Directors Taking Pride in Failure

October 26, 2011 — 5 Comments

Recently I’ve been thinking about when it’s appropriate for a director to take responsibility for the artistic failure of their film, or at least admit it its failure. This also got me thinking about whether it’s okay to take pride in a film despite its failure. Last week, The New York Times published a piece that included an interview with John Lasseter regarding the critical response to Cars 2. Let me be the first to say that the article is very poorly conceived and written. Much of it is purely speculative, and though it attempts to portray Lasseter as a man stuck in a difficult corner, defending his film from attack, his response actually seems quite open and honest. He clearly acknowledges that the film didn’t take with critics, but the film is very much his baby and he’s proud of it, and he’s proud of the ability of the series to connect with young boys.

He dismisses the claims that Cars 2 was only made for the merchandising profits, saying, “I make movies for that little boy who loves the characters so much that he wants to pack his clothes in a Lightning McQueen suitcase.” The cynical people reading this might read it as a contradiction, but I don’t see it. Lasseter is saying that the merch is not the important thing, but that it’s a reflection of how much young people love the films and their world and characters.

Cars 2 was a critical failure, and at the domestic box office it landed well below the first film and expectations for Pixar films. But so what if it’s a “failure”? What definition are we using anyway? John Lasseter made a film that he considers very personal. It is important to him, and he feels that he made the best film he could out of that. He’s takes pride in whatever successes the film had, and he takes pride in a film he considers to be quite good. There is nothing wrong with that. Should we really expect every director who makes a film we don’t like to come out and say that they admit it is was shit?

Today, Empire published a piece about Steven Spielberg, which included some choice quotes on how he feels about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. On his opinion of the film he says,

I’m very happy with the movie. I always have been… I sympathise with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin. George and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin. I didn’t want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings. But I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it. I’ll add my own touches, I’ll bring my own cast in, I’ll shoot the way I want to shoot it, but I will always defer to George as the storyteller of the Indy series. I will never fight him on that.

Again, you could say that this is an admission that the film is not very good. Or you could take it as deflecting the blame. Either way, you might not be totally wrong. But I think the key here is that Spielberg likes the movie he made, and that though he clearly agrees it has some problems, he is willing to explain why those problems exist and why he let them slide. Now, maybe he shouldn’t have let them slide, but I don’t begrudge him the desire to work with Lucas and Ford on another Indy movie.

His next quote, though, is much more telling. When asked about some of the specific things people didn’t like about the film, Spielberg says,

The gopher was good. I have the stand-in one at home. What people really jumped at was Indy climbing into a refrigerator and getting blown into the sky by an atom-bomb blast. Blame me. Don’t blame George. That was my silly idea. People stopped saying “jump the shark”. They now say, “nuked the fridge”. I’m proud of that. I’m glad I was able to bring that into popular culture.

Spielberg doesn’t just like the movie he made, he take the criticisms of it with good humour, and actually takes pride in the things he contributed on his own that people have taken issue with. That nuking the fridge scene is completely ridiculous, but it’s also pure Spielberg: the grown up director who’s still a child at heart. In my opinion, that scene is the highlight of the film. A moment of pure, childish, playful glee. And not only did Spielberg put it in the film, he takes pride in it. He takes pride in it despite so many people hating on it. And he actually takes pride in the way that people have responded to it.

Guys, there is nothing wrong with this. Spielberg should take pride! He made something that he likes. Sure, the audience is the ultimate judge, but I always reflect back on the old adage at Pixar. “We make films that we would want to see ourselves.” This is the guiding principle at Pixar, and it has paid off commercially and critically with almost every film. And even when it doesn’t work, there is still some pride left to be taken in the end product. The same can be said of Spielberg. He admits that there are elements of the film that were not to his liking, but he took the story he was given and made out of it a film that he would want to see, that he thought he’d enjoy. And guess what, he enjoys it. He deserves to take pride in that.

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5 responses to Directors Taking Pride in Failure

  1. 

    “he’s proud of the ability of the series to connect with young boys.”

    The thing is, I don’t think “Cars 2″ even really managed that very well…OK, I’m using a specific anecdote that certainly doesn’t prove the larger point, but I saw the movie with two 10-year-old boys who loved the first film (one that I also liked and probably more so than most people) and at the end of the movie they had nothing to say about it…They didn’t hate it, but it’s like it was gone from their minds the second it was done. Usually they will review scenes from the movie or relate back some of the lines of dialogue, but this time there was nothing. They spoke mostly about what video game they should play when they got home and whether they could get the neighbourhood kids outside before dinner. Even when I prompted them they said “Yeah, it was good…” and then immediately started talking about something else.

    This doesn’t change the larger point you’re getting at (which I completely agree with), but Lasseter might need to realign his radar. For me it was a failure in the sense that it felt like the first Pixar film that sacrificed character for plot and chase/action scenes. But I’m glad John liked it…B-)

    • 

      Yeah, I’m with you on that. And I think the film’s failure to reach the $200 million mark at the domestic box office (the first film since Toy Story 2 to fall short of that milestone) is a telling sign. They focused on the wrong elements with Cars 2. It was too frantic and it didn’t focus on the warm world and characters that made the first film so great.

      I don’t care to defend Cars 2, but I do think it’s an okay film. I just don’t see why a director should have to defend the film he made. If he wants to come out and say “look, I tried to make a good movie and I just failed,” that’s fine. There are directors who do that sometimes. But this need in the geeky movie blog audience to have directors admit when they have failed according to the audience standard is silly.its narcissistic.

      It’s actually why I was really annoyed at a lot of the disdain for Cars 2 starting even before it came out. Newsflash: Pixar does not owe you anything, let alone great, complex, surprisingly adult films on every outing. They made a movie for young kids that they wanted to make. It turned out to not be that good, but so what? Be thankful they made 11 films that rank from great to masterpiece and then hope they manage to make a few more in the future.

  2. 

    I don’t think “Cars 2″ was that bad but I had issues with it. I didn’t expect it to be great and there were some moments where I was entertained. Yet, I felt it was too much of a mess and I didn’t care about Mater being the lead. It didn’t work for me.

    I will applaud Lasseter for just trying to make the film that he wants to make and at least not take whatever criticism he reads seriously. Besides, with failures. You can at least use that as motivation to make something better.

    Gus Van Sant has had a few failures like “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” but he at least redeemed himself with “To Die For” and “Good Will Hunting” after that.

  3. 

    Sometimes I hate being in the PR business because it can make you a little bit cynical. I cant help wondering if those are the actual thoughts of Lasseter and Spielberg or if they’re trying to make the best out of it, taking care of their own renomme. But maybe it’s just me. Anyway: considering the cred they have I thik they could afford getting a few bad reviews.

    • 

      Look, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lasster and Spielberg are hiding their true feelings. And of course their willingness to own up to mistakes will only grow with distance and time. But for me it’s not so much the truth in their responses that interests me. If they enjoy the film they made then that is something to take pride in. If Lasseter busted his butt to make Cars 2, maybe deep down he understands that it’s subpar, but he probably genuinely enjoys it. That’s great. It’s the self-righteous attitude of the audience that bugs me. We have this sadistic need to see directors concede defeat. We want Spielberg to feel bad and feel shame for making what many consider a bad film. That’s just stupid. Let the guy have the movie he made. If he likes it, fine, if he doesn’t, that’s okay too.

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