Updated: Aug 14, 2020
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 13
By Laurence Lerman
I was saddened to hear of the passing of filmmaker Alan Parker, who died at the age of 76 on Friday, July 31, at his home in London following a long illness.
One of the most successful directors to emerge from Britain in the 1970s, Parker transported his estimable talents across the pond, where he helmed such popular films as Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980), Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), Mississippi Burning (1988), Come See the Paradise (1990), The Commitments (1991), Evita (1996) and Angela’s Ashes (1999).
Arriving in Hollywood with an immaculately stylized visual sense that he honed as one of Britain’s busiest TV-commercial directors in the late Sixties and early Seventies (alongside fellow Englishmen Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott), Parker’s skills as a cinematic storyteller only grew stronger and more clearly defined as the years passed, beginning with his first Hollywood venture, 1976’s Bugsy Malone, up through his final feature, 2003’s The Life of David Gale.
Upon hearing of Parker’s death, I altered my streaming schedule to include the two features of his sixteen that I had never seen—David Gale and 1994’s The Road to Wellville—as well as his breakthrough 1975 BBC TV drama The Evacuees. I’m glad that I watched them all, particularly The Evacuees, a BAFTA and Emmy winner written by Jack Rosenthal centering on the lives of two Jewish boys who are evacuated from Manchester to Blackpool during the blitz. Essentially a filmed play, it’s quite fine, and along with the two films—which are lesser entries in his genre-spanning filmography, to be sure—showcases Parker’s consistently good work with actors and his splendid sense on how to arrange what goes into his frame (mise en scène, as the French film dork in me feels obligated to offer).
David Gale, which Parker directed and produced, is the more disposable of the two—a dramatic crime thriller starring Kevin Spacey as a college professor and longtime advocate for the abolition of capital punishment who is sentenced to death for raping and murdering a fellow activist friend. Laura Linney is the ill-fated activist and Kate Winslet the journalist Spacey contacts while on death row to tell his story—the real story—as the clock ticks down to his execution.
The film’s in-your-face agenda, hard-to-swallow denouement and overly martyred performance by Spacey (who was apparently in his Kevin-Does-Good mode at the time, having just starred in 2000’s Pay It Forward and 2001’s K-Pax) derailed this one for me, though La Linney and Lady Kate acquit themselves well. And, as it’s Parker, the film and its Texas settings look great.
The Road to Wellville went down a little better for me, ironic as its comedy is of a distinctly scatological bent. Based on the 1993 novel by T.C. Boyle, the film looks at the life of doctor, nutritionist and corn flakes inventor John Harvey Kellogg and the unusual turn-of-the-century methods he employed at his health resort, Battle Creek Sanitarium. It’s a highly fictional historical fiction that Parker anoints with a colorful commitment to its eccentricities, which include all manner of scatological situations and humor. (I never read Boyle’s book, but I’m assuming Wellville’s happy embrace of flatulence, enemas, diarrhea, stool samples and constipation play a major role in it.) Wellville tanked in theaters, enthusiastic performances by Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Broderick, Bridget Fonda and John Cusack, notwithstanding. But Parker’s energetic engagement with the material can be clearly seen (and nearly smelled).
Several years back, I had the opportunity to speak on the phone with Mr. Parker on the occasion of a DVD reissue of Midnight Express. We talked British filmmakers taking on American subjects, DVD and supplement materials and memorable prison films. It was a brief chat, but I was thrilled to be able to tell him how much I dug his work, particularly 1982’s Shoot the Moon, the finest marital discord drama I’ve ever seen, and the deliciously devious 1987 noir Angel Heart. Rereading that interview re-energized my appreciation of Parker and his impeccable body of work. He will be missed.
Here are a few excerpts:
LAURENCE LERMAN: You’re an England-born filmmaker who’s well-known for taking on films with distinctly American stories and themes. How do your English filmmaking talents, styles and perceptions lend themselves to creating such “American” movies?
ALAN PARKER: Well, I grew up on a diet of American movies and so graduated quite naturally to American subjects. The American film industry has always embraced filmmakers from abroad ever since the early days of Hollywood, so I was not alone. There is the theory that if you’re one step outside of a society, perhaps you can look at the world with some clarity and objectivity. Also, I have always been comfortable with the American vernacular. I always think I write better in “American English” than “English English.”
LL: Midnight Express is considered to be one of the cinema’s great prison films. What are your favorite prison films?
AP: I think Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption probably are my favorites. Yes, those two.
LL: Looking back on Midnight Express, which you directed nearly thirty years ago, what about it, if anything, would you change in it now? Any regrets?
AP: Well, it was made when I was quite young. It was my second film. Also, it was Oliver Stone’s first credited screenplay and no doubt wisdom comes from a certain maturity. We were young filmmakers hell-bent on telling a good story about what we saw as an injustice of a disparate legal and prison system, and in our zeal to make our point, maybe a little light and shade got lost. The “good guy” Turks got left out. But the raw energy and uncompromising visceral power of the film still remains fresh and modern, which also came from the same youthful enthusiasm, single-mindedness and naiveté.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.