James McDonagh on Rob Reiner…
Ever wondered why the volume control on the BBC iPlayer goes up to eleven? If you’re not sure, then the chances are that you’ve yet to see one of the greatest comedies ever made, This Is Spinal Tap, from 1984.
While it was far from being the first ‘mockumentary’, it pushed the genre into the mainstream for the first time. Not just genre-defining, it was also almost entirely improvised. Many modern comedies are, but it remained rare in 1984. Calling it “one of the greatest comedies ever made” is no exaggeration. Time Out ranks it as the best, saying, “there’s literally nothing about it that could be improved.” For Empire, it only scrapes in at number two (between When Harry Met Sally and Groundhog Day). Their take on the film: “the authenticity on show is quite staggering, while the hit rate of the gags goes all the way up to eleven.”
It’s interesting that the Empire list (from 2019) should feature When Harry met Sally in third place. Once again, this was a genre-defining piece of work, creating the template for modern romantic comedies. It’s another film that frequently tops lists of its genre. Ah, lists… As I recently said, I’m not a huge fan. But humour me a moment as I point you toward another: the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest love stories. Unsurprisingly, Harry and Sally are on that list, along with President Andrew Shepherd and Sydney Ellen Wade (The American President, 1995) and Buttercup and Westley (The Princess Bride, 1987). If you must talk about lists, then it would be hard to improve on one containing This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally… but I’ll give it a shot.
You see, as well as turning a new page for comedies, Spinal Tap marked the start of a staggering seven movie streak also featuring a top-drawer legal thriller, a great horror, and almost certainly the best coming of age movie. Don’t just take my word for it… these seven films have an average Tomato meter score of 90% and an average Audience Score of more than 89%.
They were all directed by a man whose politics have made him a target for Fox News and the butt of South Park jokes. His more recent output has fallen some way short of this spectacular period. Nevertheless, let’s consider the word ‘great’ for a moment, in the context of directors.
Some of us are film fanatics (or “film snobs”, as my brother calls me), so thinking of ‘great’ directors naturally draws us toward Orson Welles, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick. We’ll endlessly analyse scenes, characters, and themes, and sometimes dismiss popular films which lack depth. The Martin Scorsese/Marvel debate last year illustrated this. But I’d argue many filmgoers probably don’t care who made a movie, they just want an entertaining experience. They want to step from a cold, noisy street into a comfortable theatre, to forget about the real world for a couple of hours. They hand over a lot of cash for the privilege and rightfully expect to be entertained in return. Any ‘film snob’ who tells you there’s anything wrong with that is probably not a film lover. They’re missing the point.
Popular filmmakers like Steven Spielberg aren’t just important, they’re vital. Without people like him as a gateway drug, many of us would never have heard of Kurosawa. It’s filmmakers like him who enter the collective consciousness, who build our shared dreamscapes.
Now, when we talk about purple patches of great movies, Spielberg can certainly teach us a thing or two, as can Scorsese, Nolan, Coppola … both Francis and Sofia have had hot streaks, as, despite what the Academy would have you believe, have several other female filmmakers; Kathryn Bigelow is yet to make a bad film.
There is one name that dominates this list. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography is second to none. Most of them are bona fide classics, endlessly rewatchable and rewarding of analysis. Now, I’m not going to claim that the director of Spinal Tap rivals Kubrick, far from it. But one thing they do have in common above all the other names mentioned is sheer variety.
Scorsese, Coppola… you know what you’re getting when you sit down to watch one of their movies. Spielberg has shown a wonderful range as he’s matured and continues to do so, moving into musicals for his next project.
But both Kubrick and the director I’m talking about displayed a vast range with a short list. Both made a comedy that comfortably sits on any top ten list of the genre. At the other extreme, they each made one of the genuinely successful Stephen King horror adaptations, which let’s face it, is much easier said than done.
So, who am I talking about? A man who was hilarious as Mad Max in The Wolf of Wall Street: I’m talking about Rob Reiner.
