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18 GREAT DEBUTS (that aren’t Citizen Kane)

July 2023

It’s as simple as the title really, because as good as old Charles Foster Kane is i’m sure you know enough about him already…

Badlands (dir. Terence Malick, 1973) So if some débuts are those unique, sealed-in-a-void, one-off, never to be repeated works, the difference with Terence Malick is that his whole career is a sealed-in-a-void, one-off (yes even 2012’s teetering on the edge of parody To the Wonder). Sure there are fine directors that have emulated his aesthetic (Andrew Dominik in The Assassination of Jesse James and David Lowery in Ain’t Those Bodies Saints), but as excellent as they are, Malick drinks from a different well from everyone else. Badlands then is the start of the journey into Malick world and for the uninitiated it’s the natural and easiest place to start. Like the rest of Malicks oeuvre (though maybe not as manifestly) Badlands is a hymn, a song of worship not to the crimes and actions of the films protagonists, murderous lovers on the run, Kit (an impossibly cool Martin Sheen) and Holly (an impossibly ethereal Sissy Spacek), but to the multitude of cosmic questions that are the make-up of the consciousness of human beings. God, nature, identity, morality, love, family, all questioned and shot with the most fluid, melancholic and luscious eye. And even at the very beginning of his career Malick had no truck with irony. Everything about Badlands, everything about all his films is genuine, unfashionable and heartfelt…. he is the great believer of cinema.

Performance (dir. Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg, 1970) ‘i am a bullet’ is perhaps films greatest pay-off line, followed by a sequence that is only really comparable to the ‘trip’ sequence in 2001 in it’s sheer audacious ‘out-there-ness’, but even Kubrick didn’t have the kahunas to include an image of Jorge Luis Borges floating past a bullet entering a skull. To make the inclusion of Performance in this list even more solid, this sequence is followed by one of the cinemas best, but most unappreciated closing shots. An image that simultaneously cements and obfuscates all that proceeds it, a fabulously unstable film of shifting identities, like a psychedelic Lost Highway. A film about a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and gangster (James Fox) who hides out in his London mansion. With all its 60’s trappings of drugs and sex it should of dated badly, but if anything Performance’s themes are even more relevant to the increasingly fragmented and polymorphic society in which we live.

The Evil Dead (dir. Sam Rami, 1981) The antithesis to the unique, sealed-in-a-void, one-off nature that often affects débuts, Evil Dead could of seemingly been made by any film nerd or gang of imaginative teenagers, it was Rami’s genius that he did it first and what he did got everyone’s knickers in a twist. It’s unrelenting energy and invention could of only been the product of youth (he was barely in his 20’s at the time). It is also one of the most mischievous films in the history of cinema, having as much fun goading its audience as it does torturing its protagonists. Proceeding the genre by nearly 20 years Rami is the first great comic book director….and it gave us the chin, don’t ever forget that

Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox, 1984) On a list that includes PI how crazy does the craziest film on this list actually have to be? Repo Man crazy that’s how crazy. Alex Cox, cinemas Joe Strummer, Hunter.S.Thompson and Che Guevara all roled into one, directed his début like he may well never see the morning, let alone make another film. It’s brimming with ideas and anger, taking on putrid politics by being putrid, paranoia, the invisibility of an entire class of people, religion, violence and stupidity. It’s a punk film which still understands what punk once meant (great soundtrack too), it’s a caper, a comedy, a chase film, a mystery, an apocalyptic sci-fi, a subversive political exploration, an unflinching double-tap to the back of the head to the colour by numbers, committee film-making that the 80’s spawned, a road movie, a satire, a bawdy post-modern soup of film references (Don’t look in the trunk!)….basically its an Alex Cox film and it is one of the greatest tragedies of modern cinema that there aren’t more of these.

