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092514i Augustine Friedkin at the HFAWhat makes an artist who is capable of the highest achievements in his field, someone who sets the bar for his colleagues and legions of future admirers who may be influenced by his or her masterworks, suddenly wander into a creative desert, delivering a series of works far below his capabilities? Even stranger, what is at play when this fate befalls not only a single artist but a whole generation of them?

The director William Friedkin will be at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday and Saturday nights to screen two of his films and make a donation of original prints to Harvard. It may be a chance to ask him.

But first, a little background to the dynamic behind the two films the HFA is choosing to screen.

Disaster

Like many of his counterparts, members of a storied new breed of auteurs who broke away from the old Hollywood system and made their signature decade a legendary one for filmmaking, Friedkin was on a seemingly unstoppable artistic tear when he suffered a crash that nearly took him out altogether. Just as the first and second generations of history-making rock ’n’ rollers found themselves abruptly and collectively fading away as a fresh decade dawned, back-seated by a series of tragedies, accidents, drug and alcohol abuse, early death, the draft board, personal problems, scandals and the simple factor of changing tastes, so did many of the unparalleled group of directors who defined the 1970s – including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, George Lucas, Terence Malick, Michael Cimino, and Friedkin – find themselves victims of a similar fate.

These filmmakers barreled through an incredible run of artistic and popular hits before being sidelined for various reasons as the ’70s came to an end. Coppola lost his mojo beginning with “The Cotton Club” in the early ’80s and embarked on an self-admitted 35-year creative dry spell that has not abated; Scorsese, though making several terrific films later on in his career, would never again (with perhaps the exception of “Goodfellas” in 1991) reach the apex of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”; the reclusive Malick disappeared from the scene altogether to pursue an academic career, working on writing projects away from the public eye before returning triumphantly with “The Thin Red Line” in 1999; and DePalma, a critical art house darling and favorite of self-styled cinemarati the world over, exhausted the good will of his passionate defenders and interest of his determined detractors, who seemed to grow tired of arguing whether he was simply a derivative poseur bleeding Hitchcock dry or a unique and aesthetically sophisticated talent worthy of lasting praise. (In retrospect, he is a bit of both.) Despite the release of the masterful “Dressed To Kill” at the end of the decade and later high points such as “The Untouchables,” he nosedived off the charts, his status as a household name lost forever. Only Spielberg seemed to be able to maintain his momentum through the ’80s and ’90s, but even he never again put together a string of masterpieces like “Jaws,” “Close Encounters,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.”

092514i-William-FriedkinIt was the remaining two names, Cimino and Friedkin, who had the most calamitous change of fortunes – and in strikingly similar ways. In 1979, Cimino’s artistic and commercial credibility were at an all-time high. He had just made “The Deer Hunter,” a brilliant and intense, almost universally praised portrait of Polish steelworkers devastated by the Vietnam War. He swung for the fences when choosing a follow-up, and studio execs extended their trust; unfortunately, it was one that would eventually become shorthand lingo for “disaster” among the industry and filmgoing community: “Heaven’s Gate.” The film went so over budget that it bankrupted the entire United Artists studio. It was mangled in post-production and by studio demands, and reached the theaters a jumbled mess.

A similar fate befell Friedkin, who, after making two of the most iconic films of the ’70s – “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” – and drawing in loads of awards and money also had the power and license to take on a hugely ambitious film as his follow-up. That film, “Sorcerer,” released in 1977, would go on to become one of the most jarring flops of the decade. Like Cimino’s film, “Sorcerer” was a massive, over-budget undertaking involving a long, difficult and even treacherous production. When it finally hit theaters with high anticipation, it landed with a resounding thud. Friedkin’s skyrocketing career flamed out in spectacular fashion.

In the case of Friedkin, what did the public miss? And why? “Sorcerer,” a remake of Henri Cluzot’s superb and revered classic French film “Wages of Fear,” was obviously a labor of love for Friedkin – a very risky one: an attempt to do something idiosyncratic, different, a spectacle demanding of an audience but with potentially wide appeal. In many ways it succeeded. A harrowing portrait of men assigned a strange and almost impossible task, “Sorcerer” is principally about desperation – how it functions, what it makes people do, what it makes people into. It is also about the electricity, the grotesque Russian roulette sense of excitement, that can be generated within the context of human desperation.

It is a tale that spans Paris, London, Jerusalem and many other locales, globe-trotting to weave together the disparate threads of a story that leads, with a sense of methodical doom, to the glorious and horrible improbability by which the particular group of men it assembles accepts this particular task. Friedkin takes his time getting there, with a pace that is deliberate and complicated: we do not always know where he is going, or taking us, and the actual heart of the story does not begin until about an hour in. But the director seems to delight in that approach: Admirably patient in arriving at the tale he really wants to tell, he wants us to steep for a good while in the characters, their motivations, their unusual circumstances and the unusual way they are brought together for an almost absurdly dangerous act. The first half of Friedkin’s work is morally ambiguous and complex, given that the men we are in a sense asked to root for are terrorists, assassins, criminals; it is vast in its political scope and implications, gritty and realistic – many of the hallmarks that made the 1970s such a special decade for film.

