Making great films, like being US president, is an old person’s game

Donald Clarke: This year’s Cannes is discrediting Tarantino’s youth theory as Loach, Kaurismäki, Breillat and Scorsese take plaudits

The Irish Times is still at the Cannes film festival, where the Palme d’Or is about to be awarded. A lot of hot money is going on the 83-year-old Marco Bellocchio for his historical drama Kidnapped. The relatively sprightly Aki Kaurismäki, who is 66, is also competitive with the characteristically downbeat comedy Fallen Leaves. If Ken Loach (86) triumphs he will become the first person to win three Palmes d’Or. Catherine Breillat is competing at 74. Wim Wenders is in the race at 77. And we haven’t yet mentioned the highest-profile out-of-competition premiere of the first weekend. Martin Scorsese, whose Killers of the Flower Moon landed to great hurrahs, has just entered his ninth decade on earth.

Such is the wave of grey film here that Jonathan Glazer, director of the well-received The Zone of Interest, is beginning to seem like an upstart contender for the Palme. The Young Turk. Kid G. Glazer, let it be noted, was 58 in March. At certain points of medieval history he would be burnt as a witch for attaining such a great age. Then again, perhaps film directing is now among those corners of life – US presidential politics, urology clinics, the House of Lords – where folk in their late 50s or early 60s can still be described as “relatively young”. Kamala Harris got a lot of that when she was running in the vice-presidential slot. With all that talk of her youthful vigour, you could easily forget she was born a few months after the release of the first Rolling Stones album. I have yet to be older than any incumbent US president and, despite having a (faint, I should stress) memory of the moon landing, I haven’t come even close with the last two.

So, like being president, filmmaking is an old person’s game. Right? Unlike mathematics, where genius habitually shows itself early, the seventh art requires decades and decades of maturation. Well, this is not everyone’s view. A decade ago Quentin Tarantino (now 60, incredibly) blurted out an opinion that has been dogging him ever since. “Directors don’t get better as they get older,” he said. “Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end.” To be fair to the motormouth, he appears to be accommodating his own career to this theory. Tarantino has stated that his next film will be his last.

There are things that science can tell us - we all face a shrinking vocabulary. I reach for the thesaurus more often than I used to

—  Martin Amis on ageing

All generalisations are unreliable. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to find many examples of directors who got “better” as they “got older”. I bow to nobody in my devotion to early British Hitchcock, but the argument that his high period came from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s is not worth refuting too vigorously. Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho argue for themselves. Michelangelo Antonioni was 53 and a decade into his directing career when, in 1960, L’Avventura arrived at Cannes and made him an international sensation. We could go on. Tarantino would not deny that, though some directors bounce out of the cocoon fully formed, most learn something on their way to a mature period. The real argument here seemed to be that film directors are rarely as potent once they reach what the world – urologists and US political pundits aside – defines as old age. The powers fade. The lust for success dulls. Imagination dissipates. It is not just older filmmakers who get saddled with this pessimistic prognosis. Martin Amis, who died one day after Glazer’s highly praised adaptation of his novel premiered, noted the mental strains novelists endure with age. “There are things that science can tell us – we all face a shrinking vocabulary. I reach for the thesaurus more often than I used to,” he said.

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One can certainly find examples of great filmmakers who ended in a trough of underperformance. But there is a key distinction with novelists. Directors require the co-operation of financiers and mass audiences. Hitchcock stumbled after The Birds in 1963, but that was partly because, as the swinging decade set in, the culture around was less accommodating to his art of repression. The best bits of David Lynch’s 21st-century return to the Twin Peaks TV series showed his gifts are undimmed, but, struggling to secure funding for features, he nonetheless finds that particular part of his career in an unhappy late slump. “David Lynch can’t get money to make a film!” Jim Jarmusch told me, aghast, at Cannes in 2019. “If Terry Gilliam wants the money, then just give it to him. He’s Terry Gilliam!”

Some money is still going the way of older filmmakers. Quite a few of them have landed at Cannes this year. There is evidence there to refute Tarantino’s argument and to cheer those pessimistic about the ravages of age. But give the young ‘uns a chance as well.