Last year was a stunning time for movies, something you might not have gathered from the puzzling and borderline outrageous list of nominations from the Director Guild of America: Charles Crichton "A Fish Called Wanda"; Barry Levinson, "Rain Man"; Mike Nichols, "Working Girl"; Alan Parker, "Mississippi Burning," and Robert Zemeckis, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."
At first the list seems only a triumph of style over content or commercialism uber alles . It comes a little more into focus when you remember that the large percentage of the guild are from television and its sheltering environs, or, to put it another way, the relatively small percentage who are in movies alone.
Every one of the films nominated fit a TV sensibility comfortably; three of them are pleasant, funny, hilarious. None of them strains us overmuch. They reduce complex situations to easily assimilated bites. Visually, they have strongly composed surfaces, almost as slickly beautiful as commercials.
If it were it not for the dentist's-drill intensity of Dustin Hoffman's performance which electrifies "Rain Man," its story would be perilously close to a disease-of-the-week television movie. The deep-seated, stubborn objections that many critics have raised to "Mississippi Burning's" perversions of the truth are regularly brushed aside when a serious subject is melodramatized for TV. If "Working Girl" turned up as episodic television, Staten Islander Tess McGill vs. the corporate world, it would probably surprise no one.
At year end, each of the critics' groups came up with a different winning film: "Accidental Tourist" from the New York Film Critics Assn.; "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" from the National Society of Film Critics; "Little Dorrit" from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and "Mississippi Burning" from the National Board of Review. What this suggested was that the crop this year was so varied and so unusual and favorites from it were so hotly held that consensus was impossible. And missing from those lists were such directors as Francis Coppola ("Tucker") Martin Scorsese ("The Last Temptation of Christ") Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liasons"), David Cronenberg ("Dead Ringers") and Clint Eastwood ("Bird").
Pleasant though some of their individual choices might be, overall the DGA's list is safe and strikingly mediocre. You might tuck Nichols ("Working Girl") into the 5 slot on a strong, gutsy list. It's charming to see Charlie Crichton recognized after all these years, although you might think that "A Fish Called Wanda" was more a writer's than a director's film. It's nice that Zemeckis' febrile intensity and the pure magic of his and his cohorts' achievements on "Roger Rabbit" were recognized.
You might not expect the DGA to go out on a limb with "Dead Ringers," or "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" or "The Last Temptation of Christ." But it's unsettling when a guild of what might be hoped to be leaders shies away from its strongest visionaries, the Scorseses, the Coppolas, the Cronenbergs, the Eastwoods, the Edzards. They have certainly embraced them in the past when they picked Bernardo Bertolucci, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and, if you go back far enough, Francis Coppola.
We won't really be able to tell which way the wind is blowing among the directors until the Academy nominations are announced on Feb. 15. But if slickness and an eye on the grosses is beginning to infect this body, it is a frightening portent.