Jan 14, 2010

Directing movies is a young man's game. (Discuss.)

Compiling my recent Best-Of-the-Decade lists — for the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s — I was struck by the number of debut films I'd included. Scorsese's Mean Streets, Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Godard's Breathless, Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Terence Mallick's Badlands, Peter Bogdonavich's Last Picture Show, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Wes Anderson's Rushmore... To which others might add: Welles's Citizen Kane, Chaplin's The Kid, Luis Buñuel's Un chien andalou, John Cassavetes' Shadows, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Jacques Demy's Lola, Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape and Eric Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels. Zonca is, of course, in his mid-fifties but all these examples tend to support a long held-suspicion of mine that not only do debut films have a dewy glow all their own, but also: directing films is essentially a young man's game. Not all the time of course, but it's a rare filmmaker who's later work beats the stuff he did first out of the gate. I think in particular of Scorsese whose pictures have gotten technically better and better, at the expense of any overriding reason for their existence. Casino feels like weightier, more overwrought Goodfellas, and Goodfellas, for all its dazzle, feels like a hippo compared to the light-footed sprezzatura of Mean Streets. Mallick never made anything as perfect as Badlands. Truffaut's early work was his best. All these filmmakers have one more thing in common: they are all regularly exalted as the highest of cinematic artists, directors for whom the medium of film was as paintbrush and palette to a painter: a faithful registrar of their most delicate exhalations and featherlight changes of mood. It is the artisans and entertainers who often achieve true longevity in the movies — Spielberg, Hawks, Huston, Hitchcock — a fact that is often taken by the Sight & Sound brigade as evidence of their cash-registrar souls. A man like Welles was "better" than the business in which he found himself and that is why he was cut down so ruthlessly. Coppola is more of a genius for having gone bankrupt. There is no question that to sustain a long career in the movies requires a special kind of resilience — leathery, stubborn, rhino-like — but I've often wondered whether its the films that get worse or the audience that get bored of the filmmakers tricks. As far as David Lynch is concerned, maybe Wild at Heart felt as fresh to him as Blue Velvet. It was just from the outside that it felt a little like self-parody, one for the fans, playing to the gallery, just like Pulp Fiction a few years later, and The Royal Tenenbaums a few years after that. Those three filmmakers couldn't be more different and yet if you slice them chronologically, they all tell the same story. Blue Velvet is to Wild At Heart as Reservoir Dogs is to Pulp Fiction as Rushmore is to The Royal Tenenbaums. The first film has the self-announcing assurance of a young man with nothing to declare but his talent; the second showing him beginning to preen in the mirror. I wonder, too, if films don't offer so close an illusion of lifelikeness, that we are drawn to the same virtues and vices which we, as human beings, are biologically predisposed to identify ine life itself: the vibrancy of youth, the shiver of old age, etc. When describing any decent-sized film career I often find yourself reaching for biological metaphors: after the insouciance of youth, the oeuvre acquires weight, solidity, thematic mass, but also self-consciousness, the awareness that comes from having fans and critics point out to you what your "trademarks" are. You may react against this, struggle. There will be the temptation for a quick revivifying affair with low-budget filmmaking. It will not last. You will eventually return to centre, coast atrophy, feel the beginnings of middle-aged spread. Before finally: forgetfulness, repetition, lifetime achievement awards, butt sag.


  1. Interesting point. I think Pauline Kael said virtually the same thing. I'm not the reason why cinema is a "young man's game," if true. Maybe there's only one or two great movies in every great film artist? The rest is repetition.

  2. Most of the original ideas I think I'm having turn out to have been articulated by Kael at some point or other. It is only my sieve-like memory that allows me to proceed.
    Love your blog, by the way

  3. Okay, I'll bite. Apologies for rambling.

    You could argue that most artists in most fields repeat themselves. Shakespeare liked his vitriolic old men, young men with identity issues, schemers, fresh young women etc. Cymbeline plays like one of those self-parody middle-period films...

    Of course, he sort of broke out with The Tempest, which feels kind of like it takes all his old tropes and arguably makes something new out of them by combining them with the nascent genre of science-fiction and fantasy...

    Art cruelly reveals the limits of the individual human consciousness. There's quite an interesting bit in one of Samuel R. Delany's essays on writing (you'd like him - he's very left wing!) where he says that to be a writer is not a function of intelligence... Instead it's something almost bodily, like having a template inside you that you can sometimes use. But not always.

    Of course, there was always that case where the Greek dramatist Sophocles won a lawsuit against a younger man who claimed that he was senile by reading out some of his latest play, Oedipus at Colonus... So maybe you do get some Lions in Winter (also, I think there's a Robertson Davies essay along these lines about creativity in old age).

    Are there ways to fight this? Perhaps one answer is to follow one of Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" and ask "what wouldn't you do?" - so, in the case of Tarantino (who has also compared film making to issues of potency - I remember an interview with Empire a few years ago where he said that Kill Bill was effectively proving that he could still get it up!) - well, maybe Tarantino should make a Rom-Com. Romance took Cameron into interesting territory. Or maybe Coppola should make a Samurai movie. Or George Lucas should go back to something really intellectual, Kubrickian and cold. I'm sure you can think of other, better suggestions.

    A very interesting theme.


  4. Your suggestions are great. Too many directors work in their comfort zones but actually produce some of their best work when forced out of them. The trouble is that the more power they accrue the less they have to do this. That's why Spielberg did the right thing with Cathch Me if you Can: not a "Spielberg film" (his name is barely on the posters), instead he took over someone else's project. He was a director-for-hire. It was his best film in ages, I thought, with all of his youthful zip.

  5. Yes! CATCH ME IF YOU CAN = best Spielberg film in years... One of the better John Williams scores, too...

  6. Catch Me If You Can made the number two slot in my best scores of the decade

  7. Thanks, Tom. Likewise. I discovered your stuff by way of Wolcott, and glad I did.