It is impossible to think of any important director whose later work is his or her best. Why is this true of film-makers, but not of other artists?by Mark Cousins / May 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
In the couple of months around publication of this article, the following film events will have taken place. Francis Coppola’s presentation at Cannes of a longer version of Apocalypse Now. The paperback publication of Michael Powell’s autobiography. The re-release of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. A South Bank Show profile of Ken Russell.
A common note sounds through all these retrospective celebrations which is rather embarrassing for cinema. Paul Schrader got it right a few years ago. “Looking back at my movies is a lose-lose situation,” he said. “If they seem bad, you think ‘my God, I had no talent’; if they seem good, you think ‘my God, where has my talent gone?'”
What Coppola, Powell, Roeg and Russell have in common is that their talents went long before their time was up. In a flash of accelerated ageing, they became old pygmies remembering themselves as virile titans. Now, when Coppola makes a film like Jack, it is as anodyne as Apocalypse Now was grand. Powell’s Age of Consent was as execrable as his wartime collaborations with Emeric Pressburger had been glorious. Roeg’s decline started with the aptly titled Insignificance, which came after a string of masterpieces such as Don’t Look Now and Bad Timing. Ken Russell’s late work must surely have been directed by a talentless acolyte of the man who once made Women in Love.
In all these directors there is a drastic falling-off. It is replicated throughout the history of cinema. You can see it in the careers of-to take a random sample-Hitchcock, Antonioni, Welles, Fritz Lang, Wenders, Cukor, Minnelli, Peckinpah and Polanski. It is impossible to think of an important director in world cinema whose late work is his or her best. Eric Rohmer and Bergman come close, but Luis Bu?uel and Sergio Leone are the only true exceptions. Why don’t film-makers conform to the principles of creative evolution?
Artists should mature, develop and intensify their own personal style. It happens with writers and painters. Poussin’s late mythological landscapes are a striking advance; late Caravaggio dares to be more austere; the elderly Monet created his water lily screens. James Joyce’s experimental energy went into top gear at the end. Dostoyevsky’s three greatest novels came in his last 15 years. Of course there are exceptions, like Picasso, but in the arts the ideal is that late work comes as a culmination born of greater knowledge and…