Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The talented Mr. Minghella (1954-2008)

The prominence of Anthony Minghella in the British and international film world is such that it seems strange to note, upon his untimely passing on Tuesday, that he directed only seven feature films—with another, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, in the can. But he wore way more hats than just a director’s one. He generally wrote his own movies, as well as sometimes producing their musical scores. He also wrote for UK television, e.g. series like Grange Hill and Inspector Morse. Moreover, he was a producer on such movies as Iris, The Quiet American, The Interpreter, Catch a Fire and Michael Clayton. He was also a playwright and directed for the stage. Three years ago he made his opera directing debut with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. And he had a small acting role in Joe Wright’s Atonement. All in all, he accomplished much in many areas during a lifetime cut short at the age of 54.

His best known movie would be The English Patient, which earned him two Oscar nominations, for directing (which he won) and for adapted screenplay. He was nominated for another adapted screenplay for The Talented Mr. Ripley. The English Patient received a total of 12 Academy Award nominations, winning nine of them. In hindsight, it is easy to see why this movie was such a success. It was a romantic epic in the great tradition of filmmakers like David Lean. But it was also an unabashed art house film, with enough technique and structure to make even the most analytical snob able to watch it without feeling too guilty. And it contributed an iconic image—of a plane crashing into the desert sand—that has endured ever since, in tributes and parodies alike.

Minghella’s first movie was a variation on such romantic fantasies as Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. In Truly Madly Deeply, Alan Rickman played Juliet Stevenson’s deceased boyfriend, who comes back as a ghost. Minghella followed up with another romance, this time set in New York, called Mr. Wonderful, starring Matt Dillon and Annabella Sciorra. He worked with Rickman and Stevenson again (and Kristin Scott Thomas) in the generically titled Samuel Beckett adaptation, Play. He entered the Oscars sweepstakes again four years ago with Cold Mountain, racking up seven nominations and winning one for Renée Zellweger. His last movie to be released during his lifetime was Breaking and Entering, a strange and complex story about an architect who finds himself drawn to the mother of a young thief. The movie reunited Minghella with such actors as Jude Law (Oscar nominee for Cold Mountain), Juliette Binoche (Oscar winner for The English Patient) and Juliet Stevenson.

Minghella leaves behind a daughter and a son, who has his own budding acting career. Max Minghella starred in Art School Confidential and played George Clooney’s son in Syriana.

HAL’s father (1917-2008)

Arthur C. Clarke wrote nearly 100 books, and I bet you can name at least one of them. That would be, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was written as part of a project that also included a screenplay he co-wrote with the movie’s director, Stanley Kubrick. It was drawn from Clarke’s story “The Sentinel.” His second best known work would be the novel, Childhood’s End, which presaged much sci-fi to follow (including the great TV series Babylon 5) with its vision of the human race evolving into a higher form and leaving a dying earth behind. Among those acknowledging a creative debt to Clark was Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame. Many such practitioners of popular entertainment have gotten mileage, acknowledged or not, out of the third of Clarke’s Three Laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

When all is said and done, however, it is for 2001 that we will remember Clarke. The movie version was spectacular, amazing, perplexing and prophetic. Today it is hard to appreciate how novel the idea of a space station orbiting the earth was back in 1968. Or the idea of an elaborate network of telecommunications satellites. But perhaps its most prophetic aspect was its portrayal of the love/hate relationship between human beings and computers. His creation, HAL 9000, was the prototype of every verbal speech-driven on-board computer system in every sci-fi movie and TV show we have watched for decades. And the frustration that stems from the computer’s illusion of sentient intelligence combined with its mechanical implacability is something that has become real for everyone who has ever interacted with a personal computer.

Moreover, Clarke’s work had something truly terrifying and extremely hopeful to say about mankind’s relationship to the universe and what our future might be in it. If the ending of 2001 was completely confusing, it was no less so than contemplating the reality. It was nothing less than ironic that such metaphysical pondering, for many viewers, became a popular accessory to escaping reality in drugs.

The ending of 2001 was one of those movie finales that demanded to be left alone. But Hollywood, and apparently Clarke, couldn’t let it go at that. Sixteen years later he collaborated with Peter Hyams, producing a sequel novel and an ill-advised movie, 2010, that took up where the original left off. An additional novel sequel, 3001: The Final Odyssey, followed ten years ago.

Arthur C. Clarke was fiftyish when he collaborated with Kubrick on their seminal creation. At the time, the year 2001 would have seemed like a date far off in the future. I wonder if Clarke, who was 90 when he died yesterday, ever truly dreamed that he would live to see it and what he really thought of what it turned out to be like.

In short

Okay, maybe I should have just created a page for reviewing short films. After explaining just last week how I generally don’t review them, I am now reviewing another one. The other day I got a chance to catch the Academy Award winner for best live action short from a year ago. It fits in the pattern of short films being a springboard for directors going on to features, as the writer/director, Martin McDonagh, has recently released In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. McDonagh, who is the English-born son of Irish parents, has already made quite a name for himself as the playwright of such perverse and darkly funny works as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West. I happened to see his The Cripple of Inishmaan in Dublin several years ago, and it was a wild ride with a tour de force performance by young Rúaidhrí Conroy, who also features prominently in Six Shooter. International audiences will remember Conroy as one of the two young boys on a quest to bring their beloved horse to Ireland’s west coast in Mike Newell’s Into the West.

Six Shooter has a certain sense of déjà vu for me. For one thing, it has Brendan Gleeson in a darkly strange series of events on a train in Ireland, reminiscent of his participation in another short film, Jennifer Keegan’s Irish language Caca Milis. For another, we have no fewer than three charter cast members of the Irish primetime soap The Clinic, with David Wilmot and Aisling O’Sullivan once again playing husband and wife.

There is no doubt that McDonagh is a master of plot and manipulation and observing the uncomfortable and grim yet funny aspects of life. His denizens of Ireland’s west, as portrayed in his plays, sometimes feel a bit caricatured (maybe I’m defensive for them, since I live among them now), and in Six Shooter, by contrast, there is something detached about them, as if they are mainly chess pieces for putting McDonagh’s ideas into motion. I suppose my reservation about it is that whiff of the Tarantino-esque.

-S.L., 20 March 2008

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