They Might Be Giants

  • 11 August 2006

This article is from 2006.

The excellent Film Festival retrospective, They Might Be Giants, covers a series of brilliant American film nearly men whose careers never quite happened. Paul Dale finds out where it all went wrong.

Hal Ashby died of liver and colon cancer on a wet December Tuesday in 1988 at his beach house in Malibu, California. He was 59 years of age and his cinematic legacy amounted to the six remarkable films he made between 1971 and 1979 - Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound For Glory, Coming Home and Being There. The last decade of his life had been a fuzz of frustrated, abortive and compromised film projects, drugs and illness. Ashby’s death and the subsequent memorial service (attended by many of the stars who loved working with him - Sean Penn, Bruce Dern, Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine) forms the natural, saddening conclusion to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the better known players of the 60s and 70s Hollywood cinema boom.

Ashby was hardly a big player on the level of, say, George Lucas, and if he had been asked he probably would not have sworn allegiance to the young Turks - Scorsese, Coppola and Lucas himself - who were quickly migrating from Roger Corman’s blood splattered film factories to the West Coast’s showbiz centre stage. Ashby was more interested in the groundswell of hippies, mavericks and freaks whose movies were slowly redefining genre boundaries.

One of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival is the retrospective, They Might Be Giants - Other Voices from the New American Cinema, an interesting and laterally minded expansion of the Wild Bunch: The Films that Changed Hollywood season premiered by the BFI, NFT and Uncut magazine earlier this year. There are some wonderful films here (many of which enjoyed brief outings in BBC2’s Moviedrome slot throughout the 80s and 90s). There’s Monte Hellman’s elemental Cockfighter, John Carpenter’s space cake of a movie, Dark Star, Walker Hill’s defiantly lean The Driver, Elaine May’s sweetly off kilter Micky and Nicky and Jerry Schatzberg’s Beckettian hobo road movie Scarecrow, to name but a few. There can be little doubt that these films and the men and women who made them deserve to be celebrated, and yet the title of retrospective throws up a rather paradoxical quandary - ‘They Might Be Giants’ begs the question -were they?

The answer is yes and no. Like Ashby, bad luck, bad judgement and thwarted ambition was to hold back may of these filmmakers’ drive to take their seat at the top table alongside the likes of Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg.

Take London-born Anthony Harvey, the gifted editor of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, who directed the retrospective’s titular film. Made in 1971, They Might Be Giants is a wistful, unusually likeable study of urban insanity, in which George C Scott plays a mental patient loose in New York who believes he is Sherlock Holmes to Joanne Woodward’s Watson.

When he made this film, Harvey was 40 years old and, having turned his back on editing, the possibilities of a brilliant directorial career begged. So what did he follow this lovely film with? Rubbish TV movies and third-rate tosh like The Abdication, Eagle’s Wing and TV movie, The Patricia Neal Story, that’s what. A similar case in point is James William Guerico, director of Electra Glide in Blue, the best film ever made about a highway patrolman (with the possible exception of Alex Cox’s Highway Cop). Back in 1973, after this singular film received indifference from critics and the public alike, he went back to his day job of managing pop bands Chicago, and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

And who could have guessed that the lady (one of the few working behind the camera in Hollywood, then as now) who made the tiny but affective Micky and Nicky would not only go on to sweep the boards at the 1988 Razzie awards with Ishtar but would come closer than anyone before her to bankrupting the mighty Columbia studio by making a comedy musical so witless that even aging stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman could not save it from box office annihilation.

And there’s more. What about Arthur Penn, I hear you cry? He is represented at the EIFF this year by his fantastic 1975 private dick flick Night Moves (starring Gene Hackman), a film that proved to be the high water mark for Penn. Everything else that followed was the work of a man who had lost spirit and faith in the possibilities of great cinema. Or legendary fashion photographer Jerry Schatzberg, a man so disturbed by the poor reception his underrated features The Seduction of Joe Tynan and Honeysuckle Rose received Stateside that he continued making low budget films and ensured that they were only released in Europe (he still has quite a following in France, hence his being called to be a member of the Cannes jury in 2004). And finally, there is Michael Ritchie (Smile) who, after the awesome, viciously maintained thriller Prime Cut and excellent Redford vehicle The Candidate was offered the world. He delivered up the box office goods with The Bad News Bears, only to watch his career dissolve into mediocrity by the late 1980s with turkeys The Golden Child and Fletch Lives. Ritchie sadly died in 2001 of prostate cancer having spent, weirdly fittingly, the last seven years living in the house where Marilyn Monroe overdosed/was murdered.

A lot of those who have films featured here did however become major players - George A Romero and John Carpenter fought bizarre illnesses and phobias to constantly play with the templates of their early, peculiar brands of horror. John G Avildsen made a personal fortune following a trajectory that led from Marxist dialectic (Save the Tiger) to working class machismo (Rocky) and on to spiritual bullshit (Karate Kid); Larry Cohen still writes the smartest exploitation scripts around; Peter Fonda is, well, Peter Fonda; and Walter Hill fought his own inner republicanism to direct and produce genuinely interesting variations on the western including Geronimo and Last Man Standing.

So what does any of this tell us? That life is long and talent is fragile? That you have to be a geek or a reactionary to survive in Hollywood? No, it tells us that those who do not have a master plan always make the greatest art.

They Might Be Giants: Other Voices from the New American Cinema continues with The Hired Hand, Filmhouse, 17 Aug, 5pm, £5.50 (£4.20).

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