|photo by Tostle14|
Earlier this week, director Richard Donner passed away.
I find that when you mention his name to people who are only casual movie-goers, they don't recognize him right away. But when you start listing his impressive credits, they respond with respect and affection. Between, Superman, The Omen, the Lethal Weapon series, Goonies, Scrooged, Ladyhawk, and The Goonies, you have experienced some entertainment and delight at the hands of this master filmmaker.
Donner started his career doing mostly television work until he directed The Omen. I don't enjoy that movie, but that is not an insult. It is disturbing and unnerving the way Donner wanted it to be. The early scene of Damian's birthday party is so horrific. Donner shoots the scene with idyllic brightness only to have the horrid public suicide break through. People remember the over-the-top choral score, but Donner knew when to use it and when not to. That early scene at the party is so disturbing because of the lack of musical manipulation. But the final shot with that musical sting hits you like a punch in the gut.
It's quite incredible how much of an impact Lethal Weapon and its sequels had on the action movie genre. The first one could have been lost in the plethora of other such films of the era. But two things set it apart. The first is how Donner is able to frame Riggs with a rich emotional inner-life. Remember that at this time in film, action heroes were stoic machines. It took films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard to really infuse their characters with emotional vulnerability. Pierce Brosnan once cited the scene where Riggs puts the gun in his mouth as a huge turning point in action cinema when these heroes were allowed to plumb deeper emotional depths. The second thing was the chemistry and relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh. What's great about the franchise is that this relationship is able to grow and develop over the course of four films in a way that seems organic to the characters. I've never forgotten the way Riggs tells Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon 3, "You're not just retiring you, you're retiring US!"
I also wrote about how fun many of his movies are "Another aspect to Donner's movies is that they tend to be a great deal of fun. Maverick is a movie I've watched over and over again. It is a little too long, but the parts that are good are so enjoyable that you forget the length. Ladyhawke is an exciting medieval adventure with synthesizer soundtrack. And of course The Goonies is a perfect kid adventure movie. There just enough danger to keep you on the edge of your seat but not too much violence as to be repulsive. All the while he fills you with a sense of child-like wonder."
But to me, his greatest cinematic gift was Superman. Instead of simply making a pulp action flick, he made a beautifully mythic tale about the utlimate hero. It is quite incredible how in the late 70's they made Superman so believeable. Yes, there were limitations to the technology, but Donner knew how to use them to fire up your imagination so that what you saw on the screen felt real. Watching that movie, you do believe a man can fly.
And that is part of what made Donner so great. He could inspire you to dream big. It is no accident two of his proteges are Geoff Johns and Kevin Feige. Johns is, to my mind, the greatest comic book writer of all time. He took lessons of epic and personal storytelling to revitalize many of DC's flagship heroes. And of course Feige has is the man architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a cinematic climate when it is popular in Hollywood to tear down heroes, Feige seeks to build them up. As flawed as the MCU heroes are, they are still in many ways aspirational and inspirational, the way Donner treated the Man of Steel.