Guest Post — Accomplished Directors and Their Film Debuts

My friend, Matt, has gladly agreed to guest post once again for me so I can have a little break from blogging. Last month, he did multiple Q/A blog post sessions on the Oscars with me. He’s an excellent writer and he continues to build his film knowledge with research, discussion, and film viewing. Be sure to check out his bio at the bottom of the page to get more acquainted with who he is and what he’s been up to.

–Kristin

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By Matthew Roth

Ever heard of Firelight, The Bellboy and the Playgirls, or The Pleasure Garden? How about Piranha Part 2: The Spawning? What if I told you those were the debut features of the men who brought us Schindler’s List, The Godfather, Rear Window, and Avatar? Everybody has to start somewhere. It’s enjoyable to see a filmmaker’s creative process from first feature to Lifetime Achievement Award. Some filmmakers seem like they were born to make movies; others really have to work to become great.

Film should be studied the way we study any other art. In most cases, we can’t look at movies on an individual basis; the study of film should always come back to the author of the picture, perhaps a producer or writer, but usually a director. Just as you wouldn’t study The Great Gatsby without learning about F. Scott Fitzgerald, so you shouldn’t view a film without, at some point, doing a little research about the director and his body of work.

Someone recently made a statement online saying that the director spends his life trying to make the perfect version of the same movie. Obviously, that oversimplifies things; however, there still is a good deal of truth in that statement.

When studying film, it’s good to go back to a director’s first feature. What genres, techniques, visual styles, and themes inspired the author to start making pictures to begin with? Often you will find the things a director explores in his first film show up in many that follow; with each subsequent film, he tweaks characterization, plot, themes, and visuals in an attempt to create a perfect version of that first film.

Not every director is like this. Nevertheless, I thought it would be interesting to look at the first features of some of the directors I admire, and how their debut film relates to their work today.

The Coen Brothers: Blood Simple

Usually, it’s difficult to pinpoint just what genre of film a Coen Brothers’ movie is. They include elements of the crime, comedy, drama, and thriller genres. Their films are a unique blend of those elements; in reality, the Coens have created their own genre. Ironically, Blood Simple is the only film by the Coen Brothers I’ve seen that is not instantly recognizable as a Coen Brothers’ movie. That’s not to say, however, that this film fails to match their future brilliance. As their movies tend to be, Blood Simple is extremely entertaining. It also contains elements that are prevalent in many Coen Brothers movies: an abrasive but memorable character; a wealthy, powerful man the audience loves to hate; an ordinary protagonist thrust into an extraordinary and dangerous situation; oh yeah–and loads of violence. Visually, the film’s style foreshadows their later work, even though the brothers were yet to team up with the fabulous Roger Deakins. Highly recommended.

Christopher Nolan: Following

Nolan’s first film is a thriller about a writer who follows people in order to acquire material for characters in his stories. As far as content, Nolan’s films have been fairly diverse. The constant of his work seems to be the non-linear structure in which he molds his stories. Following is cut up into several pieces randomly strewn about, its scenes jumping forward and backward on the story’s timeline. Often this would disorient an audience; with Nolan’s film, it sets the the audience on edge. Because of the vast, unexplained changes in the main character’s appearance (a black eye, a new haircut, different style of clothing), we become curious about the events we obviously have missed. Suspense is created through missing pieces. We pay closer attention because we want to find out just what we have missed. Nolan’s first feature seems like a dress rehearsal for Memento, a film in which the non-linear storytelling serves a justified purpose. Nolan uses a non-linear storytelling device once again in The Prestige. He masters this device in Inception, where he jumps between the past, and the many layers of the dream world’s present. Following is a wonderful debut film, proof that Nolan doesn’t need $185 Million to make a great movie. Great things can be done with as little as $6,000.

Terrence Malick: Badlands

Malick’s movies have been called many things. Polarizing things, really. Few directors simultaneousy carry the title “brilliant” and “pretentious.” Perhaps this is because Malick stretches the conventions of film in all of his movies. For those who find Malick more pretentious then brilliant, Badlands may be just the film for you. This film does contain both a plot AND a linear structure. While it is without a doubt his most accessible film, Malick’s debut feature is by no means conventional. You can find one of my favorite film blogger’s video review of  Badlands here.

