Friday, April 11, 2014

First Films!: On The Difficulties Of Starting From The Beginning

The folks over at Save Horror had just wrapped up Save Horror Madness (64 horror movies squaring off in an NCAA_style bracket - probably the most diverting thing on Twitter these last few weeks), and mentioned that, by request, they were about to start reviewing the work of true master of horror Dario Argento. They asked their Twitterfiends where to start, and, not surprisingly, a whole mess of folks told 'em to go with Suspiria.

And why not? Even going on four decades after its release Suspiria remains one of the wildest, most beautiful, most mind-bending trips in horror cinema. For his first foray into the realm of supernatural horror, Argento amped up the production design, the dream-like pacing, the elaborate and disturbing violence, the volume of Goblin's classicistic and unforgettable score, and embraced Technicolor. It's a horror classic, through and through, and its cult following is devout. (Occasional contributor here David Robson once jumped off the stage from the curtain call of a play he was in and ran through the theatre to catch a cab to a screening, making it with seconds to spare.) Most of the responses to Save Horror's Argento query listed other near-favorites, but were unanimous in suggesting they start with Suspiria.

Which got me to thinking: when we consciously start watching the oeuvre of a filmmaker whose work is all new to us, why go for the best movie first? We always want to start this kind of endeavor on a good note (indeed, in this era of streaming we want a GUARANTEE THAT THIS MOVIE WON'T WASTE OUR TIME OMG), but doesn't starting with the best imply that it's all downhill from there?

Between that and the fact that SH seemed to be embarking on a larger viewing binge (coupled with the accessibility of Argento's oeuvre), I suggested (strongly suggested)(can't lie, I actually nagged them) that they start with Argento's first movie, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.

It's rare that a filmmaker strikes such a huge success right off the bat - not only did Argento's first film lay down many of his tropes (intense visual imagery & sound design, graphic violence, colorfully unreal production design), but it quickly supercharged the giallo sub-genre of horror, influencing many Italian thrillers in its wake. And it was a huge public and critical success as well, with many declaring Argento "the new Hitchcock." I was excited by the prospect of a horror fan starting with it, and recommended going through the highlights of Argento's career chronologically, veering from the increasingly violent murder mysteries through the hyper-stylized supernatural movies (Suspiria absolutely, but don't sleep on Inferno). Then back to murder mysteries - what does the influence/experience of Suspiria/Inferno shape Tenebre? What to make of the horrors sprung from the natural world, like Phenomena & Opera. And did he just go crazy before he started The Stendahl Syndrome? With such a distinct style and body of work, the context of Argento's earlier work is a rich place from which to contemplate his later masterworks, his still later but confident, 3-star works (indeed, Phenomena may be my favorite of his films) through his apparent slide into insanity on Giallo and Dracula.

And so it nagged at me. Given our willingness to binge-watch entire series on demand (usually starting with the first season, where most series are usually fumbling to establish their aesthetic), why don't we have the patience to start at the beginning with a filmmaker's oeuvre? I gave it some thought, and the only famous filmmaker I could think of whose first movie was most viewers' first experience of his/her work was Orson Welles.

But there are compelling reasons why this is not the case. Most filmmakers' first movies happen at the indie level. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was an incredibly assured debut (maybe as assured as Argento's), and those of us who saw it theatrically knew that this guy was only going to continue, but it wasn't until Pulp Fiction that most mainstream viewers got their first look at him. And a number of great filmmakers' first works happened too far in the past to access (Alfred Hitchcock's first films, the unfinished Number 13 and The Mountain Eagle, are lost in time). And some first movies genuinely aren't worth the bother (due respect, James Cameron, but Piranha II: The Spawning showed little of your promise).

It's to our credit that we seek out new things in any medium. And there are a whole mess of filmmakers awaiting our discovery. It's rare that we get a chance to first engage a filmmaker with their first work, and it can be a crapshoot. Even when we do this it can provide a misleading context for their work to come; She's Gotta Have It and Fear & Desire both announce major filmmaking talents, but Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick's major respective preoccupations didn't manifest until their second or third films. And yet sometimes we do come across a lesser-known filmmaker whose body of work is small enough to be undertaken, and whose first work entertains. (In that spirit, I commend you to Eve's Bayou, the filmmaking debut of actor Kasi Lemmons.) With so many movies available, and the context so potentially rich, take the chance on a first movie!

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