Do great directors lose it?

23:52, Sep 13 2012

Do great directors lose it when they get old? I ask this question because it was my misfortune this week to endure Oliver Stone's latest delivery of horse manure.

Savages is a film to be avoided this weekend. Whatever you think of Oliver Stone's unique take on the world, there is no denying he had a hot streak in the 1980s and 90s, electrifying Hollywood with movies that were discussed more than they were watched. Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Natural Born Killers and The Doors. Each sparked its own little firestorm of debate and set the pop culture agenda of the moment. Sure, Stone was full of nonsense, but it was fun to watch the crazy fireworks of his mind.

His funhouse world was full of conspiracy theories, spiritual native Americans, anger and monstrous greed. Horse manure had never been such fun.

The Onion film critic Nathan Rabin perfectly summed up Oliver Stone with this sentence:

"There comes a moment in every cinephile's intellectual and creative development when he or she comes to realise that Oliver Stone is full of s**t.''

This is true, but at least Stone's films were fun to watch during his hot streak. Now, they are liefeless and glib monstrosities. He appears to have lost his firebrand touch.

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Which brings me back to my original question - do great directors lose it when they get old?

Is Sickboy from Trainspotting correct with his theory that "we all get old, we canna hack it anymore and that's it''.

Here's a short refresher of his unique world view:

Sickboy's theory pertains more to pop and rock music, which has a preoccupation with youth, but I think it can be applied to directors.

Oliver Stone is one of many directors who have lost it with age. John Carpenter hasn't made a decent film in years, Orson Welles could never sustain the promise of his debut and Francis Ford Coppola doesn't seem to care anymore. It's sad and scary to witness, but you always hope that one day they will return to blistering form. There is always hope.

And it is a reasonable hope. There are countless directors who have excelled in later life. Film is kinder to age than music. 

Woody Allen is still making great films, Clint Eastwood has enjoyed a remarkable late period, John Wayne made his most iconic films later in life, along with many greats of the classical Hollywood era.

What we are seeing here is two different types of genius at work. Malcolm Gladwell, a brilliant writer and thinker, wrote this piece for The New Yorker detailing two types of genius. There is the genius that comes fully formed, straight out of the box, like the writer whose debut novel is an instant classic. Then there are those that slowly strive their way to genius, like the writer who endures rejections and failed novels before finally nailing it in later life.

So, thankfully, Sickboy is only half right. Some directors burn brightly for a short time, while others slow-burn and flame into life in their later years. Either way, we win because we get to watch the films they make at the height of their genius.

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