In his first film Malick introduces us to the detached narrator, a device he would use to an even greater extent in his following feature, Days of Heaven. Narration can be a tricky business. To me, it usually seems like the easy way out in storytelling. Malick’s narration in Badlands proves how useful the device can be. Rather than using the narrator as a crutch, Malick’s narrator allows us to actually learn something about that character, not only in the things she does say, but also in the things she doesn’t. With great cinematography, acting, and a haunting score, Badlands may possibly be my favorite Malick film.

Alfred Hitchcock: Blackmail

So you probably know that this isn’t actually Hitchcock’s first film. The “Master of Suspense” did not always make thrillers; he worked his way up, sweating and toiling on–you’ll never guess it–romance pictures. The Pleasure Garden and Fear o’ God were both commercially unsuccessful. It wasn’t until Hitch started making the type of pictures for which we know him that he became a commercial success. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was the first of his films we would label Hitchcockian. The Lodger is a film that tries to crack one of the most perplexing crimes of all time: the murder of Jack the Ripper. Now, I know I should have watched The Lodger; however, it was about 2 last night when I finally started watching. The online copy was horrible, so I opted to watch Hitch’s second thriller, and one of the first talkies in Britain, Blackmail. The first thing I noticed was Hitch’s use of the Kuleshov Effect, a now standard but once groundbreaking editing technique that Hitchcock popularized. The story is about a young girl who finds herself in a difficult situation after killing a man in an act of self defense. Many of Hitch’s movies involve normal people being thrust into dangerous situations due to their curiosity or foolishness. This film follows that pattern to the letter. Other sequences made me think of both Psycho and Vertigo. While it is a flawed film, I found it definitely worth my time. If you do view the film, you will find little snippets that foreshadow the greatness that was to come. You can view it on Hulu here.

For those of you not familiar with the Kuleshov Effect, the first two minutes of this video explain it a lot better than I could by writing about it.

What are some of your favorite debut films, and how do they (or don’t they) point to that director’s future work?

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Matthew Roth is an aspiring filmmaker from the Madison, WI area. While his passion is narrative film, he currently shoots and edits promotional and event videos at Inframe. In his free time, Matt enjoys researching and discussing film over a cup of coffee or meeting up with fellow film junkies through Craigslist. Be sure to check out his most recent short film Memoria.

The Man. The Movies. The Memento.

There’s been a lot of hype recently (especially today) about how Christopher Nolan has been snubbed once again – this time, by that warped Academy that makes all the decisions concerning the Oscars. This time around, it’s the 83rd Oscars, and Nolan has been rejected his much-deserved honor of being a Best Director nominee.

So instead of harping on the constant snubbing from said Hollywood Foreign Press Association and American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, let’s remember why we love CNolan.  After all, being snubbed means you must be pretty darn good at what you’re doing in the first place.

Far more than a triple threat. Yes, we all know he’s a fantastic director. But he’s also a screenwriter. And a producer. And a cinematographer and an editor (Following, Doodlebug).

Has a handful of quality A-listing actors to fill his movies with (Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and Cillian Murphy to name a few).

Created the most popular, and by many, considered the best Batman series thus far.

Established connections with professionals within multiple film fields: Hans Zimmer, composer; Emma Thomas (his wife), producer; Lee Smith, film editor; Jonathan Nolan (his brother), screenwriter.

Takes complex ideas and adapts them for the average film-goer. (MementoThe Prestige, and Inception).

Nolan’s IMDB file and Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) contain a lot of this information, but more and more of it is becoming knowledge among even amateur movie-goers. It was Christopher Nolan’s name, not Leonardo DiCaprio’s that brought people into the theater to see Inception, his latest flick, this past summer.

Check out the textual part of a common Inception poster: 

The words “From the Director of The Dark Knight” stick out. And while Leo’s name is in bright lights as well, it was the obscure, ambiguous trailer and the idea that the director of The Dark Knight could create another film as high quality as The Dark Knight, that made the film compelling enough to go see. Judging by most critics’ and audience’s reviews, it was.

Nolan may not have the nod of the Academy, but he has fans. And their respect.