13 July 2009

"George Hickenlooper: American Subversive"

by John Warwick Arden

George Hickenlooper is a director not well known here in the Antipodes.

You would think with a name as unique as his, we might remember him better; but what is somewhat more mysterious is that his unique style of moviemaking is not distinctive enough to stick in our collective wild colonial minds.

Let me get one thing straight right now. This will not be a retrospective discussion of the man’s work; for the word ‘retrospective’ alone suggests an artist rapidly approaching the end of their career, at which time critics start scanning back catalogues and sending out little wheat grass shots of adulation, much like those honorary awards dished out by the academy when they realise they have overlooked someone.

Before long, these accolades begin to sound like premature obituaries. As if a film maker doesn’t have enough on his plate without critics wanting him dead!

This will not be that type of assessment; oh no; because dear friends, George Hickenlooper is a long way short of the end of the road. For my money, he is just hitting his stride. George is what I would call a steady, solid, reliable performer. In the language of the stock market, he would be one of those consistent companies, in for the long haul, with a firm foundation, integrity, honesty, and unlikely to go belly up in hard times.

He is not flashy with the visuals, self serving or mysterious- a la Terence Malick. George loves the story, and serves the story.

He could tell Robert McKee things about ‘Story’ that would make that carnival hucksters’ nose bleed. And he does it over, and over again, reliably. He is the ‘Fed Ex’ of cinema, delivering the goods ‘first class’ as promised, with the requisite skill and artfulness we have come to expect, and with a consistent reliability you could set your watch by.

GH is certainly distinctive; but there is something else going on- something behind the scenes that has less to do with his actual work, and more to do with the circumstances that surround it. And this is not readily summed up in words.

The first time I saw his name was in the press kit for ‘Slingblade’; mention was made of his involvement in the short film that later became the feature, directed by and starring the ever enigmatic (or completely bloody loopy) Billy Bob Thornton. To me, the only extent to which this film counts in George’s ouvre is that it has his name attached, and was the first time I decided to make that so often arbitrary decision to commit his name to memory. The other reason why this film is noteworthy, is that the circumstances surrounding the making of the film (Yes, this author is one who cannot separate the art from the artist, nor the circumstances under which a work was produced) are of particular interest; and largely because we know something went on in the course of the making of the short, right through to the production of the feature, but we have never been completely cognisant of all the facts. Nor, perhaps, would we want to be.

Which makes the work, and the mythology, even more fascinating. And it is this mystery that tends to make GH fascinating as well.

Contemplate this for a moment; GH took on the ‘Big Brass Ring’- the ‘in/famous’, long un-produced Orson Welles script. No one in his right mind would even contemplate doing that- nor did they- until George took a stab at it. Try to remember that this would be the industry equivalent of Woody Allen picking a fight with ‘The Rock’.


And in a serious match, the smart money would have to be on the ‘Scorpion King’.

But in this match of truly epic proportions- a match only true film buffs would remember- George took on the Dragon. And he kicked its ass.

As Captain Willard said in ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘what balls’…

Indeed. Welles unfilmed script ‘untouchable’?? George H must have said ‘fuck that’; literally. In the same way Adrian Lyne took on the supposedly unfilmable ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, and made it work- brilliantly- GH decided to undermine the power of the Wellesian myth and deflate it ‘with respect’ (in itself a miraculous achievement). He screwed his courage to the sticking place, tore hisself off a slice of whup-ass old school style, and in the process, produced what was, and is, to my mind a cinematic triumph. An understated masterwork.

For the most part, the film was largely…tolerated? Listen; when you take on a legend and win, trust me, faint praise is the critical equivalent of a breathtaking triumph.

Bear in mind; critics are fickle beasts at the best of times. They want to see Samson take on Goliath, but they want to see Goliath win, too. It’s called having a bet each way; one on ‘old faithful’, and one on ‘the underdog’. Look at the finished product; George won the match. But not in the way one would expect. He did it with grace, style, skill, respect for the source material and with all the necessary adjustments to bring what was an ‘old dog’ of a screenplay (kicking around film schools for decades), into modern times.

The results of this match did not flare across the sky like a supernova. The film did its job in a dignified manner; the film maker bowed his head slightly, excused himself and went onto something else, rather than basking in his own brilliance.

