John Boorman has remained an enigma throughout
his four decade-long career as a director.
The British-born filmmaker has never been pigeonholed by a style or genre, so it is fitting that the title of the retrospective that the BAMCinematek is mounting from Sept. 20 to Oct. 5 is "The Adventures of John Boorman."
"Festivals are mounting retrospectives of my films all over the world," the director said via e-mail from Italy, where he headed the jury during the recent Venice Film Festival. "Perhaps these are gentle hints to tell me to stop."
His tongue, of course, is firmly in cheek.
While BAM’s title may seem a bit of a generic description of Boorman’s filmmaking history, that’s the point, it seems. Boorman as a director has been all over the cinematic map: he’s made comedies, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, historical dramas, autobiographical dramas, even the infamous first sequel to "The Exorcist." (There have been two since then, you may or may not know.) Put all those different types of genres on a director’s resume, and you end up with "The Adventures of John Boorman."
The 11 films in the BAM retro range from 1965’s "Catch Us if You Can," his debut feature starring the Dave Clark Five, a faddish British Invasion band that rode the crest of the Beatles’ wave in the early ’60s, to 1995’s "Beyond Rangoon." (His most recent feature, the riveting 1998 gangster pic, "The General," will not be screened.)
The series - which also includes his nervy, unsettling adaptation of James Dickey’s novel "Deliverance" (1972) - is bookended by his two strongest pictures, opening with his World War II reminiscence, 1987’s "Hope and Glory," and ending with another WWII-era film, the riveting Lee Marvin-Toshiro Mifune mini-psychodrama, "Hell in the Pacific" (1968).
Boorman’s films often have a curious history; in several instances, they were critically drubbed upon release, only to see their reputations grow over time, not unlike the films of Stanley Kubrick. His strangely compelling fictional biopic "Leo the Last" (1970), starring Marcello Mastroianni; his futuristic epic "Zardoz" (1974), with Sean Connery; and, most outrageously of all, "Exorcist II: The Heretic" (1977), with Richard Burton, have all seen initial boos turn into bravos as the years go by.
Boorman himself is perplexed about this development.
"I can’t explain why some of my films have grown in reputation as time passed, except that all films either grow or diminish with time," he said. "Probably the films you mention [’Leo the Last,’ ’Zardoz’ and ’The Heretic’] are unconventional, even original in style, which is always disturbing to audiences. Time magazine called ’Point Blank’ ’a fog of a film’ and many people found it perplexing. When it was revived years later, all those problems seemed to have disappeared. The film had not changed, but the audiences had."
That goes double for "Exorcist II," which found critics reaching for their thesauri to condemn the movie as vociferously as they praised the original William Friedkin classic. Boorman defends his work on that film by returning to the source material: William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel.
"I was offered ’The Exorcist’ but turned it down." he insists. "I found it repulsive as a book: it was all about torturing a child. I saw ’The Heretic’ as a riposte to the [original]; the healing and burgeoning of that child and her redemption, which is why I wanted to make it. The audience rejected it because they wanted more shocks and blood [like the original]."
Along with his films - which are unanimously praised for their varied location shooting - Boorman has kept the art of cinema moving forward by serving as director of the British Film Institute and the co-editor of the excellent "Perspectives" series of film anthology books.
One recent development that every director must now deal with is the ascension of DVD to a level now surpassing that of initial theatrical runs. Boorman sees it quite rightly as a necessary evil, but hopes to subvert its seeming preeminence over the actual work itself.
"Directors are now required to do a commentary for the DVD," he says matter-of-factly. But, he happily admits, "I have never added in extra scenes [for the DVD, where ’deleted scenes’ have become a standard marketing tool]. I have always had final cut [on my films], so for better or worse the released version is mine."
Now, as he’s about to enter a fifth decade making features, Boorman shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, and "The Adventures of John Boorman" shows a versatile director who still calls the shots.
"The Adventures of John Boorman" runs at the BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) from Sept. 20 to Oct. 5. Tickets are $10, $6 for seniors and students with a valid ID. For a complete list of films, screening dates and times, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.