(This blog entry was originally published on Paul's old blog, Pulp Friction Australia, on June 6th, 2011, under the title 'Men of Influence'.)
WHO IS THE MOST INFLUENTIAL DIRECTOR OF THE LAST 30 YEARS?
It's one of those topics film geeks, critics and academics like to throw around more than most, but I've seen precious few articles in books or on the internet making declarations on the subject. So, perhaps foolishly, I have decided to choose a side. To declare a winner.
Firstly, let's look at what we're asking: how do we define influence? For the purpose of this article, I will define influence on filmmaking in terms of physical aesthetics of Hollywood filmmaking, those who have been most prominent in guiding/shaping/popularising a common camera, editing and scoring style for popular big-budget moviemaking -- the most prominently watched cinema on Earth today (outside of India's local "Bollywood" industry). Due to its worldwide reach, what occurs in Hollywood cinema often influences local industries (yes, even Bollywood), so what is trendy in popular techniques in American popular cinema winds up trickling down into international popular cinema.
Perhaps I've not seen many articles/blogs on this subject because I read the wrong sites. Or, perhaps the reason is, everyone knows who the biggest directorial influence on Hollywood cinema of the last 30 years is. It's elementary, really. Everyone knows the biggest shadow in post-1980 popular cinema is cast by...
Of course it is, right? I mean, every filmmaker and their sister seems to be on record as saying "my life changed the day/night I saw STAR WARS". It spawned a renewed interest in big, bombastic, matinee science fiction adventure that endures to this day, and kicked off the craze of merchandising films to the hilt, a philosophy that worked charmingly in 1977-83 (c'mon, who didn't own STAR WARS figures?), but in the three decades since has been so all-pervading that Hollywood is now content to let the tail wag the dog, as it were, devising movies around toys and games instead of the other way around, as Lucas originally did.
But that's more of a studio business model, isn't it? Lucas pretty much invented the modern blockbuster as it stands today. One can draw a line straight from STAR WARS to IRON MAN 2 or even PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME. But again... this has nothing to do with aesthetics. Those three films look nothing alike. Well... the two modern ones share some visual similarity -- which is where I'm really going here -- and that visual style has precious little to do with STAR WARS.
Yes, George Lucas and STAR WARS, in a broad sense, invented the modern blockbuster -- a cinematic rollercoaster ride aimed at teenage boys, merchandised on everything from t-shirts to fast food drink cups, dealing in huge mythical concepts and grappling with clunky expository dialogue and the odd plot hole (I love the first STAR WARS as much as the next guy, but we are being honest here...). But that's a BUSINESS MODEL. He changed the way Hollywood executives looked at making movies. May have even influenced the scripting, as pretty much everything in the blockbuster canon is based on a hero's journey nowadays.
But how many films of the last 30 -- let's bring it into even more relief, last 20 -- years have looked like STAR WARS. Very few. Most sci-fi films of the 1990s and 2000s look more like 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY (or... two other films which I won't reveal right now) than STAR WARS. How many popular films use "wipes" any more? The look of the film is fairly bright, kind of blacks, whites and sandy landscapes. But none of it looks particularly shiny, the lighting is fairly bright but not gleaming, like the TV advertising look that--
Oops. I'm jumping ahead.
So, while Lucas has been undoubtedly the biggest influence on corporate Hollywood, and the kinds of films Hollywood makes... he's hasn't been the most influential director aesthetically.
So if George frickin' Lucas hasn't had the biggest influence on how films from 1980-2010 look, who the hell has? Well, if it's not him, then it must be...
Has to be him. Low angles, close-ups and POV shots, lens flares, lots of light and wonder, soft photography... we see that everywhere today. Or do we? Think about the films Hollywood makes today. The colour palette. The lighting style. If you draw a long bow, you could say they're Spielbergian... if you didn't really consider all the options. JAWS -- which grossed a heretofore unapproached amount of money two years before STAR WARS, thus possibly really inventing the summer blockbuster -- itself was as influenced by Hitchcock as anything else. And, while directors like Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles and Leone also loom large over today's filmmakers, like Spielberg, directors today pick and choose from these great helmers' stylistic proclivities.
Just like filmmakers today pick and choose from Spielberg's. Look at Spielberg's films closely. Then look at every other Hollywood film of the last 30 years. Steven's pictures are unique to him; his visual signature is all over them. But does anyone else's flicks look like Spielberg's? Sure, some here or there do (most recently, Peter Jackson's LOVELY BONES springs to mind) but, for the most part, not really. Not for much longer than a shot or two, anyway.
