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When Celebrated Directors Lose The Plot: Interesting Left Turns And Failures In An Auteur's Oeuvre

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 21, 2011 at 6:55AM

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.
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"Pirates" (1986) - Roman Polanski
You might think you know the trajectory of Polanski’s career, but you need to take a closer look to fully understand the head-scratching, self-destructive follow-up choices he made, which make his filmography read like "masterpiece, disaster, hit, disaster..." etc. While "Rosemary's Baby" is a horror classic, the filmmaker followed that up with the terribly uneven "Macbeth" and the outre, absurdist comedy "What?". Then came “Chinatown,” showing him arguably at the peak of his powers, which was followed by the awesome, but totally gonzo psychological freak-out, “The Tenant.” The drama “Tess” would put Polanski back in the graces of critics and the Oscars, but then he would wait nearly seven years for his what is probably his most egregious plot-losing venture, “Pirates.” If one is looking for the textbook definition on how not to make a swashbuckling adventure picture, this is it. Perhaps the film’s biggest mistake is the cast. Watching Johnny Depp’s charming fey pirate in the ‘Caribbean’ movies, even the bad ones, grossly underlines how miscast in the lead Walter Matthau is. The rest of the ensemble -- Frenchman Cris Campion, Charlotte Lewis, Olu Jacobs and Damien Thomas are a charisma-free motley crew. Shot on location in Tunisia, using a full-sized pirate vessel constructed for the production, the picture was a massive financial and critical failure and deservedly so. While Polanski-ites will enjoy some of its loopy charms and questionable choices -- two comical rape sequences are beyond bad taste -- the picture is incontestably inert, though Philippe Sarde’s score must be applauded for masking its moorless tempo with a small pulse. The picture reportedly cost $40 million at the time and grossed around $1.65 million in return. It’s never been on DVD in the U.S. and there’s never been a remotely plausible argument to remedy that situation.

Saturn 3” (1980) - Stanley Donen
When one remembers the great American director and choreographer Stanley Donen one thinks of the man dubbed "the king of musicals." Responsible for some of cinema's greatest song and dance films, "Singin' In The Rain," “Damn Yankees!,” and “Funny Face," plus comedies, and stylish thrillers with equal grace and pizzaz, “Bedazzled,” “Arabesque” and “Charade,” no other flub is as egregious in Donen’s estimable career than “Saturn 3.” As ill-conceived as they get, this oxygen-less and painfully suspenseless sci-fi blemish stars Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett as two scientists (and lovers) whose remote utopian base in the asteroid fields of Saturn is intruded upon by an unstable sociopath masquerading as a fellow technocrat and scientist, played by Harvey Keitel, who has been sent from Earth to check up on the progress of their experimental food research studies (Earth has naturally turned toxic in this future). Horribly miscast, Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent was redubbed by British actor Roy Dotrice in certain versions (who strangely enough adopted an American accent that doesn’t sound too dissimilar from Keitel’s own). Arriving just three years after the sci-fi boon of “Star Wars,” this failure is riddled with terrible effects, while the malevolent robot in the picture -- hilariously named Hector -- is laughably constructed and excruciatingly non-menacing. Conceived by "Star Wars" production designer John Barry (who was originally tapped to direct) and scored by Elmer Bernstein, unfortunately no amount of talent could salvage the disaster that is this colossal tonal miscalculation. During the 1st annual Golden Raspberry Awards “Saturn 3” was nominated for Worst Picture, Actor and Actress.

Popeye” (1980) - Robert Altman
Cocaine: it's a helluvadrug. You want foolish and ill-conceived ideas from a hazy mind? There’s no coincidence between producer Robert Evans falling on hard times and “Popeye” (Evans was convicted for attempting to buy bags of blow during production). Evans’ bright idea was hiring iconoclast Robert Altman to direct a big-budget mainstream family film and musical. Altman hired Harry Nilsson to score the film, and rarely tempered his overlapping dialogue and cross-cutting style. Starring a mumbling Robin Williams as the titular sailorman, a diverting Shelley Duvall (whose futzing, puttering around, worried character might be the most enjoyable part), plus character actors Ray Walston and Paul Dooley, the biggest issue might be the glacial pacing and lethargic script by Jules Feiffer (“Carnal Knowledge”), not to mention a charisma-free villain in Paul L. Smith. Sporting the tone of a fully sated Altman on an all-expenses paid vacation in Malta -- where the film was shot on location to the tune of a cool $20 million (not sliced bread for 1980) -- “Popeye” has its occasional jovial and whimsical moments, but there’s just so much fat around the meat, it’s hard to find the actual story: it's apparently about a fatherless sailor in search of his pappi (like the story really matters). Part of “Popeye”'s biggest problem is that it seems like a rudderless narrative that is an excuse for Popeye to eventually eat spinach, kick Bluto’s ass and finally play the famous Popeye theme from the cartoon. But up to that point, the picture feels like rote and rather protracted foreplay (Leonard Maltin called it, “astonishingly boring” at the time, and he’s at least half right). These days “Popeye” is perhaps best remembered for featuring the song "He Needs Me,” which Paul Thomas Anderson appropriated for “Punch Drunk Love.”

The Wiz” (1978) - Sidney Lumet
One can safely argue that whenever the great Sidney Lumet left New York, his films felt unmoored, out of place or uneven (his Southern trip with Brando, “The Fugitive Kind” never quite gels, for example). And while the 1978 musical "The Wiz," was still set in and around a magical Big Apple, this major detour for Lumet just didn't have enough Gotham grittiness to anchor the filmmaker. A famous disco, funk and Broadway-made soul remake of "The Wizard Of Oz," this ill-conceived fantasy musical stars Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, a beguiling Nispy Russell as The Tinman (perhaps the finest of all the players) and Ted Ross as The Cowardly Lion. Composed in a variety of rather bland and wide master shots, Lumet never seems comfortable during the dance and musical numbers and thus most of these moments are rather flat. While Russell, Ross and Richard Pryor as the Wiz(ard) are diverting, Ross melodramatically seems lto be on the verge of tears in every sequence whether happy, sad or scary, and Jackson is so suited to play a childlike simpleton, it's almost scary. Joel Schumacher’s -- yes that Joel Schumacher -- script is enervating and by the numbers, and poor Quincy Jones, who only acted as a music supervisor as a favor to Lumet, can’t give this picture any cooking grease. While not as dismal as some of these failures -- there's a harmless sweet joy to some of the picture that's marginally charming in spots -- it’s certainly not Lumet's best work and would remain the only genre exercise the filmmaker would tackle in his career. A commercial and critical flop at the time, the film still managed to earn itself four Academy Awards nominations.

This article is related to: Vintage Directors, Feature, Robert Zemeckis, Francis Ford Coppola, Cameron Crowe, Brian De Palma, John Frankenheimer, Roman Polanski, Peter Yates, Sidney Lumet, Otto Preminger


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