Directorial Debuts: Part III (1960’s)

Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola, Norman Jewison, Brian De Palma, Werner Herzog…just a small handful of the legendary directors who made their screen debuts in the decade of turbulence — the 1960’s. Talents like this went on to helm some of the finest films of the 70’s, 80’s and even today. But did their first films make a dynamic splash in the cinematic waters? After posting my Top 5 directorial debuts of the 2000’s and the 1970’s, here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1960’s. Of course, this is not a list of the best directors to come out of the decade…this list is based on the filmmakers’ very first films and the impact they had on the world of movies. Take a look — and let me know who you would put on the list!

5. Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone, 1961)

A feel good film, this ain’t — but it remains a startling debut from one of Italy’s finest directors.  A sort of second-wave of neorealism filmmaking, Pasolini’s focus here (as in almost all his works) is on peasant culture and the people who inhabit that world. As he always did, Pasolini hired non-actors from the area to play the roles, giving the film a genuine look and feel. Accattone (meaning “beggar”) revolves around a pimp who loses his income when his main prostitute is roughed up by rivals. Vittorio (Franco Citti) discovers a new girl and slowly lures her into her seedy new profession. The movie is beautifully shot and filled with such fascinating faces to examine. An ugly and unsettling experience, but poetic and a sure work of art. Controversial from the start, Pasolini would go on to explore the very real and very poor side of Italy’s streets in works such as the powerful Mamma Roma, Medea, and Salo.

4. Mel Brooks (The Producers, 1968)

I’m not really much of a Mel Brooks fan at all, but I do love this movie. Before it became a Broadway mega-hit years later, this wonderfully funny film went on to win Brooks an Oscar for Original Screenplay. Zero Mostel is pitch-perfect as Max Bialystock, the aging producer who woos older rich women for investment money and bullies poor Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a feeble accountant, to try and produce the biggest flop the Broadway stage has ever seen. What’s the project? Only a love letter to Hitler, featuring the now infamous song “Springtime for Hitler.” After selling 25,000 percent of the play to investors, hiring the world’s worst stage director, and casting a bunch of misfits, Bialystock’s plan ultimately backfires and the musical is a smash. A delightful comedy classic and an impressive debut, to say the least. I may not appreciate his movies as others do, but Brooks went on to direct some classic comedic films such as  Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and yes, Spaceballs.

3. George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

The Godfather of all zombie movies and one of the most influential horror films ever made — Romero’s debut has since spawned five sequels and two remakes…but none would come close to this stunning debut.  Made on a shoestring budget (which adds to the crude and eerie feel on screen), Romero’s classic created prototype for other zombie films to follow, featuring the rural setting, young outsiders in a small group, and the political statements made in the form of allegory. The movie clearly critiques American society at the time, but it also creeps the fuck out of you. With this debut, Romero was able to define an entire genre of film — not the horror film per se, but the subgenre falling beneath it. 40+ years later, it is still gruesome, still terrifying, and still smart movie-making.

2. Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969)

The quintessential biker flick, Easy Rider became a huge box-office success and quickly became famous for representing the 1960’s counterculture generation. Because of its enormous success, it also sparked a new wave of filmmaking that would lead well into the 1970’s. Hopper’s love letter to hippies was shot with barely any script at all, with most of the dialogue being ad-libbed.  The film follows bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) as they travel America’s South trying to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Characters are met along the way – most who look down on the long-haired bikers. When thrown in jail for parading without a permit, they are helped out by a local attorney (Jack Nicholson), who decides to join in their travels. The film marked the “coming out” for Nicholson who received an Oscar nom. The soundtrack here is filled with staples of some great 1960’s rock and folk artists including The Band and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hopper’s statement on America during that time — certainly a bleak and demoralizing one — is made all too clear. He would later direct Colors, which was a very good film and a handful of others — not so good. But this, his first film, goes down in history as helping to define a generation. A brave and sincere work.

1. Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water, 1962)

One of cinema’s most accomplished directors made a most extraordinary debut with this Polish drama consisting of only three actors. A young husband and wife drive to a lake so they can spend the day leisurely sailing together. On the way, they almost hit a young man — who is then invited to hop in and later, is even asked to join them on the boat. Not a great idea.  But really, when is a hitchhiker ever a good thing? Power struggles and sexual tension between the trip ensue and Polanski gets to play with some themes that he will examine in later films in more detail. This is a remarkably intense film and no surprise that the newbie director would go on to make some of the very best films over the course of the next 40+ years, including Repulsion, Macbeth, The Pianist, Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby. Looking at the entire decade, this choice was a no-brainer for me — and if you’re a film buff who hasn’t yet seen it, this is a must-see.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART IV’ will give us the Top 10 best debuts from the 1980’s and 90’s.

Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART I (2000’s)
Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART II (1970’s)

The 10 Creepiest David Lynch Moments

As a tremendous admirer of David Lynch and his artistry, I thought this was a brilliant idea for a post by the writers of Zen College Life (www.zencollegelife.com). I personally feel that he is one of only a select handful of American filmmakers who you can classify as a true “auteur.” Katina Solomon was kind enough to send this my way and after reading it, I felt I must publish it here on The Lantern to help spread the Gospel of Lynch. Some amazing and haunting scenes are listed here…give it a look! — P.E.

When your name becomes an adjective, you know you’ve made it. Case in point: the word “Lynchian” now means, essentially, a movie characterized by stark images, eerie moods, arresting sound design, and often graphic and twisted depictions of the human form. In other words, it’s like watching the most beautiful nightmare you’ve ever had, torn between wanting it to end and wanting to see if it gets weirder. David Lynch. He’s a masterful, remarkably assured filmmaker who’s proven himself to be one of the American greats, yet even by his own special standards, the scenes below are full-on creepy. They’re dark and ominous, and they share a common fear of the unusual and unknown. Many of them are marked by the sudden appearance of something unsettling that’s made all the more so for the way it just kind of shows up in the middle of a scene that’s already surreal. Don’t know what we mean? Throw some headphones on and get comfy, then. Time for a trip down Lynch’s rabbit hole.

10. Every Single Moment in Eraserhead

Lynch’s first film remains his most disturbing. Shot on a shoestring budget in the 1970s, the film is a gross, often revolting work that revolves around a deformed creature with no limbs and a monstrous face. Placing a heavy emphasis on emotional states over linear narratives, the film is a blast of bizarre visions and creepy encounters that Lynch may never top (not that he should.) Even for Lynch die-hards, this is a tough one.

9. The Televised Rabbits in Inland Empire

Significant portions of Inland Empire involve a faux-sitcom set featuring a three-member family with human bodies and rabbit heads. The images come from “Rabbits,” a series of video shorts Lynch made in 2002. On paper, the set-up sounds like a cheesy kids comedy, but in Lynch’s hands, it becomes so weird and menacing and uncomfortable that you don’t know what to do.

To view the scene, please click here.

8. The Shooting at Room 47 in Inland Empire

Totally nonlinear and endlessly challenging, Inland Empire offers some of Lynch’s most upsetting imagery (which is saying something). The movie’s basically a series of scenes that only loosely form a plot, and the action comes to a head when Nikki (Laura Dern) confronts the evil Phantom and shoots him, only to see his face turn into a grotesque version of her own. Seriously, this will mess you up…

To view the scene, please click here.

7. Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive

Only Lynch could make such a moving and beautiful scene so rattling. The final moments of Mulholland Drive exist almost outside of time and reality, playing with the fabric of dreams and death just like the rest of the film. We get our heroines back, briefly, freed from suicide and sex games and everything else that’s plagued every version of them, and we also get a stirring song that raises the nature of seeing versus believing.

6. The Mythical Origin Story in The Elephant Man

Probably the most accessible film Lynch made until 1999’s The Straight Story, The Elephant Man was nominated for a host of Oscars and earned praise for its cast. The opening of the film, though, is vintage Lynch, blending sight and sound into a weird metaphorical origin story that sees a woman trampled (and maybe more) by a herd of elephants. Even in a film as straightforward as this one, the “Lynchian” vibe is inescapable.

To view the clip, please click here.

