Most of us would agree that Casablanca is one of the all-time film greats. A couple of its lines have entered the language and we can still name the stars. But do you know who directed it? Indeed, did the audiences of 1942 know — or care — who directed it?
I doubt it (just in case it ever comes up, it was Michael Curtiz). During the heyday of the studio system, the director was seen very much as a hired hand, one part of a glittering production line, a massive, highly professional but thoroughly collective effort. This didn’t stop individual directors being immensely talented. But they certainly weren’t fetishised, by industry or public. We have the 1950s French obsession with the idea of the auteur to thank for the current all-consuming and somewhat bogus focus on the importance of the director as creator, a preoccupation which leads us to see uniquely personal themes and styles where there really aren’t any.
Ang Lee, who has just won an Oscar for his direction of Life of Pi, is a good example. Exceptionally skilled and intelligent his work undoubtedly is, but only the most determined (and sheep-like) of contemporary critics could possibly detect a unique signature on films as diverse as Hulk and Brokeback Mountain. And although it pays lip service to the director-cult, Hollywood in its heart still holds to the view that it takes a multitude of chefs to come up with the broth, hence the fact that it maintains separate Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, even if they usually end up going to the same movie (although not this year, when the terrific Argo won Best Picture).
Since he stormed Cannes in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh has been the recipient of director-love from auteur buffs who’ve charted his every move. The just released Side Effects is, apparently, his last film for the cinema (he’ll be turning his attention to HBO in the future) due, he has said, to his increasing disillusionment with audiences, who have an obstinate tendency to make hits out of films he considers terrible.
I once interviewed Soderbergh in front of an LA audience and found him humourless and self-important. Both qualities run solidly through Side Effects, a thriller with noirish aspirations starring Jude Law as a shrink who might have been manipulated by a troubled patient. Visually it is immaculately rendered, and the twisty narrative satisfyingly suggests that all is not what it seems. But it is also desperately leaden, the action hinting at proper drama rather than simply getting on and showing it (a few people in our cinema gave up and left around half-time). I’m sure the jobbing B-movie directors of the late 1940s — the silver age of film noir — would have made short, unfussy and efficient work of it.
Law’s svelte professional life gallops out of his control when it becomes apparent that medication he has prescribed might have had terrible side effects. All of this should be quite absorbing. But it’s not just the film’s self-consciousness which makes one feel detached. It is quite simply that none of the characters is especially interesting or likeable.
This is a real problem for so much “personal” drama now. It almost makes me appreciate the popularity of superhero and action films, where such considerations are either inbuilt or of little importance. Ambiguity to the point of nihilism in your characters is now seemingly the Holy Grail, but there’s a price to be paid for such complexity and that is an increasing lack of interest on the part of the audience.
You don’t necessarily have to like the protagonists unreservedly, and they don’t have to be paragons. But they have to be interesting enough for you to care what happens to them. Otherwise, their fates pass before eyes which become glassier and glassier, and eventually stop watching altogether.
Danny Boyle takes this unlikeability to new heights in Trance, his first film since the Olympics opening ceremony made him man of the moment (he must be mightily relieved that the deaths of hundreds of hospital patients came to light months after his paean to the NHS, which in retrospect looks like state propaganda). Ostensibly a psychological thriller about an art dealer (James McAvoy), a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) and a stolen painting, it comes across more as a screenwriters’ workshop on the creative benefits of free association.
There’s been a mini-trend for some time, since the critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction and more recently Inception, to play around with linear narrative in the hope that it will freshen up old plots. The suspicion remains, however, that all that’s required is a year’s supply of smoke and mirrors. Trance zigzags restlessly this way and that, scene follows scene and motivations merge one into the other. We’re never sure who the bad guy is, which needn’t be fatal in a film. But this one cheats us by introducing a narrative thread late and out of the blue.
Like Side Effects, it is visually dazzling, a brilliant piece of editing for its own sake. But I cannot recall what followed what or how it ends. Like a firework, it slipped from my mind within minutes of viewing. The only residue was a lingering sense of having spent a good two hours with thoroughly unlikeable people who’d insisted on telling me the contents of their bad trips.