Crouching Producer, Hidden Director

Longtime collaborators James Schamus and Ang Lee leave their cinema unsigned

When an auteur spends his entire career concealing all signs of authorship and adapting himself with chameleonic ease to the cinematic chore at hand, is he still an auteur? In the case of internationally feted director Ang Lee, the answer is an unqualified maybe. Taiwanese-born and U.S.-based, the 51-year-old Lee has made nine features, worked on three continents, and essayed a panoply of genres--the kung fu epic, the literary adaptation, the suburban family drama, the Civil War reenactment, and the Big Summer Blockbuster. His career-long disappearing act is rooted in a self-effacing cinematic style, which his harshest critics have described as generic, middlebrow, and boring. If an auteur is someone whose films are identifiable through telltale obsessional trademarks, then Lee is an antiauteur, eager to don the drag of his film project du jour.

The Walker Art Center's Ang Lee retrospective (running through December 18) presents the totality of the director's feature work, including his latest Oscar hopeful Brokeback Mountain (see sidebar below). Also honored is regular Lee collaborator and Focus Features co-president James Schamus, who has served as screenwriter, producer, or both, on all of Lee's movies. Riding the '90s indie wave, the duo hit instant pay dirt with their first collaboration, Pushing Hands, a small comedy about the emotional havoc that a Taiwanese father inflicts when he moves in with his son and American wife. Following up with the Oscar-nominated hits The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee established himself as a bankable director of tasteful domestic comedy. Light, pleasing, and forgettable, these early films bear the unmistakable imprint of industry calling cards, each carefully constructed to please Academy voters and give art-house crowds a no-fuss ethnic fix.

Two rode together: Ang Lee and James Schamus on the set of 'Brokeback Mountain'
Focus Features
Two rode together: Ang Lee and James Schamus on the set of 'Brokeback Mountain'

Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm continue the repressed-family themes of Lee's Taiwanese movies, though in vastly different settings (18th-century England and 1973 suburban Connecticut, respectively). The two films are in many ways mirror opposites: Sense deals with internalized feelings while The Ice Storm portrays messy rebellion. The former movie is optimistic about family life; the latter is cynically philosophical. "A family is like your own personal antimatter," says The Ice Storm's Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire). "Your family is the void you emerge from and the place you return to when you die. And that's the paradox." The Dashwood sisters in Sense act as their own antimatter: The elder (Emma Thompson) is rational and reserved, while the younger (Kate Winslet) heedlessly follows her emotions. Their romantic entanglements with unavailable men form the movie's parallel story lines, much as The Ice Storm draws connections between its teenage characters' fumblings and their parents' spouse-swapping antics. In the end, the two films can be viewed as each other's own antimatter: Sense cheerfully reinforces the ties that bind (with a double wedding, no less), while The Ice Storm sunders every familial link in sight with a clean slice.

A model of compact construction, Schamus's screenplay for The Ice Storm preserves novelist Rick Moody's balance between hip sarcasm and romantic yearning while reconfiguring the novel's digressive structure into something more linear. Far less explicit than its source (male ejaculation not being approved studio fare), the film relies on discreet gestures and awkward silences to convey the era's sexual tension. Had Lee and Schamus taken a similarly taciturn approach to their next endeavor, Ride with the Devil, a Missouri-set Civil War drama, they might have created a poetic anti-Western à la Unforgiven. Instead, Ride with the Devil is a long-winded slog through Confederate backwaters that ultimately says very little and takes forever to go nowhere. Schamus's screenplay mimics the vernacular twang of Daniel Woodrell's 1987 source novel Woe to Live On, but completely misses the book's wind-in-your-greasy-hair physicality. Without even a single memorable shot, Ride may best be remembered as the film that killed pop singer Jewel's movie career before it even started. (For the record, Jewel gives a perfectly competent performance as a demure Southern widow.)

Lee's next two films are both more overtly action-based: the wu-xia crossover sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the CGI extravaganza Hulk. And both are prime examples of Lee's ability to wring all the fun out of inherently silly genres, all in the name of mature moviemaking. Designed for export, Crouching Tiger spends much time earnestly moralizing about honor and true love, disgorging mountains of clichéd dialogue that probably reads better subtitled than it sounds spoken aloud. (The movie tanked in Asia.) The action scenes, when we finally get to them, feel airbrushed of all naturalistic mayhem and spontaneity. Leaden and ungraceful, the movie takes itself so seriously that it edges close to embarrassing sentimentality. So does Hulk, which dubiously aspires to operatic tragedy when a B movie approach would've sufficed. In adapting Stan Lee's Marvel comic book, Lee and Schamus focus on unresolved abandonment issues between Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) and his father (Nick Nolte)--both of them scientists, both seriously insane. Much shouting and property destruction takes place before the movie climaxes in an abstract freakout of lightning, nuclear reactions, and pure Nolte ham.

Hulk, unlike Ride with the Devil, is a fascinating failure, and may, even after Brokeback Mountain, be Lee's most interesting film to date. It's certainly the closest he has come to making a director's movie--which is to say, a film with a strong authorial vision. Indulging in ominous screen-within-a-screen effects, placing the actors on permanent frown duty, Hulk luxuriates in a tormented anguish that refuses to let up. It's highly ironic that this self-styled independent filmmaker reached his most passionate and personal levels of artistry on a film that cost $120 million and grossed nearly twice as much.

 
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