserved for individuals like the ones lost on 30 July. But the real quandary comes in trying to decipher who among the pre- and post-millennial mavericks we see today will remain important enough to warrant mention 30, 40 or even 50 years from now. Certainly, such a determination is fraught with flaws, but in looking over the possible choices, we can reflect on the state of cinema in the 21st century, and who, if anyone, will remain its ballyhooed bellwether.

Michelangelo Antonioni

The main issues in coming up with such a list are both generational and subjective. For example, Bergman and Antonioni were celebrated for movies they made far off in their past; in some cases, 20 to 40 years before their death. Granted, their influence was such that it seemed like they were ever present in the medium, but neither had created anything of cinematic significance since the mid-‘80s. So in using a similarly styled concept of consensus, our future icons would be creating their proposed masterworks right now, during one of the least significant and stagnant eras in motion picture creativity ever recorded. In addition, they will need to be filmmakers who forge a specific style, or concrete artistic ethic -- a vision that truly challenges the medium’s status quo. Again, in a period where focus groups, preview screenings, and creativity by committee occurs, that seems next to impossible to uncover.

Quentin Tarantino directs Vanessa Ferlito
on the set of his film, Death Proof.

Of course, there are exceptions to all generalizations. In this case, the first name that instantly comes to mind (almost instinctually) is Quentin Tarantino. Scoff at the suggestion all you want, but back when both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were media mandated darlings, everyone wanted to emulate this homage happy video store trained bad boy. We in the critical community more than helped, instantly boiling down his entire oeuvre into a single shorthand assessment. It’s the rational behind any review that uses the term “Tarantino-esque” to describe a film’s approach, a script’s dialogue, or a narrative’s twisty approach. Through the underrated Jackie Brown and the brilliant Kill Bill movies, he’s managed the almost unthinkable: his sphere of influence and inspiration has only increased. At 44, he has several more decades in the business to further redefine, and repair, his image as a hyperactive film geek, and as his 2007 segment from Grindhouse (Death Proof) proved, he’s lost none of his acknowledged acumen.

Director Sam Raimi on the set of Spider-Man 3.

Another similarly important genre-bending visionary is Sam Raimi. One of the few names featured here that can claim significance in two separate cinematic categories -- the horror film and the action epic -- the man behind the Evil Dead efforts and the Spider-man films is a bigger motion picture power than you may know. Outside of his stellar business sense, the evidence is everywhere. Danny Devito lifts whole stunt setpieces in The War of the Roses from Raimi’s “object in motion” mannerisms, be they flying plates…or eyeballs. An even bigger name, Stephen Spielberg, employs a similar standard of controlled chaos for his Hook. All throughout the late ‘80s, filmmakers who were frustrated by how to bring their diabolical ideas to the screen looked to the auspicious outsider and mimicked his moves. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would step in and steal him away. The comic book superhero phenomenon can be traced directly to his definitive webslinger epics.

Alfonso Cuarón on the set of Children of Men.

Outside America, Alfonso Cuarón seems destined to deliver on his “so far, so fantastic” motion picture promise. If one traced a line between The Little Princess, Y Tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and last year’s monumental Children of Men, it’s clear his career trajectory is headed straight for the stratosphere. His only problem may be one of nationality. Right now, Mexican filmmakers are, forgive the term, hot. Who knows where they’ll be in another two decades. Likewise, Guillermo Del Toro could also be counted as part of a lasting Latino contingent. Outside his attempts at mainstream acceptance (and the decided lukewarm response to same) his proposed wartime trilogy, begun with The Devil’s Backbone and continued via the heartbreakingly brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth, guarantees him a place on legacy’s list -- at least, for the time being.

