Rewriting Film History: Directors of Future Past

Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson are three of the biggest directors around, and yet all three could be said to have exhibited a certain type of flaw just recently. That mistake, namely, is that their most recent films – Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained and The Master, respectively – each resemble that particular director’s most recent film in a way that renders the newer film almost unnecessary.

Kathryn Bigelow had The Hurt Locker winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards just a couple of years ago, Quentin Tarantino was quite literally rewriting history (part one) with his WW2-spinoff Inglorious Basterds the year before (we’ll just pretend that Death Proof, which came in between Inglourious and Django never happened, mainly because of how terrible it is) and in 2008 Paul Thomas Anderson was releasing the wonderful Daniel Day-Lewis-led There Will Be Blood.

The problem I have is not so much that the latter set of films are inferior to the original three (although, much as is the case with Star Wars, this is true), but moreso that each is somewhat of an imitation or adaptation – perhaps an apt term here – of it. The similarities and parallels between the origins and the almost-remakes are therefore so significant and telling that they invoke memories of just how unexpected and original the first three were, which is what these supposedly auteur-directors (QT and PTA in particular) are well known for. Therefore they feel like a movie adaptation of a book that doesn’t stray far enough from its source to give us anything interesting or tempt us to into feeling anything aside from the reminiscent memories of those films gone by, and how these three don’t match up.

The ways in which these films do this – again Django and The Master in particular – are pretty obvious. Tarantino wrote the first of his “alternative history” films (which now may become a trilogy and would explain and justify the strong links somewhat) concerning a significant, serious and potentially controversial topic in WW2… and then followed it up with a replication that instead dealt with slavery. Adding to this was Christoph Waltz, who not only featured heavily in a similar role in both, but played practically the same character, with the only difference being that the latter film’s characterisation lacked the punch coming in the form of a deeply layered and brilliantly complex performance delivered by Col. Hans Landa in the first.

Whilst many directors have a particular style, Tarantino’s is borderline unmissable;  a flair for quick, humours dialogue, pop culture references and an over-the-top violence aesthetic immerses his back-catalogue of efforts, but stands out as such in films like Django and Inglorious with their respective historical background settings and genres that seemingly don’t fit with the style.

But Tarantino isn’t the only one guilty of such a crime. The Master, in fact, coming out several months before Django and ZD30, was the film that first alerted my attention to this trend of disappointing alterations to previous hits that – certainly in the case of There Will Be Blood – simply cannot, and will not, be topped, resulting in anything judged alongside it as an automatic failure by comparison.

Here too we have a series of seemingly unconnected themes and motifs that, at the same time, can’t be a mere coincidence. TWBB chronicled the rise and fall of DDL’s oil tycoon character who is a charismatic and convincing man who seeks to use such charms in order to exert authority over certain others, and to control the people. The Master… is about exactly the same fucking thing. It’s an ambitious effort with excellent performances from both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, but the problem is one of timing: it should not have been PTA’s next film after There Will Be Blood. Never before have either he or Quentin failed to stray from safe ground with such a familiar follow-up film that lacks the freshness and innovation of their previous hits which made them successes in the first place. This isn’t to say that The Master isn’t ambitious, and interesting, though flawed, or that Django isn’t fun, too long and not as good as Inglorious – but what they both certainly are is mis-timed.

I won’t talk about the inclusion of Kathryn Bigelow – who might seem like a strange choice in relation to everything said above – other than to say that her films so far have shown a detailed and meticulous approach… that will soon get boring. Impressive craftsmanship is one thing but the recurring flaw in Bigelow’s films is a lack of penetration when it comes to finding a heart in there. These are cold, calculated movies in both the best and worst sense, and this is going to become a noticeable irritant in an already harsh and barren environment of war (but not love) which she seems fixated with (and is very much entitled to be).

What’s really interesting though about these three auteur filmmakers – each with very similar yet diverse issues at stake here, at least in my interpretation of their recent output (and I’m aware that the majority see Django as a bigger success than Inglourious) – is that it’s a surprising criticism to level at them. As I’ve already touched upon, it’s certainly something that couldn’t be levelled at Anderson or Tarantino before this stage of their career, but with a lot of films already released, it’ only natural to expect a flaw or two within them: a chink in the chain, a glitch in the Matrix. It’s where they go from here that counts.

It’s funny, then, that the upcoming sequels for films such as Star Trek, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Kick Ass, X-Men, The Hunger Games, Sin City and many more – all of which will be considered as blockbusters (or ‘popcorn flicks’ if you’re being really harsh) – are the ones that could really do something inventive and surprising. Though many of these are old hits, the key to them is the new take on them, by forward-thinking minds such as Matthew Vaughn and J.J. Abrams.

There’s a kind of irony and at the same time poetry to the intellectual blockbuster (spearheaded by Chris Nolan and supported by Joss Whedon) leading the way in entertainment but it’s only fair to reward a film with applause and acclaim as long as it seeks to push boundaries, regardless of the wrapping it uses to decorate itself. Whilst Anderson, Bigelow and Tarantino have a great deal of impressive work in the past – they have arguably erred on the side of caution here – therefore if, and only if, these intellectual blockbusters continue to take risks, do new things and ultimately make the sequels as refreshingly unique as their predecessors, then they should be given the praise that they deserve.

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