Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Directors so often resemble themselves

I was going to call this post Things We Lost in the Fire: The Logging Years, but I thought the headline I chose would get more eyeballs.

The reason I was going to call it that was because Susanne Bier, the Danish director who directed the Halle Berry movie Things We Lost in the Fire, also directed the movie I watched on Monday night, Serena.

The movies are superficially dissimilar, but both deal with a main female character who is in some ways recovering from the trauma of losing family members in a fire. They are, in fact, the only two movies I've seen that Bier has directed, although her 2010 film In a Better World won the best foreign language film Oscar.

Perhaps if I had seen any of Bier's other films, I would not have been inclined to write this post. But from such meager seeds grew a much larger idea in my brain: The realization (not for the first time) that directors are perhaps one of the most prominent artists to get rewarded for essentially repeating themselves throughout their career.

This is no slight at Ms. Bier, to be sure. Even if these two films have similar themes, their settings and time periods are entirely different. Other far more acclaimed directors can get accused of similar things, whether it's the approach to set design of someone like Wes Anderson or the reliance on involving characters in bizarre sexual play-acting of someone like Yorgos Lanthimos. (Who is on my mind as I just saw the third of his five features on Friday night, and it's remarkable how interested he continues to be in exploring the same themes.)

In fact, this should probably be no slight on directors, either. Creative individuals the world over seem inclined to repeat themselves, whether in the themes themselves or in the actual content of their art. I think of the joke about AC/DC, whom no one has ever accused of being more than the purveyors of fun rock music. Whether this really happened or not is unclear to me, but the joke has it that an interviewer once asked a member of AC/DC how he addressed the criticism that they have ten albums and they all sound exactly the same. "That's ridiculous," he responded. "We have 11 albums."

Yet because I am a film fan first and foremost, I tend to notice repetition more in filmmakers than I do in authors or painters or musicians. I notice when the same themes of sexual perversion, death and punishment of women tend to follow around Lars von Trier, or when Woody Allen continues trying to explore the dynamic of an older male character and a younger female one.

On the whole, however, we don't condemn directors for continuing to explore what becomes an obsessive life-long pursuit of one particular kind of emotional truth. Why is Martin Scorsese interested in gangsters? Why is Noah Baumbach interested in hipsters? They just are, and we love that they are trying to continue to discover the final word on what makes people like that tick. Because in some way, they are trying to discover what makes themselves tick.

However, I'm generally more impressed with filmmakers who have something to say through their approach to storytelling, not so much in needing to explore one particular thing that interests them. This is why I'm so floored when I discover that Tom Tykwer can make both Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which don't have a single thing in common in their look or themes. This is why the career of Ang Lee fascinates me so much, because no two films in an impressive filmography have seemed to bear any relationship to one another. This is why I'm trying to get my hands on A Most Violent Year as soon as I can, because after Margin Call and All is Lost, I have the sense that J.C. Chandor can do literally anything he wants.

It makes me wonder if being surprised is as much a key to loving the movies I love as anything else. If, for example, that's the reason I held Birdman in as much esteem as I did, because it felt like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu showing us a side of himself that all previous evidence had indicated was not there.

So at this point in these musings, I must admit to you that Susanne Bier made a particularly poor news peg for this post indeed. Looking into the plot of Things We Lost in the Fire on wikipedia, I am reminded that Berry's husband in that film was not actually killed in a fire. He was killed while trying heroically to defend a woman who was being beaten by her husband. The fire referenced in the title is either metaphorical, or an event that happened years before and may have only involved property damage.

So Bier may be more like Tykwer or Lee than she is like Scorsese or Anderson. And even Scorsese and Anderson may not be like Scorsese and Anderson -- Scorsese with tell you indignantly that he made Hugo, and Anderson is known to bristle at the suggestion that all his films are the same.

Anyway, as with any of the famously stream-of-consciousness discussions film fans have with each other -- and sometimes with themselves -- you don't always end up where you think you are going to end up when you started. And sometimes you realize your original thesis was totally wrong, or at least, incompletely considered.

The thing is, all the directors I've mentioned in this post make far more good films than bad ones, and I'm always interested in seeing what they're going to do next. Tell the same story, tell a different story ... just tell it well and you've got my attention.

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