I didn't know George Hickenlooper very well, but every time I corresponded with him, he had something nice to say. Back in early October, when he received the news that a Morgan Spurlock documentary featuring him was going to be airing on AMC, he went on Facebook and expressed how nervous he was. He was a little embarrassed about the fact that he would be appearing alongside fellow independent filmmaker John Sayles as they would both be featured getting ready for the Toronto Film Festival.
Trying to make light of the situation, I offered some words of support. "Can't wait for it, George!" I posted on his link. "You and Sayles are two of my favorites!"
"Thanks, brother," he replied. "I feel like I have a few compromising moments that will make me wince to say the least."
Brother. That's what he called everybody. Even people he didn't know very well. I learned this upon watching the Spurlock documentary when it finally aired: he was gliding through Toronto, joking with his actors (Kevin Spacey, Jon Lovitz), relaxing in hair salons, ordering Spurlock's cameramen to stay out of his suite. And he addressed everybody as "brother". It's a testament to the bright, optimistic spirit he was. He regarded every fellow man as a supporter.
Normally when actors and filmmakers pass away, it's something that you think about, mourn, and then move on from. But hearing about Hickenlooper's death last Saturday was something that saddened me beyond belief. It shouldn't have happened that way. Not like this. He was only 47 years old. It was not his time.
One thing I have to confess is that I mourned over Hickenlooper's death for a reason that was, in retrospective, pretty selfish: I hadn't ever gotten a chance to meet him. My mother and I, both of whom are fans of his work, were planning on attending the premiere of Hickenlooper's latest film, Casino Jack, on November 11 at the St. Louis International Film Festival. I couldn't wait to finally get a chance to speak to him--the single greatest native St. Louis filmmaker--in person. And when I realized that it was never to be, it wounded me deeply. I didn't even stop to think about how this wasn't about me: it was about Hickenlooper, and the films he never got to make, and the friends he knew better who had lost him. It was a pain far beyond my own insignificant regrets.
I can do nothing now except reminisce about what I remember of Hickenlooper and his work. To date, I have only seen four of his films. I'll describe my thoughts about each of them, briefly. And I'll try to fit in my other correspondences with Hickenlooper, provided that they fit into my tribute.
Hearts of Darkness (1991)
When I first saw Hearts of Darkness, I was impressed, but I'm not sure I *got* the point of it. The film, which documents Francis Ford Coppola's nervous breakdown on the set of Apocalypse Now (including the details of Martin Sheen's heart attack, as well as Coppola's rage when helicopters in the "Ride of the Valkries" sequence would suddenly ride off in the middle of the shot to fight guerillas in the jungles), gathers so much damning footage of Coppola that it almost makes Apocalypse Now, as a film, look like it turned out to be a disappointment--like an early Heaven's Gate.
But then I realized that Hickenlooper and his co-director, Fax Bahr, were trying to be as objective as possible. If they had fallen into hero worship of Coppola while editing the film, Hearts of Darkness might not have been the most reliable documentation of the making of that movie. The end result of Hearts of Darkness was so impressive that Gene Siskel even went so far as to name it the best film of 1991.
In recent years, Hickenlooper himself flew into a Hearts of Darkness type of rage over the Coppolas' refusal to allow him and Fax Bahr to have any control over the documentary's DVD release, which is full of interviews with Coppola and his wife Eleanor and even includes their own commentary track--but nothing by Hickenlooper or Bahr. The reason is simple: the Coppolas regards Hearts of Darkness as *their* film. They don't care about the fact that it essentially made Hickenlooper's career; they believe they had every right to take away his credit and claim it as their own. When Jeff Wells wrote about the Coppolas' bewildering treatment of Hickenlooper and Bahr, the controversy was revived all over again.
Moved, I sent Hickenlooper a private message informing him that I sympathized with his condition and that I was spreading word of this over on other websites. His response to me: "Thanks for your support. Much appreciated. GH."
Like Hickenlooper, I am a fan of the Coppolas, but I hope they realize that by taking Hickenlooper and Bahr's film away from them, they were putting themselves in opposition to the free independent film movement. I hope now they have the sense to do the right thing and hand over credit of the film to where it is due.
Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade (1993)
I actually saw Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade before I saw the 1996 feature film remake. I love both films, but in terms of aesthetic I much prefer Hickenlooper's film, which, unlike Billy Bob Thornton's remake, is shot in black-and-white and makes great use of lighting and shadow, especially during the sequence in which the demented Karl is interviewed by a reporter (Molly Ringwald) about how he murdered his mother and her lover, with a kaiser blade, when he was a little boy.
