Defending the Indefensible: 70s Auteur Flops

For any film geek the 1970s are fondly remembered as a magical time when filmmakers actually had control and Hollywood funded personal projects. Of course, like any good 70s party it ended with blowout and embarrassment. Blame is mostly laid upon the success of Jaws and Star Wars with populist geeks Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ending all the fun for the suffering artists. Obviously that’s true, but there was something else that screwed up the fun for everyone.

With directors getting power over the studios, almost every single one of them created a big budget ambitious flop where they went mad with power; like a child with too many action figures and just enough firecrackers. It was these flops that killed off the idea of studios trusting popular filmmakers. As much as those two iconic hits created the blockbuster Hollywood formula, they also halted some major careers. The thing is that while those bombs certainly lost money, they were rarely artistically bankrupt follies.

While undeniably flawed most of these films actually had some unique qualities that still make them worth watching along with production horror stories to make DVD extras loving film geeks giggle with delight while watching all the excess unfold. Since Criterion has stepped up to the plate to put Michael Cimino’s United Artists-crushing Heaven’s Gate out on Bluray and cement it’s comeback as a misunderstood masterpiece, we thought we’d look back on a few of the major 70s auteur flops and give you a handful worth checking out for their notoriety and overlooked qualities.

 

New York, New York (Martin Scorsese, 1977)

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What went wrong: In a word: cocaine.

Martin Scorsese was riding high on the success of the instantly iconic Taxi Driver and suddenly found he was able to make whatever he wanted in La-la-land after years of struggle.

He was also living with The Band leader Robbie Robertson in a house defined by excess. The duo painted windows in one room black so they could snort their way to sundown while watching classic films from all over the world. During one of these binges/parties Scorsese got the idea of finally staging the glossy stylized 1930s musical he’d always dreamed of, while spinning a story about the impossibility of love between artists with a harsh and unforgiving love story between Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli pitched somewhere between Raging Bull and A Star is Born.

The script was never completed when production started, so Scorsese assumed he could work it all out through improvisation on the day of the shoot. That’s a technique that works well when you’re working with a small crew of familiar collaborators who understand your process. When you’ve got massive sets, hundreds of extras, and an army of teamsters waiting for you and your acting buddies to do some crazy improve parlor games before beginning the day’s work, it’s not quite the same.

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Scorsese had a nervous breakdown and would disappear to his trailer for hour-long discussions with his therapist mid-shoot. Somehow the film was finished, but with a ballooned running time of 2.5 hours and one of the most depressing tales of any song and dance film. It was released the summer of Star Wars when a blockbuster tonal experiment exposing the artificiality of Hollywood movies wasn’t quite as appealing as watching wise-cracking robots in space. It was a big bomb and Scorsese disappeared into years of darkness that eventually lead to him making his masterpiece of self-destruction about Jake LaMotta.

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What went right:  Given the thoroughly messy production, it should be no surprise that New York New York is a mess, but an interesting one. The bottom line is that it would be impossible to know whether or not harsh improv realism and stylized sets could combine in an interesting way without making the movie. It’s ultimately an expensive experiment that didn’t quite work. The performances and relationship between DeNiro and Minnelli are fascinating and heartbreaking, with DeNiro delivering a few freak outs that match what he did in his other Scorsese features.

Likewise, Scorsese’s undeniable skill with cinematic storytelling led to some incredible musical set pieces (the once-edited-now-restored “Happy Endings” is truly remarkable). So what you have is a series of impressive sequences that never quite fit together. If you’re a fan of Scorsese/DeNiro movies or anti-musicals like Cabaret or Dancer in the Dark, it’s definitely worth a look. Misplaced talent is still talent and what does work in the movie is undeniable. (Phil Brown)

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Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)

What went wrong: Timing, moreso than any other of the film’s numerous production hassles.

If one were to exactly pinpoint the exact second or moment that studios tipped the scales away from the filmmaker and back towards themselves, it was after the release for William Friedkin’s remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Then again, the production itself wasn’t a cake walk, to say the least.

