Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters. . ., by Derek Hill

Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion into the American New Wave, by Derek Hill. London: Kamera Books, 2008. Paperback $16.95/£9.99. 192pp.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-253-2.

“There are no waves — new or old — there is only the ocean.”
— Claude Chabrol

The history of art, more often than not, is the history of critics trying to categorize artists and artworks into recognizable groups. Cinema, being relatively new, has managed to avoid the exhaustive labelling inflicted on painting and literature, but perhaps it’s only human nature to want to get a handle on emerging “waves” in film, if only to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

Critic Derek Hill’s first book sets out to chart the subversive element that he feels has been brimming in Hollywood since the 1990s, a resurgence of the idiosyncratic, visionary ballsiness embodied by the “movie brats” wave of the ’70s (Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, and Ashby), who in turn can trace their pedigree back to the nouvelle vague provocateurs of the ’50s and ’60s (Truffaut, Goddard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, et al). Hill dubs this resurgence the American New New Wave.

The book focuses on six selected specimens: Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, and Michel Gondry. Each is given his or her own chapter wherein Hill examines a handful of their best — or most provocative, or most unfairly maligned — films. The book finishes with an addendum (“Single Excursions”) that considers single-film examples of Hill’s loosely defined “New Wave” sensibilities from other directors: Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, Roman Coppola’sCQ, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, P. T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and finally George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. (Hill treats this last title mostly because it is a Kaufman script — he’s largely critical of Clooney’s directing. It’s curious that Kaufman, despite being featured in the title, does not get a chapter to himself. Though the book was written before Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman is after all presented as the driving force behind Jonze and Gondry’s best work to date, and the embodiment of the sensibility with which Hill is so enamoured.)

What shared aesthetic, if any, connects such a motley crew? Hill wisely steers clear of a too-rigid definition. Unlike, say, the authors of the Dogme 95 manifesto, Hill’s New Wave directors eschew any conscious aesthetic movement or set of guiding principles (other than their willingness to take brilliant tonal risks, a trait that connects them, Hill maintains, with their Gallic forbears). Hill sets out his linking principle as a predominant thematic through-line of comic unease and alienation. The protagonist is typically undergoing a major consciousness shift, plummeting into some kind of existential dilemma. For the most part, it’s played for laughs; at least, comedy is a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. There are exceptions: David O. Russell uses action in Three Kings (above), Sofia Coppola uses drama foremost with an under-layer of comedy, and Richard Linklater is a special case (as usual), not sticking with any one approach. They’re all contrarians to a large degree, dismantling whatever genre template their story roughly comprises only to remold it into a fascinating new hybrid. Whether the audience is lured in with action, comedy, or bizarre conceits, melancholy permeates most of the examples Hill cites. This schizoid mix of angst and levity epitomizes the ’90s/’00s post-Gulf War milieu the directors are working in. Hill’s six key artists have an average age of just 43, making them poster children for the quintessential GenX demographic. They represent that psychologically uncomfortable group who grew up on film but could never embrace the ideological confidence of the blockbuster Regan ’80s. They want to reach out, say something sincerely, create something intimate, but can’t shake off the nervous tendency to ironize their position. They craft tales with warm, no-bad-guy central relationships, yet still keep the audience at bay with pronounced, and often highly self-conscious, stylization.

Fusing comedy with angst isn’t a new strategy, but Hill claims that there haven’t been as many soul-searching misfit-miserabilists in American cinema since the late ’60s and ’70s. He discerns his new new wave through this broadly shared artistic sensibility (ironic, tragicomic, visually and dramaturgically stylized) rather than collectivizing them under commercial definitions such as “low-to-mid-budget independent film,” or clique categories like “Sundance” or “Spirit Awards” winners.1

Obsessive fans of these cult directors might be disappointed by the absence in this book of juicy background details, interviews, or glimpses into their personal lives.2Academic readers looking for a compelling thesis or detailed analysis of the films being reviewed may also be frustrated. Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters is light on intellectual vivisection, but then that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The book is, as its subtitle claims, an “excursion,” a short, pleasurable trip. More importantly, it’s an often impassioned series of love letters to some of the better, but occasionally less trumpeted, independent features produced over the last decade and a half.

Hill wears his knowledge of cinema lightly, giving just enough historical background from the cinema du cahiers movement to allow his nouvelle-nouvelle vague thesis an elementary grounding. He quickly moves on to his beloved list of “misfits” and doesn’t labor the connections between them and the history of French ’50s/’60s New Wave iconoclasm and Italian neorealism. This quick read is for people who don’t want to be lectured on the “nebulous jellyfish” (Hill’s phrase) of film history.

To the extent that he does historicize his heroes, Hill seems to suggest that these “merry pranksters and fabulists” are the love-children (my phrase) of French New Wave reactionary attitudes and formal Big American Studio fare. His featured directors embody the perfect marriage of formal innovation and exploratory eccentricity with broad market appeal.

Hill’s writing style is, as I’ve noted, non-academic. His often breathless lines reveal a fanboy revisiting his crush list while defending some of the entries from harsh criticism. He acknowledges some bugbears too: his chapter on Sofia Coppola (right, on the set of Lost in Translation) is the least laudatory of the six specialist chapters. It defends her from the rabid charges of nepotism levelled against her first forays into the film world, while acknowledging that her dreamy protagonists and ephemerally cool tones are closer to the rarefied world of aristocracy than the other directors in the book.

There is no discussion about why only one woman makes the cut, or that there is a total absence of gay, lesbian, or non-white directors, but surely this is beyond the author’s scope. After all, Hill has set out to chart the work of idiosyncratic, critically acclaimed, yet commercially successful artists working in the most conservative medium. That said, I cannot help but feel that a short “What does the future hold?” addendum might have addressed this question, speculating on how, as the technological costs of filming, editing, and distribution decrease, the major studios will lose their power to impede (or at least ignore) the next generation of counter-cultural (or para-cultural) cinematic provocateurs. That task falls to another book. The total effect of these excursions at least served to get this reviewer to delve back into some of the lesser-known works from some of the most enjoyably diverse filmmakers working today, and I was happy I did.

In these depressing days of understandably cagey studio executives and plummeting studio funding for exploratory cinema, Hill’s book is that vital little grace: an optimistic work, ebullient even. In a time when we hear too much about the “death of cinema,” Hill reminds us that it is in the searching for new waves, whether they are there or not, rising unexpectedly from some oblique angle, that we are woken up and forced to notice the world anew. It’s a big ocean.


1. This strategy leaves the door open for anyone wanting to chart the work of other putative American new waves, such as the ultra-low-budget realism of the “mumblecore/Slackavetes” movement (i.e., Andrew Bujalski, Aaron Katz, Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, Mark and Jay Duplass, Todd Rohal, etc).

2. The ad I came across on the Kamera Books website says the book features interviews with its subjects. That wasn’t the case with my copy.