Hickenlooper makes this scene unforgettable: he closes slowly in on Karl as he gives this unexpected speech, moving in as we get increasingly closer to a madman. The main flaw of the 1996 remake is that Thornton had to direct himself and, therefore, the camera is stationary most of the time.
On Facebook, Hickenlooper made it no secret that he did not enjoy working with Thornton ("Fuck Billy Bob!"). I don't know what went on between them, but I know two things: a) without Hickenlooper, Thorton wouldn't be where he is today, and b) Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade was further evidence that Hickenlooper would be going places in his great filmmaking career.
The Big Brass Ring (1999)
The most notable thing about The Big Brass Ring is that Hickenlooper actually worked from an original screenplay by Orson Welles and Oja Kodar. So the film is, in a nutshell, Welles in St. Louis! What's more thrilling than that? Overall, it's a modestly-made film with good performances by William Hurt as a bisexual politician running for Governor of Missouri, Miranda Richardson as his embittered wife, and Nigel Hawthorne as a congressman with secrets to his embarrassing past. The story is less than perfect, but it's a movie that should be seen and doesn't deserve the anonymity it's been getting in recent years. I think the fact that it debuted on television, rather than in theaters, has something to do with that.
What I admire most about the film is that it makes spectactular use of St. Louis, and Hickenlooper's camera is particularly in love with the Gateway Arch: there is a tremendous shot in which we pan up and stare at the top of the Arch as it gleams in the sun's ray's. There are other fine shots of the Mississippi River and the casino boats that ride around it, as well as clever interludes of television telecasts by real-life St. Louis anchors Dick Ford and Mandy Murphy. I can't think of another movie that makes better use of our city.
Also, if you look closely, there's a cameo in the movie by Hickenlooper's video game designer friend, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner. He appears briefly as one of William Hurt's political aides, guiding him through the crowds. In the 1990's, Hickenlooper did a favor to Mechner by providing the voiceover for a French cook in Mechner's computer game, The Last Express (1997). Back in April, when I reported about the possibility of a film adaptation of The Last Express being in the works, I sent word of it to Hickenlooper. He then posted on my Facebook Wall a message that was absolutely priceless: "I hope to reprise my role!"
I saw The Big Brass Ring for the first time just last week, watching the first half of it on Friday and the second half of it--eerily--on Saturday, after hearing about Hickenlooper's death.
The Man from Elysian Fields (2002)
This was the first Hickenlooper film I ever saw, and it remains my favorite of his work. I actually owe it to my mother introducing it to me: she had rented it from the Webster Groves library, loved the heck out of it, and thought it amusing that it was directed by a man who had "Hickenlooper" for a last name. Neither of us had any idea that he was a filmmaker from St. Louis.
I haven't seen The Man From Elysian Fields in years, but I'd see it again in a second. It is truly an amazing little film. Basically, Andy Garcia plays a struggling writer who is hired by a gigolo businessman (Mick Jagger--I'm not kidding) to serve as an escort and sexual partner for married, rich women. His latest client is played by Olivia Williams (in a role that, oddly enough, is a lot like the role she played this year in Polanski's The Ghost Writer), and her husband is played by James Coburn in what was to be his last role as well as, fittingly, his swan song. And Garcia's wife, played by Julianna Margulies (her best performance ever?), is hurt and angry when she finds out that her husband has been sleeping with other women for money.
It's a passionate film, full of emotions about real people and struggling artists. It even has an uplifting ending, but--as Roger Ebert noted in his 4-star review--it is a happy ending that is earned.
But it's not over. I have more of Hickenlooper's films to see. Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdonavich in Archer City, Texas. Persons Unknown. Dogtown. Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Factory Girl. And of course, Casino Jack. My mother and I still have to decide if we'll be attending the November 11 premiere. Maybe we will. I don't know. We'll see.
Hickenlooper's films were not always commercial hits, but they almost always sparked varying discussion in the critics' cricles. In that AMC documentary (Committed) that aired back in October, Hickenlooper told Morgan Spurlock, "When I was young, I was really stupid. If I’d get a bad review, I’d contact a critic and argue with them over why the movie worked. And David Carr of the New York Times called me once and said, 'Dude, you gotta back off! These journalists are gonna hang you out to dry—they take it very personally.' And I was like, 'hey, it’s just a movie, right?'"
St. Louis is not a city that encourages young people to grow up and live out their lives as filmmakers. Most of us grow up to become teachers, bankers, small business owners and sometimes even journalists. You don't ever hear about kids from St. Louis going off and becoming successful filmmakers. For a long time, I was so unsure that it was even possible. George Hickenlooper was living proof that, with just the right amount of filmmaking brilliance, it can happen.