I was hoping to be able to post something silly and Halloween-themed this morning, but a very sad reality got in the way with the passing yesterday of a really good filmmaker, much too young. The news, which I learned via The Playlist, was broken by the Denver Post.
Best known for two outstanding, possibly great, documentaries “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” codirected with Fax Bahr, and “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” as well as for directing the original short film with Billy Bob Thornton that formed the basis for “Sling Blade,” the prolific independent director George Hickenlooper apparently died in his sleep in his Denver hotel room. He was there getting ready to promote his latest foray into dramatic feature filmmaking, “Casino Jack” starring Kevin Spacey as jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, at a film festival in the city where his cousin, John Hickenlooper is the mayor. The two cousins had only met for the first time in 1991 when he came to the city to promote “Hearts of Darkness.” The mayor became the focus of Hickenlooper’s film about the 2008 Democratic convention, “‘Hick’ Town.” He was 47.
I never got to meet Mr. Hickenlooper, who had better luck with documentaries than dramatic films, but I had brushes with friends-of-friends over the years. He was part of a group of St. Louis-bred creatives that also includes writer-director James Gunn (“Slither“). It’s pretty clear this is a huge shock to everyone and my sincere condolences to everyone.
Below are some brief moments from Hickenlooper’s signature films.
Something still feels off here to me, for all the snazzy editorial work. The only joke that’s actually funny is Kevin Spacey‘s spot-on Al Pacino impersonation, though even the choice of Spacey feels off. Perhaps I’m being too literal minded, but Abramoff was younger and more jockish and athletic when all of this was going down. On the other hand, the movie-obsession is correct. Abramoff is a movie buff who even co-produced an actual action film or two, including the Dolph Lundgren vehicle, “Red Scorpion.”
Still, I’m keeping an open mind. He hasn’t had gigantic luck with fiction features so far, but director George Hickenlooper (“The Big Brass Ring”) has been involved with probably two of the best all-time documentaries about outrageous show business figures, the Francis Ford Coppola-centric “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” and the even better “Mayor of the Sunset Strip” about DJ and ultimate scenester Rodney Bingenheimer. I’m sure there’s a bit more here than meets the eye, at least I hope so
There’s no doubt that Alex Gibney is on a historic roll as a documentarian. Within only a few years, he’s been involved with probably the largest number of popular and influential documentaries of any single human being not named Michael Moore. Those works would include the outstanding “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the equally strong, and Oscar winning, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about American use of torture in the “war on terror.” Gibney has also made his share of more historically themed documentaries, including “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” He was also involved as a producer in two of the other most important and controversial documentaries of recent years, the Iraq-war expose, “No End in Sight” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
If Gibney’s past output is hugely impressive, however, his upcoming list of films is dizzying. At the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival in New York, he premiered as a “work in progress,” a new and apparently very revealing, look at former New York state governor, attorney general, and Wall Street watchdog Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that drove him from office. He also has a segment in the upcoming film version of the super-hot bestseller, Freakonomics, as well as new films about two very different cultural legends: bicyclist Lance Armstrong and author/super-hippie Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Merry Pranksters fame.
There’s also the recently completed “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” and the film Gibney was promoting at his publicist’s L.A. office one recent afternoon, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” It’s a work of amazing journalistic detail that also works very hard to be lively and accessible.
Even if I felt that Gibney didn’t quite master that “accessible and lively” aspect too consistently this time around, his “Casino Jack” reviews so far have been great overall. He’s certainly a filmmaker to be reckoned with and one with an outstanding body of work behind him and much, much more to come. Not my idea of a lazy person.
* Thanks, Hef! He saves the world for heavily retouched naked women, pays writers more than just about anybody, and now he ponies up the missing funds to save the Hollywood sign.
* One item I don’t actually have to link to report on is that the TCM Classic Film Festival is going to be back next year, with the idea of being an annual event. I can do that because I was present at last night’s big screening of “Metropolis” where none other than Robert Osborne announced it to the assembled multitudes at the more beautiful than ever Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
What was interesting about the way this festival was marketed is that people who live in Los Angeles were clearly not the primary target. Individual ticket prices were roughly double what film geeks like myself are used to paying to see similar presentations — actually more than double when you consider that most repertory programs are actually double bills. With the exception of fellow press and a USC film student who had picked up one of thirty free tickets that has been donated, everyone I spoke to was from elsewhere, and usually a place where the opportunity to see such frequently revived cinematic warhorses as “Casablanca” and “Some Like it Hot” on the big screen are nevertheless beyond rare.