Angst-ridden, comedic, ironic and stylish are some of the adjectives commonly used to describe a wave of American films directed by names such as Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater and Sofia Coppola, whose cinematic pedigree goes back to the French Nouvelle Vague. Author Derek Hill thought it was about time to tie up the strings of this loosely organised American film movement. The result is Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers – An Excursion Into the American New Wave, a coherent, informative book that analyses the works of these luminaries, whose contributions have helped define contemporary cinema.
What are the unifying themes that brings together the directors focused on in the book and qualifies them as members of a movement, even if a loose one?
I think the predominant thematic through-line is of a comedy of unease and alienation. The main protagonist in the majority of the films is a person undergoing a major consciousness shift, someone who is plummeting into some kind of existential dilemma and, for the most part, it’s played for laughs. At least, comedy is the underlying tether to lure in the audience. David O. Russell uses action in Three Kings to do it, Sofia Coppola uses drama foremost with an under layer of comedy, and Richard Linklater is a special case and doesn’t stick with any one approach. They’re all contrarians to a large degree – wilfully dismantling whatever genre template their story roughly fits into and then reworking it into something fresh, perhaps even better. For instance, Coppola can make what is essentially a ‘romantic’ May-December film with Lost in Translation and stifle what audiences expect from that genre. In the end, though, because she has sympathy with her characters and an emotional fidelity to the story, she ends up delivering one of the most tender and emotionally satisfying romantic films in years. But the through-line is psychological angst. While most of the films are ostensibly comedies, there is an underlying seriousness and melancholy running through them as well. There is the reek of dissatisfaction beneath the humour, of a great poison infecting the tranquil waters that they should be enjoying without argument. A heavy dose of angst mixed with comedy is nothing new, of course, but I don’t think there have been so many films with soul-searching misfits/miserabilists since the late-1960s and 1970s. The filmmakers in my book seemed to have shared artistic sensibilities and it felt more appropriate to define them through their shared themes than by collectivizing them under an ‘independent film’ or ‘Sundance’ label or whatever, which I felt was too broad and erroneous for what I wanted to do.
Do you think their work is universal or more relevant to American audiences?
Universal. Perhaps not on a level that films like King Kong or Star Wars are accessible to audiences throughout the world, but I do think the major themes in these films are universal. The approach and the framework, though, seems particular to a specific kind of Western audience. But not strictly an American one, by any means. I’ve never experienced the affluence or lifestyle of say, Anderson’s or Coppola’s characters, but that does not prevent me from identifying with their dilemmas.
As a writer, do you think the concept of ‘movement’ is a useful one to create some kind of historiography?
Yes. It’s one useful way, but certainly not the only way. I think it helps give a semblance of continuity and shape to this sort of nebulous jellyfish we know as film history. It’s a fluid history to some extent. Film movements like the Nouvelle Vague and the subsequent waves across the world are well defined. But what about something like New Hollywood? Obviously, it was a major shift in American film, a split from the earlier studio era and so forth. When the first books started to come out about that whole decade, it seemed pretty clear-cut as to who was in it—Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Scorsese, et al. The Movie Brats. The first real film school generation more or less. It was never locked, of course, nor should it be for something that huge. But over time, as writers/critics and film historians started to shape it (people like Peter Biskind, for instance), certain directors started to get shoved out as their popularity waned in the 1980s. Filmmakers like Paul Mazursky, Michael Ritchie, Jerry Schatzberg, Haskell Wexler, Monte Hellman, and others, sort of found themselves on the wrong page of the increasingly ‘official’ history of that era. My point, I guess, is that there are clear instances of what constitutes a movement, whether it’s the Nouvelle Vague, Dogma 95, or the whole ‘mumblecore’ thing – either because the parameters are limited or because it’s self-defined. And then there are the fluid currents like New Hollywood. I think, on a much smaller scale, that the filmmakers in my book constitute a more diverse and unconscious movement, much like their 1970s compatriots. But their aesthetic approaches, their willingness to take brilliant tonal risks, among other things, connects them to their Gallic forebears.
