Thursday, June 15, 2006


I just had a dream. No, really, this isn't one of those lame premises in which I pretend to have had a dream, I actually experienced this: I dreamt the long-awaited release of Joe Dante's brilliant combination of social satire and Looney Tunes animation was finally upon us, and it finally secured Dante the acclaim he's always deserved. The reviews were ecstatic, it was a smash hit and he was finally free to make whatever film he wanted.

Well. That was my dream, which probably tells you what my subconscious is like. Anyway, it got me thinking about filmmakers of the seventies and early eighties who did some terrific work, seemed like they were on the verge of greatness, but somehow never quite caught the big brass ring.

Joe Dante would be a perfect example. He really did make a live action-animation hybrid a couple of years ago, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, but it got mostly indifferent reviews and was a colossal flop. (It's actually enjoyable but even, and its failure helped nail shut the coffin of hand-drawn animated films.)

Dante started out as a member of Roger Corman's stable, and his first (modest) hit was the horror semi-spoof Pirahna. It, combined with his satiric werewolf picture The Howling led to his hiring by Steven Spielberg to helm a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Though that picture was mostly dreadful (Dante's contribution was terrific), it was at least high-profile, and Spielberg hired him again, this time to direct Gremlins, which turned out to be that rarest of things: a smash hit that was also a wonderful movie.

The future looked bright, but Dante was at this point stereotyped as a genre director, or worse, as a Spielberg surrogate. He made some science fiction pictures, but they were too loopy to connect with the masses, and tried a mainstream comedy, The 'burbs, that shows amazingly obvious signs of studio tampering. He made what are probably his two best movies, Gremlins 2 and Matinee, in the early nineties. Since then, only two features and a fair amount of TV work. These days he probably finds more employment as a guy who gets interviewed about old movies for documentaries than he does as a director.

Possibly even more curious is the case of Walter Hill. A writer turned director, he already displayed a solid visual sense with his debut, Hard Times, but really hit it big with the cult favorite The Warriors. A major influence on hip-hop culture, it remains a model of how to stage, photograph and edit an action film. Hill's next two pictures remain his best, the elegiac western The Long Riders and the scarifying allegory Southern Comfort. Then, like Dante, he had the hit that both defined and ruined his career: 48 Hrs, the quintessential buddy cop comedy. True, it was a good buddy cop comedy, but it led Hill into the mainstream, with awful stuff like Brewster's Millions, Red Heat and Geronimo. Unlike Dante, Hill's talent started to fail him: even more personal projects like Wild Bill didn't come off, and again, he seems to have safely retreated to television. (He directed the first episode of Deadwood, and so set that show's distinctive style.)

Or consider poor Peter Bogdanovich, who went from great work like Targets and The Last Picture Show to bad eighties Rob Lowe comedies to awful, awful basic cable movies. Or William Friedkin, who made one of my favorites, The Exorcist, and has spent his whole career since chasing commercial, not artistic, success, and has failed dismally.

I don't know why, for instance, Martin Scorsese is treated as a genius and generally given carte blanche to do whatever he wants, while other filmmakers around his age are treated as journeymen at best. I'll take Gremlins over Goodfellas any day.