The second half of the film is when the real action begins – although paradoxically there has been much gunfire, shouting and commotion up to that point. To say much more would be to rob you of the thrills “Sorcerer” has in store – but let’s say for now that suddenly the film’s action becomes much more microscopic: intimate, scaled way down, not a matter of world-spanning political intrigue but of inches, of minutes, of fevered eyes watching and breaths held over narrow escapes and of tiny bumps along the road as the men attempt to transport an unwieldy cargo a long distance.

“Sorcerer” boasts so many treasures – among them a terrific lead performance from that most consistently underrated of 1970s actors, Roy Scheider, as well as a cast of riveting supporting actors and a pulsating, dread-soaked score by seminal synth group Tangerine Dream. (My sometime editor Tom Meek informed told me over drinks that Friedkin, during his last visit to the HFA, said the band was brought onto the production when the director discovered them on an impromptu midnight trip through the German forest to see the group play at a mansion for what was basically a “rave,” decades before that term was coined. They agreed to score the film with no visuals, but only script in hand.)

“Sorcerer” has undeniable payoffs, yet it is also long, unwieldy, unconventional in narrative and takes a while to kick into gear, refusing to wear its thrills on its sleeve. This may account for the reason audiences didn’t take to it so easily, especially in an era increasingly dominated by the “summer blockbuster” invented by Spielberg’s “Jaws” in 1976, which promised obvious and relatively uncomplicated popcorn thrills characterized by starkly drawn good and evil, easily identifiable heroes and villains, and damsels in distress. Not only that, but the apotheosis of blockbuster fever, the most popular film in history up to that time, was released the same year as “Sorcerer”: Lucas’ groundbreaking “Star Wars.” That alone may account for much of the reason Friedkin’s film missed its mark, but also important is that “Sorcerer” had already bucked an emerging trend to be an almost exclusively male-dominated piece. It portrays a stew of machismo trapped in a cage, of boasts and bluffs, whisky and cigarettes and unshaven faces contemplating grueling acts and horrific consequences. There are no damsels to be rescued, no easy outs or clear resolutions to moral conflict.

“Sorcerer” did not suffer the same kind of abortive creative problems “Heaven’s Gate” would three years later; it simply did not live up to the great expectations, and failed to find its audience. It was more a misfire in terms of tapping into audience curiosity than one of execution or any grave mistakes on Friedkin’s part.

The shame and irony is that “Heaven’s Gate” and “Sorcerer” are among the most underappreciated American films made in the past 40 years. Cimino’s film eventually debuted during the ’80s on the celebrated L.A. cable channel called Z Channel in a full, four-hour director’s cut and was hailed instantly as a “lost” classic. Recently re-released in Blu-ray format, “Sorcerer” has similarly gone on to slowly garner recognition and acclaim as another “lost” great from a decade packed with extraordinary achievements. Yet, back in the day, Friedkin, perhaps because he had put so much of his talent, energy and hopes on the line with the film, was devastated by the response, or lack thereof. Testimony to the magnitude of disappointment is that to this day he has yet to fully recover artistically.

Making matters worse is that his next film, in 1980, was the infamous “Cruising,” which seemingly disproved the maxim “all publicity is good publicity.” A sordid portrait of a murder on the loose in Manhattan’s underground gay male S&M culture, the film (and Friedkin) suffered from perceived sensationalism and exploitation and was protested vigorously by the gay community. Panned mercilessly, it was also reviled by the public for the manner in which it had treated its violent and controversial content. “Cruising” put an exclamation point on the fact that its director was no longer the contender he had been only five years before. (“Cruising” also sounded the death knell for that most iconic actor of the ’70s, Al Pacino, whose career, after languishing through the ’80s, experienced a famed revival in 1993 with “Sea of Love.”) For Friedkin, that was pretty much it, at least for a long while.

Comeback

Friedkin was not entirely out for the count – directors of his magnitude and talent rarely ever are. After one mini-comeback and a descent into a slew of mediocrity and worse, the director finally emerged, in 2011, with a film his long-suffering fans could be proud of: “Killer Joe.” This is the film the HFA will be screening Saturday night, the second round of its two-night special event.