While those Kubrick comparisons are justifiable, this is where they part. You could no more imagine Kubrick, despite his awesome talents, winning three separate positions on that AFI love story list any more than you could imagine Reiner making a genre-defining science fiction masterpiece like 2001: A Space Odyssey or a brutal war film like Full Metal Jacket. Still, when it comes to brutality, the horrific hobbling scene in Misery (1990), still hard to watch, contrasts so starkly with Reiner’s other work that it once more demonstrates his range. Let’s look at the list:
This is Spinal Tap, 1984.
The Sure Thing, 1985.
Stand by Me, 1986.
The Princess Bride, 1987.
When Harry Met Sally… 1989.
A Few Good Men, 1992.
There is not one bad film on that list. Hell, there’s barely a bad scene. They are all, truly, great movies. Of course, Reiner worked with exceptional writers during this period. He has only one writing credit himself between ’84 and ’92 (on Spinal Tap). When Harry met Sally… was written by the wonderful Nora Ephron, and he worked with such luminaries as William Goldman (twice), Aaron Sorkin and Christopher Guest. But he chose, as director to work with these talents, and nothing about their talent can distract from the quality of the direction, which is deceptively simple. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” In the clarity of Reiner’s direction, you can see that dedication to getting the fundamental things perfect in order to achieve a greater whole.
Take the train bridge scene in Stand by Me. One second you’re enjoying the beautiful scenery and great music, then the camera pulls back to reveal the bridge stretching out across the chasm. Okay, perhaps the expository dialogue that follows is a bit much for the child actors, but it’s ended with a masturbation joke and you’re back in the movie, suspense building against the sense of childhood adventure. The pace slows, the characters personalities are examined in near silence as they move toward their goal. Now the acting is conveyed mainly by facial expressions and you see just how talented these kids really are. You’re with them for every step. Occasionally the frame expands to show you how close they are to the other side. And how exposed they are. Then Gordie checks the rail, the sound effect builds at the same time as his face fills with terror. You see the steam above the trees. He screams a warning… The scene encapsulates the whole film: friendship, facing your fears, standing by one another when things are at their worst.
Or how about the hobbling scene in Misery? It’s classic horror and suspense direction in many ways, the wider scene playing out as in the foreground you see Paul’s hand searching for the knife that we know he’s stored under the mattress. You could easily swap it for Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. Again, the scene slows down, this time building toward something you don’t want to watch. The music contrasts with the pictures, as Annie Wilkes’ violence contrasts with her smiling face and calm voice. After it’s over, she tells him she loves him. At least, I think that’s what happened, I was cowering behind my fingers.
The morning after in Harry and Sally is conveyed using a split screen, four-way, simultaneous telephone conversation, from three different locations, but you know exactly what’s going on.
The final courtroom scene in A Few Good Men is borderline genius. You’re given a philosophical debate between two competing ideologies with wordy dialogue about the morality of killing, honour, and justice. Arguably, this belongs in a university textbook, not a thriller. Yet the framing, the pacing, the acting, and all the directorial choices elevate it. As Tom Cruise’s character, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, grapples with the decision whether to cross the line and go for broke, it plays out on his face and you see his colleagues doubting him and their own convictions, but he does it. What then follows, all words and angry eyes in close-up, is as exciting as the best action movie, yet it’s two men arguing about an obscure point of military procedure.
A Few Good Men does have one of the weaker scores of this list on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was to be the end of this golden period for Reiner. The films that he made afterwards were less successful, although The American President was still to come in 1995 (written by Sorkin and acting as template for The West Wing) and The Bucket List (2007) isn’t bad. Reiner got increasingly involved in politics during the Nineties, perhaps less focused on his movies.
But there’s no question: Rob Reiner is a great director. If you pick any film from this list, it’s inconceivable that you won’t enjoy it.
What do you think. Is this the greatest ever streak by a director? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…