And it is this story alone (for there are others), that gives us some sense of what makes GH tick. Presented with the opportunity to deliver the Wellesian parcel with fanfare, marching bands and military salutes, he opted for a ‘modest story well told’.

Let us delve a little deeper into this enigmatic man (Hickenlooper, that is!) as best we can by looking at his earlier work, from which we might see his inspiration; let us deconstruct the way in which he has attacked the medium, and indeed explore some persistent themes in his work and the way his style supports those prescient themes.

Take ‘Heart of Darkness’, for example. Don’t tell me assembling that film didn’t inspire George in some way.

‘Pocca’ is a subversive film. It sneaks up on you, over time, like Willard before the final attack on Kurtz. Henry Rollins may be right when he asked ‘did Willard go mad searching for his dark heart, or did he find his dark heart because he went mad’? GH asks a similar question, but he questions whether this is indeed ‘insanity’, or whether it is the normal human condition; hence rendering it less an aberration, and more a question of the ‘situation normal’- AFU.

And while we were revisiting all the thematic possibilities of ‘Pocca’ already clear to us- plus a few extra that were not- seen for the first time in the light of this rare glimpse ‘behind the scenes’- ‘Heart of Darkness’, reminded us once and for all, and quite simply, just how much we loved the original film; and why.

George reminded us that it was time to re-affirm our love for this movie, as we would a beloved long term partner. And in response I, and many fans like me, finally placed “Apocalypse Now” where it belonged, at the top of my list, where it stands to this day.

And I’ll be damned if all Georges'’ films don’t work the same way- in encouraging us to reaffirm our love for cinema. But he does so in a subversive way.

And subversive does not always mean bad.

It is ‘subtlety’- with more meat.

Let me put is another way, by quoting a great script with a great aphorism uttered by a great actor- Al Pacino- in the movie “Devils Advocate”. Pacino said to Keanu Reeves ‘never let them see you coming’- advice Keanu would probably do well to heed.

And I this is precisely one of George’s strengths.

Unlike PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and all the other figures easily identifiable with the indie film movement, George is similar, but not the same. Whether he cultivates this distinction, or whether it is simply the work of the Gods- for practical purposes- doesn’t much matter. In a parallel universe he might be such an ‘Indie darling’, but here, where we live now- and where the rubber hits the road- he simply doesn’t quite fit that bill.

George Hickenlooper is his own beast, not readily definable or easily categorized.

And this makes him fascinating to me.

He seems to want to be subversive; like a guerrilla, he wants to sneak in, and tell us about our society and the myriad ills, and he suggests to us artistic ways in which we might do something about it, but he does not want to trumpet his accomplishments in this endeavour, the way the Godfather of Indie with cash, Oliver Stone, might. For a director to resist this urge, he has to put his ego in the back seat; which tells us how much George cares about the work.

I have admired the man for a long time; a great director, whom I count amongst other unique voices in contemporary cinema, such as Tom DiCillo, Jim Jarmusch, etc. But unlike Tom and Jim, I had no idea what GH looked like until recently.

That’s because he is about as invisible as the medium of film making will permit him to be.

He holds a mirror up to society, but unlike some directors- who cannot resist leaning into shot- we seldom see George, because he does not really want us to. And in this way, he restores to cinema some of the dignity, the magic, and the mystery to such a degree that his films appear- at least to me- as they did when I was a kid; as though they just simply appear.

Is he a magician? No. He’s a quiet, almost old fashioned craftsman.

But he keeps up with trends and remains relevant in the persistent, diligent, passionate manner, tried and tested by those who went before him- to whom he pays respectful homage each time he shoots a frame.

He is an artisan, historian, unsung true heir to their throne.

And if you are new to GH, you are in for a real treat. You are just in time to see the man at his peak. By all means, take a look at his other work- my own favourites are Factory Girl (2006) Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003) and The Man from Elysian Fields (2001)- and each deserve to be examined in more detail; and they would be, were this a retrospective of the man’s work.

But it is not. This is only the beginning. This is an already accomplished filmmaker about to deliver the greatest work of his career.

George is currently in the editing suite, polishing his new film ‘Casino Jack’, starring Kevin Spacey; and it stand to be an absolute bloody pearler. How can I say this, sight unseen? I have already explained to you; George cannot make a ‘bad’ film.

This is the ‘real shit’.

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