What the hell’s a filmmaker?” Doug Block asks at the beginning of his The Heck With Hollywood (1993, Direct Cinema,$29.95). George Stevens Jr., writer-producer-director of George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (1984, Home Vision, $29.95), and Block himself provide distinctive documentary answers to the question, from wildly contrasting film-world hemispheres: A Filmmaker’s Journey is an elegant formal portrait of a Tinseltown titan, while The Heck with Hollywood offers a sweaty cinema verite peek into the lives of three defiantly non-Hollywood directors scrambling to complete and market their first films.
Stevens Jr.’s cinematic canonization of his late father exhibits a stylish competence and lead-footed obviousness reminiscent of the old man’s more popular features (Giant, A Place in the Sun). Narrating behind a mix of film clips, home movies, and goose-pimply interviews with no-longer-living legends (including Fred Astaire and John Huston), Stevens Jr. unwittingly answers Block’s question in defining his father, an eclectic visionary who switched confidently from comedy (Alice Adams) to musical (Swing Time) to Western (Shane) to religious epic (The Greatest Story Ever Told).
The young filmmakers profiled in Block’s The Heck With Hollywood share the vision thing with Stevens but little else. While Stevens had a relatively easy glide from his family’s live-theater business in San Francisco to his career as a Hollywood cameraman and director, Block’s trio compete in an overcrowded field, with undercapitalized dreams.
Each of them has a film that he or she believes has to be made, and, in the process, we get to see the visionary filmmakers become unrepentant hustlers: Gerry Cook driving cross-country in an RV, hawking his Only a Buck as ”the first movie ever sold direct from a moving vehicle”; Jennifer Fox taking seven years and $700,000 to make her antiwar documentary, Beirut: The Last Home Movie, watching it win prestigious film-festival awards, and then having to schlepp publicity posters to New York shopkeepers when the distributor drops the promotional ball; and Ted Lichtenheld cadging investments from his Rockford,Ill., neighbors so that he can complete Personal Foul, only to hear a film-mart habitué remark, ”If I watch another coming-of-age-in-rural-America film, I’m going to puke.”
Block’s own vision of his craft is bitterly satirical and soberly cautionary yet wholly sympathetic to the creative impulse to commit ideas to celluloid. In the end, he shows Lichtenheld offering a coda that could be echoed by George Stevens and filmmakers everywhere: ”Make the film you want, because in the end, you’re stuck with it—and you may have nothing else.” The Heck With Hollywood: A- George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey: B+