Thursday, September 22, 2016

Remembering a skilled tradesman

Curtis Hanson made two films that I cherish in 1997's L.A. Confidential and 2000's Wonder Boys. But those aren't really the films I think of when I think of Hanson, and they aren't what I'm remembering today, the day after he died at 71 of what was believed to be a heart attack.

L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys are auteur type projects, projects suggesting a particular vision on the part of their directors. The more interesting proof of his abilities -- to me, anyway -- was his two very above average director-for-hire projects, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild.

Conveniently, we adopt and abandon the auteur theory as we see fit, calling certain directors intrinsic parts of certain films while saying they had little to do with the creative spark behind others. In truth, Hanson was credited as at least co-writer on both good movies (L.A. Confidential) and bad ones (Lucky You). But when it comes to Cradle and River, neither of which featured his input on the screenplay, they seem like for-hire projects because they were, very clearly, genre pictures. They were made for comparatively little money to make a tidy profit, and they basically just needed someone to yell "Cut!"

Hanson did a lot more than that. It's been at least 15 years since I've seen either of these movies, and probably closer to 20, but on my last viewing of Cradle in particular, I remembered what a tight little package it was, how it moved smoothly from to scene to scene in producing an intensely satisfying story about a psychotic nanny. Some of that credit likely goes to the lean script by Amanda Silver, but it takes a director with a particular understanding of the fundamentals of filmmaking to deliver a lean script into a lean film. In fact, I use Cradle as an unlikely go-to example of a movie where nary a scene is wasted.

But Cradle alone probably wouldn't have caused me to excessively ponder Hanson's merits as a genre filmmaker without being paired with The River Wild, a truly tense and harrowing spiritual successor to Deliverance in which Meryl Streep and David Straitharn play the parents in a family that gets kidnapped by Kevin Bacon and some of his redneck buddies on a rafting trip. I remember feeling a similar sense of the tightness of this film, the lack of fat, that kept things rolling along toward a satisfying conclusion. Again you might credit the screenwriter (this time Denis O'Neill), but taken in combination with Cradle, it really shows us what Hanson brought to that director's chair.

His very next film was Confidential, probably an unlikely successor, but the reward someone gets for doing a good job as a hired employee. He knocked it out of the park, and many think he should have won the best director Oscar in the year Titanic swept the Oscars. Instead he made another great film in 2000, Wonder Boys, which strayed further from his genre roots. 8 Mile was next, the returns diminishing only slightly.

Unfortunately, that was pretty much it for Hanson's time atop Hollywood. The returns started to noticeably diminish with In Her Shoes and especially Lucky You. It got so I didn't even see his final theatrical release, Chasing Mavericks, a project he had to leave halfway through for health reasons (ultimately being credited as a co-director with Michael Apted). It turns out Hanson also had Alzheimer's, a fact I did not know, and a possible/probable contributor to his death.

It's certainly the case that all directors have only a finite period at the top of their game, and almost anybody who makes five consecutive hits would have to be happy with that (if we are calling the two thrillers from the 1990s "hits"). And in truth, Hanson made some really good films before that, most notably the 1990 film Bad Influence, which I once loved but appreciated a lot less on my last viewing a couple years ago, else I might have featured it more prominently in this remembrance. Even the 1987 Steve Guttenberg film The Bedroom Window is a pretty solid technical achievement, if forgettable. (But let's not talk about the comedy he directed, the Tom Cruise vehicle Losin' It.)

But part of me thinks it's a shame that Hanson stopped making genre pictures. When people are really good at something that is considered less prestigious, they can get graduated out of it at their peril -- at our collective peril. Of course, never would I trade L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys for more River Wilds. But Hanson may have been a victim of his own success, as those movies basically disqualified him from making another River Wild. The result was some really limp, uninspired "auteur movies" (In Her Shoes and Lucky You).

The loss of Hanson is meaningful enough to me that I may indeed watch something to remember him. But it won't be Wonder Boys (which I watched again only a couple months ago) and it won't be L.A. Confidential (which I do want to see again soon, having most recently caught it in 2012). No, I want to see one of those two for-hire thrillers, to remind myself what a skilled tradesman can do if just given the basic tools of the trade he loves.

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