By sheer coincidence, the last two flicks we've seen on Netflix have been "A Beautiful Mind," directed by Ron Howard, and "Eastern Promises," directed by David Cronenberg. It got me to thinking that there may not be two directors working today who are further apart from each other on the artistic spectrum as Howard and Cronenberg.
Thinking about Howard and Cronenberg also reminded me of the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) Manny Farber essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," in which he defined the former as "an expensive hunk of well-regulated area" and the latter as "termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement." You can probably guess which term I think applies to Ron Howard and which applies to David Cronenberg.
Which is not intended to be a hit on Ron Howard. A more likable guy probably doesn't exist in Hollywood, and he would have a place in my own personal pantheon for his role in "American Graffiti" alone. But thinking about his films, there do seem to be an awful lot of them which fall into the category of "expensive hunk of well-regulated area." One of those, "Apollo 13," is unquestionably a great film, and one of my all-time favorites. (Another, "Night Shift," is also one of my all-time favorites, but you have to wonder whether Howard would venture into such risky territory today). Many of the rest are good to very good movies, but perhaps not as good as they could have, or should have, been. I'd put "A Beautiful Mind" in that category. It has moments of brilliance, most involving Russell Crowe (although I'll never be able to watch a role like this again without thinking of Robert Downey Jr.'s acting advice in "Tropic Thunder") and Jennifer Connelly. But it's also shamelessly manipulative - and that's OK if you can pull it off, but I'm not sure "Beautiful Mind" always pulls it off. The Ed Harris parts didn't bother me so much, but the Paul Bettany parts were borderline irritating. All in all, a good movie, but maybe not one that I'd call Best Picture quality.
"Eastern Promises" is another animal entirely. You don't see David Cronenberg movies get nominated for Best Picture, and I'd hazard a guess that somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of your average crowd for "Beautiful Mind" would run screaming from the room during the first scene of "Eastern Promises." I'm not sure whether the things that Cronenberg is after in his films represent bigger or smaller game than the things that Howard tries to achieve. Where Howard tries to produce a shinier apple, Cronenberg is coring it out, exposing the raw meat underneath. There's no right or wrong here, it's just a different approach.
For a Cronenberg film, I thought the story of "Eastern Promises" was fairly old-fashioned. Like "A History of Violence," the Cronenberg film which preceded it, "Promises" includes scenes of stunning, shocking violence that are brilliantly staged. But where "Violence" used those scenes to underscore an entirely original approach to a story about family relationships and values, "Promises" is just another variation - albeit a strong one - on gangster movies that we've seen many times in the past.
The performances are uniformly outstanding - Armin Mueller-Stahl plays the Russian patriarch as if he were Don Corleone without the redeeming qualities, and Naomi Watts takes what is a fairly sketchy role and gives it depth and feeling. But the unquestioned star is Viggo Mortensen, who turns in an utterly chilling portrayal of a man struggling to maintain the last vestiges of his soul in an environment where such things are trivial and often punished. I thought Mortensen was brilliant in "Violence," but in "Promises" he takes his acting to a whole new level.
Two very different films, two very different directors.