I love this time of year. There’s a sharp thrill in the air. The holidays are here and people are full of anticipation and excitement. Everyone’s putting their lists together. Not Christmas lists; I mean their 10 Best Lists.
Yes, this is the time of year when people help us figure out which were the best 10 films of the year. Not 9, not 11. There are only 10 which is still a lot and I for one am glad to have someone tell me which ones they are.
The Winners are glad too; the Losers less so. In fact, for the films that don’t make the lists this is not a good time. It is a sad time. And for that reason we will stay away from them and link arms with the Winners for whom these are truly the Champagne Days; golden, sparkling and infinitely full of promise.
I experienced a bit of this thrill vicariously a few years ago. I was good friends with Shane Florian. I hope at least a few of you remember Shane.
He shot to fame with his very first film, Darker Than Black. I was on the subway with him when he got the idea. The train had stalled in between stations and all the lights went out. A drunk, white junkie at the end of the car yelled out, “It’s darker than a cave at midnight in here!”
That’s what Shane wanted to call his film; Cave At Midnight. I gave him the idea to call it Darker Than Black. It starred John Travolta whom Shane had snagged right before Pulp Fiction when Travolta was still on that long, slow, downward slide everyone in this business is so terrified of.
Shane told me straight out he wanted to make his first film “one for the critics.” I was amazed at his foresight and felt like an imbecile having no career strategy like that of my own. In a brilliantly calculated move Shane took the production deep into a subterranean cavern in New Mexico and shot the whole film with the complete absence of light.
And Shane was right; the critics adored his film. It made every 10 Best List in the country, consistently nesting around the 7 or 8 position. Praise for Travolta was equally strong. His performance was heralded as one of his most understated, brooding and mysterious.
Shane sent me copies of every review; that’s how close we were then. Here are a few samples I saved.
“Visually stunning. Florian discovers new shades of shadow. A cinematic achievement no less astonishing than the total eclipse of the sun.” NY TIMES
“Thrillingly audacious. Florian flirts on the edge of the Seen and the Unseen with the skill of a master gymnast.” WASHINGTON POST
“The darkness of Florian’s vision is chilling in its absoluteness, yet mesmerizing in its emotional power. I saw the film with my father who is partially blind. The experience left us both shattered.” Clive Levender, THE MIAMI HERALD
But the one that affected me the most was this from Menorra Kimble at the LA Times.
“Brilliantly, boldly, joyously–New. Any director who attempts to make a film using light after this cannot be considered anything more than hopelessly obsolete.”
Propelled by these reviews Darker Than Black became a minor hit. Shane quickly got the money to make his next film, Beyond The Pale, with a cast that included Bruce Willis, Meg Ryan, Muhammad Ali and Dustin Hoffman. This time Shane took the entire production to the Arctic and shot on the frozen ice cap only between noon and 2pm on sunny days, using the most light sensitive film stock ever invented.
Some people thought this bold reversal was to counter some of the gentle criticism that his previous film might have lingered too lovingly in the realm of shadow. But Shane told me at the premiere of Beyond The Pale that his sole intent was to make a film “for the audiences.”
Again, his foresight astonished me. Audiences flocked to the film. And, critics loved it too. Beyond The Pale made all the 10 Best lists, this time always bubbling near the 2 or 3 position. Praise for the performances was unanimous, particularly for Meg Ryan.
“Her character is drawn with such clarity and brilliance you can almost see right through her.” HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Praise for the film was equally rapturous.
“Luminous, almost blinding in its daring and beauty. A cinematic experience so starkly compelling it almost requires emotional sunglasses.” CHICAGO SUN TIMES
“Dazzlingly original. Painstakingly detailed, with a searing emotional power that is both profoundly simple and simply profound.” VARIETY
“Florian’s film shimmers before the eyes in a stunning visual dance, dominated but not overwhelmed by every conceivable variation of white visible to the human eye.” NEWSWEEK
Those were indeed the Champagne Days. Shane was flying high and moving at the speed of light. We became even closer. He offered to completely finance my next film, Double Whammy. But first he wanted to make what he knew was going to be his masterpiece. Late one night, at the end of the 10 thousandth party, he leaned into my ear in glorious, drunken exhaustion and whispered, “This one I’m going to make for myself.”
He had no trouble getting an A-List cast lead by Will Smith, Kate Winslet, Ryan Gosling and Natalie Portman. They all agreed to let Shane temporarily insert tiny hi-def cameras inside their chests. Shane felt this was the most intimate way to record the raw intensity of pure emotion. “Inside the human heart,” he said to me, “everything is real. A heartbeat cannot be faked.”
This third film was titled Crimson Tears. Its opening weekend broke every box office record in NY and LA. Initial critical response was thunderously positive.
“Rich in texture; blood stirring. Cinema at its purest.” NY OBSERVER
“Shane Florian’s most personal yet rapturously accessible film. The pounding emotional pulse will blow you away.” TIME OUT
In anticipation of a huge national release the studio struck thousands of extra prints. Everything was set for Crimson Tears to be a massive critical and box office smash.
And then the rumors started.
Someone, no one knows exactly who, suggested that the co-chief film critic for the NY Times visit the projection booths at several NY theaters. When he did, he claimed to have seen no film running through the projectors. Nervous projectionists confessed they’d been instructed to simply turn on their empty machines after placing a red filter in front of the bulb.
Needless to say, this revelation had an impact on attendance which dropped by almost a quarter in the second week. Concerned critics took the opportunity to re-assess Crimson Tears and the first serious negative reviews began to appear.
“Florian no longer trusts his own vision. His use of color is overstated at best and at worst reeks of gimmickry.” LA TIMES
“Gone is the hidden meaning, the subtle nuance of his previous master works. Instead we have the sad spectacle of a once-brilliant filmmaker either unable or unwilling to accept the obvious limitations of his talent.” ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
“Shane Florian has sold out.” NY POST
Attendance fell by another quarter. Shane laughed it off and told me he wasn’t worried. He said the studio was still behind him and in two days Crimson Tears was set to open on 8,000 screens.
Then, somehow a frame from Darker Than Black was sent to the LA Times. Apparently, there was nothing on it. Closer inspection with an electron microscope revealed it was indeed completely black. Film journalists around the country began to speculate that Shane Florian’s acclaimed first film was really nothing more than 103 minutes of black leader.
No one could believe it. Many refused to. Clive Levender from The Miami Herald wrote;
“I know what I saw. I can still feel my father’s tears falling on my shoulder as we sobbed together during the press screening of Darker Than Black.”
But, when similar investigation into prints of Beyond The Pale showed nothing but clear, completely transparent celluloid the awful truth could no longer be denied. Critics and audiences turned on Shane with a vengeance. In its 4th week box office for Crimson Tears fell by half. In a sad, ironic twist Beyond The Pale was nominated for an Oscar, for Best Editing which everyone admitted was seamless.
But that did nothing to stop the sharp downward spiral of Shane’s career. For the first time one of his films did not make a single Top 10 list. Shane was devastated. I knew how much when he shaved his goatee.
Tracey Gorlich at the Chicago Sun Times did include Crimson Tears in a list of 5 films she placed at the end of her Top Ten. These lonely five were presented in a smaller typeface with the explanation they’d ”almost made the list.” But, that didn’t do Shane any good. What was he going to say, “I was on an Almost Made The Top Ten list?” No, he wasn’t. There’s no almost in this business.
I lost touch with Shane after that. Of course he never helped me finance Double Whammy but I don’t hold that against him. We had some good times together. Last I heard he was making promotional films for the Romney campaign.