Last weekend, two new films opened by famous filmmakers who are, to varying degrees, getting the hell out of the film business. Haywire director Steven Soderbergh has been teasing his early retirement for months now; it’s somewhat comical, actually, the way he keeps adding in projects that he wants to do before his self-imposed exile. George Lucas, who spent decades getting Red Tails made, told The New York Times that he was retiring, at least from the business of making blockbuster films (maybe).
Soderbergh is 49. Lucas is 67. Making movies doesn’t have a mandatory retirement age, like fighting fires or flying planes. But should it?
It’s a tricky question. We’re certainly less than thrilled at the notion of Soderbergh hanging it up early; his last two films, Haywire and Contagion, have shown the filmmaker at his most trim, direct, and effective, investing genre pieces (the bone-crunching action picture and the all-star thriller, respectively) with an intelligence and efficiency that’s more than welcome in today’s mainstream marketplace. And though Lucas did not direct Red Tails — he felt that the story of black heroes should be told by a black filmmaker, and brought on frequent Wire and Treme director Anthony Hemingway for the job — it marks a welcome diversion from his usual pastime of screwing up the Star Wars movies.
The difficulty in getting anyone in Hollywood interested in his $58 million Tuskegee Airmen movie has led Lucas to swear off the blockbuster (“I’m retiring,” he told the Times. “I’m moving away from the business, from the company, from all this kind of stuff”). He says he wants to make small, art films from here on out, like his buddy Francis Ford Coppola — though he’s carefully left himself the outs of doing a prequel and sequel to Red Tails if they’re successful, and, of course, a fifth Indiana Jones movie.
And that’s where it gets sticky. Even while contemplating bowing out of the business, Lucas is still interested in returning to the Jones franchise, but after Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, most fans would probably rather he left the series alone. Many feel the same way about Star Wars — not just his endless tinkering with the original trilogy, but the long-awaited, much-derided prequels. Maybe Soderbergh’s onto something; perhaps there’s something to be said for bowing out when you’re at the top of your game.
Take Alfred Hitchcock, for example: one of our most iconic filmmakers, no doubt, but when we talk about his great films, we’re usually not talking about Family Plot or Topaz. Of the latter, Pauline Kael wrote, “What tends to happen in the case of commercial moviemakers is that they become deadened to their times and to new works in movies and other arts; they repeat their old successful subjects and formulas with diminishing visual interest and with less ingenious editing… the embarrassment of Topaz is that Hitchcock is lazy and out of touch.”
The great Charlie Chaplin certainly seemed out of touch when he made A Countess from Hong Kong in 1967, putting talents like Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren through a tired, shopworn story notable not for its Chaplinesque lightness, but for its utter lifelessness. Chaplin fans would rather forget it even exists; likewise admirers of Howard Hawks (Rio Lobo), Sam Peckinpah (The Osterman Weekend), Billy Wilder (Buddy Buddy), Don Siegel (Jinxed!), and Federico Fellini (Voices of the Moon). Maybe filmmaking is just a youngster’s racket.
Then again, maybe not. Sidney Lumet won a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2005 — and followed it up with Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, a tougher, nastier, and more boisterous picture than anyone expected from an 83-year-old “elder statesman” of the cinema. Robert Altman won his in 2006, at 81, mere months before releasing his final film, the warm and charming A Prairie Home Companion. John Huston directed his final picture, The Dead, at 80, from a wheelchair and tethered to an oxygen tank. Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman is 82; his latest, the excellent Crazy Horse, opened last week. Godard is still at it; so are Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. Clint Eastwood has made some of his best films in his 70s and 80s. And Woody Allen, now 76, moved his operations to Europe and got a second wind, making Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and last years acclaimed Midnight in Paris.
So what do you think? Should filmmakers retire when they’re on top, per Soderbergh? Or do directors get better as they get older?