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What patterns are there in the careers of great directors?

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What patterns are there in the careers of great directors?

#1

Post by fori » January 4th, 2019, 8:03 am

In 2018, two directors became clear favourites for the admittedly unimportant position of “My favourite director”, those being Im Kwon-taek and Teinosuke Kinugasa. Interesting I found some noteworthy similarities between the careers of these two. Both started their careers off by churning out a large volume of work over a short period of time (in 1970 alone Im Kwon-taek directed 8 features), then later transitioned towards a lower output volume, with a shift to focus on quality. This later period is when the majority of work from both is available - although the skew is more pronounced for Im’s output - and is also (in my opinion) of great quality. My theory is that the tremendous output produced in the early career afforded the high level of familiarity with the medium that allowed the craft of later masterpieces.
What patterns do you see in film directors that you admire most? Career-wise or otherwise?

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#2

Post by brokenface » January 4th, 2019, 5:09 pm

It's interesting to look at, and I think you always have to think about it within the context of the system they worked in because we sometimes have a tendency to imagine every film to having being made by auteur directors as sole creators almost in a vacuum, in reality anything that made it to wide release at cinemas is collaborative and involves studios, money constraints, etc.

So it depends a lot on the era and country they work in as to how they are typically able to progress. A lot of directors who worked in countries with strongly established studio system (such as Japan) would follow that similar route you describe as they have strong hierarchy & the only way to become a director is to start out in a contract role with little independence: so particularly early on in career they'd just be given projects and a strict budget/time schedule to produce a product, hence many films per year. It's only later when they make a name for themselves critically and/or reputation for bringing in money, that they have more power to choose projects, take longer, get final cut, etc. I think that route is a good way to learn your craft and versatility but those early films shouldn't really be seen so much as films 'by' that director. Switch in a different director from the same studio at the same time and they would likely have come out with extremely similar final film.

Whereas if you started out, say, 60s/70s USA there were studios willing to give money and relative independence to young directors with limited experience and they didn't have to have years of churning out studio product before they were trusted.

I guess a lot of my favourites (Lynch, Cronenberg, Coens) came later through in this post-studio era and followed the more independent route, making their name with low-budget student/indie films and then progressed into more mainstream bigger budget work from there. I think the ones that make it through this way often have a more idiosyncratic style, but on the flipside maybe tend to stick to their niche a bit more in terms of genres/styles throughout their career? (obviously there are exceptions). This may well be down to money as much as anything - i.e. you can get funding to do the thing you've proven you can do, but you might not get funding for a very different project.

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#3

Post by fori » January 4th, 2019, 7:15 pm

Hmm interesting, I take your point, the nature of filmmaking conditions in a certain time and place would be a powerful factor in shaping what a filmography of even the most capable director looks like to those with hindsight.

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#4

Post by tobias » January 5th, 2019, 8:57 am

Interesting question! I find that a lot of my favorite directors could actually be described as cinematic hermits. Many of them starting out really late (Rohmer, Oliveira, Visconti, etc.) or taking a hiatous sometime inbetween (Malick, Bunuel) or just have really strange career paths allover (like Ruiz or Herzog), there's a good few with training in another medium/field before like philosophy (Malick), painting (Bava, Lang), theatre (Bergman, Ophüls, Murnau), litterature (Herzog, Rohmer), photography (Kubrick), sculpting (Tarkovsky), journalism (Dreyer) etc. though I think this is relatively normal. I think many of them tend to have a knock-out early success. People like Kubrick or especially Murnau learned bafflingly fast and built up what seems like a lifetime of cinematic experience in only 2 or 3 "apprenticeship years" which people barely consider parts of their careers. Usually if they started out early they would have at least one undisputable masterpiece just before age 30. In addition not few of them never made anything bad or at least never a bad major work (by which I mean feature lenght and not a student film).

Though I also like a lot of directors who are more established and constantly made films, building up and changing their style (usually with an extensive backcatalouge of weaker early efforts). Lubitsch, Powell, Hitchcock and Mizoguchi are good examples. What I find is a common trope is that directors with vast filmographies tend to have a prime period where they produce most of their best work. Lang had it in his early years in Germany, Hitchcock and Sirk had it in the 50s, Bunuel had it from Nazarin until the end of his career, Renoir had it in the 30s, Godard and Antonioni in the 60's, etc.

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#5

Post by brokenface » January 5th, 2019, 5:11 pm

yeah it's pretty impossible to keep up the same level for decades if you work constantly year after year. You tend to either end up repeating yourself and making endless, usually lesser, iterations of the same thing (e.g. Woody Allen) or you're more of a Werner Herzog or Robert Altman who keeps trying different things with mixed results.

