Once upon a time the phrase “director Joel Schumacher” was a handy punchline and/or an unpleasant flashback trigger in many geek circles. Y’know, after what happened with the one (1) film. Never mind that he amassed over three dozen other credits over the course of his career, quite a few of which were eminently watchable and in some cases even respectable. Granted, that most notorious failure derailed a beloved film franchise for several years, hobbled a zillion-dollar merchandising machine for about ten minutes, and was a ludicrous betrayal to those of us who were perhaps a bit too unyielding in our stoic allegiance to Super Serious Super-Heroes.
I let that go years ago. Sooner or later all punchlines gets tired upon incessant repetition, most grudges get pointless as time passes, and some axes don’t need any more grinding.
I was sorry to hear of Schumacher’s passing on June 15th at age 80 after a year-long battle with cancer. Cancer sucks. Much as I’d love to write a definitive summation of his career, that’s best left to professional websites who underpay collaborative teams to compile such listicles from their combined viewing experiences. The following is a personal recollection of my encounters with his works from my teenage years to two months ago. It’s not a long list, or a logically organized or comprehensive one, but it’s mine.
* The last fifteen minutes of St. Elmo’s Fire – I missed all the “Brat Pack” films back in the day except The Breakfast Club, but long before the name “Schumacher” meant anything to me, I caught the end of this one, in which the cast has to talk a young Demi Moore out of suicide or just extreme post-college angst. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate a drama about how young adulthood can totally crush you, but the weight of the performances stuck with me, and may have been among the subconscious voices in my head chanting “WE TOLD YOU SO” circa mid-1993 when life felt a lot like that.
* The Lost Boys – My favorite 1980s vampire flick, bar none, and not just because they put comics in it. In fact, the comics hurt more than they helped because if you pay attention to the scene where Corey Haim is ostensibly impressing the Frog brothers with his knowhow, nothing he’s saying matches a single title he’s actually touching or reorganizing. It’s been my theory for years that Haim’s part sounds as if it were written for a kid half his age, which would’ve helped a few things make more sense. That aside, teenage-me loved all that slick styling and swinging cameras and ’80s TV-nightclub hairdos and that moody soundtrack I still have on cassette (INXS! Echo and the Bunnymen!) and actors I didn’t know who would pop up again in my future. (Edward Herrmann! Alex Winter! Barnard Hughes with one of the best final lines in a film ever!) It defined vampires for me at an impressionable age and set a bar that wouldn’t be displaced for years until I begrudgingly started watching Buffy on DVD.
* INXS’ “Devil Inside” – I’m not convinced the handful of music videos listed in his IMDb entry were his only MTV fare, but among those confirmed, this is the only one I remember watching before this week. Basically a return to the jumpy editing and fashion statements of The Lost Boys minus dialogue or performances (unless you count Andrew Farriss goggling at the camera), when I think quintessential ’80s cliches, I don’t think of John Hughes films or family sitcoms. I think of guys like Michael Hutchence and this sultry, smoky video’s strutting, preening extras in their edgy magazine togs that might as well have been scifi costumes to my poor Midwest self, and yet somehow they didn’t feel ridiculous at the time. And we can relive it all today on YouTube in glorious VHS-O-Rama!
* Flatliners – I had high hopes this would be Lost Boys 2, and the style exercises are certainly comparable in parts, but ultimately a group of med students tangling with nebulous Death Itself turned into a muddled mess as the real enemy was the fears we faced along the way. Eventually Final Destination figured out how to personify Death Itself to deeply chilling effect, but props to Schumacher for attempting a foray into headier spiritual themes, after a fashion.
* The first twenty minutes of Falling Down – I never bought Michael Douglas as a square nebbish for one second. His tirades at every little thing that angered him were dull indulgences compared to the stand-up comedians I was listening to at the time. Creative venting can be an artform unto itself, or it can be a repetitive slog, and in the latter sense Our Antihero “D-FENS” presaged much of the internet in general and Twitter in particular to an alarming fault. I prefer my anger with focused precision, not a scattershot spread.
