Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Hidden Auteurs part 1: Polly Platt, Gary Kurtz

Filmmaking is a collaborative business, but when film critics and writers talk of film they focus on the the director, as auteurism has taken us over. Yet Hollywood brims with men and women instrumental in making certain classics, to such a clear extent that when they part company the director never makes another decent film and the assistant producers or DP or art director make plenty.

 The recent HITCHCOCK showed how Alfred's wife Alma shaped his masterpieces, a worldly class and taste he lacked on his own. Let us now speculate on some others:

1. Polly Platt - Art Director
Her then-partner Peter Bogdanovich is  the designated auteur on the films they worked together on, but clearly her eye for historical detail and grounded presence surely held his indecisions and crassness in check. For example, as I recall reading in Easy Riders Raging Bulls, his casting of short, unimpressive leading men against his love Cybil Shepherd in the post-Platt Daisy Miller indicated to all concerned his feeling very threatened and insecure without Platt to boost his confidence. He had fallen for this midwest baton-twirling Lolita and thrown her over, and Cybil was hardly one for exhaustive film knowledge and artistry. Bogdanovich was scared she'd leave him cuckooing with a face full of egg any second, and it showed in all his post-Platt productions. Just look at his decision to cut the swimming pool schlong in Last Picture Show for the expanded DVD! Don't we in the end earn all the heartbreak we dish out? For his sins, Bogdanovich pealed out of the sanity parking lot with a long series of similar girl issues, culminating in his Dorothy Stratten connections. Some of us never make it past our sacral chakra.

In addition to Daisy Miller, the post-Polly Peter made clumsy messes like At Long Last Love, They All Laughed, and Saint Jack. Platt worked on unflinching termite-cool shit like Bad News Bears, Terms of Endearment, and Bottle Rocket. She may have been listed as producer or production designer, but there's an edgy bravery to all these films that is so rare you look for a common denominator. Notes Leonard Klady:
Her career credit list rarely fully reflected what she did. Her contributions to such films as The Last Picture, Paper Moon and Terms of Endearment were considerably more substantive than costume or production designer that were officially listed. That didn’t make her unique in a town that extends and withholds true contributions. But those who were on the ground knew that a lot of things simply would never have gotten done without her prodding and persistence. (7/29/011 - more)
2. Gary Kurtz - Producer
Funny that the only two Star Wars films that are actually good movies are produced by Gary Kurtz, who, the legend has it, fought a lot with Lucas to keep out all the things wrong with the later films. We original fans of the first film we were old enough by The Return of the Jedi to realize the series had jumped the shark. Of course the shark was still being jumped over on Happy Days so that phrase had yet to appear. And of course the shark was an attempt to link up with our still still insane passion for all thing Jaws. It was the beginning of the end for Happy Days, and of the shark craze as well.

The films with Kurtz are moody, adult (in a way kids like), dealing with big issues in ballsy ways. The first two have no CGI, or endless expository dialogue and kiddie show nonsense. If not for Kurz's influence, I can see Star Wars flopping, becoming just another expensive dud like the Dino Di Laurentiis King Kong remake that came out the same year. I saw Star Wars by chance in its preview run at a Charlotte, NC theater (where my grandmother lived) as a small lad, and from the poster I had pegged it, even then, as some dull B-film for the kids, but King Kong was supposed to have a giant robot Kong! That was the one I most wanted to see. Well, we all knew real quick was a waste that turned out to be --that Kong remake was almost as big a disappointment as the Bo Derek Tarzan of the Ape Man! If Kurtz hadn't been around to battle Lucas's more self-sabotaging moments, Star Wars might have been filed among them.

Kurtz didn't produce too much after Star Wars--who would need to? However, two major films he produced afterwards--The Dark Crystal and Return to Oz-- have such surprising mythic darkness, especially for children's films they show where the darkness missing in Jedi went, the way Kurtz understood kids can handle shit that would terrify their own parents.  Underrated sleepers, they treat their child audience like adults, as the first two Star Wars films did. Lucas clearly doesn't do this, as evidenced in his third films' cuddly ewoks. Kurtz knew children don't need ewoks and hand-holding and spazzy rasta elephant eared aliens to like a movie. Kids can handle the dark, dark places even better than most adults. Once Kurtz and Lucas parted, Lucas started up with all the bad habits Kurtz had worked so hard to excise, like talking down to kids and offering bloodless, cheesy mayhem and way too much plot exposition, corny jokes, dated slang, and needless characters.

Maybe in the end, it's because auteurs like Platt and Kurtz are adults that they're not constantly grabbing credit and attention, preferring instead to hone their craft and remain always passionate about cinema instead of falling into the thresher of insecurity that grinds so many name brand directors into homogenous gruel. Our cinema is all the richer for them. And all the poorer for their absence.

1 comment:

  1. EK: There's a tender moment in the documentary "Corman's World" where Platt expresses her immense gratitude to Corman for not turning his back on her, like everyone else in the "New Hollywood," when Boggy stupidly dumped her.
    Roger wasn't giving her something "major" to do, but he wasn't pretending that she didn't exist, either, and she says something to the effect that that was what kept her going.

    Years later, she'd give Groening's Life in Hell to James L. Brooks, and the rest is history. So if you like The Simpsons, thank Roger Corman!

    Meanwhile, I wish Kurtz would produce more of his brand of fantasy: the world needs it!



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