Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Invisible Artist: Irvin Kershner 1923-2010

When George Lucas tapped director Irvin Kershner, who died last Saturday at 87 after a three-year battle with lung cancer, to direct The Empire Strikes Back (the sequel to Star Wars), Kershner asked him, "Of all the younger guys around, all the hot-shots, why me?" Lucas replied, "Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood." Lucas wasn't kidding. Nor was he simply pandering to the veteran director. Although Irvin Kershner had been making movies in Hollywood since the late fifties, he certainly wasn't typical Hollywood. He didn't make the most obvious commercial entertainments, but rather he examined with thoughtful consideration what constitutes commercial entertainment. Which is one reason why The Empire Strikes Back was a significant improvement over its predecessor.

If Lucas created spectacle out of the pop treadmill of space action serials, Kershner gave his own film a sumptuousness that linked it to classic fairy tale. Star Wars was content being an entertainment machine that kept the audience peaked, but The Empire Strikes Back dug deeper into the underpinnings of the story while giving the characters flesh and blood emotion. It was the most dramatically charged and enchanting picture of the entire series. "I like to fill up the frame with the characters' faces," Kershner once said. "There's nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face." That landscape was often filled with the temperament of a film maker who seldom settled for the outlines of what the stories gave him.

In one of his first films, The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964), an unrelenting adaptation of Brian Moore's novel about an unfulfilled Irishman in Montreal, Kershner didn't turn Moore's tale of despair into the inspirational story of a proud man who can't find his place in the world. Like Moore, he delved into James 'Ginger' Coffey's darkest frustrations where his self-destruction and selfless pride resided. Both Robert Shaw in the lead, and Mary Ure as his wife, Veronica, turned dramatic gloom into the revelation of two sparring marital partners reaching revelation too late. Kershner would return to this theme in Loving (1970) where George Segal and Eva Marie Saint play a middle-class married couple blinded by the routine of their roles as parents and partners. Where Segal's husband hides his insecurities in a series of affairs, Eva Marie Saint becomes consumed by domesticity. What separates Loving from most other movies about romantic discord is that their eventual confrontation with the reality of their married life isn't met with condescending scorn (as the couple in American Beauty would be years later). Kershner's compassion for human frailty was coupled with his strong curiosity about how human nature worked.

In The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), the sequel to A Man Called Horse (1970), Kershner expands on the theme of the original western. A Man Called Horse told the story of a British aristocrat John Morgan (Richard Harris), who gets captured on an American hunting trip by the Lakota Sioux Yellow Hand tribe. Over time, he becomes one of them until he decides at the end to return home. Kershner picks up the story after Morgan departs and the Sioux are driven off their sacred burial ground by trappers and their Indian cohorts leaving them spiritually lost and defeated. Their exile is powerfully contrasted with Morgan's own estrangement from his own culture. Sitting in his castle estate surrounded by the artifacts of his former life as a Sioux, he realizes that he now has no true home among his own class. So he returns to America to find that many of tribe have been massacred and the survivors put into lives of slavery. When asked by the exiled Sioux why he returned, Morgan tells them that there was "an empty place in my soul that I couldn't forget." The Return of a Man Called Horse addresses, in the context of an action western, that empty place in the soul plus the complex task of fulfilling it. The Return of a Man Called Horse is about the spiritual rebirth of both the Sioux and John Morgan. While Kevin Costner would trade on this same idea in his later Dances With Wolves (1990), Kershner's film is in every way the superior one. What Costner does is merely reverse the stereotype of the savage Indian versus the noble white settler. In his picture, we are the savage race while the indigenous culture gets infantilized into nobility. Kershner's picture is about spiritual renewal where Morgan and the Sioux both make tribal sacrifices in order to rediscover their roots.

Irvin Kershner didn't have a long career. (His last film was Robocop 2.) But it was a varied one. His work was never typical of any given genre. A Fine Madness (1966) was an uneven, yet spirited, tribute to bohemianism. The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) was an intelligent thriller about a serial killer who stalks the friends of a fashion photographer (Faye Dunaway) who traffics in violent fetishism. He goes for his victims' eyes (the very thing we watch movies with) and mirroring the prurient voyeurism of the photographer. Up the Sandbox (1972), based on Anne Roiphe's novel, examined with an eccentric comic zeal a young mother (Barbra Streisand) who is ignored by her husband which leaves her fantasizing a more exciting life she couldn't ordinarily live (one that includes her playing tribal fertility music, planting explosives inside the Statue of Liberty, and doing the samba with Fidel Castro). Kershner even directed a James Bond remake of Thunderball (Never Say Never Again) in 1983 featuring Sean Connery in his last reprise of the role (and made at Warner Brothers outside of the official Bond canon made at MGM/UA) which was a sly and comical look at an aging 007 who's unsure that he still has the chops to do his job.

Irvin Kershner though did have the chops to do his job whether he's fully recognized for it or not. Outside of The Empire Strikes Back, most of his pictures went largely unnoticed by most critics and moviegoers making him something of an invisible artist. When he died, it drew scant notice largely because his films never inspired anything close to a cult of cinephiles studying his body of work. Perhaps because he let content determine both the style and tone of his pictures, Irvin Kershner's key strength was for allowing the process of discovery to clearly define his sensibility, thus leaving him outside the current trends and fashions of audiences and critics alike. But he was one of our most unassuming talents, a peerless craftsman who left us pondering "the landscape of the human face" rather than the face of the man behind the camera.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see

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