Duel (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1971) Débuts are a good sketch for the career that follows. They are often a rough assimilation of the techniques, themes, obsessions and ideas that are played out and developed throughout the increasingly fine-tuned films that ensue. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Spielberg’s opener. A salesman on a business trip in the Californian desert pisses off a truck driver and then for the rest of the 90 minutes is chased down by the unseen driver in his monster vehicle….there that’s it…no sub-plots, no romantic interest, there might be some political subtext but you’d probably not see it from the edge of your seat, which is where you’re guaranteed to spend your 90 minutes, just where Spielberg has had a knack of placing us in various ways throughout his career. But tension aside the most notable thing is just how goddamn unashamedly entertaining the whole thing is. Spielberg can’t help but make us watch, watch in the simplest of senses, not read or theorise (though you can do that if you wish) just watch, like kids, like teenagers, like crazy lovers, like a gang of old friends, watch. What possibly more could you want.

Breathless (dir. Jean-luc Goddard, 1960) Its a tragedy of cinema that films are often defined in gender specific ways, that’s a boy’s-own-adventure, that’s a chick-flick, that’s a women’s interest piece, ‘oh that’s such a boys film’, a prison of stereotyping that is propagated even more with every passing year. With the miles of text written about À Bout de Souffle, it is often ignored that it is the great gender neutral film. Well maybe gender neutral is the wrong word, there is nothing neutral about this film, more accurately phrased it is the greatest film that is equal to both sexes (if we of course we adhere to gender stereotypes…which it appears we are….but we a love a good romance as much as the next man/woman/person). It is equally a romance as it is a crime film, equally tragic as it is thrilling, it is iconic, it is fashion, it is as cool as Christopher Walken in full dance mode, but it has huge, fragile heart.

Night of the Living Dead (dir. George Romero, 1968) You have to contextualise it. Imagine going into a cinema in 1968 with maybe just some Corman in your movie viewing repertoire, maybe Blood Feast, maybe you were a true drive-in aficionado and had seen Gore Gore Girls and Colour Me Blood Red too, perhaps even at a push you had broadened your horizons and seen Sanjuro’s blood geyser, even if you had none of it would of prepared you for Romero’s debut. And it’s not just the violence that would have pinned you to the back of your seat, it was the nihilism, George RR Martin probably saw it as a young man and said ‘so i can kill off anyone i like?’ It has so little regard for humanity that even with the hoards of lumbering dead most of the characters are killed by the living, fueled by fear, ignorance, hate and selfishness. It’s almost as if Romero is saying we deserve this hell that has ascended on us.

Night of the Hunter (dir. Charles Laughton, 1955) The main question here is, does this count as a début? Début means your first film, but can it mean your only film? Whatever the answer Laughton never made another film, leaving Night of the Hunter in a strange, untouchable void, which suits it perfectly. It is also one of the strangest films in cinema history, it’s not weird, it’s strange and there’s a difference, it’s 1 degree off normal, it’s cogs run a split second slower than other films, so everything seems familiar but ever so slightly askew, it’s uncanny, it’s a proto Lynch film, it’s Mitchums silhouette on a bedroom wall full of threat, it’s the angles of Shelly Winters bedroom as she lays trance like in bed, the wide shots of houses and riverboats and horses on the horizon like a gothic shadow-play, Winters drowned but upright on the river bed and strangest of all Mitchum as he chases the children through the swamp screaming like a dying bird. It’s highly likely given this incomparable strangeness that Laughton may have never even come close to replicating it. All the better then that it is a one off.