You insert this American New Wave into a lineage that goes back to Italian Neo-Realism. I guess each of the directors mentioned may have parallels with past figures. Let’s say, who would be Richard Linklater’s cinematic forebear? I’ve seen him compared to Eric Rohmer, for example. Any other suggestions?
Rohmer is appropriate for Linklater, I think, as well as Bresson or even early Wenders at times. For a while Wes Anderson seemed to be like some inexplicable yet intriguing blend of Lubitsch, Renoir, and Truffaut. But then Fellini started to overtake him. Now, I think he may be settling into his own skin. I still think Anderson may surprise us all yet. Linklater also. He just gets better with each picture. Sofia Coppola has more than a dash of Ophuls and, dare I say, Antonioni, lightly embellishing her own stories of women’s alienation. I’m most interested, though, in seeing Kaufman’s directorial style. I’m curious to see whom he draws from on a visual level and how he guides the performances. I keep picturing Fellini in his 8 ½ mode with strong lashings of Lindsay Anderson… but that’s probably just wish fulfillment!
Although the book is mainly about directors, Charlie Kaufman, the writer, is the one named mentioned in the title. How do you gauge his relevance to American cinema and what makes him unique?
He has the timing of a great stand-up comedian and the story sense of a great writer. That ability to deconstruct narrative, to turn it inside out or to deviate from what we expect while still delivering something meaningful and emotionally satisfying without pandering to the audience, is marvelous to behold. It’s not a weird for weird’s sake hodge-podge aesthetic – something that is always tossed at David Lynch as well – but a finely disciplined and serious approach to storytelling and craftsmanship. He’s one of our finest cinematic fantasists, arguably one of the most important since Fellini. When fantasy is done well, because of its use of metaphor, it can often talk about who we are more effectively than ‘realism’ can. I love realism in cinema, but it can ultimately be limiting, because it can’t visualize our imaginations, our dream life, our interiority, in the literal way that fantasy can. We’re not just creatures of flesh and blood – we live in our heads, and Kaufman explicates that.
Do you think this movement will have an impact on future filmmaking like previous movements have done to this one, or times have changed in terms of the legacy contemporary arts and culture can leave behind?
I’d like to think future filmmakers will continue to respond to them. Not in a slavish or imitative way, although you do already see that in television advertising, title sequences for other films, and trailers (see Juno and Napoleon Dynamite, for instance, in comparison with the trailer for Anderson’s Rushmore). What I would hope is that young filmmakers would look to these films and filmmakers for inspiration, but find their own aesthetic palettes and stories to tell. Risk playing the fool in public in the service of their craft. Take the bold chance, but before you do that you have to understand the basic mechanics of storytelling, of craftsmanship, of the long, grand, convoluted history of film. Then dismantle it! But you have to understand what kind of dragon it is before you slay it.
Like all New Waves, there’s an absence of women, gays and ethnic directors. Why do you think that continues to happen even in the case of authorial cinema?
I think to a large extent it’s the same dilemmas that have plagued female, gay, and ethnic directors for years – studio marketing divisions and distribution. The poisonous waters of marketing have consistently marginalized non-white male directors into niches that also serve paradoxically as life preservers of a kind to filmmakers who don’t have ‘mainstream’ tales to tell. It gives them a chance to win over a fan base and make a name for themselves. But in the long run it may damage their career. I do think that the distribution of films is archaic and is already mirroring what the record industry is relentlessly and futilely trying to combat. Filmmakers need new avenues, new outlets for their films to get to the wider audience. In the last decade or so we’ve seen the lower cost and wider accessibility of DV equipment and post-production technology give filmmakers more options than ever before. But the distribution angle still seems mired in old concepts and definitions of how things should be done. It must be extremely aggravating for a director trying to make their name and get their film out into the wider market without major studio cash. And if you’re a woman, gay, or non-Caucasian? Good luck if you dare to want to tell any story that isn’t a ‘woman’s picture’ or part of ‘queer cinema’ or you’re an Asian director and you want to tell a historical Western about white slave owners instead of an ‘intimate portrait’ of a modern Asian family. In comparison to music or literature, film is the most conservative of art forms because it’s tied to such enormous amounts of money. But I hope that the umbilical chord between the studio machine and the artist is fraying.