Reeling from the reception of “Cruising,” Friedkin took one more successful stab at greatness in 1985 with “To Live and Die in L.A.” Like “Sorcerer,” the film has grown in esteem and influence provided by repeated viewings, its pleasures able to grow more evident over time. A highly stylized, distilled portrait of the 1980s – the conflagration of art, money, cocaine and crime – and reminiscent of the aesthetic Michael Mann initiated in 1980 with “Thief,” the film returns to the morally ambiguous, dark, machismo territory of “Sorcerer.” (This time there are some damsels in distress present.) It is also takes inspiration from “The French Connection,” delving into the obsessiveness that can grip a police investigation. An elliptical story of cops on the trail of counterfeiters, Friedkin’s first brief comeback features William Peterson as a driven, corrupt cop who base jumps from bridges in his spare time (just to keep the edge) and is on the trail of a very fashionable, creepy and expert criminal (Willem DaFoe), whom he will stop at nothing to nab, even if it means spiting his life for his mission. This time Tangerine Dream descendants and ’80s hit-makers Wang Chung provide the terrific soundtrack. “To Live and Die in L.A.” is an atmospheric, tightly told, enthralling journey into the compromised and pathological heart of men chasing men. Its centerpiece is a highly memorable and beautifully kinetic car chase going the wrong way on the L.A freeway that must go down as one of the best in history – along with Friedkin’s own chase from “The French Connection.”

Through much of the rest of the ’80s and ’90s, Friedkin languished in creative wasteland, a constant frustration and source of mystery for his fans. The cinematic community wondered: What could have happened to the man who made “The French Connection”? Perhaps the standout low point among many is the horribly conceived and executed “Jade” in 1995, a vehicle for the at-the-time rising star David Caruso. Lifeless, boring, and narratively dull, Jade seemed to take all of Friedkin’s strengths and turn them into weaknesses. For lovers of his best films, it seemed a particular travesty.

Three years ago, after showing signs of life with the exciting but ultimately not fully realized thriller “Bug” in 2006, Friedkin emerged triumphantly from years of creative struggle with “Killer Joe.” A tightly written, wonderfully acted and tautly directed black comedy, it constitutes Friedkin’s “second comeback” – and hopefully a lasting one. Featuring Matthew McConaughey as the titular figure and a supporting cast filled with terrific actors including Emile Hirsch and Gina Gershon, the film is about a rather dull, conflicted and highly dysfunctional trailer park family plotting to kill their own evil matriarch. Enlisting “Killer Joe” – a Dallas detective who does hit jobs on the side, the family’s problems begin when they realize they don’t have the 25 grand to pay up front. There is, however, a seeming saving grace: The stoic Joe is enamored with the family’s daughter, a naïve simpleton with girlish charm played with flair and vulnerability by Juno Temple. The family decides to offer her as a sacrifice to Joe, a complication that snowballs deliciously into a series of further twists, turns, betrayals and mishaps that head inexorably toward a finale that is seriously intense, giddily funny and disturbing in its emotions and nearly absurdist levels of terrifying violence. Again, to give any more away would be to disrupt the horrible treats it has in store, but suffice to say Friedkin has recaptured his levels of impassioned storytelling, dark humor and ability to capture human motivations at their most intense and self-destructive.

Which brings us to that original mystery, in light of Friedkin’s own journey as artist and the often destructive instincts or creative choices that laid him low for so long: What enables a great artist to produce crap – and sometimes reams of it – before returning eventually to creative peaks? In the case of Friedkin’s Class of the 1970s, there are many answers that might apply.

One possibility could be the zeitgeist factor. That is, that there seems to be an era in which certain artists, and the kind of methods at which they excel, “have their time,” a cultural moment in which a group of auteurs or performers match up serendipitously to explore emerging tastes or technology or trends to create a legacy. A second possibility, related to the first: burnout. When artists find their talents caught up in or leading a zeitgeist, a tendency can be to give all they have to that era, to creatively and sometimes literally live fast and die young. Think of those ’50s rock ’n’ rollers or their ’60s counterparts – Jimi, Janis, Jim, et al. Think of Jackson Pollock, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac and Marlon Brando (who had perhaps the greatest disaster/comeback tale of all cinematic time). Often, the resulting arc of productivity is tied to an intensity of persona or tendency toward self-destruction that fuels the art but also prevents it. (Both are true when it comes to Friedkin, especially in his younger days.) A third possibility, also tied to the second: perfectionism and personality. Many great artists functioning at their peak, especially in an era that favors them, get so accustomed to doing influential and accomplished work that they resist doing any project they feel unworthy of their aspirations – or they become difficult when they feel an audience or their colleagues or they themselves are not living up to their talents. A cycle begins in which the artist becomes difficult to work with – for better and for worse reasons – and this leads to less people wanting to work with them, which in turn leads to few projects worthy of their promise. These are some of the reasons behind the undoing of so many artists, in and outside film.

Probably all contributed to the career roller coaster on which William Friedkin has been for 50 years and counting.

But rather than listen to any more conjecture, why not go to the HFA on Friday or Saturday night to see for yourself?