Mar 19, 2008

Anthony Minghella/Ivan Dixon RIP

Condolences are due for a pair of outstanding directors. Anthony Minghella, whose early success and career long association with the Weinstein Brothers probably cost him some of the critical support he deserved for his vastly underappreciated Breaking and Entering, died suddenly on Tuesday. Also, as I just discovered, Ivan Dixon, the actor most famous for his role on the 60s hit TV show Hogan's Heroes, but whose most provocative work was at the director of the black revolutionary cult thriller The Spook Who Sat By The Door, also died yesterday. He was 76.

Both men were talents who in their own, vastly different ways, were quite under appreciated. Minghella, who starting with 1990's Truly, Madly, Deeply, made films with a distinct visual lushness, a fine ear for naturalistic dialogue (even if derived from literary sources) and an all too uncommon grace when regarding the intricacies of class, was, despite his Oscar, his high toned producing partnership with Sydney Pollack and his heavy involvement in Opera and the theater, thought of by many in the critical community as a middlebrow metteur en scene, a peddler of high falutin', bloated, self-important literary properties. Yet, I've found it difficult to think of a recent film that exhibits as much old fashion neo-humanistic empathy and compassion from me as Breaking and Entering did, even if its leads are huge movie stars with soaring cheekbones. Few thrillers are as skillfully made as his The Talented Mr. Ripley, a film where Mr. Minghella elicited career best work out of Matt Damon and created a portrait on a monster and a genius that contained pathos and aesthetic beauty unlike anything I've seen since. The final shot of that film, where the camera slowly glides, bit by bit, out of a door in Ripley's room on a Mid-Atlantic boat , where he has just killed the only person he has ever been able to bring himself to love, is one of my favorites of all time, up there with some of the great last shots, like Antonioni's The Passenger (technically the shot I'm recalling is the second to last shot, but it for all intents and purposes closes the movie) and Coppola's The Conversation.

Mr. Dixon has a much smaller resume despite his advanced age. He was only able to make two films as a director and only one of them remains of much value, but in its ham fisted way, The Spook Who Sat By The Door one of the most relevant films ever made about black political and social anger in this country. Based on Sam Greenlee's polemical novel, the narrative is a sort of black version of The Turner Diaries, the white separatist novel that inspired Tim McVeigh and his collaborators. Made for $300,000 in Chicago and several smaller neighboring cities during 1971, the film is a pop insurrectionist fantasy, the ultimate black nationalist wetdream, a project that, save the 1972 Billy Dee Williams vehicle The Final Comedown, is the only film to take the absurd notion of black American guerilla insurgency seriously.

Despite the incendiary subject matter, it all goes down relatively smooth - the Herbie Hancock score certainly helps and Dixon, despite his budget, seemed to have a gift at sustaining tension- although its difficult from a contemporary lens to buy the arguments Lawrence Cook's ex-CIA lackey turned black rebellion leader posits, the underlying suspicion of any white American institutions good will toward African-Americans is one that largely persists in large swaths of African-American community today. Spook proved Dixon to be a director of some promise, but the film never received a proper theatrical release and was largely unavailable (read:supressed) until a 2004 DVD release. Dixon went on to make only one more film, the shoddy Robert Hooks vehicle Trouble Man, which is perhaps best known as the source material for the Marvin Gaye song. In the wake of perhaps the most daring, complex and emotionally honest speech on American race relations undertaken by a major political figure ever, I think that these films are more valuable cultural products than ever.