Director George Hickenlooper died on Friday at the age of 47. The day before he had attended the Austin Film Festival closing-night presentation of his final movie, "Casino Jack," which stars Kevin Spacey as Jack Abramoff. (The photo above shows Hickenlooper at a Q&A after the screening.)
Just two weeks ago Lionsgate released, as part of its "Apocalypse Now Full Disclosure Edition" Blu-ray, Hickenlooper's amazing documentary, "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse." Hickenlooper and co-director Fax Bahr brilliantly crafted an engulfing chronicle about the disaster-strewn production of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." They deftly sutured a narrative from 60 hours of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Eleanor Coppola (Francis' wife) on location in the Philippines, stitching the most revealing moments together with retrospective interviews, portions of Eleanor Coppola's book "Notes" (read by Eleanor) and audio-tape recordings (again by Eleanor) that captured the "Apocalypse" auteur's visionary mood swings. The result is one of the greatest of all movies about moviemaking. Hickenlooper exploits Eleanor's unadorned camerawork and limpid prose to provide refreshing counterpoint to Francis' grandiose rhetoric as he attempts to relocate Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in a Vietnam War adventure story. Hickenlooper presents the extraordinary spectacle of a filmmaker at the peak of his clout, banking everything on his ability to pull inspiration out of the fire, and getting scorched. While enduring the dismissal of one lead actor, the heart attack of his replacement, a ruinous typhoon, and a constant struggle with the script, Coppola keeps insisting that his experiences will enrich his movie. Hickenlooper's film is a masterly depiction of the delusionary power of directing. This movie, not "Apocalypse Now," is about what happened to Coppola in the jungle, and here he becomes a spellbinding tragic hero.
A few years ago, Hickenlooper directed the too-little-seen "Factory Girl," an unconventional biopic about Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), the old-money heiress who became Andy Warhol's star and alter ego. (It's available on a Weinstein Company DVD.) This film also did something very difficult: it revealed how simultaneously wonderful and awful it can be to be a muse. Edie forsakes her art studies in Cambridge, Mass., and enters the glam-grunge world of New York in the mid-'60s, dreaming of holding Jackson Pollack's paint cans as he dribbles his way toward immortality. Instead she finds fame, if not fortune, at Warhol's Factory, starring in a series of groundbreaking underground movies that mingle casual put-ons and unrehearsed truth, sexual sensationalism and boredom. You see Sedgwick as an adventurous spirit and a smart, instinctive gal, who loses her bearings in a time and place when anyone of her age and background would get lost, and might even want to get lost. The movie should have been a bummer because it's almost all falling action. But it leaves you full of scintillating questions, not just grief.
Hickenlooper's "Casino Jack" is due out in December. In the meantime, movie-lovers can honor this director by seeking out "Hearts of Darkness" and "Factory Girl."