Peter Jackson

And then there’s Peter Jackson. It may be hard for Star Wars fans to accept it, but here’s the actual reigning deity of the sci-fi/fantasy realm. From the gore-drenched delights of Bad Taste and Braindead to the grossly overlooked ghost romp The Frighteners, he was well on his way to becoming a horror heavyweight. Oddly enough, he upset said trend by taking on the real life crime drama Heavenly Creatures, and even worked in categories as unique as the family film (his freakish Meet the Feebles) and the mock documentary (Forgotten Silver). But with the chance to take on Tolkien’s beloved books, he literally reinvigorated the artform. Argue all you want to about the validity of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, but they remain the spectacular result of one man’s infinite imagination filtered through a pure love of making movies. Not only do they stand as sizable contributions to the overall effectiveness of the medium, they instantly remind us why we fell in love with the movies in the first place.

Paul Thomas Anderson

So, undoubtedly, Jackson, Raimi, and Tarantino will be saluted as they shuffle off this mortal coil. The evidence is already there, and their value is so strong that it’s only diminishable in pieces, not some overall negative assessment. No matter the black marks, someone will come along and set the record straight again. Within their proposed peer group, however, some names are a little harder to reconcile. Paul Thomas Anderson appears as the heir apparent to Robert Altman’s school of cinema. He was even onset, for insurance purposes, when the mighty American auteur delivered his final film, 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion. It’s hard to deny his output -- Sydney (a.k.a. Hard Eight), Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and even Punch-Drunk Love -- and yet, one gets the distinct impression that we’ve yet to see his very best work. When you consider the quality of what’s already arrived, that’s a rather compelling statement.

David Fincher

David Fincher is another filmmaker with a specific vision and recognizable design. Yet will he be a name, or a novelty, four decades from now? Will anyone still care for Se7en’s dark undercurrent of distress, Zodiac’s symphonic like structure, or Panic Room’s Kubrick-like deconstruction of suspense? Granted, there’s always the unforgettable ferocity of Fight Club, but as a drum tight testament to the ‘90s, will anyone in 2050 respond?

Chris Nolan also demands recognition, but some may be confused as to what the accolades are actually rewarding. The man behind the immensely successful relaunch of the Batman franchise has only made four other full length features. Now, undoubtedly, two are stunning examples of creative craft (Memento and The Prestige) but how many film fans will remember these amazing movies come future reconsideration? Is Nolan, perhaps, destined to only be remembered as one of several men, including Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, who tweaked the Dark Knight’s timeless mantle?

The list goes on and on. Rob Zombie aims to reinvent schlock in his own gargoyle a go-go image. Yet so far, he’s only managed to make his House of 1000 Corpse’s sequel The Devil’s Rejects, work on a broader than b-movie level. It’s something that Wes Anderson is accused of, as well. Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic -- his translation of film’s language into literary conventions is frequently criticized for being the same cinematic statement remade over and over again. Spike Jonze also requires mentioning, yet his limited output (two major motion pictures, both with Charlie Kaufman as the main visionary) argues for someone more whimsical than worthwhile. It’s an accusation Michel Gondry can cop to, as well. And what about the names few have heard of? Will scholars several years from now name check Fernando Meirelles, Ki-Duk Kim, Nacho Cerda, or Wong Kar Wai?

Joel and Ethan Coen

Some could argue that it’s unfair to limit the discussion to a specific age group. But remember the initial setup: Bergman and Antonioni made their mark decades before their death. They were already legends when they died. So in framing this exercise in forward thinking, we unfortunately have to leave out the easily understandable -- and defendable. At 53 and 50, respectively, Joel and Ethan Coen could claim part of this overall consideration of classicism, and yet they remain a clear cult consideration. They’re unbelievably brilliant -- it’s the rest of the world that has to catch up with their genius. Falling right behind would be Pedro Almodovar. Perhaps singlehandedly resuscitating Spanish moviemaking for world consumption, this dazzling social satirist and heartbreaking humanist will definitely maintain his mythos.