One needn’t look any further than the pages of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls to see the complicated and tumultuous history behind this tale of four criminals from different parts of the globe forced into being big rig truck drivers for big money in remote Nicaragua to transport nitroglycerine to put out an oil well fire 200 miles away over the most dangerous terrain possible.

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Shooting in remote locations in the Dominican Republic, one gets the sense that moving these lumbering beasts of trucks over this land – with or without high explosives – had to be an enormous pain in the ass. The ten month multi-country production – funded by both Universal and Paramount, who had split distribution duties – quickly ballooned in budget because many of the trucks used for the production were completely destroyed.

Furthermore, Sorcerer was made at the height of Friedkin’s clout in Hollywood. He made The Exorcist and The French Connection, so despite his often ornery nature back in the day, his highly acclaimed name always brought an air of respectability and prestige. He had reinvented the gumshoe thriller and got a horror film nominated for Oscars, so who was he to be questioned?

Then the film was delivered at over two and a half hours with a subtitled opening sequence that lasts 30 minutes, and he alienated star Roy Scheider by cutting a sequence from the film that made his character sympathetic to the point where he refused to comment on the finished product. Also, it was seemingly named after one of the trucks. Also, fucking STAR WARS.

By the time it was released, audiences were still flocking to the next big thing, and watching a remake of a French film didn’t seem like a good idea to mainstream audiences who really didn’t know what to make of it. It had an alright opening weekend in second place, but it quickly sank like an 18-wheeler tumbling over a rope bridge and into a muddy river.

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What went right: Much like Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Sorcerer has quite rightfully become one of the most reclaimed and beloved films of the 70s among cinephiles. A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that its source material was one of the greatest films ever made, and to watch Friedkin put his own spin on it and turn the material into his own fatalist morality tale is nothing short of dazzling and awe inspiring.

There’s few filmmakers who can blend the esoteric and thoughtful with the outright thrilling like Friedkin. He’s an ace dramatist and an even better director of action and suspense. Scheider’s performance is complex and understated no matter what he might have personally thought to the contrary, and the extended cut of the film that includes character flashbacks told in full is an outright masterpiece on par with the original. Every bump on the journey is thoroughly harrowing.

All of this makes it even more of a shame that the film isn’t available on DVD just yet. Friedkin is currently working on resolving a potentially lengthy legal battle with his former distributors who both insist that neither of them own the rights to the film anymore. What version of the film eventually emerges remains to be seen, but as long as it gets seen again sooner rather than later. Maybe the more budding filmmakers can gain access to it, the quicker people will learn how to do remakes and reboots correctly. This is the perfect template for such an unenviable task done with ambition and a heck of a lot of forethought. (Andrew Parker)

 

1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)

What went wrong: Steven Spielberg was a boy wonder who could do now wrong after the insanely successful 1-2 punch of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He could officially make whatever he wanted for however much money he wanted and decided to direct a screenplay written by his buddies Robert Zemeckis/Bob Gale (Back to the Future) and John Millius (Red Dawn). The film was about World War II hysteria and centered on a night when the residents of Los Angeles were convinced that the Japanese army were invading the city and there were riots in the streets. That actually happened, but this version would be a slapstick comedy.

Not exactly a winning combination and Spielberg realized very quickly that while he always generated laughs in his movies, he had no idea how to structure a comedy. So he turned the movie into a series of set pieces with actors screaming at the top of their lungs.

The budget spiraled out of control since he was doing insane things like running a tank through a paint factory for laughs. Since his previous movies went over budget, Universal kept plugging money into his grand folly. No one was nervous until preview screenings started and not only were audiences not laughing, but they were covering their ears over the sonic assault.

Bigger isn’t always better, certainly not in comedy. The movie was considered a failure when it didn’t break records like the golden boy’s previous movies even though it was more successful than any bomb on this list. However, Spielberg vowed never to attempt pure comedy again and struggled to get his alien-meets-boy movie off the ground until his buddy George Lucas suggested that they make a James Bond archeologist movie and well…we all know what happened there.

