Donald Clarke on the life of a cult director
H ello, Zach Speedbump Jr. You are, it seems, a hip young film-maker who wants to gather a cult around himself. Two strategies spring to mind. Firstly, you could study hard at film school, pay attention to the masters and, after 12 drafts of your first screenplay, deliver a carefully modulated drama about terminally ill lesbian poets or striking Hispanic farm workers. The broadsheets will give you glowing reviews; the Independent Spirit Awards will fling baubles at you. If all goes to plan, before you hit 30 you will have become an adjective. “Speedbumpian in its discipline,” The New York Times will say of some lesser rival’s first film.
The second option relies upon the contrariness of the movie cultist. After establishing yourself with a solid debut, throw caution to the wind and spend twice the GDP of Sweden making an insanely undisciplined epic in which casts of thousands batter one another over the head with giant turnips while screaming in an obscure variation of Swahili. The first screening at Cannes will be a disaster. “For all the respect he showed to his admirers, Speedbump may as well have spewed up in their aghast faces,” the Guardian will moan.
Months after Xerxes Unbound has been written off, something curious will start to happen. The Village Voice will print an interview in which Speedbump, now shaven-headed and wearing lederhosen, weeps openly while bemoaning the studio’s attempts to market the film as a comedy. The Voice’s critic will reassess the film as a masterpiece. Always eager to demonstrate they understand American culture better than Americans do, various French eggheads will declare the director’s eight-hour version a finer film than Citizen Kane.
How fantastic is this scenario? Well, it doesn’t happen often. But films such as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a ruinously expensive western from 1980, and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart, a ruinously expensive musical from 1982, survived initial critical mauling to gather fanatical followings among beardy European Marxists. More recently, Vincent Gallo’s notorious The Brown Bunny, eviscerated at the 2004 Cannes Festival, received more than a few decent reviews when it finally made it into cinemas.
This week, one more dead man walking goes in search of reprieve. Richard Kelly earned himself room to experiment when, at the start of the decade, Donnie Darko, his odd high-school fantasy, gathered a substantial following among a brighter class of miserablist. He duly proceeded to abuse that licence by exasperating Cannes with a pre-apocalyptic epic entitled Southland Tales.
Today, a year-and-a-half after its unhappy debut, the distributors have brought the film – which stars such unlikely bedfellows as The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake – before paying audiences. Will it rise from its untended grave? Only you (and Monsieur le Oeuf-Tête) can decide. firstname.lastname@example.org Southland Tales is released today and reviewed on page 11