Ballast (dir. Lance Hammer, 2008) But sometimes it’s a directors only film, not because they fell off into the film-makers void but because they’ve yet to make another one, and you’ve got to hope Lance Hammer (real name…also possible superhero alias) makes another pretty soon to build on the promise of his heartbreaking début. It’s almost a bit of Curtis Hanson moment, but maybe a little weirder. Hanson went from making The River Wild, a perfectly passable mid-90’s thriller to hitting it out of the park with L.A Confidential, there was really no hint or suggestion this would happen, Hammer went from doing visual effects on Batman & Robin and Practical Magic to directing this, so that’s bat-nipples to Ballast just to reiterate, of course there was over a decade break in the meantime, but it’s a tad strange. Ballast is a loose, minimalist tale about the effect of one man’s suicide on his twin brother, his estranged son and the sons mother. Haunting in its visuals and approach, but also uncompromisingly realist and humanist in its depiction of a rarely represented strata of American society. A beautiful link between Killer of Sheep and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Ivan’s Childhood (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962) In a medium where one of the primary goals is to create wonder, Andrei Tarkovsky is its primary wonder creator. No other director has had the ability to create such images, seemingly effortlessly on screen, full, almost to bursting with symbolism and meaning, and a very genuine and emotional yearning to convey this to the viewer. To call Ivan’s Childhood the prototype Tarkovsky would be doing it an injustice, but as he is a director who demands such devotion and involvement across his entire filmography, one of the joys of his début is witnessing the seeds planted for his later masterpieces (are any Tarkovsky film’s not masterpiece?), the slow lingering takes, the fluid long shots with their dance-like quality, the obsession with water, reflections, dreams, and though, even by the directors admission, these elements are not as sophisticated as he would later achieve, this breeding ground for the techniques and ideas of one of the great philosophical film-makers (with Bergman and Dreyer….who are we missing?) is head and shoulders above most other film-makers prize work.

Shadows (dir. John Cassavetes, 1959) It's to Shadows credit and enduring influence that it hasn’t been overshadowed (sorry) by its creator and the lengths he went to to make his début. Read Cassavetes on Cassavetes and decide whether he was an uncompromising genius or an absolute arse. We’re going for both, and by both understand that they can, and often have to be, the same thing. There’s no denying in terms of form and craft, Shadows is a mess, but therein lies its profound and lasting beauty. This hobbled together tale of interracial relations centred around two brothers and their sister in New York, broke the mold for american independent cinema and is soaked to the bone with the kind of Hard-bop, beat generation energy that you can’t really create by design. For any young film-maker it should be obligatory viewing. It’s stubborn DIY ethic is the very essence of creation by any means necessary. As was the case for the rest of his career Cassavetes answered to no one but himself.

Primer (dir. Shane Carruth, 2004) A film where its more beneficially to search for a diagram than a plot synopsis, in fact we can imagine the shooting script was just a serious of increasingly complex equations. Lets say that most challenging films provide their rewards after multiple views, the danger with Primer is that there’s a chance you may understand it even less on multiple viewings. From top to bottom Primer is film constructed with such precision it almost seems alien. Shot for a paltry $7000 on film, Shane Carruth was less a director than a demiurge, writing, producing, editing, scoring, as well as performing the lead role, not, you feel on watching it, through ego or paranoia that someone may corrupt his work, but such is the complexity of his work that only he could navigate it (much as it seems with his follow up Upstream Colour, the biology to Primers hard physics). The plot, for what it’s worth, involves some engineers for hire that invent a machine that reduces the weight of an object. They succeed but one of the side effects is that any object inside the machine experiences more time than the machine is switched on for, effectively making it a time machine. They then build a man-size one and as humans are wont to do use it to fulfill their greedy urges. Though this is like saying WWI was started by a chauffeur who didn’t pay attention. Seriously, a diagram.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2010)

Sometimes there are films that make you call all your friends once you have left the cinema to tell them what you’ve just experienced. Films that fill you full of a virginal love of cinema, all those reasons that you fell in love with it in the first place and after years of plodding through the repetitious, the stupid, the boring and the derivative, smacks you in the face, shouting ‘this is what it’s capable of’. Films that don’t care what you think, that are genuine, genuinely heart-felt, genuinely joyous, genuinely concerned with asking hard questions of its characters, genuinely in love with the capabilities of the medium. Films that blur the lines between the refreshingly new and the reassuringly classic. Films that don’t define the ‘inner’ and outer’ world as different places. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wilds….just make sure you’ve got patient friends.

PI (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 1998) Yes this is the film that’s often called ‘the greatest Jewish horror film about maths ever made’. As ridiculous as that sounds, there are very few better ways to sum up Aronofsky’s opener. He is the reference director par-excellence (yes even better than Tarantino, because he doesn’t spend all his time getting personal with his VHS player), so here we get the Kabbalah, the stock market, conspiracy theory, mental illness, non-linear maths and Kafka doing the Old Testament. It’s like Pynchon without the distracting names, a deep well of ideas and theories that overlap and conflict to reveal a strange and terrifying world within a world.