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What went right: 1941 might not always be funny, but it’s certainly never boring (at least not in the 118 minute theatrical version. The 2.5 hour director’s cut is a bit much).

Spielberg doesn’t organize the chaos as well as his buddy Zemeckis managed in the similarly insane comedies I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, yet the man can craft one hell of a set piece. Sequences staging dogfights in Los Angeles, ferris wheels on the loose, or full size houses falling off of cliffs have to be seen to be believed.

Likewise, with a cast that includes the likes of John Belushi in his prime, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Robert Stack at his most deadpan, there are going to be laughs. Throw in the fact that there’s a subplot involving Christopher Lee’s Nazi battling Tishiro Mifune’s  Japanese commander about attacking the US and it’s a movie you definitely have to see to believe.

There are plenty of jokes that go nowhere, but so much stuff happens at all times that at least the bum notes don’t have a chance to get tedious. 1941 is an assault to the senses that really has to be experienced by any Spielberg fan at least once. You’ll either love it or hate it, but unlike Always (the other major contender for Spielberg’s worst movie), you’ll never ever forget it. (Phil Brown)

 

Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)

What went wrong: In a word: everything.

Michael Cimino may have made the Clint Eastwood/Jeff Bridges cult classic Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but he essentially came out of nowhere to sweep the Oscars with The Deer Hunter in 1978. United Artists was anxious to cut a deal with the new kid on the block in the age of the auteur and agreed to fund his massive anti-Western Heaven’s Gate. Cimino suddenly had a blank check, and as a perfectionist whose ego ran wildly out of control, the movie quickly became the most expensive of all time.

He built a city from scratch, trained hundreds of extras how to dance and roller skate, and would often dedicate an entire shooting day to a single shot. When the whole mess was over, he delivered a four hour movie that was difficult and deeply depressing. Critics who loved the production horror stories and regretted the praise poured onto The Deer Hunter following Apocalypse Now were out for blood. The film received vicious, unfair reviews and didn’t even make back one tenth of its budget. United Artists collapsed, Cimino’s career was destroyed, and Heaven’s Gate became the most famous bomb of all time. So…that’s about as bad as it gets.  Entire books, thesis papers, documentaries, and speeches have been delivered on exactly what went wrong here.

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What went right: With every critic out to hate the movie, no one was willing to see what Cimino had accomplished.

All the money showed up on the screen in one of the most vivid period recreations ever crafted. While the movie was long (and pulled from theatres and re-cut to make it shorter after release and even after the film was cut from an unconscionable 4.5 hour running time), that was because it followed The Deer Hunter’s meandering character-building style that endears audiences to the people on screen before crushing them with tragedy.

It’s a powerful movie filled with gorgeous imagery and some remarkable performances from the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Jeff Bridges. It would be a mistake to call the film a masterpiece since it is undeniably overlong, slow, and lacks a satisfying ending. But Heaven’s Gate is nowhere near the disaster of its reputation. It’s actually quite an underrated and impressive piece of work and it’s only taken 30 years for people to notice (thanks Criterion!) (Phil Brown)

Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980)

What went wrong: Well first off, who the fuck thought Robert Altman should make Popeye?!

You’re talking about a filmmaker who thrives on observational realism and doesn’t even shoot remotely conventional coverage so that all of his characters can speak over each other and the camera rarely stays focused on a single person. How could that style possibly work in a musical comedy for children based on a cartoon co-funded by Paramount and Disney and literally shot in the middle of the ocean?

Well, not only did Altman shoot the film in his own unconventional way, but he did it on an island in the middle of nowhere with a production more renowned for the cocaine parties starring Altman, Robin Williams and Robert Evans than anything happening on camera. The budget spiraled wildly out of control and eventually the climax had to be cut in half to focus on a fight between Williams and a big rubber Octopus that couldn’t movie (a la Ed Wood). Unsurprisingly, the film was a financial failure.