Probably the only true artist working in film today, David Lynch also has to drop out. At 61, he’s definitely part of the ‘70s post-modern mavericks, though the 20 years between ’86 and ’06 saw him reach an astonishing creative zenith. John Woo is in the very same position, as well. He was part of the Hong Kong martial arts scene before many of his supporters were out of short pants. But it wasn’t until 1986’s A Better Tomorrow that his talent for blood ballet was finally recognized. Of course, on the opposite end of said spectrum is Terry Gilliam. At 67, most would argue that his best days are far behind him. The critical community has dismissed or marginalized most of his films since 1995’s 12 Monkeys, and commercially, he’s nothing more than an eccentric seeking (and not getting) the public’s approval and attention.

Spike Lee

Spike Lee is undoubtedly an important name in the remarkable renaissance of black filmmaking, but by reaching the magical mark of 50, he’s forced to find refuge in the ‘already considered’ category. And it’s a shame. With Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Bamboozled, and the stellar documentaries 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke as part of his resume, he definitely demands his status. Yet there is more to his persona -- a piercing political focus and a relative unease with the polarizing mainstream -- that could keep his career from being fully acknowledged. At this point, the remaining possibilities pale in comparison. Everyone will have their suggestions, and obvious examples like Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh, and Michael Mann may still have recognizable relevance in 2007. But it’s clear that their catalog is intermittent and incomplete, and all three have equally shown that a single misstep (Dead Man, Full Frontal, Ali) can derail a path toward a permanent pedestal in the artform’s Hall of Fame.

Jean Luc-Godard

Perhaps age shouldn’t play a part in all this. After all, anyone listed here could, God forbid, be taken from us in the blink of an eye. But that’s what makes time so telling. When Jean Luc-Godard finally merges with the infinite, it will be his rebellious New Wave spirit, not the amiable films he’s created in the last few years (In Praise of Love, Our Music) that define his reputation. Likewise, if someone like Darren Aronofsky was cut down today, it would be difficult to place him within the pantheon -- not with Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain as his sole significant credits. So it’s apparent that career in combination with some other element of endearment make up the final determination. And let’s not forget the lack of such a unified sense of appreciation. The nu-media cannot and will not thrive on such conformity. So the hurdles toward historical importance become that much more imposing.

All we really have now is conjecture. Avoiding the givens and going out on a limb, it’s safe to assume that the next step in motion picture development as a medium will probably play an important part in the process. James Cameron -- a name, oddly enough, not mentioned here (and with good reason) -- promises that his 2009 spectacle Avatar will redefine the use of CGI. John Lasseter (also MIA) hopes to take Disney back to the days of meaningful first run animated features which rely more on nuance and less on novelty. Technology, of course, could definitely tweak things. The Wachowski Brothers (losing a mention thanks to two mediocre Matrix sequels) have been known to push the visual envelope a little, and old hat Robert Zemeckis has been giving motion capture photorealism a run for its box office potential. If all the public wants is more and more eye candy, Tinsel Town will be happy to give it to them, resulting in a rejection of the old school ideas of characterization, mise-en-scene, and overall editorial expressiveness. And so then where does that leave this discussion?

If one could hijack a time machine and make the jump to 2050, what would they see? Would the local arthouse be hawking the McG film festival as the latest incarnation of Turner Classic Movies features recently determined “Essentials” like James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch? Perhaps the works of someone as marginalized as Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Ultraviolet) or Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer, Click) will be the current cultural obsession. Heck, there may even be hope for Uwe Boll.

All joking aside, perhaps what we’re seeing is a certain sense of closure. Maybe movie-making has gone beyond the ability for a single individual to rewrite the rulebook. The next time someone suggests that, in losing a famous name, we will ‘never see their kind again, anytime soon’, perhaps we should take that as definitive, not just as a mere gesture of respect. There is a wealth of talent out there, working both inside and outside the limits of commercial cinema. If any of them end up in visionary Valhalla, it may not have been a matter of time before their work achieved such status: it may have been that a miracle happened.

Ingmar Bergman

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