The Mystery of the Wandering Filmmaker

By: Daniel Reynolds

At the very start of Wim Wenders’ 1984 classic film Paris, Texas we see the startling, worn face of Harry Dean Stanton. He steps suddenly into the frame as if the camera had been waiting there for years, recording the erosion of rock formations, just for such an unlikely event. Stanton’s character Travis has been wandering the desert, lost in a life of reverie, part dream and part nightmare. It is unclear how he survives or what else he has been doing (the plot of the film eventually explains some of this, sort of).

But, there is something to be said about that wandering man, caught, as he is, thinking about his life and his destiny; perhaps shaping a vision of what could have been or is supposed to be. It got me thinking about a different sort of cinematic wanderer: the enigmatic director. They feel like a rarer breed these days, with productions taking on larger and larger dimensions (involving more and more people), and the sheer volume of independent films dispersing the signal amongst a sea of noise. They do exist though, surprising still, with their sudden appearance in the living frame.

No, not Ben Affleck. But keep an eye on that guy to the left in the hat and shades.

No, not Ben Affleck. But keep an eye on that guy to the left in the hat and shades.

This will not be a column about Terence Malick. Yes, the suddenly prolific (two films in three years?!) director is definitely the foremost film mystic, a man who created two indelible films in the 1970s (1972’s Badlands and 1978’s Days of Heaven) only to disappear for 20 years to, well, I don’t know. To watch either movie (or The Thin Red Line or The New World, my personal favourite) is to be fully, yet gently, transported to a different space, blown back by the impressiveness of the images on display. The aforementioned Badlands got re-released in a deluxe Criterion package last month; in part, a testament to the film’s enduring legacy but also further proof of the thirst for filling the record on this still reclusive master. He is our classic baseline.

In the same year as Malick’s long awaited Tree of Life, Whit Stillman reemerged, after an absence of 13 years (The Last Days of Disco came out in 1998) with Damsels in Distress. As if Stillman’s absence had been only 13 months, Damsels moves about the screen with the same airy touches, highly intelligent dialogue and keen sense of character as his previous movies, even as the characters themselves seem woefully out of touch with their reality[1]. Each of his films ends with a changing mores, a loss of something within each character (even as they struggle to identify what that something could be). It somehow felt correct for Stillman to simply wave his hand dismissively at his long absence, as if he was just waiting for the world to catch up to where he wanted to go. He seems at peace.

After a strong first week in select theatres, Derek Cianfrance’s second film, The Place Beyond the Pines, gets a hopeful wider release this week. Now this is a story we want to believe in these days. Remember Blue Valentine? It is that catalogue of a relationship’s bloom and decay, the journey at turns beautiful and harrowing into life’s unknown future. The story goes that it took Cianfrance 12 years to get the wheels turning on that project. A dozen years of writing, and re-writing and pitching and then, Michelle Williams was interested, and then Ryan Gosling and then, a movie. Not surprisingly, Cianfrance is leveraging. He appears humble and hardworking (and maintaining a working relationship with Gosling is probably smart) and lo, it only took three years to get this next film made.

Looking wildly more ambitious, with its dueling stories of a motorcycle carny (Gosling) and an ambitious cop (Bradley Cooper), it appears clear that Cianfrance is the underdog made good. The writer and director who works and hustles and improves and then makes the most of his chance at making films, making art. Admittedly, Cianfrance’s story is one less of mystique than small beginnings. Still, to chase dreams for that long requires a special reserve of strength, to find direction on a stormy, endless sea.

Upstream Color: The latest from Shane Carruth, the new age Malick.

Upstream Color: The latest from Shane Carruth, the new age Malick.

Finally, this brings us to the mathematical Moby Dick of modern filmmakers, Shane Carruth; he of oceans, animals, and time travel. Some explanation of the Carruth mythology: he emerged from nowhere with a twisting, roughly made film called Primer, it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, and then Carruth promptly disappeared for almost a decade.

Unlike Stillman, who seems now to be almost above the base machinations of Hollywood, and Cianfrance, who decidedly wants to maximize his run in the big time, Carruth is on his own. It appears not as some personal statement that drives him, some anti-Hollywood anger, but rather a deeply accepted and held belief that his way is just incompatible with others. Carruth desires to create and control his way of making films (which admittedly, is not unheard of) because as impossible as it sounds (he edits! he composes! he does effects! he distributes!), it appears easier for him to operate this way. Carruth is, in a way, becoming the new age Malick, eschewing a “normal” life while chasing his visions as far down the rabbit hole as his imagination and technology will allow.

After years away from anything resembling a spotlight, Carruth’s latest, Upstream Color, is coming out (hopefully to Toronto) soon after making quite an impression at the Sundance. True to form and enigmatic to the core, reading the vague discussions of plot for Upstream Color suggest something beyond comprehension in a way that is, yes, confusing and overwhelming but also wildly exciting and invigorating.

What is most tantalizing about these filmmakers is also the most rote. What happens in their daily hours, the times away from work? How do they (or did they) live their lives, wrestling with images that were at once flat and then brought to life? How do these people make it work? Their lives seem somehow both compelling and as challenging to traverse as a ravenous desert.

But then, maybe they are not that bedraggled man, like Stanton as Travis, wandering aimlessly across the sand. Maybe that man is us and they are the surrounding sun, illuminating everything all at once from a far away vantage point.

[1] I suppose this is the time to mention I’ve always been more of a Noah Baumbach guy myself, while Stillman’s films continue to elude me (I’m not clever enough, I guess). It is fitting that my favourite parts of Stillman’s Metropolitan, however, involve Chris Eigeman, an unsung hero of 90s cinema. And the only guy who could sell lines like, “He’d already rather be bowhunting!”

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