As you are no doubt aware, Martin Scorsese's latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, opened in the UK on Friday. Reviews have been largely positive. Empire magazine even stated it “is the first Martin Scorsese film in some time that feels as though, in a few years, it will join Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas in the canon.”
At the end of the last century the crown kings of American film were the directors of the “New Hollywood”. This was the term given to the gang of young directors who rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 70s. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, William Friedkin et al. Martin Scorsese was still back then referred to as “America's greatest living film maker”. It's a label that is less used these days, partly because there are new pretenders to the crown (for example David Fincher and PT Anderson), but also because nothing Scorsese has done since 1990 has reached the dizzy heights of his early masterpieces.
Many of his contemporaries have fared much worse. The same issue of Empire quoted above also features Francis Ford Coppola's latest movie Twixt – which has gone straight to DVD in the UK after two years in limbo. It's a rarity these days for a film by Brian De Palma to not go straight to DVD. William Friedkin spent nearly 20 years languishing in the world of TV. Spielberg's obviously doing well for himself, but most of his recent work is still a long way from the glory days of Jaws and ET.
This is not a phenomenon exclusive to film. How many musicians, writers and artists blaze a trail in their early careers before sliding slowly into mediocrity?
I believe that most human beings really only have a few profound observations they can make about life and the world. Once they've made those initial statements, where do they go? They can either repeat those same few statements over and over, with inevitably diminishing returns, they can quit and do something else, or they can work for hire, which might make you money but is unlikely to lead to too many awards ceremonies.
There is, however, an exception to the rule that artists usually do their best work early in their careers. The great American directors of the 70s are now in their 70s. They are in the final phase of their working lives, which gives them a new perspective, and perhaps a new artistic impetus. As stated above, The Wolf of Wall Street has been getting strong reviews. William Friedkin's Killer Joe was warmly received in 2011. Terence Malick has made more films in the past four years then he made in the previous forty. Spielberg's Lincoln is widely regarded as his best film since at least Schindler's List.
I think we're beginning to see a resurgence of some of the greatest film makers who have ever lived. And I can't wait to see what they do next.