I suppose the other category here is the director for hire, who just goes up and down depending on the quality of the scripts and projects they pick as opposed to particularly trying to experiment (Clint Eastwood, Spielberg, etc.) Though these are sometimes following the classic John Huston method of 'one for them, one for me' (commercial vs personal films).

Another comparison point is director's own attitude towards their careers: some don't seem to have any long-term plan, they're just doing what work they can get or what they feel like at any time (Orson Welles?). Whereas others seem to have a very deliberate attitude towards their own filmography as unified body of work and how they want it to look when they've finished (say, Tarantino)

The directors who can take 5 years between projects and more purist attitude have more chance of keeping up high level over decades (Kubrick, Tarkovsky) and they are generally going to be in that latter category too.

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#6

Post by St. Gloede » January 8th, 2019, 10:47 am

Thank you for the interesting topic, and I concede to Brokenface that the patterns will be wildly different based on the time and place (and also overall cultural/economical development) - I will also moderate the question slightly to looked at generally acclaimed directors, as those outside of eye of either critics or the audience will often scramble and not be in control of their own destiny.

I will also overlook the "perfectionists", i.e. Kubrick, Tarkovsky, early Malick, etc. who will spend anywhere from 5 to 10 years developing a film (the common thread here is a couple of early films that quickly establish them, potentially one or two student films they disown) and an essentially immediate rise to master-status.

I think there are generally two categories a productive and acclaimed director will fall into two journeys;

1. The instant sensation
The instant sensation is a typically young and passionate director who may make a couple of small films before they are discovered, but breaks through at the festival circuit (or more traditionally with the audiences/top people in the film company/culture committee) and quickly secures funds and exposure. They may make it into the mainstream or stay in the more well seen arthouse scene, but bigger names will quickly want to work with them. Sometimes they are part of greater movements, with cinematic ambition, other times they are on their own. Their career progression is very similar to the perfectionist, but with a broader output, and often some mistakes.

They will often have a rougher personal style in the beginning, perhaps trying to challenge narrative or cinematic norms - this will then lead two ways - they either double down on it, or they go a more conventional route, as they move away from personal films and start taking on greater projects.

The audience will often leave those who double down, while it will split the critics - those who turn towards more conventional filmmaking may suddenly meet more audience exposure, but lose a portion of the original following. The main thread between all of these directors however is that they are seen to have a usually 10, maybe 15-20, year period of high quality films right off the bat, and that the general perception is that they simply lost what they had, the initial inspiration is just gone.

2. The late bloomer
The late bloomer is someone who for one reason or another find their break late in their career. In the old studio systems they were typically stuck making films they had little to no control over, in a more modern setting they may pick up the work in TV or take small genre film jobs where they can. Other times they just have not developed or perfected their personal style and simply stumbles. Their early work is either forgotten, underseen or just plain lost (just look at Murnau or Mizoguchi). Another possibility is that they do have middling success but really struggle to find work and are, without wanting to, left for years without the ability to make films. They may also have worked in cinema in another capacity, for instance as an assistant director, cinematographer, editor, writer, etc.

The late bloomer doesn't necessarily lack the passion of the young director, but they are usually driven in a different way, and while the instant to early sensations may change up their style and drastically alter their expression and outlook, the late bloomers often stay in the path they have picked out for most of their careers. Some may of course be thrown through various loops, sometimes forced onto them, sometimes not, but a clear comparison point is that even their earlier acclaimed work is not considered their best, and that they in fact are viewed to be at the top of their career even as their career span ends. Think Rohmer, Haneke, Ophüls, or again, Mizoguchi.

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#7

Post by Lonewolf2003 » January 8th, 2019, 1:33 pm

Can you give some examples of 1 Gloede?

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#8

Post by St. Gloede » January 8th, 2019, 1:48 pm

Some examples that I would say broadly fit: Kar-Wai Wong, Bertrand Blier, Ki-duk Kim, Chan-Wok Park, John Waters, Alain Resnais, Marcel Carné, and even Godard (though I personally love most of what he did after '67).

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#9

Post by Onderhond » January 8th, 2019, 1:52 pm

Nolan is probably a 1 who went the more commercial route.

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#10

Post by St. Gloede » January 8th, 2019, 2:26 pm

The category will also fit almost everyone who started in a new wave, though there are some, like Milos Forman and Agnes Varda who builds equally or even more respected/appreciated second acts.

There are of course exceptions with directors who knock it out of the park from the very beginning and simply remain consistently appreciated - but honestly I struggle to name names, even people like Scorsese, who arguably stayed on top of the game longer than most, started to fade after his 20-25 or so years in the sun and the 90s fully set in.

