Tag Archives: independent film

Thinking about Mike Figgis

The work of director Mike Figgis has always been of particular interest to me.

From more traditional films, like his adaptation of The Browning Version, through his looser, more playful experiments in video technology (i.e. Timecode and Hotel), Figgis never seems to have touched the same ground twice. But his films are his throughout.

I could point to any number of patterns. My personal favorite, a quality that continues to pop up in these films again and again, is Figgis’s deep investment in sensuality. I don’t mean sex (though that surely is a part of it), I mean a voluptuousness of sound, color, and cutting – especially cutting – that pervades even his starkest pictures. Figgis rarely needs a dissolve; his pictures seem to dissolve all the time, like thin wafers on a hot tongue. And there is no better example than those of Leaving Las Vegas, the centerpiece film of his career, and arguably one of the defining films of the 90s.

No other indie feature of the era started with so little to go so far, beginning with a budget of a few million dollars and Super 16mm film, and ending at the Oscars. Other pictures started with less, and some went farther, but none spanned the entire range like Leaving Las Vegas. Add to that Figgis’s renaissance-man approach to filmmaking, which transcends the confines of the regular old auteur (more than the film’s writer/director, he scored the film, edited, operated, and invented camera equipment specifically for his cinematic needs), and you have the poster child of successful DIY filmmaking.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be interviewing Figgis for something I plan to write for the 15th Anniversary of Leaving Las Vegas (yes, that was fifteen years ago), and because I know pretty much everyone interested in motion pictures has something to say about the film, I thought I’d throw out the line a little early and see what thoughts were tossed my way.

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Blahteurs in Love

I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes split. Without Conrad Hall or Roger Deakins, there’s no way Mendes could make anything work.

Today, people deny ever having liked American Beauty, but I was there when it came out. I saw the reactions. Audiences of all kinds went either nuts or mildly nuts for this mildly courageous appropriation of independent film that was, after all, just a bigger version of what had come before it. Openly gay, openly surreal, down on suburbia, and hard on family, American Beauty took everything we once loved about edgier, low budget features and stuffed it into a friendly, nicely conceived package. Alan Ball’s package. (Which now looks like a rehash of Nicholas Ray, fifty years later: Rebel Without a Cause? Bigger Than Life? Johnny Guitar? They’re all in there.)

American Beauty flattered our intelligence without challenging us; it got aboard the pitch-black comedy bandwagon that had been running at full speed for years; and it crossed star performers with a new breed of disaffected youngsters, the kind that tell of street-cred beyond the studio walls. Well done, suits!

Adding cinematographer Conrad Hall to the production was a brilliant move, though, admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to spot a genius. When it comes to Hall, if you have eyes, you will see it. Which brings me to Roger Deakins, which brings me to my point.

Mendes followed American Beauty with Road to Perdition. Conrad Hall again. Then Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Deakins, Deakins (genius, genius). The films were not universally loved, but they were taken seriously, and dismissed tenuously. In other words, they were given the auteur treatment, even as they were denied. To be fair, the pictures were carefully, and sometimes beautifully made, so it was only fitting Mendes received undue patience. But so did William Wellman in his day. They both fall under the heading, “blahteur.” (Their films feature the distinct stamp of other people’s distinctive stamps.)

Of course, I too could be mistaken for an auteur if I had Hall or Deakins shoot my pictures. And perhaps Kate Winslet, God love her, made the same mistake. But that’s okay. These things happen. Now it’s time to heal. If I were her, I’d call up Alfonso Cuarón. He’s single.

And brilliant.

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