Friday, February 18, 2011

Great Unappreciated Filmmakers (3)


It's likely that just about everyone (in Hollywood and otherwise) has forgotten the name Tony Kaye, but over a decade ago now, his shaved, dangerous looking mug was unavoidable in the industry press.  With breathless gossip mongering, they would document (as well as act as conduits of) the epic, surrealist saga of a filmmaker gone mad.  Depending on how you looked at it, Kaye's battles with New Line Cinema over the final cut, credit, and release of his feature debut, American History X, was either an embittered, brazenly narcissistic public meltdown or a selfishly bold + brilliant conceptual art piece. The director had been a notorious pariah in the ad world for nearly a decade before American History X, but was tolerated for his visually groundbreaking, conceptually demanding (and often graphically punishing) style. Besides, this was how "genius" was supposed to act, right?

Despite burning each and every long and wide Hollywood bridge he crossed, Kaye never really perished in the blaze. His name kept popping up. A few years after the American debacle, a weird Vanity Fair article furthered the myth by detailing his subsequent flame-out with another artist many believed was the "craziest" of them all, Marlon Brando. The notorious film icon had reached out to Kaye during his sacrificial rite of passage, and comforted him with seemingly rational advice about the cyclical burning at the stake Hollywood totes out every year. Their aborted collaboration coincided with the height of Kaye's seeming dementia, and like everyone else, friend or foe, he lashed out with childish furor. But, considering Kaye's art-school background, maybe it was all part of some labyrinthine artistic scam.  Was Kaye a gonzo trickster, who could even drive MARLON BRANDO crazy???

 I was inspired to start this "Unappreciated" Filmmakers project a few years back around the time of the release of Kaye's documentary Lake of Fire, and a rumored release of a Director's Cut of American History X (which still, five years later, has yet to materialize).  Kaye compulsively shot Lake of Fire while he was enacting his cinematic jihad (which he has since amended for, though in a twisted sort of way); and the release of this 17 years in the making epic of that big dividing line in American politics and culture, Abortion, was an exhaustive + exhausting document that,  in its wide-eyed de-filtration of POV, completely unsettled the typical expectations of the contemporary pop-documentary format.  Each and every angle of the debate is given voice, building into a shark-infested inferno where our perceived values and ideas of right and wrong, victim + victimizer, lose logic or context. All we have is FEELING --- and the spiraling vocal torrent numbs that as well.

Lake of Fire is not an easy or even recommendable piece of cinema, but it is a necessary one nonetheless. Kaye toys with viewers, as he did in American History X and much of his ad work, by ebbing swells of distanced melodrama with penetrating, pungently visceral witness. And this is not easy to take, as it lets loose a myriad of unintended associations (and disassociations) that demand a new context. And this Kaye will not be able to provide. We are angered, confused, and emotionally depleted. But, like all lasting art, this co-habitation of the complicated tangle of response + individual thought with the object of our gaze, obliterates the talismans we tend to make of work….and its maker.

In the years since he finished Lake of Fire, Kaye has dabbled in a number of different, often odd, many times stunning, projects - ads, public service announcements,  music videos, art pieces, film promos, and a feature film that has become entangled in another protracted struggle.  Its minor-key cult status and Norton's resoundingly acclaimed performance aside, American History X never really attained the kind of cinematic recognition it (still) deserves, oft dismissed as hackneyed, simplistic melodrama - with hyper-style obscuring meaningful purpose.  While it may have tinges of the angry sense of liberal guilt that has tainted many like minded movies, its moral tragedy, derived from a fascinating mess of a screenplay by a former bartender, has a momentum that is undeniable in its confluence of emotion, performance, and image-making.  Unlike most directors from either the commercial or art world, Kaye has a gaze that is tangible - ferocious, disturbing, guttural, over-aestheticized, hackneyed, and honest all in one.

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