(As a slight twist on the narrative, and deserving it's own small category you have the directors, like Bunuel, Coppola etc. who go through what most will consider a slump before searching out some kind of personal or creative cinema - or otherwise does a comeback).

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#11

Post by tobias » January 9th, 2019, 6:59 am

@Gloede - I think some of your examples of #2 are maybe a little off. For instance Murnau took a mere 3 years to make a film universally hailed as a masterwork, Nosferatu. He took 8 to make a film widely hailed as one of the very best of all time (with other successes in-between). Mizoguchi took about 30 years to get to Sansho dayu. While yes, some of Murnaus worst works are likely lost, so are likely multiple of his good to great films and I would much rather put him in the perfectionist category you sketched out above. I can't think of any director who learned as fast as Murnau.

And Rohmer, while he started very late does actually get the most praise for his early work (the moral tales) which he did right at the start of his professional career, though I personally think the comedies and proverbs are the best.

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#12

Post by St. Gloede » January 9th, 2019, 8:27 am

tobias wrote:
January 9th, 2019, 6:59 am
@Gloede - I think some of your examples of #2 are maybe a little off. For instance Murnau took a mere 3 years to make a film universally hailed as a masterwork, Nosferatu. He took 8 to make a film widely hailed as one of the very best of all time (with other successes in-between). Mizoguchi took about 30 years to get to Sansho dayu. While yes, some of Murnaus worst works are likely lost, so are likely multiple of his good to great films and I would much rather put him in the perfectionist category you sketched out above. I can't think of any director who learned as fast as Murnau.

And Rohmer, while he started very late does actually get the most praise for his early work (the moral tales) which he did right at the start of his professional career, though I personally think the comedies and proverbs are the best.
The Murnau criticism is spot on, I was thinking of how many films he had produced prior to 1922 (8-12, about half his portfolio), but ignored the short time span. In regard to Mizoguchi I strongly disagree. While the height of his career, especially in retrospect, was his work in the 50s, he came into prominence in the mid-30s, and evolved from there. The category was made purposefully broad though, the slow learner (or perhaps we should use a more positive label) could be a category, and you could play Kieslowksi and maybe even Ophüls into the group of directors who's careers were slowly progressing to greater and greater things.

In regard to Rohmer, I completely agree with your observations, but that broadly fits the characterization (i.e. he came into filmmaking relatively late - and remember he really struggled to get started in the 50s and 60s, it wasn't until '67 he broke through). His filmography is also one of the best picks for consistency in acclaim, as while the Moral Tales may have a slightly higher position Comedy and Proverbs and especially the The Tale of the Four Seasons are all highly regarded, and critics generally dispute which decade was the best for Rohmer, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s all being on the table.

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#13

Post by tobias » January 10th, 2019, 4:07 pm

@Gloede - yeah, maybe I should have been a little more precise about Mizoguchi. I have seen The Story of the Last Crysanthenums actually and I do think it's a great film. I wouldn't for a second doubt that multiple of his 30's films are (I'll watch more but I enjoy to be slow with Mizoguchi, I watch between 0 and 2 a year usually and I'm always delighted when I do). What I meant with the Sansho Dayu comment was rather that he took 30 years to reach this level of mastery because while a film like Story of the Last Crysanthenums is of course absolutely daunting for its time, the aestethics Mizoguchi developed by the 50's are something else imo and usually stunningly evocative. I specifically compared Sansho Dayu to what Murnau achieved with Sunrise which is extremely high praise in my mind. He's probably my favorite Japanese director, I did in no way intend to downplay him or even his earlier efforts.

I think both Kieslowski's and Ophüls careers are a bit weird but you can certainly see that they were at their peak when they died. Though Ophüls specifically actually started out quite strong. Liebelei is a fantastic film and on par with his late french ones imo, Everybody's Woman looks like the blueprint for Citizen Kane and I think that would go more aknowledged if people had actually heard of it (it's also a great film), it's just that throughout the late 30s and early 40s Ophüls was displaced between like 5 countries and rarely got the best conditions (worked in Germany then Italy then France and Netherlands then USA, I'm skeptic if he was even capable of speaking all the languages). Also I'd like to note that I have a lot of fondness for his first feature film, The Company's in Love, it's incredibly creative and there is nothing like it (like with many films from the Weimar Republic), probably one of the best musicals of it's time, just the recording could have been better ;)

I agree with you about Rohmer.

