Sunday, September 6, 2009

The world's most diverse director

With some directors, we scoff at how small their comfort zone is. Each film in his or her ouevre is a clear thematic progenitor to the one that comes after it. Generously, we might call this a signature style, or a set of familiar interests. Not so generously, it's rote repetition, going back to the same well because you can't think of anything new. (Yes, Guy Ritchie, I'm looking at you.)

Then there are those directors who do something absolutely, 100% different every time. Or maybe I should just say "director," singular, because I can think of few other directors quite like Ang Lee.

He's the ultimate chameleon. Ang Lee never wants to make anything that's like anything he's ever made before.

Taking Woodstock is just the latest in that trend. Then again, Lee must have been really disappointed in himself. After all, there are some homosexual themes in Taking Woodstock. Fortunately for Lee in keeping his streak going, there's not a single other thing about the movie that resembles Brokeback Mountain.

So just how diverse is Ang Lee really? Well, let's take a look.

Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994): I'm going to have to conveniently skip over these films in my analysis, because I haven't seen any of them. But let's just assume, since they are from Lee, that they are different from each other. So we can pick up when Lee made his first English-language film.

Sense and Sensibility (1995). For this first film with an English-speaking cast, Ang Lee was already showing his ability to be different. There was no dipping his toe in the water to take things slowly. He launched straight into a beloved Jane Austen novel, and a powerhouse cast to boot. Not only was this film nominated for best picture, it was considered the favorite until Braveheart built up a groundswell of Academy favor. (Get used to disappointments in the best picture category, Ang).

The Ice Storm (1997). It was out of the 19th century and into the 1970s for Lee with The Ice Storm, his look at the deleterious effects of the sexual revolution on one outwardly functional Connecticut family. If you're desperate to find any similarities to Sense and Sensibility, you could say that both address the fickleness of the human heart, but the similarities end there. While Sense has a brightness and lightness of tone -- I feel like almost every scene occurred in daylight -- The Ice Storm is bleak, taking place mostly at night, and mostly on the night of a frigid winter storm that blankets the region in frozen water. Another thing in common with Sense: This film was praised through the roof, and deservedly so.

Ride With the Devil (1999). Lee's first (but not last) film to be tepidly received by critics, Ride With the Devil goes back to the 19th century, but on a different continent with a very different set of concerns. It's a Civil War film, and its only similarity to The Ice Storm is that it features Tobey Maguire. (It also features Jewel in her first and pretty much last dramatic acting role, but that's another story). I haven't seen Ride With the Devil, but just looking at the synopsis I can confidently state its different-ness from the films that came before and after it on Lee's resumé.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Like, say, this one. Lee returned to China to make the highest grossing foreign film ever released in the United States, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Nothing in his directing history would have suggested that he was on the verge of making one of the most ambitious and lavish martial arts epics of all time, one that featured breathtaking wire-work stunts, the likes of which most Western audiences had never seen. (Perhaps just as amazing: He got an incredible performance out of Michelle Yeoh, even though she didn't speak a word of Mandarin and had to learn her lines phonetically). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon earned ten Oscar nominations, winning four statues, and Lee continued to prove his uncommon flexibility as an artist.

The Hulk (2003). Staying with the massive scope of Crouching Tiger, but nothing else, Lee next made The Hulk, a brooding, over-long summer tentpole. While the film was widely considered a failure, prompting another big-budget incarnation of Marvel's famous green menace just five years later, no one could fault Lee for continuing to reinvent himself, to stretch the limits of his capabilities. Lee's second adaptation of wildly popular source material is as different from his first (Sense and Sensibility) as can be, involving the use of special effects and comic book panels, and creating some truly memorable moments in a generally forgettable film.

Brokeback Mountain (2005). Lee returned to universal critical acclaim with yet another tectonic shift in his themes, Brokeback Mountain. The story of two cowboys who discover their love for each other on a variety of "fishing trips" in Wyoming of the 1960s and 1970s, Brokeback Mountain was the most talked about movie of 2005, with good reason. Not only did it contain one of the most prominent central gay relationships ever featured in a mainstream film, but it also boasted gorgeous cinematography and a quartet of indelible performances (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway). The film was sure to win best picture until Crash, elevated by a suddenly gay-averse silent majority of the Academy, swooped in to unjustly claim the statue.

Lust, Caution (2007). Back to China for Lee, but again in a whole new context. This film, which I did not see, takes place in Japanese-occupied Shanghai before and during World War II, and involves some kind of dramatic society. The film received rave reviews from certain critics, but was not widely seen. Without having seen Lust, Caution I can't venture a guess as to any ways it may be similar to his trio of early films that I also didn't see, but it's certainly different from anything he'd done since coming to Hollywood.

Taking Woodstock (2009). And back to U.S. history again. (In fact, it's starting to seem like the only thing Lee can't do is set a movie in the present day, The Hulk notwithstanding). Lee brings his trademark human sensitivity to what turns out to be an intimate story of personal growth, set within the context of the largest and most famous concert in American history. Again proving his strength with actors -- the bread and butter of the job -- Lee coaxes a totally naturalistic performance out of Demetri Martin, heretofore known primarily as an eccentric standup comedian.

There may be some meeting point -- at least chronologically -- between Taking Woodstock and The Ice Storm, as Woodstock marks the beginning of a liberating sexual awareness, and Ice Storm marks the symbolic end of it. But with Lee, as ever, you really have to stretch if you want to go so far as to label a particular project as similar in any way, except this: Even in such films as The Hulk, Lee cares deeply about the complexities of human relationships. In that film, it may have been to his detriment -- The Hulk's audience just wanted to see the big guy smash things, and didn't want all the touchy-feely relationship stuff between Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly.

But that's the thing that's so interesting about Lee -- his failings are a lot more fascinating than other people's successes. If universal acclaim were all that Lee desired, he could easily take a safer, more predictable path, and be assured he'd always get good notices based on the strength of his craftsmanship alone.

That, however, is not what makes an artist. An artist is someone who continually challenges himself, is never content resting on laurels. An artist is someone unpredictable, impossible to pin down. An artist takes risks and damns consequences. Lee has walked up to the limits of commercial viability and stared over that edge into the abyss. He's been willing to risk the thing that's most important to an artist: a platform for his work. Yet studios have continued giving him money to make the films he wants to make, whatever they may be about.

And like all good and pure lovers of film, Ang Lee is interested in a wide array of different stories.

I can't wait to see which one he makes next.


Lord Vader said...

I'd put Danny Boyle in the same category as Ang Lee - he's a director who's never gone over the same ground twice.

Vancetastic said...

Well, except that A Life Less Ordinary and Sunshine are basically the exact same movie. What?