So Spielberg's out. That's the big two down. You may protest this, saying I'm dismissing them out of hand, but I want you to look at everything you see these days, particularly from Hollywood, but also from around the world.
Orange and teal colour palettes.
Whacking great shafts of light.
Bright, stark lights on characters.
Searching, restless camerawork.
High speed shutter during action scenes.
Experiential action scenes.
Dark, dystopian city landscapes.
Complex production design.
Subtitles that move around the screen, change colour, emote.
Everything on screen looks 105 degrees fahrenheit in the shade.
Characters emerging from or surrounded by diffusion smoke.
Classical music or highly percussive scores.
Have you ever thought that every Hollywood film looks like an advertisement these days? You wouldn't be wrong. Movies really have taken a cue from ads these last 30 years. Apparently generation X and Y, raised on 30 second TV spots, music videos, video games and a constant stream of images via TV, Home Video/DVD and the Internet, don't have generous attention spans -- which may be true -- but this deluge of visual information has also made them more adept at reading stories through images.
So we needed filmmakers that understood this form of shooting and cutting. Filmmakers who could tell a story in thirty seconds. Not to mention, in a town of studios run by gigantic corporate entities, movies have taken a turn toward the aspirational, reflecting their capitalist financiers through product placement, gossip mag tie-in stories and, yes, merchandising. But this is business again, and I'm digressing.
Look at the roster of big-money big-time filmmakers today, and witness how many come from the fields of music videos and commercials. From uberhacks like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner to innovative artists like David Fincher and Michel Gondry... all have a background in shorter, flashier forms.
This all started in the late 1970s/early 1980s, of course, when studios and producers started to wrestle back control of Hollywood feature films from the visionary yet egomaniacal directors of the 1970s. They wanted to hire directors who would put the grimy 1970s behind them, who would slick up Hollywood product, no matter how sordid the subject matter, for modern audiences. They wanted directors with a modern visual style and, in those early stages, they found plenty of them...
Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson and their like were the best and brightest advertising directors in the world, and were seemingly imported en masse to impose their innovative style upon Hollywood. With few exceptions (Parker's FAME being one), these filmmakers sought to distance 1980s studio product from the gritty realism of the 1970s, by bringing slick, sharp, smooth visual styles punctuated with very specific and intense light sources. And, eventually, this look began to dominate. But why did the Hollywood studios want these guys so bad? Someone must have led the way, set an example, right? Well, as it happens, two men did.
The men who all of these guys worked under.
The men who built a giant farm of gun advertising directors, before such a thing was even conceivable, let alone the norm, then branched into music video.
The men who brought advertising/music video aesthetics to modern Hollywood cinema.
THE MOST INFLUENTIAL FILMMAKERS OF 1980-2010 ARE...
RIDLEY AND TONY SCOTT.
(Wow, that was kind of a USUAL SUSPECTS reveal, hey? I felt like Chazz Palminteri there for a second. Except I wasn't yelling all my dialogue.)
The brothers started RSA (Ridley Scott Associates) in 1968, when they saw a burgeoning market opening up in the rapidly expanding world of television advertising. Quickly they developed a visual style all their own, which was then passed down to all the young filmmakers whom they recruited and further trained.
Now, as the company has Ridley's name on it, and Ridley made his Hollywood splash first with ALIEN, it's tempting to just lay it all on him, crown him #1. Except for the rise of action cinema. Look at TOP GUN, BEVERLY HILLS COP II and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, then look at every major action film of the 1990s, from SPEED to BAD BOYS to ARMAGEDDON. The tilted close-ups, the handheld "you are there" action scenes, the frenetic editing, the omniscient coverage, the use of diffusion smoke... it's all there in part or in whole. Jerry Bruckheimer (and, earlier, Don Simpson) seems to require every director who works for him, from Michael Bay to Simon West, to Dominic Sena to even a veteran like Joel Schumacher, to shoot and cut like Tony Scott, at least in their first or second efforts for the megaproducer. Without doubt, Tony Scott has been singularly the biggest influence on the visual style of action films in the modern era.
