I saw TCM's annual boneyard clip reel last night, and it reminded me that were a couple of notable deaths in November that I probably would have taken note of if I'd been at the keyboard. One was that of Irvin Kershner, which got a lot of ink because he'd directed The Empire Strikes Back, a lucky career break that made him the beneficiary of George Lucas's reluctance to actually step behind the camera again until computer technology had advanced to the point that he could make an epic movie while making minimal contact with his onscreen collaborators, or what Alfred Hitchcock called the "cattle." Empire was both the biggest hit of Kershner's career and, by miles, the best of the Star Wars movies, but it's too bad that his fluky standing as the man who helped introduce audiences to Yoda and broke the news about Luke Skywalker's parentage so overshadowed the rest of his long, active, and more than honorable career, so that in most of the notices I've seen, everything else was reduced to a footnote. It's true that a lot of people would never have heard of him otherwise; it's also true that, for whatever reason, he didn't do much with whatever industry muscle Empire gave him, directing only two other features, both of them (like Empire) franchise installments, and neither anything very special: Never Say Never Again, the rogue James Bond movie that brought a hairpieced and not especially engaged Sean Connery back in a rehash of Thunderball, and Robocop 3. He also did a little TV work and, at 65, made his screen acting debut in The Last Temptation of Christ, revealing a great, buzzardy New Testament face as Zebedee. I suspect that marshaling the forces of Empire tapped out most of his energy as a director, after more than twenty years in the business; I could torture myself a little imagining what he might have done with his elevated profile if a break like that had come his way a little earlier.
Kershner's first feature, Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), was a cheaply made little crime picture that James Ellroy, playing guest programmer, had an orgasm over on TCM a few years ago. In his best pre-Empire pictures--notably the marital tragicomedy Loving (1970) and Up the Sandbox (1972)--he demonstrated a real, wide-ranging interest in character and a mastery of bringing out the best in his actors, which--big secret--is also what most sets Empire apart from the rest of the toys in George Lucas's play chest. In that movie, and also the one he made before it--the underrated slasher thriller Eyes of Laura Mars, which, with its rich atmosphere of eroticized dread and threadbare script, is the closest he ever came to a pure exercise in style--Kershner achieved a new level of confident visual dazzle, but just as it's the character bits by people like Brad Dourif and René Auberjonois that give Laura Mars its buzz, Empire jumps-started the Star Wars series because even the puppets have an emotional weight and depth of character unknown to the characters in any movie actually directed by Lucas, American Graffiti included.
My favorite Kershner movie is A Fine Madness (1966), which stars Sean Connery as a libidinous poet named Samson Shillitoe, rampaging all over New York in search of women, money, and inspiration. Adapted by Elliot Baker from his novel and with cinematography, by Ted McCord, that captures the city with the glitter of morning dew and has a special, sensuous way of conveying the different flesh tones of the actors, whether strapping and muscular (Connery), beefy and muscle bound (Harry Bellaver), stocky and portly (Sorrel Booke), or soft and inviting (Joanne Woodward, Jean Seberg, Sue Anne Langdon, Zohra Lampert--take your pick), it's alive and kicking (and unsmug) in a way that movies about the liberating qualities of utter self-serving rudeness seldom are. It's patchy in places--and Kershner's version was apparently recut by the studio--but it's also an enduring love letter to a lost New York, seen not the glamourous romantic postcard of '60s movie like Breakfast at Tiffany's but as a place where all different kinds of people, at all different income levels, some of them raising families even, could live and work alongside each other. All in all, Kershner was the best kind of journeyman, a dependable craftsman who used whatever jobs he had to take between the projects he cared about to hone his skills to the point that he could rise to the level of an artist when the opportunity was there. For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, the Missus got me this, which is a blast and a half, and which I highly recommend. My couple came with a DVD containing the full half-hour television "expose" of the effects of comic books on kids that was memorably excerpted in Ron Mann's 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential. Turns out, as I learned when the closing credits turned up onscreen, that Kershner directed it, too.
Of all the high rollers in the movie business who had a few decent pictures to their credit, maybe none had more shit talked about them than Dino De Laurentiis. He was regarded affectionately by many film journalists, but in a Damon Runyan kind of way, as a lovably clueless sleazeball with Tony Montana taste and a Chico Marx accent. Early in his career, De Laurentiis produced such films as La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, but as the sixties rolled into the seventies, what stuck to his name was schlock like Drum and Death Wish and moderately freakish projects such asBarbarella with Jane Fonda and John Huston's "movie version" of The Bible. Movie nuts of my generation were most likely introduced to him via the hype attack for his 1976 remake of King Kong, and for the Saturday Night Live sketch in which John Belushi, playing De Laurentiis, declaimed, "When the Jaws die, nobody cry, but when my Kong die, everybody cry!" In the '80s, De Laurentiis began attaching his name to more and more movies, most of which were of such squalid quality that you had to wonder if he and Golan and Globus were in a competition to see who would have the more to be ashamed of come judgment day.
He took chances, though, and on at least one celebrated occasion, he kept his word: having arranged for David Lynch to waste a couple of years of his creative life bringing Dune to the big screen, he made good on his word to cover the bills on Blue Velvet, a startling act of largesse, considering that Dune failed to be the franchise tent pole and Slurpee cup blockbuster he had been hoping for. Beyond that, it may be that a few of De Laurentiis's sensitive little art movies are ridiculously underrated. I think in particular of the 1980 Flash Gordon, directed by Mike Hodges and written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr, the same wise guy who wrote the rebooted Kong. It is a movie I have always loved unreservedly, and you can wipe that smirk off your face if you think I forgot to put quotation marks around the word "love", the better to emphasize the ironic, campy nature of my appreciation of this big chunk of fun.
Not only is this Flash as genuinely witty and high-spirited as any adventure movie since Gunga Din, it fully, and accurately, captures the look, style, and kinky charms of the original Alex Raymond comic strip, of which Robery Fiore once wrote, "The whole thing is dripping with sex, and none of it is normal." (Much of the credit for this must be shared by the cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor; Danilo Donati, who designed the production, costumes, and set decoration; and whoever the hell invited Ornella Muti to send in her head shot.) By coincidence, it happened to arrive in theaters in 1980 at the same time as Robert Altman's admirable but laborious Popeye, which was modeled on the E. C. Segar version of the seafaring hero, and the inevitable comparison went a long way towards establishing the difference between working very hard to recreate a comic strip in live action, and letting every bit of that hard work show, and stepping into a comic strike's frames and effortlessly breathing the air as if you'd been made of newsprint your whole life. It has only just come to my attention, in recent years, that many people mistake Flash Gordon for a bad movie. Clearly they must be using ping pong balls for eyes. It's discoveries like this that make you understand the bored revulsion that stirred in Ming the Merciless's breast when he gazed through his interstellar peep screen and muttered, "Pathetic Earthlings."