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Great Films from First Time & One Time Directors


lordcookie
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With everybody going crazy over Blomkamp's feature film, District 9, I thought it might be interesting to see if there are any other accomplished debut features out there.

To make this clear, I am talking about feature debuts - they may have worked on shorts/TV before.

I'll start with some less well known ones.

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Pitfall

A man wanders into a seemingly deserted town with his young son in search of work. But after a bit of bad luck, he joins the town's population of lost souls.

This was the first collaboration between director Hiroshi Teshigahara and writer Kôbô Abe who would later work together on the brilliant Women in the Dunes and The Face of Another. Whilst Pitfall might not reach the heights of either of those films it is still an incredible film and arguably one of the greatest feature debuts of all time.

It is a hard film to categorise let alone explain - It flits between social realism, crime drama, supernatural thriller and black comedy and never settles down for the audience to get a firm grasp of what is really going on. In fact Teshigahara probably categorises it best by calling it a documentary-fantasy with its themes of lower class alienation in a Post War world offset by an abandoned town of ghosts.

The basic story is about a man who is killed whilst out looking for work. His murder occurs on the outskirts of an abandoned mining town (save for one female witness to the crime and his own son). Instead of remaining dead his ghost rises up and discovers the old mining town is full of the lost souls of the working class. His ghost then tries to discover why he was killed for seemingly no reason. Whilst this is the story that runs throughout the film Pitfall is about so much more. Subplots with journalists and divided trade unionists drift in and out of the narrative whilst his young son watches everything from afar. In all honesty I'm not sure I fully understand everything that happened or was implied with the film. Whilst the themes of alienation, the plight and expendability of the working class and political manipulation are clear the conclusion is brave and infuriating in its lack of answers. I'm just not sure if that ambiguity is a fault of the film or my own limited understanding.

Pitfall, like all Teshigahara's films, is strikingly beautiful to watch. The use of angles and crude, but effective, camera tricks creates a world out of kilter. Whilst being a contemporary film the town and environment feels more like a period movie and it is hard to really get a handle of when and where this is all taking place. The sparce and piercing Toru Takemitsu score also helps accentuate the otherworldly tone brilliantly.

Ambitious, confusing, but always engrossing, Pitfall is well worth tracking down (as are all Teshigahara/Abe's collaborations).

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Angst

"The fear in her eyes and the knife in the chest - that is my last memory of mother."

As opening lines go Angst certainly has one of the best. Thankfully the brilliance of this film isn't just in it's opening. Due to the films poor box office reception, Angst is the only film Gerald Kargl ever directed and it is a real shame because he could have gone on to produce some real classics.

Angst is about a recently released murderer that goes on another killing spree. There is little social commentary about rehabilitation or the harshness of society towards ex-offenders. No, as soon as he walks out of the gates of the prison he wants to kill again - there is no inner conflict at all and he seems content with the monster that he is. This film is one of Gaspar Noé's (the director of Irreversible) favourites and you can see how it has inspired his work both visually and in content. The two things that instantly hit you are the cinematography and the sound design. Zbigniew Rybczynski (he did the John Lennon Imagine video where people walk through lots of rooms in a NY apartment) was responsible for the visual look of the film and he used a strange high shot for much of the movie. It provides the audience with a distance to laugh or pour scorn on this killer yet he flips it as soon as the action kicks in by placing us as close as possible to the killer which instantly stops making him a pathetic figure and makes him very disturbing. In isolation a lot of the lines he comes out with in voice over are darkly comic but half an hour in you struggle to find his words funny anymore. The intense sound design is also exceptional. The sound, which is unnaturally loud, has a gnawing rhythm like water torture whilst the 80s synth score evokes memories of Halloween (although it subverts it to make the music linked to the killers sexual satisfaction of his acts). There is a strange romanticism of the killer in American cinema but here there is no peverse satisfaction in witnessing the actions on screen.

Although other characters appear it is Erwin Leder's performance as the murderer that consumes the film. A bit like Jackie Earle Haley's performance in Little Children this character is terrifying and pathetic at the same time which is a very rare thing to see in movies. You see and hear everything from his twisted perspective but at no point do you feel sympathy for him - he is happy to play the monster even though he is pretty rubbish at it.

Unfortunately this isn't a film that you can get hold of easily with English subtitles but it is still worth trying to track down.

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Letters from a Dead Man

A scholar and his colleagues seek shelter in a museum basement after a nuclear war between Russia and the US.

I don’t know why but I do love a good post-apocalyptic movie. Unfortunately most, if not all, are from a Western perspective which is what makes Letters from a Dead Man interesting as it focuses on the plight of the Russians. Not that ‘sides’ make much difference when you are talking about the annihilation of the world. There is still the same amount of death, disease and treachery as you see in any Western film on the subject but this is arguably one of the most eloquent and strangely beautiful portrayals of the apocalypse committed to film.

The director, Konstantin Lopushansky, was clearly influenced by Tarkovsky (he was assistant on Stalker which is perhaps the biggest reference point for Letters from a Dead Man) but in many ways I find this film superior to much of Tarkovsky’s work. I realise that is tantamount to sacrilege but Lopushansky has crafted a truly brilliant film that is as depressing as it is uplifting and raises more questions than nearly any Western movie on the same subject.

