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the '90s, part three:
the man who owned the decade

11.14.99

The hindsight of a decade, or more, always helps to place an era in context. It may, therefore, be too soon to define "the '90s movie." Other decades instantly summon movie images and dominant genres and directors. The '60s? The Beatles, James Bond, psychedelia, Roger Corman, John Boorman, Dennis Hopper, and Kubrick. The '70s? Disco, STAR WARS, bell bottoms, Spielberg, Scorsese, Altman, and Kubrick. (Yes, he only did two films in the '70s, but those films kicked ass.) The '80s? New wave, INDIANA JONES, pastels, Spike Lee, Tim Burton, Oliver Stone, and Kubrick. (Yes, he only did two films in the '80s, but those films kicked ass.) The '90s...?

Well, we'll have to wait and see, perhaps in 2010. I can tell you right now who the dominant director of the '90s was, though he only directed three and a quarter films and wrote a handful more. Right: from his 1992 debut right up until 1999, when movies like GO and LOCK, STOCK AND 2 SMOKING BARRELS are still cribbing from him, Quentin Tarantino has pretty much owned the '90s. The decade was waiting for him to arrive, and luckily he arrived only two years in.

It's not that Tarantino is untouchable or lacks frailties; nobody who's seen him act could believe that. Yet, like Scorsese and Spielberg in the '70s, Tarantino is the ultimate movie nerd who got handed a camera. He made movies he wanted to see, and, happily for his checking account, it turned out what he wanted to see was what a lot of other people wanted to see. He's so obvious a choice as the quintessential '90s director -- not always a compliment -- that it would have been pointless to structure this article so as to lead up to the big surprise of his name. Nobody could be surprised that Tarantino could be considered the decade's defining filmmaker.

Time will tell whether Tarantino is a one-hit wonder. Perhaps only with PULP FICTION will his interests intersect so blissfully with those of the mass audience: RESERVOIR DOGS was a cult video item, never a theatrical hit -- Miramax was too busy stumping for THE CRYING GAME in 1992 -- and his subsequent projects, FOUR ROOMS and JACKIE BROWN, haven't come close to duplicating PULP FICTION's success. Still, it's hard to find another director who debuted in the '90s and has had a comparable impact. The only others who come close are Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez, and as nimble and entertaining as their films are, they haven't really inspired the sincerest form of flattery. Smith and Rodriguez are inspiring more for who they are -- regular guys who just went out and made a movie with no money -- than for the movies they've made. You haven't seen many Rodriguez rip-offs or Smith rip-offs, perhaps because their example inspires young directors to go out and make their own stuff -- not imitations of Smith or Rodriguez.

Not that there haven't been other outstanding directors introduced to us between 1990 and yesterday. Let's run through just a few ...

Kasi Lemmons (EVE'S BAYOU) is going to be a woman to watch. John Singleton is a fascinating talent in development, gaining maturity -- his ROSEWOOD deserves another look. The Farrelly brothers seem to have cornered the market on scruffy, audience-friendly farce -- a throne long since abdicated by John Landis -- and their Rhode Island neighbor Michael Corrente hasn't let me down so far. Despite his recent misstep with FIGHT CLUB, David Fincher still has three or four bad movies to make before he loses the goodwill he built with SE7EN. Kenneth Branagh squeaks in under the wire on a technicality: his debut, HENRY V, wasn't widely shown in America until 1990, and his dynamic interpretation of Shakespeare will be an asset for years to come. Richard Linklater struck out with THE NEWTON BOYS, but hell, everyone whiffs once in a while; the director of DAZED AND CONFUSED will return to his old form soon, one hopes. Bryan Singer has bounced from an excellent box-office flop (APT PUPIL) to a blockbuster (THE X-MEN); am I the only one who wonders why he's doing it?

I don't personally care for the Wachowski brothers, but they're clearly onto something with THE MATRIX -- although the question of whether they're simply the right guys in the right place will depend on the mass reception to the MATRIX sequels. If they're lucky and unlucky, the sequels could be huge hits and they could end up being Lucas in duplicate, forced to crank out MATRIX installments for the next twenty years. I much prefer the work of another set of brothers, the Hughes brothers, who have been mostly silent since their sophomore effort DEAD PRESIDENTS -- I await more. (They did do that documentary AMERICAN PIMP, but who saw it? They were also going to adapt the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell Jack the Ripper comic FROM HELL, but last I heard, New Line put it in turnaround. Damn shame, that.)

Let's see, who else? Mary Harron showed great promise in I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, but early Net buzz about her AMERICAN PSYCHO hasn't been encouraging. (The trailer is cool, though.) Todd Solondz technically debuted in 1989, with FEAR, ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION, but he didn't really come into his own until the '90s. Neil LaBute bears watching, and Paul Thomas Anderson may yet shake off his ego and return to the basics of his debut HARD EIGHT, a gem as unsung as BOOGIE NIGHTS was overrated. Time will tell whether Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, the guys behind THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, are one-trick ponies. It's going to be a very hard act to follow; I don't envy them. I wouldn't mind having their money right now, but I wouldn't want to have to follow up BLAIR WITCH. Everything else they do for the rest of their lives: "Well, it's no BLAIR WITCH."

Trey Parker, based on ORGAZMO, parts of CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL, and the SOUTH PARK movie, is shaping up to be a regular Renaissance Man of comedy (he writes! he directs! he sings! he composes songs! he acts! he's the voice of Cartman!). Similarly, Mike Judge's BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA and OFFICE SPACE were two of the better comedies of recent years. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro have showed some stuff in the realm of fantasy, as has Guillermo Del Toro (whose CRONOS is a very fine thinking person's horror film; don't hold MIMIC against him). Darren Aronofsky's Pi pointed the way for intelligent science fiction.

Sometimes, screenwriters make fine directors. Steven Zaillian had a quiet triumph with SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, only to stumble somewhat with A CIVIL ACTION. Brian Helgeland made a promising, stylish start with PAYBACK -- now let's see him work with a star who won't override his direction. David Koepp showed in THE TRIGGER EFFECT and STIR OF ECHOES that he can create believable people in far-out circumstances; now he just needs to unlearn some of the Hollywood pizzazz that always trips him up in the last act. Richard LaGravenese made a lovely, overlooked film last year, LIVING OUT LOUD. Frank Darabont has made a career of Stephen King prison movies, with THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and the upcoming GREEN MILE (not to mention his superb short film based on King's "The Woman in the Room"). Artists don't always make the best directors, though -- ask anyone who sat through Robert Longo's JOHNNY MNEMONIC, Julian Schnabel's BASQUIAT, or Cindy Sherman's OFFICE KILLER.

Gary Fleder made a terrific debut with THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU'RE DEAD, though his subsequent KISS THE GIRLS smacked of sell-out. Peter O'Fallon could be worth watching based on SUICIDE KINGS. M. Night Shyamalan is in a position to do whatever he wants; let's hope the compassion and skill we saw in THE SIXTH SENSE wasn't a fluke. Danny Boyle has given us some vivid and sometimes brilliant rides; we'll soon find out if Leo has weighed down his forthcoming project THE BEACH. Wes Anderson is batting two for two as far as I'm concerned, with the low-key BOTTLE ROCKET and the superb RUSHMORE. Alexander Payne (CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION) is another two-for-two hitter, though not at the box office. (Why oh why didn't any of you go see ELECTION?)

Ted Demme came a cropper this year with the misleadingly titled LIFE, but this is also the guy who gave us THE REF, BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, MONUMENT AVE, and Denis Leary's concert films. John Dahl's ROUNDERS last year might not have felt like such a letdown if it hadn't come from the director of RED ROCK WEST and THE LAST SEDUCTION. Ang Lee promises to continue to be a wide-ranging director. David O. Russell is batting two-and-a-half for three -- his THREE KINGS was neither as bad nor as good as it could've been. Just this year, Kimberly Peirce (BOYS DON'T CRY), Spike Jonze (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), and Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) made critically lauded debuts.

Among the most vivid but not-especially-prolific filmmakers to debut in the '90s are Philip Ridley (THE REFLECTING SKIN, hands down one of the great movies of the decade), Abbe Wool (ROADSIDE PROPHETS), Rose Troche (GO FISH, a big influence on Kevin Smith's CHASING AMY), and Lodge Kerrigan (CLEAN, SHAVEN). John McNaughton burst onto the scene with the 1990 release of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (completed in 1986, but hey, why be picky?) but has done few movies, and nothing to equal it, since. And we lost at least one promising director midway through the decade -- Norman Rene, who made the compassionate LONGTIME COMPANION and PRELUDE TO A KISS.

Then there were the actors who became directors in the '90s. Kevin Costner's DANCES WITH WOLVES remains a fine, sturdy piece of mythmaking, as does Mel Gibson's BRAVEHEART (though both films are marred by their directors/stars' fetish for onscreen suffering). Steve Buscemi's TREES LOUNGE was captivating, as was Al Pacino's love letter to Shakespeare, LOOKING FOR RICHARD. Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott whipped up the delectable BIG NIGHT. Tim Robbins has shown improvement as a director, from the amusing but somewhat smug BOB ROBERTS to the emotionally candid DEAD MAN WALKING to, perhaps, his upcoming CRADLE WILL ROCK. Sean Penn, who acted for Robbins, has made two small but piercing films -- THE INDIAN RUNNER and THE CROSSING GUARD. Anjelica Huston showed some of her father's directorial toughness with BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA. Peter Berg weighed in last year with the amusingly vicious VERY BAD THINGS. Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Tim Roth, Kevin Spacey, Jodie Foster, Alan Rickman, Forest Whitaker, Antonio Banderas, and Gary Oldman also got on the other side of the viewfinder this decade, with varying results. Even Bob Saget got into the act (DIRTY WORK).

As I sit here typing all this, I see quite a long list of promising, gifted, vital filmmakers -- except maybe Bob Saget -- who've emerged in the last ten years. And this is a decade much maligned for its clockwork movies geared to the lowest common denominator. Sure, there've been some hacks -- Michael Bay, Simon West, Larry Clark, Tony Kaye, Roland Emmerich, and Alex Proyas spring immediately to mind -- and some bland non-entities like Alec Keshishian and Doug Liman, but the '90s have shown that the problem with Hollywood isn't a lack of talent. We could even be in another Golden Age of Movies and not even know it (more on that next week). I'm sure there are directors I've forgotten to mention (I remembered to include Richard Linklater and Bryan Singer at the last minute -- I'm pissed at myself for almost neglecting them), and I'm sure I'll get inundated with mail demanding to know how I could have left out, say, Luc Besson (who debuted in 1983), the Coen brothers (1984), Atom Egoyan (1984), Tim Burton (1985), Spike Lee (1986), Peter Jackson (1988), or Steven Soderbergh (1989).

So, we wrap up by returning to the man who owned the decade. Three and a quarter films, a lot of laughable acting, public fisticuffs on at least two occasions. This unproductive clown is the king of the decade? Tarantino has been quiet lately, and that's a good sign. He got his ass righteously kicked in 1998, what with the failure of JACKIE BROWN, his public foolishness, and his embarrassing Broadway debut in WAIT UNTIL DARK. From him in 1999 we have heard nary a peep.

Which means he took my free advice, went back to his keyboard, closed his mouth, and started writing. Granted, it's yet another Elmore Leonard movie (FORTY LASHES, based on one of Dutch's westerns) -- which seriously raises the question of whether Tarantino will ever be able to pen a wholly original script by himself. (He seems to be estranged from Roger Avary, who made credited and uncredited contributions to all of Quentin's scripts prior to JACKIE BROWN.) Sure, Kubrick never made a movie that wasn't based on something else, but at least he never fixated on one particular author the way Tarantino seems to have done. It's as if he wanted to try another genre but was too insecure to do it without a narrative spine provided by Elmore Leonard, or without Samuel L. Jackson (yep, word around the campfire is he's going to be in it).

God only knows when we'll see FORTY LASHES -- maybe sometime in 2001. But when it comes out -- if it comes out -- I'll go see it. And so will you, most likely. Because remember what I said about David Fincher's having to make a few more bad films before he squanders the good will he earned with SE7EN? Well, multiply that by about three for Tarantino. You can call Tarantino a dick and a copycat and in the same breath admit that PULP FICTION was one of the peaks of your moviegoing experience this past decade. (And it was. If it wasn't, you're probably in the wrong website.) I wouldn't call PULP FICTION the greatest movie of the '90s, or my top favorite, but it's certainly high up there. It is the quintessential '90s film, the meat in the '90s sandwich, the movie that redefined what the mass audience was ready for. It kicked entertainment up a notch (too bad few films since have carried its baton).

Who knows? Maybe film pundits in the year 2050 will put PULP FICTION right up there with CITIZEN KANE. We don't know. Nor do we know whether Tarantino has other shots in his cannon, or whether he shot his wad with PULP FICTION and will spend the rest of his career like William Friedkin or Peter Bogdanovich, the Tarantinos of their day. The only way to know is to watch.


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