Hunger (dir. Steve McQueen, 2008) This could of got tricky, McQueen took an extremely sensitive subject (something he seems to be a fan of doing), the 1981 Republican hunger strike in County Downs Maze Prison and made a truly beautiful and form changing work of art, whilst all the time never losing sight of the human and political quagmire it depicts. It is truly a staggeringly assured début, a fact that’s on the one hand not hard to believe from an artist of his talent but on the other quite unexpected due to the subject matter. McQueen’s camera finds a beauty in composition (a guard smoking in the snow, a hallway of piss being cleaned) and movement (Sands being carried away, a flashback to his youth) that we would never expect to find in a film of this nature, and it is a strange and unbalancing counter to the physical and emotional brutality it depicts. The beauty of the images though should come of no surprise knowing McQueens previous employment, his ability to draw such exquisite performances from his cast not so much. It’s hard to think of a better performed scene in modern cinema than the extended conversation between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and Father Moran (Liam Cunnigham). It is a lesson in performance, politics and composition in 2 shots.

Killer of Sheep (dir. Charles Burnett, 1979) It is often forgotten amongst the groundbreaking aspects of Charles Burnetts début that it is an utterly impeccable film. Equal parts raw and poetic it is time capsule, a silent and simple observer of places and people now moved on. It spurns the usual narrative and character arcs, with the use of documentary, almost neo-realist aesthetic, it merely depicts scenes and events from a life lived near the poverty line, whilst foregrounding the universal struggles and challenges we all face. Fearlessly it does not apply cinematic conventions, nor is it wantonly experimental. In a list full of one-of-kind pieces, in its simplicity and its history Killer of Sheep might be the film where this term is most applicable.

Thief (dir. Michael Mann, 1981) For all its stylistic and thematic similarities Michael Mann’s career has been an odd one. He’s rarely mentioned in the ‘best living directors’ list…if that’s even a real thing, you don’t find many retrospectives of his work or thesis’s by media students lining university walls. He jumps across genres while still making ‘Michael Mann’ films. He’s one of digital cinemas earliest champions but yet tells unashamedly traditional stories. He moved from film to big TV and back again before it was the done thing. No wonder he’s overlooked, as its often difficult to know what to make of him. So all we can do is take the films as they are…and y’know not over think it. Heat in my humble opinion is a nailed on masterpiece and again Mann came pretty close with Manhunter, The Insider and Miami Vice (yes goddamit Miami Vice), Collateral and Last of the Mohicans were two sumptuous big screen treats, Ali and in particular Public Enemies were a little underwhelming but still visually striking, even the anomaly in Mann’s work The Keep is intriguing (if a little mental)… we’re left with Thief, maybe the full stop on that string of tough, macho, urban crime films that started with The French Connection 10 years earlier. It’s nobodies introduction to Mann, but it really should be. So when we do our retrospective of the great man’s work you’ll know what to expect first.

Blue Collar (dir. Paul Schrader, 1978) When Paul Schrader wasn’t making films he was writing them (Taxi Driver, the criminally underrated Rolling Thunder), when he wasn’t writing them he was writing about them (you can find much of his excellent criticism here). He’s one of those film-makers that knows so much about film that he doesn’t feel the need the show off about it and instead it seeps into his work naturally….just by doing, Schrader is teaching. His 1978 debut is exactly that. Blue Collar is a story of three friends working a production line who decide to rob the union safe and end up going from robbers to blackmailers. A simple enough premise, but is not the premise that’s important. Along with films like Salt of the Earth, Matewan, On the Waterfront and the works of Loach and Eisenstein, Blue Collar is a masterpiece of working class cinema. With understanding and not a little humour it shows men slowly squeezed to the point where they react. It does not idolise them, it shows them as flawed, friendly, stupid, warm, damaged, selfish characters, who are as at risk to the total corruption of power as anyone else.

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