In the late 1970s, when Hollywood was in the middle of its most seismic transformation since the collapse of the studio system (namely, the creation of blockbuster fundamentalism), there was a much-talked-about trend that seemed to fit all too snugly into the new world order. That was the arrival of hotshot British movie directors who had honed their craft in the rarefied world of English TV commercials (which, we were always told, were works of supreme techno-visual virtuosity compared to their American counterparts).
At first there were two such transplants: Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. They were soon joined by Adrian Lyne (who made his first feature in 1980) and Scott’s younger brother, Tony Scott (who released his first major film in 1983). All four became players in the industry, and each developed his own style and brand and personality. Ridley Scott was the artiste of the group, crafting visionary sci-fi like “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” Adrian Lyne, director of “Foxes” and “Flashdance,” was the youth-culture maven, and Tony Scott, of “Top Gun” fame, the sleek escapist popcorn wizard.
Alan Parker, who died this week at 76, was harder to pigeonhole. He shared a number of defining visual traits with his British-advert brethren, like a love of fog, diffuse light, and artfully shot grime. His movies, like theirs, often had a punchy technological slick sheen, a kind of beautifully-crafted-yet-untouched-by-human-hands quality. Yet as the years went on, and the credits began to pile up, Parker was revealed to be not only a filmmaker — at his best — of dazzling skill, but one who reveled in an eclecticism that could boggle the mind.
In a career that spanned more than 30 years, he directed just 14 features. But in terms of subject, tone, and outlook, did they ever zig and zag! His first film, “Bugsy Malone” (1976), was a high-kitsch gangster musical starring a cast of children in adult roles. Then he pivoted to “Midnight Express” (1978), a throbbingly suspenseful true-life drama about a young American stuck in a Turkish prison that tapped into culture-war passions that feel red-hot relevant to this day. Then he made “Fame” (1980), an outrageously facile teens-go-to-fine-arts-finishing-school soap opera that was in love with “creativity,” though in name only. Then he tore into his guts to make “Shoot the Moon” (1982), a divorce drama so raw and real it was worthy of comparison to “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Scenes from a Marriage.”
Then he made a grand dystopian rock opera (“Pink Floyd: The Wall”), an offbeat art drama about a man who thinks he’s a bird (“Birdy”), a fantastically stylish private-eye noir set in a world that looks like ours but may actually be hell (“Angel Heart”), a historical message movie about toxic racism in the Deep South (“Mississippi Burning”), an Irish roots-rock feel-good indie (“The Commitments”), a phantasmagorical comedy about the colonically fixated inventor of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (“The Road to Wellville”), and the decades-in-the-making screen adaptation of “Evita.”
With a few exceptions, just thinking about that roster of films makes me want to see most of them again. (Nothing in the world could make me want to see “Evita” again.) I can’t pretend that many of them were favorites of mine. Yet an Alan Parker film had its own heady way of enveloping you. Like many viewers at the time, I was first drawn to him through the experience of seeing “Midnight Express,” a movie fashioned out of an Oliver Stone screenplay (Stone won the Oscar for it, which put him on the road to his career as a filmmaker), and one that Parker staged, with supreme tension, as a vintage Hollywood prison-and-escape story, only with incendiary political overtones.
Parker had a commercial gift for pushing things to extremes. A few years later, he made his greatest film, “Shoot the Moon,” and it couldn’t have been more uncompromised. Drawing on his own experience of divorce (and on Bo Goldman’s layered screenplay), he guided Diane Keaton and Albert Finney, as a couple in the midst of an embattled split, to the kind of tender but raging performances that feel ripped from life. To this day, the film touches nerves about what the end of a marriage is really about that virtually no film has approached since.
“Shoot the Moon” was a work of art, and having established himself as a filmmaker of vision, Parker did his most arresting work in the 1980s. “Birdy,” adapted from William Wharton’s novel, is a true oddball, but a beautifully directed piece of rebel whimsicality. And “Angel Heart,” after “Shoot the Moon,” remains my favorite Parker film. It’s a testament to the seductive nature of his talent, because as great as Mickey Rourke is in it, it’s all about the direction — the sustained atmosphere of ambiguity, the ingenious use of ceiling fans and elevators, the way the film turns what appears to be a detective yarn into a voluptuous flowers-of-evil fever dream. I can watch “Angel Heart” again and again, because it’s a labyrinth to get lost in.
Yet from that point on, I parted ways with Parker. “Mississippi Burning” takes a pivotal piece of American history — the murder of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 — and turns it into a demagogic revenge fantasy; I was shocked, at the time, that Parker thought this was a righteous thing to do, and it still rankles me. (It’s like the dark side of pious liberal message-mongering.) And while I honor the fact that many love “The Commitments,” it’s a movie I like more in theory than fact. For a music fable that roots itself in the gritty barroom “reality” of things, I think it’s too twee and shticky by half (and too in love with the idea of Irish rockers singing American Black music as something inherently cool).
In the ’90s, Parker’s career did a fairly quick fade. He tried his best with “Evita” and “Angela’s Ashes,” but both worked far better in their original forms (stage musical and memoir), and he never directed another film after 2003’s “The Life of David Gale.” Who knows, really, why directors lose their mojo? It’s an impossible profession. Yet when I think back on the movies that Alan Parker made with thrilling skill, hypnotic visual polish, and — yes — an undeniable humanity, there’s no doubt that he had the gift. And that the best of those films will last.