Upon completing my Jane Campion retrospective, I declared her to be a rare example of a director with not a single bad film to her credit – running square against the conventional wisdom, but following my heart. As such things are wont to do, it got me thinking about all the other directors I love who weren’t so rarefied in all their endeavors, and what their worst film was; enough to spur me into making a distinctly incomplete list of:
Ten Awful Films by Great Directors
Sanshiro Sugata II (Kurosawa Akira, 1945)
The first Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa’s solo debut, was an incredibly mature piece of work, showcasing a young talent who seemed born to the cinema, telling the vaguely true story of a judo scholar’s rise to self-knowledge. Two years and three films later, that popular success got a follow-up that has all the spark and flair of a drowned opossum. The explanation generally given is that the second film was commissioned as a flat-out propaganda piece, and Kurosawa found little delight in wasting his talents on such an exercise; but that doesn’t save the film from itself. It’s a slack, empty exercise in nothing much at all, not perhaps all that bad by the standards of every hack director who hacked out a hack sequel, but positively atrocious when stacked against virtually everything else in Kurosawa’s uncommonly estimable canon.
Skidoo (Otto Preminger, 1968)
A film of such exquisite badness and immeasurable tackiness that some very smart people have argued – and not unpersuasively – that it’s an early example of self-satirizing camp. That probably makes it more of a comfort – the idea that Groucho Marx’s last appearance would be in something this wasteful is almost unbearable – but I remain wholly unconvinced. Even as satire, the image of 47-year-old Carol Channing stripping is the kind of thing that can’t be defended on any aesthetic grounds. The simplest explanation is, I am afraid, the best: a bunch of talented old squares set out to make a wacky ensemble comedy about the counterculture, and with no idea what the fuck they were doing, turned out one of the most jaw-dropping misfires in history. Right down the the closing shots of Groucho, his trademark cigar transformed into a giant blunt.
Ryan’s Daughter (David Lean, 1970)
It is alleged that Pauline Kael’s attack on Lean’s next epic romance after Doctor Zhivago was so fierce that it drove him into retirement; he’d pop back up only once more, to make A Passage to India in 1984. Which, honestly, if the intervening 14 years would have had more Ryan’s Daughters for us, is probably the nicest thing he could possibly have done, and Kael’s finest contribution to film art. It seems impossible that the man responsible for one of the cinema’s greatest historical epics, Lawrence of Arabia, as well as one of the cinema’s greatest romantic dramas, Brief Encounter, should be responsible for a historical epic romance of such monumentally stilted character; it takes the hints of stuffiness and preciousness that sometimes make Zhivago feel longer than it really is, and turns them into something all-out suffocating.
Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)
Something something hippies fighting corrupt railwaymen in the 1930s, and I assume it’s symbolic of something, given that the final shot is of David Carradine posed in a reference to the crucifixion. Really, it’s all just a muddle and frankly boring, and shows the filmmaker absolutely lost at sea in his ideas; and this from someone who liked New York, New York. You almost want to give him a pass, since it was his first professional feature; but he’d already made Who’s That Knocking at My Door, proving that he wasn’t just some dipshit kid. John Cassavetes had it right at the first screening: “You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.”
The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman 1977)
It’s Weimar-era Berlin, and there are… proto-Nazis? I don’t quite know what to call it. It’s a warped attempt to do Cabaret with a quarter the snarky fun and ten times the hallucinogenic imagery. As Bergman’s only film in English, the tortured dialogue can be explained away, if not forgiven; but the widespread, massive disconnect between the borderline-exploitative subject matter and Bergman’s trademark, glacially stern aesthetic could not possibly be a more damaging mismatch of content and style. And the ordinarily luminous Liv Ullmann is wasted on an unfamiliar language and caked in hideous makeup throughout. When I first saw this, years ago, I wouldn’t have assumed I could find a Bergman film so miserable, and I still don’t understand how it was possible that this was produced.
1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)
Spielberg being Spielberg, even this wreck of a zany comedy has its defenders; and there’s something of a consensus that bits and pieces work: Robert Stack’s Dumbo scene, Slim Pickens, John William’s over-the-top patriotic main theme. I’ll spot the Williams tune – it’s one of his all-time best – but everything else is so much sound and fury. It is a truism in bad movie fandom that nothing is more unpleasant than a bad comedy, since by definition you can’t laugh at it; and 1941 is one hell of a bad comedy. The only upside is that young Steven learned an important lesson in respecting one’s limitations, and hasn’t made a straight-up comedy ever since.
Qunitet (Robert Altman, 1979)
I can make this one really short: the narrative structure of the screenplay is borrowed from a virtually unknown mutant version of backgammon that Altman invented during his more… chemically-augmented phase. The fact that it’s an incoherent grab-bag of every single idea in every science-fiction film of the 1970s is just the icing. Now, I haven’t seen H.E.A.L.T.H., but if this one isn’t Altman’s worst, then his worst would probably leave me catatonic.
Dune (David Lynch, 1984)
Okay, this one was kind of like shooting fish that had been stapled to the bottom of a very tiny barrel. Dune is one of the famous cock-ups of the last thirty years of cinema, an adaptation of the massive, effectively unadaptable Frank Herbert doorstop made by David Lynch, the kind of director who we now know should never be given the keys to an expensive studio tentpole; the story goes that he only accepted the Dune job because Dino De Laurentiis promised him a free hand to make Blue Velvet in return. Lynch didn’t exactly treat the property with indifference and scorn – there’s a mad visionary quality to it that few other directors would have ever braved – and it certainly can’t be written off by the serious Lynch scholar as disposable. But just about every moment of the film is thick with the sense of that something went very wrong, and what we’re watching is the scraped-up remains of a movie that was too impossible to live in the wild.
September (Woody Allen, 1987)
Allen has wobbled from good films to awful so many times in his career that it hardly seems sporting to point out his worst; and yet, for all the Celebritys and Anything Elses and Shadows and Fogs in his spacious, skeleton-wracked closet, I for one have never doubted that his absolute nadir as an artist came when he put six wholly unlikable and uninteresting people in a country house for the weekend, and assumed that a Bergman-style chamber drama would result inevitably. It didn’t. The film we have came about because after he shot it, he found that he couldn’t do anything he liked with the footage, and so he re-wrote most of it and re-cast nearly every character. Meaning that there theoretically exists a worse version of September, the sort of soberng thought that should be greeted with the same serious respect as hearing a rattlesnake in the desert scrub.
The Ladykillers (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2004)
We can at least rationalise away Intolerable Cruelty: they took over a film already in development and tried to punch it up with their usual traits, and the graft just didn’t hold. No such excuses for that film’s follow-up, a stony “comedy” that pisses over the good memory of a sparklingly black Ealing Studios picture starring Alec Guinness, and suggesting in no uncertain terms that the Brothers Coen were eager to win themselves some mainstream success in the most shameless, indecent manner. Thank God they’ve shaken that impulse. A pity it is, though, that this remorselessly grim farce wastes an absolutely magnificent Tom Hanks in a performance that, surrounded by a stronger script and better-managed cast, could have been one of the pinnacles of his career.