Even the greatest of auteurs in cinema generally take one or two big missteps in their careers, either early on -- as happened to a lot of the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls generation of American filmmakers, bringing their hirsute hubris down to earth with a bump -- or later, when poor judgement and a degree of fossilisation can cloud a director’s vision -- see Quentin Tarantino’s remarks, for example, about not wanting to be a "geriatric" filmmaker, making films deep into his old age because this is when filmmakers generally lose their mojo, or Steven Soderbergh’s early retirement plans, which he hopes will see him exit filmmaking at the top of his game.
The latter factors were at play in Otto Preminger’s “Skidoo,” a wacky ill-conceived project meant to capture the ‘60s counter-culture zeitgeist, that instead, like an embarrassing Dad trying to be hip, possibly demonstrated the early symptoms of senility it was so out of touch. This week finally sees the release of “Skidoo” on DVD -- a film that is long-awaited by those who have heard about its legendary awfulness, but haven't to date had a chance to witness it first-hand. Preminger was, on balance, a wonderful journeyman of a director whose oeuvre we covered last week, but this thing is so hilariously bad, it borders on ironically, hilariously good; if you're in the mood and have copious amounts of alcohol and some like-minded friends to hand, its sheer, whimsical dreadfulness can turn out to be an absurdist treat.
A film we loathe and perversely love in equal measure (though some may just want to skip the metaphorical masochism and go straight to stabbing their eyes and ears out instead), it got us thinking about other venerable directors' cinematic indiscretions, missteps, gigantic blunders, and outright colossal failures: from those that threatened to derail hitherto promising careers (and in the cases of people like Peter Bogdanovich or William Friedkin, gaffes serious enough to ensure their careers never fully got back on track), to those that came later in life due to complacency or, in some cases, the failing cerebral functions of old age. Thus, we present to you "When Directors Lose the Plot," a by-no-means definitive collection of interesting left turns, mistakes and flat-out failures by some of cinema’s greatest auteurs.
“1941” (1979) - Steven Spielberg
“I will spend the rest of my life disowning this movie,” reportedly confessed legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg to the New York Times, thereby admitting his film's failings with honesty and a smidge of regret. But how bad is this 1979 war-comedy, featuring the stacked cast of Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, and many others? That depends on your tolerance for comedies that aren't funny. Proceedings kick off with a parody of the director's own "Jaws," in which a skinny-dipping woman discovers a Japanese submarine lurking in American waters. Then, following a decision to bomb Hollywood (one can almost hear the in-jokey off- camera laughter), the narrative is immediately carved into myriad tiny little stories: Wally (Bobby Di Cicco) would rather dance than fight and hopes to prove himself at an upcoming dance; Captain Birkhead (Tim Matheson) pines for the loins every woman he sees; Ward Douglas (Beatty) is forced to house an anti-aircraft millitary weapon; Wild Bill Kelso (Belushi) accidentally blows up a gasoline station... and so on and so forth. The set up is ripe enough for the respective narratives to take on their own tones and beats, but Spielberg shoots them all in his signature style, using as few cuts as he can and moving the camera whenever possible. Unfortunately, nothing ever meshes together, comic timing is seemingly absent, and the filmmaker's penchant for theatrical set pieces and explosions only makes things worse -- we maybe could have accepted the unamusing direction had he not insisted on throwing things in our faces for an alarming 2+ hours. But without berating it too much, the film was only a "flop" in comparison to its preceding films (which would be "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," try to follow that) and it is, by all means, a very competently constructed movie -- it's not like the man had a lapse in skill for a year. Even so, its "cult status" is a little too forgiving (and, at worst, delusional), with most giving props to its lack of sentimentality, in counterpoint to the usual criticism of the director's gooey-centredness. But we like when Steven makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, don't we? The Academy-friendly director is welcome to dabble in schmaltz so long as he means it. That said, if he ever again gives us anything as awful as the opening which involves a Japanese-native soldier proclaiming an American woman's bare-ass to be "Hollywood!!", we shall devise an appropriately hideous punishment.
“At Long Last Love” (1975) - Peter Bogdonavich
At one point, Peter Bogdanovich looked to be the most bulletproof of the 1970s gang. He followed taut B-movie “Targets” with three back-to-back critical and commercial hits: "The Last Picture Show," which picked up ten Oscar nominations and launched the careers of Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd (who would become the director's lover), screwball comedy throwback "What's Up Doc?," a giant hit, and "Paper Moon," a funny, touching Depression-era father-daughter tale. But then things to started to unravel. 1974 brought "Daisy Miller," an ill-conceived Henry James adaptation with a disastrously miscast Shepherd in the lead role, but that was nothing compared to "At Long Last Love." Once again paying homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, it was a full-blown 1930s musical, using a whole series of classic Cole Porter tunes, and getting stars Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd and Madeline Kahn to shoot the numbers live, rather than syncing to playback. Bogdanovich was never a rebel like his 70s compatriots, and that was his undoing; critics loathed the film (particularly singling out Reynolds and Shepherd, with many claiming neither could sing), it tanked at the box office, and until this year, when it was made available on Netflix Streaming, it had barely been seen. In fact, it's nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests: it's fluff, certainly, but so was "Top Hat," and the superficiality of the characters and their relationships is part of Bogdonavich's point. The star's voices aren't helped by the on-set singing, but compared to, say, Pierce Brosnan in "Mamma Mia," they're fine, and Reynolds and Kahn are actually quite good in the film, hitting the right tone (Shepherd, less so). And the ending, without spoiling it, is kind of fascinating. Was it a folly, out of step with the times, and one big enough to more-or-less permanently derail the director's career (he sort-of-apologized for the picture in a trade ad)? Sure. Is it one of the worst movies ever made? Absolutely not. It wasn't even the worst musical of the year it was released -- "Funny Lady" is a much more painful sit.
“Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) - Brian De Palma
In retrospect, "Bonfire of the Vanities" is the perfect swirl of hubris, cultural intrigue, and creative compromise that makes for the boldest, most fascinating flops. You have a director (Brian De Palma) -- coming off "Casualties of War," a bleak but very good film that was a personal triumph but a commercial flop -- desperate for a studio smash, taking on the hottest and most talked-about property in the country, Tom Wolfe's 1987 bestseller. The studio (Warner Bros), almost immediately became skittish about some of the book's more questionable passages and began a series of crippling concessions, notably from a casting point of view where we get Bruce Willis as a John Cleese-esque English novelist, and in an effort to ease the more offensive, race-bait-y material, a blowhard Jewish judge becomes, in the name of good taste, Morgan Freeman. Maybe most disastrous was the film's release date – by December 1990, the class politics of the 1980s that the book so savagely skewered had begun to seem musty and dated. While the film does contain a handful of brilliant moments, mostly thanks to De Palma's unparalleled visual prowess (like the opening, unbroken shot that follows Willis into a reception and the famous shot of the Concord landing), it's an absolute slog to try and sit through again, wrongheaded and tone-deaf on almost every level. The one good thing that the movie did produce, though, was one of the all-time great making-of film books, Julie Salamon's "The Devil's Candy." De Palma had agreed that Salamon could meticulously chronicle the making of his next film, not knowing the fiasco she would ultimately end up capturing. It's fascinating, insightful, probing, and proves that sometimes, everything that can go wrong, does. (De Palma would arguably never recover, either. Sure, he made the brilliant "Carlito's Way" and still holds sway over his adoring cult of fans, but in the years since has largely been ignored by critics and audiences.) Even more LOL-worthy than Salamon's book is a segment from the documentary "Boffo" (about surprise box office hits and disasters), wherein Freeman is asked about the failure of "Bonfire of the Vanities." His answer is so wry, so deadpan, and so clearly annoyed – he says he knew it was happening and that it was so rotten due to a series of poor decisions. You can tell, after all these years, that this horrible movie is still nagging at him. It's still nagging at us, too.