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#14

Post by mightysparks » January 11th, 2019, 12:02 am

I feel like no directors have any patterns or consistency so this thread is pretty confusing for me (aside from the more objective observations such as starting as an indie filmmaker and turning to more popular output in later years). Most directors have 1-2 good films in amongst a bunch of meh stuff and none of their films have anything in common. I’ll never understand the auteur thing.
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#15

Post by fori » January 11th, 2019, 1:17 am

Are you saying you don’t think directors are the primary authors of the films they work on? And on top of that most don’t even have any identifiable traits across their body of work?

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#16

Post by mightysparks » January 11th, 2019, 1:42 am

fori wrote:
January 11th, 2019, 1:17 am
Are you saying you don’t think directors are the primary authors of the films they work on? And on top of that most don’t even have any identifiable traits across their body of work?
Yea, I mean some directors have identifiable traits or themes (eg, Wes Anderson and Ozu but even with those two I don't find their bodies of work very consistent) but I see a lot of directors thrown around as auteurs where I wouldn't even know they had directed all the films I'd seen without having checked IMDb first. And I believe that each film is 'authored' by every cast and crew member involved. More-so after being involved with film production and seeing how things go, a skilled or visionary director doesn't necessarily mean a good film if everyone else is rubbish, or a bad director gets a decent film made because the cinematographer and editor are good etc.
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#17

Post by fori » January 11th, 2019, 2:52 am

I’d actually have to disagree there. If you look at the work of a more idiosyncratic director such as Jon Jost, the films form not only a cohesive oeuvre, but also one distinct from the rest of the film world. Cast and crew have come and gone, but the distinct features are perpetually intact.

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#18

Post by mightysparks » January 11th, 2019, 3:01 am

fori wrote:
January 11th, 2019, 2:52 am
I’d actually have to disagree there. If you look at the work of a more idiosyncratic director such as Jon Jost, the films form not only a cohesive oeuvre, but also one distinct from the rest of the film world. Cast and crew have come and gone, but the distinct features are perpetually intact.
For some directors yea the distinct features may be there but in terms of quality or consistency it is completely random to me. I've only seen one Jost film so can't comment there, but for the examples I gave like Anderson and Ozu I can tell it's their film immediately, but only 1-2 of their films are good despite these 'distinct features' being apparent across their films. So it's clearly not their trademarks that are making a film good (or bad), but a combination of other factors. With work where it's usually only 1 person involved then it's a little different and their influence is obviously clearer but I usually will dislike everything (possibly because there are no other factors).
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#19

Post by fori » January 11th, 2019, 3:39 am

Quality isn’t a core aspect of auteurship as I understand it. Think about literary authorship, many authors who are indisputably the sole author of all their output nevertheless have a very inconsistent body of work. I still disagree that the quality of all or nearly all director filmographies is mixed.

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#20

Post by mightysparks » January 11th, 2019, 3:48 am

fori wrote:
January 11th, 2019, 3:39 am
Quality isn’t a core aspect of auteurship as I understand it. Think about literary authorship, many authors who are indisputably the sole author of all their output nevertheless have a very inconsistent body of work. I still disagree that the quality of all or nearly all director filmographies is mixed.
Yeah that's true, I guess I meant in their consistency of... something else. I have the same problem with music as well, most bands or artists I only like 1-2 songs. For most of the directors mentioned in this thread I've just been scratching my head trying to connect their films together and to me there is no consistent thread or quality. But I guess I'm just not seeing something that others are, and because there are too many other factors that come into play with each film that I don't really know if I'm 'seeing' the directing, or the acting, or the editing etc so each film to me is an individual piece of work irrelevant of its makers. And with quality, for most directors I'll have films rated 1-2 all the way to 8-9, I probably couldn't name 5 directors whose work is consistent quality-wise. (I also think I'm focusing on quality because of the way the OP is worded rather than considering auteurship properly, but I still don't really buy into the auteur theory/line of thinking).
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#21

Post by fori » January 11th, 2019, 4:07 am

I didn’t have this question in mind when I wrote the first post. I think the directing aspect of a film often seems intangible to us as viewers, so it can be difficult to find the director in their filmography, particularly when the director has made films in a broad range of styles and genres. I also agree that there are numerous cases where a director is almost certainly not the auteur behind a film credited to them. However, I do think there are many examples to the contrary. There are certain names that immediately tell me something about a film when I see them in the director’s spot on a film page. One good example is Gakuryu Ishii. If I see that Ishii is directing a film, I immediately know it will be an esoteric exercise in genre film that will have heavy emphasis on tone and aesthetic. Likewise, if I see Michael Bay is directing a movie, it will be a bloated and crass textbook example of massaging the deep-seated flaws of the film with obnoxious amounts of money.

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