Image © Paul Bausch onfocus.com
HIS HEART STOPPED WHEN HE SLEPT, in a moment of triumph. The next morning he failed to appear at a breakfast meeting and was found dead in his room. He was only 47 years old. He was my friend. We'd seen each other less than a month before and he was brimming with plans, happier than I'd ever seen him. In what possible world does this make sense?
Our world, if we pay it the heed that was his lifelong habit.
Director George Hickenlooper, who died on October 29th 2010, departed life exactly as he'd lived it: a working dervish of Type-A activity on a jet-setting schedule of film-friendly obligations. Early cardiovascular deaths had long ago harvested hordes of his ancestors in their late forties. He was lately mixing alcohol and painkillers, a ready cocktail for accidental disaster. What's more, he was on an ecstatic, frenetic victory lap around the festival circuit with Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey — the most acclaimed motion picture of George's career. His Facebook page showed 3,393 friends on his last day, and recorded months packed with prior entries of far-flung travel. After 20 years of toil, making close to a dozen unique, increasingly well-directed feature films, he seemed poised at last for the first-class recognition he had worked for so vigorously his whole life.
Were he not leaving behind a wife and 9-year-old boy, one might even think his trajectory victorious — if still too brief.
Alas, as George's best films well dramatize, we rise at the expense of others. Those who take hold of the most coveted of worldly powers are always tearing somebody else down, or leaving them behind in the climb. This was Orson Welles's great theme; it is still Francis Coppola's. Fittingly, George's unique contribution to his own first success, Hearts of Darkness (1991), was to create an open-faced fusion between these complicated, legendary artists. He took the thicket of intimate-range footage shot by Eleanor Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, initially organized by co-director Fax Bahr, and imposed an order that drew an elegant parallel between Welles and Coppola by coupling this footage with drawings and radio recordings made 40 years earlier when Welles was planning his own abortive effort at Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. The result held up an unforgettable double mirror, illuminating the genius of both men in one flash but implying a paired comparison to Kurtz, the mad renegade playing God, in the other.
Such fusions became characteristic of George's work as a whole. He relished the psychological jungles that sprout up around human politics of every stripe, especially as they encircle the dual natures of his every protagonist.
He was Yale educated, from a political family. His great-uncle Bourke Hickenlooper was for many years the U.S. senator from Iowa; his cousin and close friend John is now Colorado's governor. His father, George, had trained to be a diplomat before becoming a history professor and playwright; his mother, Barbara Jo Wenger, originally active in theater, turned political activist before becoming a psychologist. George himself might easily have soared ...