The film is shot in a golden haze, or, as our ‘hero’ describes it, a perpetual twilight. Visually it is more reminiscent of the silent films of the ‘30s than a film of the late 1980s. The yellow filter creates a unique effect in that it makes everything look ugly and beautiful at the same time. The barren wastelands of the outside world look far more treacherous but then there are tiny moments – such as sifting through the waterlogged detritus is an abandoned library – where the world has never looked more spectacular.

The scholar regularly writes letters to his son, a man seemingly dead from the nuclear attack. Within these letters are intimate confessions and questions that all humanity must try to answer. It is interesting to see that the film has a rather strong anti-state message especially as it was made pre-Glasnost. The film has a flashback to the moment of impact and the initial days after the attack. Whilst the images are less graphic than those in Threads it is still perhaps the most startlingly brutal depiction of a nuclear attack I have seen. The protagonists search through a children’s ward is particularly harrowing.

Sadly the film is impossible to pick up with English subtitles unless you buy a DVD-R or download it. By traditional standards the film is slow but it demands to be watched by a larger audience and for fans of Stalker and La Jetée it is essential.

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Was Night of the Hunter Laughton's directorial debut? Because that strikes me as a pretty amazing first effort.

Yep, his one and only film (officially). Originally I was just going to make this thread about one time directors but I was drawing a bit of a blank beyond Night of the Hunter, Angst, Return to Oz and Nil by Mouth.

I do like to read your thoughts on Letters from a Dead Man, but it's annoying at the same time because I simply can't get hold of it.

It is very disappointing that it is limited to just DVD-R or downloading. Unfortunately Lopushansky is pretty much unknown outside of Russia so I can't see his films (with the possible exception of Ugly Swans) ever getting a DVD release over here.

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Jason Reitman - Thankyou For Smoking

A hell of an assured debut, mixing drama with jet black comedy and satire. A director twice his age would have struggled with the ideas but Reitiman, along with a fantastic Aaron Eckhart knocked it out the park.

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I was going to say Steven Lisberger for Tron, but he directed Animalympics a year or two earlier. That was fully animated though, so I guess we can brush it under the carpet for the sake of this thread when you consider the technical achievements made, not just in terms of CGI, but in the intricate and unique look given by the backlit animation process used in the making of his second movie.

Or, Bryan Izzard for the masterful, and shamefully Oscar neglected, directorial debut that was... <drum roll>... Holiday on the Buses! :(

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Or, Bryan Izzard for the masterful, and shamefully Oscar neglected, directorial debut that was... <drum roll>... Holiday on the Buses! :(

I'm speaking to the Academy shortly so I'll try and sort out some kind of posthumous Oscar! Failing that, Nobel Prize.

What about Spielberg & Duel? You're talking about a basic one person setup, with the other person in the film being represented by a truck. While there are other people in the film, can you remember them? It's a great exercise in editing and creating tension from very little. I think it showed what he was capable of even at that point in his career and I think it really helped when he went on to make Jaws. Duel wasn't flashy, but utterly stripped down. Anything that didn't work was simply removed.

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Duel is a great pick (and pic).

Looking through some filmographies on IMDb I was surprised to see that 12 Angry Men was Lumet's first theatrical feature. I guess it wasn't a great stretch technically for him as he had made a lot of one-off TV dramas but it must be depressing (creatively at least) to make your masterpiece at the first time of asking - much like Orson Welles. Of course both directors would go on to make numerous classics throughout their careers.

There are a number of great debuts by directors that cut their teeth on music videos. Spike Jonze with Being John Malkovich and Anton Cobijn for Control are the two that really stick out for me. The appeal of Being John Malkovich really comes from the script though which brings me on to Kaufman's own directorial debut, Synecdoche New York which may very well be the best thing he has been associated with.

Finally tonight I'd like to mention Brad Bird. Despite seemingly never putting a foot wrong it his first film - The Iron Giant - that is still the finest thing he has ever created.

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Witchfinder General

Even in the loosest possible sense you'd be hard pressed to call this his first film. For one thing you would be missing out the rather enjoyable Boris Karloff film, The Sorcerers. Still, any recommendation of Witchfinder General is welcome by me.

I was surprised to see Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete was his first feature film (although you could argue The Blood of a Poet was a feature too). Still the most magical fairytale movie and a technical triumph.

Ingmar Bergman's first credited film (only as writer) is well worth tracking down too. It is called Torment and is quite an interesting film about a sexually frustrated and sadistic teacher taking his frustrations out on his students and a young girl who works at the tobacconists. The film was made in 1944 but as Sweden was a neutral country at the time you would be hard pressed to know a war was going on: Except that this teacher is a fascist. He is often softly spoken but when on screen Sjöberg (the director) shoots him like a monster in a horror movie. He uses expressionist shadows that evoke Nosferatu more than a Swedish school melodrama. The way the teacher can enter rooms silently and hide in dark corners speaks volumes of the pervasive nature of fascism and it is interesting to see it appear in a film that on the surface seems to purely an attack on the schooling system of the time.

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Hey there.

Bound

Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Primer

Night of The Living Dead

This is Spinal Tap

Mad Max

The Evil Dead

Blood Simple

All some of my fave films from debut filmmakers. Of the lot.. BOUND my be my fave debut movie. That or Reservoir Dogs.

Despin out.

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The Virgin Suicides is a good shout.

I see quite a few people have pointed out horror films and it seems a genre that has a few fantastic debuts:

David Lynch's Eraserhead

Juan Antonio Bayona' The Orphanage

Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not actually his debut but close enough)

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