Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #5 - Robert Zemeckis

photo by David Shankbone

Back to the Future
Back to the Future Part II
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Forrest Gump
Cast Away

Back to the Future Part III
What Lies Beneath
Romancing the Stone

Death Becomes Her

(some spoilers ahead)

When discussing my list of top directors, I find it fascinating that no one guessed that Robert Zemeckis would be on this list.  I understand that he has not made a great movie in a long while.  I don't know that he will ever make a great movie again, but that does not take away from what he has accomplished.

He has made some dreck, like Beowulf and Death Becomes Her.  But even these movies were strong visual spectacles.  His decent movies like Romancing the Stone were entertaining.  Stone was a fun adventure.  Contact was an interesting thought exercise about how we would react to aliens (although the movie lost me when the Christian character tries preaching to Jodie Foster after the two of them had just fornicated).  And What Lies Beneath had some genuine scares.  But let us look at his great accomplishments.

Back to the Future could have been a simple sci-fi story or a simple slapstick comedy.  And to be sure it has elements of both.  But this was not one of the top 10 grossing movies of the '80s simply because of the plot.  To be sure there was a generational crossover factor where kids and adults could enjoy the fresh and nostalgic.  But the power of the movie is in how exciting it was.  Zemeckis mined ever scene to get all of the visual thrills and gags he could, often at the same time.  In the scene where Marty is riding around on his skateboard being chased by Biff the action is exhilarating and hilarious.  The confluence of music, humor, and action as Marty jumps over the hood, through the seats and out the other side as the villains crash into the manure truck is tonally perfect.  To this day when I watch Doc Brown dangling from the clock tower trying to get the wires connected, I get a small knot in my stomach.  Back to the Future goes from good to great because of what Zemeckis does as a director.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is a movie that I think is very misunderstood in retrospect.  People remember it as children's cartoon movie.  It is not.  It is a very strange thing that I have never encountered ever before or since: it is a Looney Tunes noir.  Zemeckis mixed the tone of classic film noir and injected it into a zany cartoon reality.  The miracle of it is that he gets both contradictory genres to fit perfectly.  The movie is silly, but that never takes away from the real danger and tension.  Judge Doom is cartoonish and terrifying.  Toon Town is a place of child-like wonder, but it is also a kind of hell where the laws of logic no longer apply.  This movie should fail.  It should either be too dark to accommodate the silliness.  Or it should be to silly to give it any gravity.  But Zemeckis pulls off the perfect balancing act.

Zemeckis' most respected film is Forrest Gump, for which he won an Oscar.  This is also a film that I think was misunderstood at the time.  It came out the same year as Pulp Fiction and I think movie critics held up the two as competing views of life: one optimistic and the other pessimistic.  I think they oversimplified Forrest Gump because of the over-the-top parts, like Forrest mooning the president or running touchdowns.  But Zemeckis once again used the tonal differences to work for, not against each other.  Note the scene where Forrest is describing the different kinds of rain in Vietnam in his jokey narration only to have it broken into by Viet Cong gunfire.  He set the humor in relief against the violence to give it greater shock.  And while Forrest is generally positive in life, he suffers great tragedy that messes with his head.  All the while Zemeckis makes the movie so visually stunning.  At the end when Forrest is describing his adventures to Jenny it hits you how varied and beautiful were the vistas that Zemeckis brought you.

But I think that his best film is Cast Away.  It is a bold achievement.  It suffers in the beginning and the end.  But that middle section is so incredible that I always forgive the rest.  I've mentioned before that the great John Nolte said that a good movie casts a spell on you and doesn't let go.  I am mesmerized by Cast Away.  Not only does Zemeckis get Hanks' best performance on screen (and that is saying a lot), he removes all of his safety nets as a director.  From the time of the plane crash until he leaves the island, there is no score.  He gives Chuck no monologue to explain his thoughts.  There is also no major conflict on the island for Chuck to overcome other than survival itself.  And the island is hell.  The constant sound of the waves always remind him of the invisible bars that cage him there.  Zemeckis had to use only the visuals to draw you in.  And he did it.  I've seen the movie several times, and I can't look away as Chuck struggles to survive.

And we cannot overlook what he did with Wilson.  Wilson is a volleyball.  Zemeckis never lets you forget that.  He is an inanimate object.  Even Chuck acknowledges that as he kicks him out.  And yet I  always get emotional at Wilson floating away.  I remember being in the theater as people were gasping.

Over a volleyball.

But Zemeckis made you invest emotionally in that volleyball because he got Hanks to do it for you.  His absolute devastation is shown not only in his emotional breakdown, but Zemeckis shows you Chuck throwing away his oars.  The heartbreak he feels is real, even if he knows, and the audience knows Wilson is not.

Zemeckis may be past his prime as a director.  I hope not.  He has been leading the way for motion-capture CGI movies like Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol.   I think he still has a lot of skill left in him and I think he can still make great movies.

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