Friday, May 30, 2008

"I miss that kind of clarity"



Aside from the great, obvious autuerist Classics that American Cinema threw up with such regularity in that decade, directed by the likes of Scorsese, Coppola and Altman, the 1970s produced some fantastic studio cinema. Mid-range programmers - comedies, thrillers, dramas - were superior in the 1970s. Perhaps something rubbed off from the New Hollywood revolution, but Cinema itself was more important in a way it can never be again, and the standard of quality was far higher. Directors lacking the talent of the Big Guns did excellent - sometimes even incredible - work. Directors who by any means of evaluation were really jobbing craftsmen. Directors like Joseph Sargent, Stuart Rosenberg, Robert Benton and John Flynn. Directors like Sydney Pollack.

You always knew you were in good hands with a Sydney Pollack film, up until the 1990s at least. He was probably the classiest example of that kind of director working in Hollywood for a couple of decades. His films were tasteful, intelligent, finely crafted and generally entertaining in an adult manner. He won all the big prizes, Oscars, golden globes, critical awards. Best Picture, Best Director. He worked with Big Big Stars for most of his career. He leaves a solid filmography behind him, eclectic and without a really poor film in it until the last few. In his last few years he became a fine actor and an interesting producer (most notably of Anthony Minghella).

But it could all have been so different. His early films are full of hunger and eagerness to experiment, to push boundaries. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), for instance, has a savagery to it absent from the rest of his work, a plainness in its presentation of the bleak realities of life. Perhaps it was the later demands of working with such big stars on massive productions that altered his sensibility. Only a real visionary, an iconoclast, could bend the commercial demands swaddling any movie star to such pessimistic end. Pollack was no visionary. He hit his stride in the 70s, and began a series of films with Robert Redford as the star. They were friends, they had met as young actors in the 1960s. Their careers blossomed in tandem. For a while in the middle of that decade, they did perhaps the best work either of them ever managed. Pollack's three best films are all from that period, and all genre works : "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972) is a tough, gritty mountain-man Western, written by John Milius, "The Yakuza" (1974) (which is Redford-less) is a Japanese gangland thriller with a Paul Schrader script, and "Three Days of the Condor" (1975) is a conspiracy thriller. They are all quite stripped-down, pure, narratively spare. Pollack's direction is assured, never showy. He works well with actors and is a smooth storyteller. The films work so well because they all know what they are and what they want to be. The corners of the plots are filled with small moments of crucial humanity - Redford's believable, affecting relationship with Faye Dunaway in "Three Days of the Condor", the understated, devastating ending to "The Yakuza". Pollack was great with such moments.

His biggest hits were also with Redford - "The Way We Were" (1973) and "Out of Africa" (1985). That facility with small moments of intimacy meant that he was well-suited to romances, and many of his films centre on old-fashioned love storys. And despite their success together, I have to wonder what might have become of him had he never met Redford, if he might have continued down a more interesting path. For he was drawn to risky work - you can see it in his choices as an actor and producer. I liked him as an actor, particularly when he allowed his cynicism and world-weariness to seep out in his roles in "Eyes Wide Shut", "Changing Lanes" and "Michael Clayton", in each of which he plays morally corrupted men, men tired of life.
He looked like becoming one of the great elderly supporting actors.

1934-2008

He left some cool movies behind him:


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2 Comments:

Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Wolf attack!

I've seen Three Days of the Condor about 3 times by catching it on random weekday afternoons, but I think I know Pollack best for his acting bits. Condor is awesome though and Faye Dunaway in it.....dude.

Seriously. Dude.

8:38 am  
Blogger David N said...

Yeah. She lovely.

10:47 pm  

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