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What went right: Here’s the thing, somehow against all odds the movie works.

Altman’s at-the-time crazy commitment to meticulously designing all of the sets and costumes to look exactly like the cartoon was years ahead of its time. There’s a Tim Burton quality to the visuals that holds up well. Likewise, the cast all benefited from his improvisational directing style and truly inhabited their cartoon characters (especially Shelley Duvall, who was clearly put on this earth to play Olive Oyl). The songs were beautifully written and have since somewhat become classics with Duvall’s crooning of “He Needs Me” even being needle dropped into Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love.

All that Altman visual and aural experimentation really doesn’t bother kids who don’t tend to think of that sort of thing and just get lost in Popeye’s world like the director intended. It’s become something of a children’s classic on TV and VHS and most people even forget Robert Altman is involved. As an adult fan of Robert Altman, it’s really worth giving this flick another round through a cinephile’s eyes. Despite it being an honorable Popeye adaptation, all of the director’s iconic ticks and tricks are present and it’s fascinating to see them used on a film of this scale and with this subject matter. A movie that really shouldn’t work, but somehow does…But then, I suppose you could say that about all of Altman’s best movies, now couldn’t you? (Phil Brown)

 

One from the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola, 1982)

What went wrong: I’m just throwing this out there, but it’s overwhelmingly possible that a huge part of Francis Ford Coppola never re-emerged from the jungle when he finished making Apocalypse Now.

Not only did United Artists have to weather the storm of Heaven’s Gate, but for the longest time they were circling this labour of love project from one of the greatest filmmakers of the century that had lurched around in pre-production hell since before a single frame of Cimino’s bomb had even been sighted. What was supposed to be a moderately budgeted lark ballooned into a $26 million experimental musical ($98 million in today’s money) that Coppala – who by this point refused to leave his Silver Fish trailer to direct anything in person – with lavish sets designed to look as artificial as humanly possible. No one wanted to touch it. UA bailed. Despite giving them The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now, Paramount bailed. It left Coppola to finance the film himself and literally make it “one from the heart”.

The complex and lavish production with songs courtesy of the already divisive, gravelly voiced Tom Waits had a rather simple story that could have easily hooked in viewers. Frederick Forrest and Teri Garr play a couple who break up after a long term relationship while in Las Vegas over the July 4th weekend. They each hook up with some new flesh (Nastassja Kinski, Raul Julia) and they grow further apart before coming back together and realizing they were wrong the whole time. Unfortunately, the also aggressive visual style, Coppola’s insistence on making the film fluid in tone (in much the same way as a live television review), and high price tag turned a lot of potential buyers off.

Columbia Pictures finally picked the distribution rights up for a song despite Coppola’s pleas that the film was unfinished when it was bought and released, and the film was dumped into just barely over 40 theatres to gross only barely over $600,000 for its entire run.

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What went right: While certainly excessive and definitely in love more with itself than with delivering an actually entertaining movie, One from the Heart was undoubtedly ahead of its time and the rare exception of an arrogantly titled film living up to its own hype.

Without this film, Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall wouldn’t have careers. It’s hard to think that a film that breaches the proscenium as many times as this wouldn’t have been fathomable at the time. It was undoubtedly unlike anything that audiences had ever seen, but probably because this was more what Coppola had in his head than what everyone actually wanted to see. Someone had to fail on this scale before anyone else would have been allowed to succeed. It was just a shame that it had to be one of the best filmmakers of all time.

The performances are okay, and the score isn’t nearly as good as Waits’ songs are, but there’s no denying that the film is anything short of heartfelt. It’s as guileless as one is likely to get. It could have been done on a much smaller budget, and maybe Coppola never fully articulated what he wanted to do properly, but its at the head of the class when it comes to freaky-deaky musicals that came out in that era. It makes for a hell of a double bill with Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. (Andrew Parker)



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