* Batman Forever – Honestly? I dig this film far more than I’m supposed to. After the wacky bleakness of Batman Returns I was pretty okay with the series taking a different direction, even if it was three steps back from Super Serious Super-Heroes and veering uncomfortably close to Batman ’66 turf, which we comics fans weren’t supposed to condone in the ’90s. Tommy Lee Jones and Nicole Kidman were miscast probably to satisfy Warner Brothers execs, but Schumacher wisely took full advantage of Jim Carrey in his over-the-top prime and gave the Dark Knight Detective and Gotham City a sort of sinister pizzazz that felt more faithful to older Bat-comics than Tim Burton’s quasi-Goth spectacle, though I’d argue both directors were nearly evenly matched for sheer absurdity. I could take or leave Val Kilmer as Batman, but in his defense his stern-killjoy rendition matches a good 80% or more of the several hundred Bat-comics I’ve read to date.
* A Time to Kill – In between Bat-films, Schumacher hitched a ride aboard the short-term John Grisham bandwagon and introduced mainstream audiences to future A-lister Matthew McConaughey. The tension and the southern heatstroke are palpable as our hotshot hero-lawyer defends Samuel L. Jackson against charges of murdering his daughter’s rapists. No superpowers, no gaudy costumes, no showbiz pizzazz, just McConaughey pursuing justice against racists and baring everyone’s souls in his closing argument, which made for riveting drama in an era when “white savior narrative” wasn’t yet a codified trope.
* Batman and Robin – If you know Schumacher’s name but have never seen this, his anti-magnum opus, I don’t even know what you’re doing here. Memories of any part of it make me wince, from Arnold’s puns to the Bat-Card to Bat-surfing to Clooney’s 1990s chin-tucking habit to the worst Robin performance in world history. As bad-film discussions go, it’s a dead horse beaten pizza-crust thin. I own it on Blu-ray not for the film itself (nobody needs to see Bat-armor details with crystal clarity) but for the candid commentary, in which Schumacher indicts the producers and other meddlesome parties for their nonsensical anti-art demands, and yet he takes full responsibility for his culpability and capitulation. He did the job he was hired to do and delivered what was asked of him. He could’ve walked away like an indignant artiste. He didn’t. And he owns up to it. No excuses. It’s a classy move that commands respect even though I have next to none for the film itself.
* Three random minutes of 8mm – It’s a fair reaction for a director to have: what do you do after making a film that many declared The Worst Anything Of All The Things Ever? You announce to the world, “And now for something completely different!” His next gig after B&R sent Nicolas Cage on a mad descent into the world of snuff films (the 20th century’s answer to the Dark Web) as imagined by the writer of Seven. The reviews were appalled and discouraging, to say nothing of, well, lingering resentment for the whole Batman and Robin thing. I ran across it one night while channel-flipping (back when we were still paying extra for premium cable, because this was not the kind of film they edit for broadcast TV) and was just in time to see Cage giving Joaquin Phoenix a beatdown that was presumably deserved but nonetheless ugly. I figured it wasn’t my thing and moved on, but I couldn’t fault Schumacher for needing a radical change of scenery.
* Tigerland – Probably a touch less gritty than 8mm, Schumacher and Colin Farrell had a lower-than-usual budget to cover Vietnam War boot camp, less violent and terrifying than Full Metal Jacket, and not so much about the standard volume-11 condemnation of atrocities as it is about men who are sick and tired of having arbitrary orders screamed at them and would much rather do their own thing, which isn’t the worst metaphor for working on would-be Hollywood blockbusters. Schumacher’s thoughtful DVD commentary also includes a digression about his belief in a higher power that truly surprised me, and in a fleeting sense nearly comes back around full circle to the Flatliners leg of his journey.
* House of Cards, chapters 5 and 6 – His final screen credits were for the fifth and sixth chapters, which my wife and I have been watching in small doses (for which one hopes Kevin Spacey’s residuals were minuscule or less). Fantasy and sci-fi were distant in Schumacher’s rear-view mirror as he bowed out with a pair of episodes that gave us a drunken Corey Stoll, an insider’s look into a nobly-intentioned renegade news outlet that’s kind of hilarious in light of the way things are today, Boris McGiver from The Wire uttering The Worst Profanity, Frank Underwood going viral with embarrassment on live TV, foam bricks, boring water filters, icky hospital bed hi-jinks, and Kate Mara letting Spacey take nude photos of her. It sounds 100 times worse when I type it all out like that, but I like to imagine that while those characters were taking turns being humiliated, behind the camera Schumacher secretly pretended he was filming the downfall of so many former Warner Brothers execs.