Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Film director and producer and actor Sydney Pollack died yesterday, a shame. Pollack always struck me as the director as Everyman, or as “the Everyman director.” His films aren’t arty in the auteur manner, nor are they resolutely of a signature style or theme -- as so much of Scorsese and Altman are. Nor are they, generally, mawkish like Spielberg or preachy and overbearing like Oliver Stone. They are just solidly made films, good solid entertainments -- what used to be called without too much condescension, “middle-brow.”

I mainly associate Pollack with two things: first, several films starring Robert Redford that helped make the blonde, boyishly rugged actor the male icon of my youth -- Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Out of Africa (1985). For the latter, Pollack won Best Director and the film Best Picture -- which means, I suppose, it's mainstream and middle-of-the-road and all that, but if you consider for a moment that trajectory you see the kind of maverick heroism that Redford portrayed in Pollack’s films.

In Johnson, about a young ex-soldier who becomes a mountain man -- and finally the stuff of myth -- Redford and Pollack worked together to create an ode to the wonderful territories in Montana that are protected from commercial incursions, or which, in some places, were in the personal possession of Redford himself. In other words, Redford gets to play the founding spirit of a back-to-nature individualism that isn’t meant to create a movement or a trend, but is meant to evoke the sacredness of place -- symbolized by Johnson’s hard-won acceptance by the local tribes. In Condor, Redford is a bookish fellow who becomes unwittingly the little guy who must kill and outsmart his way (shades of Jimmy Stewart crossed with Charles Bronson) to the leader of a covert group within the CIA -- a group determined to work out scenarios for how to seize oil without doing blunderous things like invading foreign countries. It’s a timely film, we might say, but in those heady post-Watergate days it stood strong on the idea that revealing a cover-up was tantamount to a victory for the good guys. Then, in Africa, teamed with the incomparable Meryl Streep at her most incomparable, Redford was Denis Finch-Hatton (Pollack didn’t even try to make his old buddy assay a Brit accent, while Streep flaunted her Danish one), a big game hunter, amateur flyer, and general man of adventure even as the post-WWI world shrank the sense of adventure even in the African wilderness.

It’s significant that I talk about these films as plots and characters rather than as Pollack vehicles because, when you get down to it, Pollack’s films are mainly about plots and characters, not about the art of filmmaking. The greatness of Africa is in its ability to manifest old Hollywood-style epic sweep -- those opening shots of the train crossing the veldt with John Barry’s magical score evoking any favorite armchair journey via movie magic (as well as his own score to Born Free (1966), another paean to Africa), and the great “seeing the world through God’s eye” trip in the two-seater airplane -- for the era of mid-Reaganesque conservativism and revisionism. In other words: literate, gorgeously filmed, winning 7 Oscars, the film was the mainstream vindication of Pollack’s version of the loner hero -- heir to Gable and Wayne and Tracy and so on, not the mercurial and volatile Brando and Co. -- and of the lasting filmic value of on-location landscape that, I have to admit, one overlooks at times in one’s appreciation of the sets and artifice of the film experience (but important to note more than ever now that CGI can just paint-in whatever it wants).

Two: the other thing I praise Pollack for is his presence on-screen. Not exactly an actor in the sense of one who can portray any number of characters or types, Pollack enacted very memorably in two very different films two very different versions of the same kind of man’s man character: in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (1992), Pollack was memorable as the guy who amicably splits up with Judy Davis only to flounder vulnerably and comically through jealousy and the bathos of his new arrangement with a younger and rather New-Agey aerobics instructor; and in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), as Victor Ziegler, Pollack is memorable for the authoritative gravitas -- and even an endearingly humble humanity in a NY bigwig -- he brings to the role of the friend and client who has to set Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford right about a few shady matters. It’s largely due to Pollack’s grasp of the man-to-man tone that we accept Ziegler’s version of things, so gruff and steady and affectionate is his delivery.

Pollack’s death is a loss because at once a quality that we can think of as a fatherly presence behind big budget movie making is gone. Which is to say that such a loss is indicative of the coming time when the Baby Boomers become “the elders” of our culture. God help us -- and bless Sydney Pollack.

No comments: