A Master of Illusion Returns ; Robert Zemeckis Is Back in Spotlight with a Show at MoMA and a New Film

By Hoberman, J | International New York Times, September 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

A Master of Illusion Returns ; Robert Zemeckis Is Back in Spotlight with a Show at MoMA and a New Film


Hoberman, J, International New York Times


Robert Zemeckis is back in spotlight with a show at MoMA and a new movie.

This fall is the season of Robert Zemeckis, the 63-year-old Chicago-born writer-director who began making movies in the 1970s and changed American history, at least metaphorically, with his two huge hits "Back to the Future" (1985) and "Forrest Gump" (1994).

"The Walk," Mr. Zemeckis's 3-D reconstruction of Philippe Petit's high-wire stroll between the World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, was chosen to open the New York Film Festival; special screenings and reissues will commemorate the 30th anniversary of "Back to the Future"; and starting Tuesday, the Museum of Modern Art presents a retrospective, "What Lies Beneath," named for Mr. Zemeckis's 2000 psychological thriller. The retrospective is his first, said the filmmaker, who was reached by telephone in Los Angeles.

What does lie beneath? Although Mr. Zemeckis is notable for pioneering the use of digital cinema and computer-generated imagery, Dave Kehr, the curator who organized the show, called him "one of the last classical auteurs," a commercial director in the tradition of Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock who is at once a popular artist and a personal filmmaker.

Mr. Kehr takes the position that Mr. Zemeckis, who, beginning with "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), has been perhaps the most digitally adventurous of Hollywood filmmakers, is unfairly dismissed as a technician and misleadingly typecast as a purveyor of feel- good entertainment. A former critic who contributed to The New York Times, Mr. Kehr sees a darker worldview. He has characterized "Roger Rabbit," for example, as a caustic allegory of American race relations worthy of Mark Twain.

"Disney's A Christmas Carol" (2009), the most elaborate of Mr. Zemeckis's 3-D animations, is filled with impossible, vertiginous camera movements, yet the filmmaker's love affair with technology often has its downside. Driving through the hyperanimated ghetto of Toontown, Bob Hoskins, the human star of "Roger Rabbit," seems trapped in a nightmare -- which he may actually have been, playing scenes opposite a nonexistent rabbit.

The ecstatic tracking shots in "A Christmas Carol" and another 3- D animation, "The Polar Express" (2004), have their terrifying counterparts in "Cast Away" (2000) and "Flight" (2012), live-action films with two of the most vividly rendered plane crashes in Hollywood history.

The scenes may be all the more harrowing for having Mr. Zemeckis, a licensed pilot, direct them, but he characteristically discounts any notion that staging such mishaps could be a way of mastering anxiety. Flying is "all systems management," he said, although "the most fun thing is landing."

An old-school auteur, Mr. Zemeckis is loath to analyze his movies' themes and obsessions. (When I interviewed him for The Village Voice in 1985 about "Back to the Future," he professed ignorance of the movie's blatantly obvious Oedipal subtext.)

In contrast to an American new wave filmmaker like Martin Scorsese, Mr. Zemeckis does not present himself as a cineaste. He is also unsentimental about the fading away of 35-millimeter film, a medium he last used in "Cast Away," around the time that the Center for Digital Arts he helped finance opened at his alma mater, the University of Southern California. "I built a building," he said proudly.

The son of a construction worker, Mr. Zemeckis confounded his parents with his desire to become a filmmaker. "In my family there was no art," he has recalled elsewhere. …

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