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January 31, 2009


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Good stuff; looking forward to the full interview. But just to draw out a (perhaps obvious) aesthetic implication of Ciment's comment: it's true that the rhetorical procedures of film-crit discourse do tend to denigrate first features for various reasons, and this is precisely the opposite of how the discourse goes in popular music. Rock critics use debut albums in an almost talismanic fashion, for all the reasons Ciment mentions. So there's a question about professionalism worth considering here. Why does one field of endeavor make a fetish of rawness, while the other (ours) tends to see it as the unfortunate product of a practice swing? None of this is absolute, of course, but the tendencies are very real.

Glenn Kenny

It's an interesting point, one Ciment and I didn't pursue much further—I'm not sure he's a rock fan in any case. I think what you're talking about has a lot to do with process, how we perceive it and romanticize it, and how much creative artists romanticize it. One can't "practice" filmmaking the way one practices a musical instrument. And even at its most Brill-Building-ized, songwriting doesn't seem as much a manufacturing project as filmmaking at the feature level often does. Of course, the singer-songwriter era brought with it a putative personalization of song writing. Schmoes such as The Eagles' Don Henley could complain, "We had 20 years to make our first album, and six months to make the second." As if the creative process of making music was more Olympian or alchemical than any mere "craft." But is "rawness" always present in a first feature? Are there any debut features in which the director is master of the technical skills right out the box? Or displays a "maturity" of vision? These are interesting questions that I can't address at the moment, but I bet some of you out there can...

Tony Dayoub

I think the difference lies in that the author of a film is popularly regarded as its director, whereas those steeped in knowledge of the music world know how an album's producer may be just as much the author than the musician(s) credited as such. True that there are exceptions to this in each arena.

But presuming the first statement is correct as a general rule, then one could argue that a first album benefits from having an experienced producer harness the "rawness" of a band that hasn't been "demolished" yet. On the other hand, a film director may need a few features under his belt to truly capitalize on the collaborative process that is so necessary in generating a noteworthy film.

Glenn said, "But is "rawness" always present in a first feature? Are there any debut features in which the director is master of the technical skills right out the box? Or displays a "maturity" of vision?"

Some examples that come to mind in answer to this question are Roman Polanski, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Michael Mann


Recently watched WANDA after years of seeing references, and because Michael Higgins recently died, marking his extraordinary performance (maybe the largest role he ever got on film) in Loden's film is appropriate. Never saw him onstage, but his work as decent elders in THE CONVERSATION and Horton Foote's film-cycle makes this role, as Wanda's scarily unstable consort, even more striking.

Glenn Kenny

@Mr. Dayoub: Good examples all. I'd say Soderbergh had his technical chops pretty well honed when he made "sex, lies, and videotape." Unless you count that Yes concert video as his feature debut. But that was pretty accomplished too...

Tony Dayoub

Soderbergh, too, Glenn. It's interesting that these filmmakers are formalists whose work (Polanski is arguably excepted) is often accused of being hollow. Perhapa because of a lack of that "rawness".


To me the obvious answer is that I can work on a song or set of songs for years, honing and studying my craft, polishing them like gems, before letting another human being hear a note. In general, the economic model of filmmaking doesn't allow for much mucking around -- you've got a budget and a schedule, and rare is the feature director who's footing his own bill. Therefore, beginner's luck aside, it's reasonable to assume that one's craftsmanship may improve with each opportunity to exercise it (artistry and "maturity of vision" may be another matter).

It should probably also be pointed out that few if any of the directors mentioned as mastering technical skills "right out of the box" had no previous directing experience. Many of them made shorts, worked on other films, made commercials, etc., before helming a feature. And of course one can never underestimate the contributions of experienced cinematographers, production designers, editors, etc., in helping to make a first-timer look precocious.


Oh - but the main thing I wanted to say is that Wanda is a work of genius.

Glenn Kenny

Yancy—Amen to that. And amen to your prior comment as well.

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