And it's Tony more than Ridley who has always pushed and evolved his style over the last decade, where it's arguable his older brother has flattened out somewhat. Such films as MATCHSTICK MEN, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN and BODY OF LIES have that Ridley Scott sheen and attention to detail, but don't look a million miles different to, say, THELMA AND LOUISE, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE or BLACK RAIN. But Tony's MAN ON FIRE, DOMINO and excellent BMW short BEAT THE DEVIL are something of a visual quantum leap from TRUE ROMANCE, CRIMSON TIDE and ENEMY OF THE STATE. And, for better or worse, the somewhat berserk shooting/editing style of MAN ON FIRE has already had an influence on many modern action films. Ridley has even begun to ape Tony's style in films like G.I. JANE and BLACK HAWK DOWN, with HANNIBAL proving a curious mixture of both brothers' styles (the Florence stuff is all Ridley, with arched ceilings and darkly elegant surrounds, but the action scenes, like Clarice's FBI sting early in the film, are all Tony: colour bled out to a white/teal look, high speed shutters, close-in action).
But Ridley was the first to cross the pond, first with his underseen but utterly stunning to behold drama of oneupmanship, THE DUELLISTS, then making his real splash with the sci-fi horror hybrid ALIEN. I would argue that more modern sci-fi takes its cue from ALIEN than STAR WARS. From EVENT HORIZON to MIMIC to TV shows like FIREFLY to even the films of James Cameron (another candidate for this list, although I can't help but see his blue-tinged, techno-fetishistic style as very Scott Brothers-influenced as well), ALIEN is in there: the steam pouring out of god-knows-where, the mechanical innards that resemble metallic viscera, the crew grimy yet all wonderfully, perfectly lit, even when in total darkness.
Then came BLADE RUNNER. To deny this film's all-encompassing visual influence on Hollywood cinema is to deny breathing. BATMAN. THE CROW. THE MATRIX. Some of the biggest films of the last three decades have taken their visual cues straight from Ridley Scott's classic neo-noir epic. Between BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN, you've got the predominant look of every blockbuster sci-fi film from THE ABYSS to BLADE 2. Throw in LEGEND, BLACK RAIN, THELMA AND LOUISE, even 1492, and compare them to modern blockbusters today, and one can see, if not a facsimile, a direct evolution.
However, as stated earlier, much of their Keyser Soze-like influence (again with the USUAL SUSPECTS references!) has been indirect. Through those they've employed and mentored -- whether as part of RSA, which still exists today, or as filmmakers directing under the auspices of their prolific Scott Free production company -- or those who've simply evolved (some may say "devolved") from their established style as it became the norm. Michael Bay, directorially, is undeniably the bastard child of Tony Scott and John Woo. Bay's movies have turned everything the Scotts brought to the table up to 14: the stylish, gleaming visuals, the close-up experiential action, the shafts of light, percussive scores, etc. And a whole bunch of ad/musicvid directors are following the same path: Samuel Bayer, Marcus Nispel and their like. So now, it seems like Bay is the influence, when without Tony Scott (or John Woo) there would never have been a Michael Bay. (No, I'm not saying all this influence has been positive. But it's there.)
For the most part, I'm a fan of Tony Scott. I admire his drive to push his visual style in other directions over the decades, which is what, conversely, has turned me off Ridley Scott in the last decade: Ridley's refusal to change it up, push it further. Ridley seems pretty content to pump out mediocre scripts with grandiose attitudes in the house style. BLACK HAWK DOWN was the last Ridley film I loved, and that seemed more like Tony than he. While I'm not a GLADIATOR superfan, I do find it fun, and I also consider it the last time Ridley really pushed his visual boundaries on a film, and thus strongly imprinted on the visual and aural approach of every sword & sandal film that followed, from TROY to 300 to CLASH OF THE TITANS.
But Ridley's first three films put him in the Pantheon of Great Directors, and it's impossible to take that away from him. THE DUELLISTS, ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER are all largely unique visual experiences (sure, he himself utilises influences as diverse as BARRY LYNDON, METROPOLIS and the work of HR Giger, and has also been said -- as has Tony -- to take his cue from classical art styles, but the way they're combined and used is all Ridley) with equally compelling narratives.
The more I think about it, the more all-encompassing the Scott influence has been on Hollywood, and while Spielberg and Lucas changed the stories Hollywood told and the markets they targeted, the Scott brothers have undoubtedly changed the way we've seen them.
What fresh hell is this?
A semi-regular blog exploring films, popular culture, current or future projects and scabrous opinion from CINEMA VISCERA chief maniac, Paul Anthony Nelson.