Did you have to leave anyone out of the book? If so, who do you wish you could have included?
I’m embarrassed to admit that I almost left out David O. Russell. I have no idea what I was initially thinking. I debated putting in Alexander Payne’s Sideways into the ‘Singular Excursions’ section of the book where I write about Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, Roman Coppola’s CQ, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on one of Kaufman’s scripts. But Payne’s film didn’t seem particular to this time period. It didn’t utilize technology in a new or fresh way, like many of the films. He’s also not interested in reconfiguring a genre or allowing artifice to get in the way of his characters’ stories. Not that the other directors are trying to impede their stories with unnecessary style! Ultimately, I had to reluctantly take out the Sideways chapter. I think it’s a great film in many ways, but it just didn’t fit my parameters. I originally planned on having Richard Kelly as part of the larger movement, but Southland Tales was far from being given its token U.S. theatrical release and I didn’t get a chance to see it until a month after I turned in the manuscript anyway. After seeing the film in the theater, I’m glad things didn’t work out. What a disaster of a movie. A fascinating one, but a poorly executed mess all the same. He’s an interesting young filmmaker on some levels. He’s bright, has a strong visual sense, and he’s not afraid of engaging with bold ideas with a political slant. That makes for an intriguing mix, especially for a commercial director in today’s movie making climate. But the jury is definitely still out. We’ll see what direction he goes in after the next couple of films.
Past film waves had their muses and musos, faces that in a way branded the films. Are there any actors and actresses that give the contemporary American New Wave a face?
I think Philip Seymour Hoffman beautifully encapsulates the affability and angst of the modern American New Wave. Bill Murray, too. Paul Giamatti isn’t someone who’s in any of the films I deal with, but his onscreen persona is perfectly suited to the emotional core of these films. Actresses are a difficult matter since the industry as a whole doesn’t allow them to indulge in their neurosis as an ongoing career choice, at least not in studio films. I mean Diane Keaton and Shelly Duvall were able to make careers out of it in the 1970s, but since then I can’t think of anyone off-hand. Maybe Julie Delpy. She seems to project a certain neurotic openness that you don’t see much of. Having said that, there are plenty of singular performances by actresses who definitely qualify: Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, and Kate Winslet. I’m sure I’ll think of a bunch of others as soon as this is over. Scarlett…
Since you’ve written the book, have you noticed any new names that have a potential to become new American auteurs?
My eyes are open. Actually, I’m really interested in some of the filmmakers coming out of Britain right now: Steve McQueen, Duane Hopkins, Joanna Hogg, and Matthew Thompson, among others. And I wish Lynne Ramsay would make another film. Seems to be a fertile time for UK filmmakers right now. It’s exciting.
The general tone of the book is very enthusiastic, quite unlike the ‘cinema is dead’ mantra we often hear. What do you think of such pessimism?
I battle with that kind of pessimism all the time! It’s easy to feel disenchanted with the state of things, especially if one leans towards directors, films, or a particular cinematic era from the past. But there’s plenty to be excited about. The medium is changing in ways that would seem incomprehensible to Méliès and the Lumière brothers – for good and bad. So maybe the expectations should change as well. Film doesn’t have the cultural impact it once did. There are simply too many other distractions for our entertainment cash. But whenever you get complacent or jaded, a Dogma 95 sparks into life. Or a ‘mumblecore’ or something strange and unintentional like the filmmakers in my book. Whenever you least expect it, another wave comes crashing down.
Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers – An Excursion Into the American New Wave is out now on Kamera Books. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy.