Friday, April 20, 2007


(Or: the Rise and Fall of Phil Joanou)

"Guys like that, when they wake up, they don't go back to sleep so easy. Not without help."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Phil Joanou was one of Hollywood's hottest young directors. Get this for a fairytale career trajectory: Joanou and his friends made movies together on Super-8 growing up. It was just fun for most of them, but they were Californians and working in the industry was not quite the stretch it might be to some who lived further from Hollywood. Joanou, who was a massive Spielberg fan and whose direction had become increasingly stylish and technical even in those teenaged home movies, went on to attend South California's famous Film School. His student film, "The Last Chance Dance", won the Best Student Film award in 1984, and when Spielberg himself saw it, he promptly offered the then-25 year old graduate the opportunity to direct some episodes for his "Amazing Stories" TV show. Not many young directors get Steven Spielberg as a mentor in Hollywood. Those that do - like Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante - generally get to do what they want for a few films before commercial imperatives catch up with them. Joanou would sidestep these considerations through odd career choices, but back in the early 80s, he was in the perfect position to mount what promised to be a spectacular directorial career.

Spielberg produced Joanou's first feature film, "Three O'Clock High". Its something of a minor cult classic, and one of that decades under-appreciated teen comedies. The story of Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemazsko) , a short, unathletic nerd, and his impending showdown with terrifying, hulking school bully Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), which has been set for 3.00 in the parking lot, its an almost perfect study in black character comedy and steadily rising tension. Joanou's direction is flashy but never at the expense of the story or the characters, and the film is dark in the manner of the John Hughes films of the era - unafraid to acknowledge the fear and desperation of Jerry's situation or to mock the genre itself, it ends with a final Western-style confrontation, which is a hugely satisfying set-piece. Watching it now it has aged extremely well, in a way even the best of Hughes' work from the era struggles to match. The fantastic electronic score by Tangerine Dream and the continual cutting back to the steadily ticking hands of the clock, counting down the minutes until Jerry's reckoning with Buddy, genuinely make the film a tense experience despite the many laughs it offers. Its references to "High Noon" are quite witty, and it recalls that film in the adept way the narrative closes off each of Jerry's avenues of escape in turn. Even though it was not a great success, Joanou already seemed like a stylishly safe pair of hands with such an impressive, distinctive debut on his resume.

His technical accomplishment meant that he had attracted attention in the music video and advertising industries, and he was hired by U2, at that point the biggest band in the World, to direct their tour documentary, "Rattle & Hum". Its a pretty typical example of the genre, though a tolerance for U2 at their most pompous and pretentious is a necessity. Joanou shot most of it himself, in stark black and white which fit with the bands image at the time of the Joshua Tree, when they were seriously investing in that widescreen Americana look. His youth is evident in the way the band have obviously controlled the production, and as a result it has the sense of a big budget home movie, Bono and his buddies exploring American music with a young and enthusiastic cameraman along for the ride. His next film has proven to be his best, and it seemed to betray the influence of his involvement with U2, in that it was again a story of the Irish in America.

"State of Grace" came out in 1990, something of a banner year for mob stories in Cinema. "Goodfellas", "The Godfather Part III", Abel Ferrara's "King of New York" and another Irish-Mob movie, "Millers Crossing" were all released in 1990, and in the midst of those heavyweights, "State of Grace" got a little lost. But its a great little movie, surprisingly intense, dark and serious, and featuring three terrific performances from its leading men. it tells the story of Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) and his return to Hells Kitchen, the Irish neighbourhood of New York where he grew up running with teen hoods Jackie and Frankie Flannery (Gary Oldman and Ed Harris). Only now Noonan is an undercover cop, charged with bringing down the burgeoning empire built by Frankie, and Jackie is the neighbourhood psycho. Noonan soon rekindles his relationship with their sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright-Penn) and his loyalties are inevitably torn between duty and friendship. While that sounds like your stock undercover cop movie, its the gravity and intensity of the storytelling that makes "State of Grace" so memorable. Joanou has never put his visual sense to better use than he does here, with his camera conjuring up a vivid sense of Hells Kitchen in all its seedy glory, the gentrifying elements just beginning to crawl in alongside the taverns and the old tenements. The screenplay, by playwright Denis McIntyre, is resolutely serious and dour - it recalls the work of writer-director James Gray in its unremitting focus on the moral dilemma facing Noonan - and the story drifts inexorably towards a tragedy suggested from the first moments by Ennio Morricone's mournful, beautiful score. While Penn does his young-DeNiro thing and Ed Harris is as magnetic as ever, Oldman delivers what is possibly his best ever performance. If, in recent years, he has played one caricature too many, one shallow villain too many, revealed that manic grin one time too many, here he played a character who demanded such a performance. Jackie Flannery is a force of nature, prone to eruptions of ultra-violence, but loyal and sentimental and charming at the same time. Oldman makes him terrifying and hilarious and real, and he owes every psycho part he has gotten since to this performance. Joanou really gets to flex his directorial muscles in the films climax, an amazing slow motion gunfight in a bar while the St Patricks Day Parade passes by outside. Its a really self-conscious set-piece, the director calling attention to himself in the most obvious fashion possible, but it works brilliantly, somehow retaining the mood and style of the film while simultaneously exploding it.

But Joanou seemed fated never to have a hit. "State of Grace" was lost in that shuffle of mob movies, and he demonstrated his versatility, directing the first in an ongoing series of "7-Up" in emulation of Michael Apted's acclaimed UK series, for American television. He would return for the second chapter, "14-Up" in 1998. Before that, and maintaining the career heat he had gained from the critical reception afforded to his work so far, he made his most obviously commercial film: "Final Analysis". A derivative piece of Hitchcock pastiche starring Richard Gere, Kim Basinger and a young Uma Thurman in a tale of psychology, phallically symbolic lighthouses and mysterious blondes, "Final Analysis" is an erotic thriller with a generic title, and exactly the kind of film targeted for parody by noir-spoof "Fatal Instinct" a year later. Its allure to the Film Student in Joanou is obvious - full of Hitchcockian scenes and characters, it is a great vehicle for a director to display lots of ostentatious style. In doing so, Joanou comes across as nothing so much as a B-list Brian DePalma, yet this storyline is even more ridiculous than anything DePalma ever attempted. He moved on from the films commercial failure to direct an episode of the noir series "Fallen Angels" which starred Oldman, then directed the final episode of Bruce Wagner's LA apocalypse noir miniseries, "Wild Palms". He was dangerously close to becoming a hack, a stylist-for-hire, and he needed a hit badly to deliver on the promise of that early golden boy potential.

"Heaven's Prisoners" was not to be it. An adaptation of one of James Lee Burke's series of crime novels which follow ex-New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux (here played by a sweaty, convincingly alcoholic Alec Baldwin) in his post-police life of occasional P.I. work in the Louisiana Bayou, the film was written by Scott Frank (screenwriter of Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report). Frank is obviously quite adept at adapting difficult-to-film writers, writes good dialogue, wrote Joanou's episode of "Fallen Angels", and is also his brother-in-law. Burke's novels are strong on the atmosphere of New Orleans and the bayou, he creates great villains in the Elmore Leonard mould, and Robicheaux's constant struggle with his own demons - usually exorcised through bouts of ultra-violence - is always well-portrayed. Joanou's film gets all of this right, features a line-up of beautiful women as the various ladies in the heroes life (Kelly Lynch, Teri Hatcher, Mary Stuart Masterson), boasts a great soundtrack full of blues songs, some fine action scenes, and yet it doesn't work. It feels instead like one of those slightly camp 1960s noirs - it almost approaches the flip cool of Paul Newman's films as Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer ("Harper " and "the Drowning Pool"), where a subtle deconstruction of the genre is in operation. Such an approach doesn't work in Burke's universe of tortured heroics, and the tensions - between Baldwin's fevered intensity and Eric Roberts' over the top villainy, between Joanou's languid imagery of New Orleans and the narratives blunt pulpiness - make the film strangely flat and unsatisfying.

Again, Joanou took refuge in television, directing an extended episode of "3rd Rock From the Sun" and "14-Up" before coming to something of a career crossroads. Which is where the origin of the title of this post comes in. After receiving the same advice from two of his early mentors, Spielberg and Bono, to make something personal, Joanou wrote an autobiographical screenplay about a young director having something of an early midlife crisis, financed it independently, and directed it. The result,"Entropy" is his strangest film. Following Jake (Steven Dorff) through the troubled production of a major studio motion picture (an erotic thriller) and his life-changing love affair with a French model, Stella (Judith Godreche) onto a rebound marriage to a scottish pop singer, Pia (Kelly MacDonald), it can't really seem to decide what exactly it is. Its a film about filmaking, a love story, a comedy, a drama, slightly surreal, slightly realist. What it is, is extremely autobiographical. Joanou fell in love with a model, met a music executive backstage at a U2 concert and married her on the rebound, and experienced difficulties with his producers during production on "Final Analysis". He had, without his prior knowledge, the tapes of his Vegas Wedding played by U2 as their backdrop at a stadium concert. His brother-in-law is a successful screenwriter and he does have an editing suite in his basement. What "Entropy" also is, is a mess. Joanou still has his visual style - though even there he is severely hampered by his low budget - and resorts to many trick shots and gimmicks throughout the film, with frequent jump-cutting, split screen, blurred slo-mo, and sped-up shots. Dorff talks straight to the camera and even enters scenes when they freeze-frame to continue his narration. Jakes's cat speaks to him at one point, puffing on a cigarette as it does so, and U2 appear as themselves, Bono embarassingly recurring as a sort of Bogie-in-"Play It Again Sam" advising angel figure. What is made quickly evident is that Joanou is not a writer. "Entropy" doesn't flow the way it should, and his dialogue is at best functional, at worst wooden. Dorff's narration is too mannered and arch, too deliberate for the loose feel the films nouvelle vague-aping style establishes, and the two elements work against one another. It all feels self-indulgent and vaguely masturbatory, a sense given weight by the summing up, wherein Jake admits to having made a movie about Stella as a tribute, an exorcism and an attempt to relive it all, presumably echoing Joanou's feelings about his model.

Godreche, a fine - in every sense - French actress, invests the Stella passages with life and real emotion, and almost makes them work. Her grief at the conclusion is moving, and the unraveling of the films central relationship is convincing and painful. Dorff has less success with Jake, which made me wonder how difficult it must be to play the character of the man sitting behind the camera trained upon you in a movie. Joanou does not portray himself entirely flatteringly, and he comes across as at times arrogant and stupid and selfish. However, for all its many flaws, "Entropy" is an interesting failure, and not many directors with the previously commercial career enjoyed by Joanou would have dared to make it. It toured film festivals in America, but was not picked up by a distributor, and has yet to be released on dvd in that country. Joanou abandoned cinema after "Entropy", working in advertising and music videos for six years before returning to Hollywood in 2006 with the formulaic-seeming Rock vehicle "Gridiron Gang". That was a moderate hit, and Joanou seems to be back in the game, albeit without any of the expectation or heat he once enjoyed. What he really needs now, it seems, is a call from his old mentor Spielberg, with an offer to direct a big classy studio film again. Just so he can mess it up, or have it be ignored.

Because you can just feel it with Joanou - he'll never be the Big Director he once seemed certain to be. Hes made too many average movies, gotten too many black marks beside his name. His brand of visual style has been surpassed by at least one subsequent generation of young Turks. Instead, hes a hack with a few interesting films in his back catalogue and I'm sure a collection of fine anecdotes for his grandchildren. There are worse things to be. And his career could still have a few surprises left in store, if "Entropy" is any kind of guide. But hes an intriguing case study in how a promising directorial career can veer slowly off-course, one movie at a time, until its too late for anything to be done.



Blogger Ross said...

You can tell it's good writing because now I'm going to seek out a cheap copy of State of Grace.

But reading that white-on-black at night fucks up my eyes.

There's little else to say as I barely know of the director, haven't seen much of his stuff and therefore don't recognise a 'lost talent'.
But I've always wanted to see State and this has tipped me.

11:57 am  
Blogger David N said...

Its the copious gaming that fucks up your eyes.

I don't know if his talent is lost or just misplaced, or if it was only sufficient to get him through two movies before it ran out. Because if you had only seen, say Heavens Prisoners and Final Analysis, then you would probably just conclude he was a hack. Which would be fair enough. Its the potential of that early work that haunts me just a bit. If he had died after State of Grace, he'd have a radically different profile. Say John Carpenter had died in the late 80s, before the real horrors of his 90s work had hit, imagine how different his reputation would be. Or if Walter Hill had died after he made Southern Comfort?

Its the long slow drawn out deaths of careers that can sometimes be the most interesting parts, though. Thats the strangest bit of all this. When the work becomes patchier, but some of the talent remains, only seen in flashes.

12:07 am  

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