The End Of Several Eras

October 1, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Opinion with 0 Comments
Ordinarily, Fridays are where I commemorate unsung heroes of the movies; this week, however, it’s impossible to ignore the communal hymn in praise of several hugely talented filmmakers and performers who all, sadly, died this week.
– Gloria Stuart, the veteran actress who became the oldest Oscar nominee in history after playing the old Rose in Titanic, died on Sunday aged 100;

– In the most unexpected and tragic development Sally Menke – editor on all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies – died suddenly on Monday after walking her dog in L.A.’s extreme heat. She was only 56.

Arthur Penn, the director who brought New Wave fizzle and violence to Hollywood with Bonnie and Clyde, died on Tuesday – the day after his 88th birthday;


– The biggest star to fall, a bona-fide Golden Age legend, was Tony Curtis, “Josephine” himself, who passed away on Wednesday, aged 85;

– Last but not least, Joe Mantell, the reliable character actor who delivered one of the 1970s’ defining lines of dialogue (“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”), died the same day, aged 94.

In my life as a movie buff, there was only two occasions when I’ve felt such loss.  First, in July 1997, when Robert Mitchum and James Stewart died a day apart; more recently, in 2007, when the same fate befell Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni.  In both cases, it was the devastating double-blow of rivals and peers.  Mitchum and Stewart exemplified the best of the old studio star system; Bergman and Antonioni represented the end of the Golden Age of the European art-house tradition.

But this week shocks for the sheer scale and variety of the cull.  We’re talking about people who collectively contributed to defining films across many, many decades.  Tony Curtis was arguably the bravest star of the 1950s, subverting his matinee looks to play cruel and dark in Sweet Smell of Success, before the joyful dragging up of Some Like It Hot.  Penn was a key plank of the generation of TV directors who brought new style and purpose to Hollywood in th 1960s, before inspiring the Movie Brats of the 1970s to push boundaries further.  Mantell, of course, bridged that gap, Oscar-nominated for TV-to-film adaptation Marty before his iconic support to Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

The loss of Menke brings things right up to date – she’s arguably one of the most influential editors of the past two decades, for her ability to make sense of Tarantino’s time-hopping, genre-straddling storytelling. (Check out Ben Walters’ great appreciation in The Guardian.)  Being able to cut a film Pulp Fiction-style, once considered experimental and indulgent, is now part of the common repertoire of editing techniques.  And Gloria Stuart, who lived through the vast majority of movie history and proved that you’re never too old to make a splash (if you’ll excuse the pun).

That’s a big chunk of cinema history gone, sweeping aside work from some of the best and boldest movies ever made. Years of experience, hundreds of stories – and that’s just Curtis, raconteur extraordinaire!   

It always feels weird to mourn the deaths of people I never met, but these were people whose work changed my life and inspired my passion.  Check out my list of favourite films, over on the right of this page.  Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Menke (Pulp Fiction) and Curtis (Sweet Smell of Success) are all represented and, since I rediscovered Chinatown over the summer, Mantell really ought to be as well.  I even have a sneaking fondness for Titanic
The irony, of course, is that they’ll always stay young, since cinema is the medium of physical memory.  That applies most to Curtis, quite the presence in his 20s and 30s, but similar arguments could be made for the panache of Penn’s prime period or the rule-breaking bravado of Menke’s editing.  It’s a shock to think of them being in their 80s, 90s or even over 100… and 56 is too soon for anybody.  The bittersweet melancholy of this week is that we can put on Some Like It Hot, or Reservoir Dogs, and they’ll still be with us through those ageless artistic choices.
[I think this is partly why I’ve been so despondent about George Lucas’ tinkering with Star Wars this week.  Any film is a document of the period it was made in, a celebration of the work that was done by those involved.  When we live in a world where Lucas can unilaterally ‘improve’ pioneering FX work that defined people’s careers, or consign Sebastian Shaw’s performance as Anakin Skywalker to the deleted scenes of history, just to ret-con Haydn Christiansen into his place, it’s an insult to their memories.  God forbid we should ever live in a world where, for artistic or cultural reasons, Curtis’ amazing work in Some Like It Hot gets covered up in the same way.]
So it’s important to keep these amazing talents in our minds and avoid the situation, described by David Thomson yesterday, where a generation is growing up not knowing who Arthur Penn is.  Cinema would be vastly inferior without the contributions of the men and women who died this week, so stick on a film featuring one of these amazing talents and celebrate their achievements.  Let’s face it, if you can’t find one film you like from this bunch, you probably shouldn’t be reading a blog about cinema.
Oh, and Mr Reaper, let’s agree never to have a week like this again, eh?

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