5. The Figure Behind the Diner in Mulholland Drive

Originally written as a TV pilot before being retooled and partially reshot, Mulholland Drive is a haunting Mobius strip of a movie that slides back and forth between dreams and reality in ways specifically designed to leave viewers unsure of what’s happening. The creepiest moment is one that feels totally unrelated to the surrounding story, too. Set at a diner called Winkies, the scene deals with a man confronting a nightmare that turns out to be real. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the movie, or what your theories are about this scene’s meaning: it will still scare you. Here’s part one; the conclusion is below.

4. The Chat with the Mystery Man in Lost Highway

It sounds misleading to merely refer to Lost Highway as unsettling, as if the rest of Lynch’s c.v. was a lighthearted romp through Candyland, but there are some really spooky moments here that almost defy description. (David Foster Wallace memorably profiled Lynch during the film’s production for Premiere magazine.) The plot is almost too Lynchian to try and sum up, but it starts out dealing with a man (Bill Pullman) who finds himself haunted and stalked by a pale old Mystery Man (Robert Blake). After a brief vision of the Mystery Man, our hero meets him at a party and has a supremely eerie conversation with him that seems to break the rules of space and time.

3. Frank Booth’s Dry-Humping Fit in Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet was Lynch’s art-house redemption after the bloated mess of Dune, and he didn’t mess around: the film’s loaded with the symbolism and sexual themes that are prevalent in much of Lynch’s work. Chief among these is a wild man, Frank Booth (played with insane lust by Dennis Hopper), who gets off by dry-humping Isabella Rossellini while huffing from a gas mask. Even for a movie that kicks off with a guy finding a severed ear, this is a rocky scene.

2. The Appearance of the Navigator in Dune

Lynch’s version of Frank Herbert’s sci-classic is, well, not without its flaws. Lynch spoke out against the film, saying that producers had kept him from having final cut and implementing his own personal vision. Still, the film remains a stark and often ugly work of modern art, and it’s packed with the physical grotesqueries for which Lynch is often known. Easily the most unnerving is the giant navigator that at once is phallic and vaginal, a mutant in a glass case who can fold space and time and who has paid a bodily price for being submerged in the magical spice that gives him his powers. It’s impossible not to see him and feel a chill.

1. Agent Cooper’s Dream in Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks was the kind of daring, what-is-going-on type of TV show that now exists on cable. But in 1990, you could actually get a network to take a chance on a murder mystery that chucked the whodunit plot in favor of weird characters, dream sequences, and pie. Agent Cooper’s dream at the end of the second episode (after the two-hour TV-movie pilot) became an instant pop culture sensation thanks to its style, execution, and indescribable oddity. It’s vintage Lynch, and it set the stage for the rest of the show’s iconic run.

By Katina Solomon
(Zen College Life website)

8 Thoughts on 8 David Lynch Films

Artisphere in Washington DC is celebrating the magnificent works of film auteur David Lynch by screening his works every Wednesday of this month. In honor of this well-deserved tribute, the film writers of the DC-based online entertainment magazine Brightest Young Things (myself included) have chosen to write a few personal thoughts on a film of their choosing — by Sir Lynch.

I personally had to go with Blue Velvet, for many reasons. My commentary on this 1986 masterpiece is below. If you are not acquainted with the film staff at BYT, they have some pretty great writers who know their movies. If you’d like to read some thoughts on such works as Wild at Heart, The Straight Story, Mullholland Drive, Dune (yes, Dune), Lost Highway, Inland Empire — and the mega cult classic Eraserhead, then click on the BYT Loves Lynch article. The BYT film writers include Alan Z., William A., Zach G., Logan D., Erin H., and BYT editor Svetlana L.

Here are my initial thoughts on Mr. Lynch’s Blue Velvet:

It all starts – with an ear. A severed human ear, decomposing in a lush green field. The camera slowly zooms in to the canal as the sound amplifies and the busy ants swarm around the flesh. Thus begins David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, a modern-day film noir with elements of surrealism thrown in for good measure. As we get a closer look inside that rotting ear, we are invited in to Lynch’s world of a dark and violent underbelly lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly peaceful suburban logging town.

Blue Velvet is certainly not for everyone — a polarizing film, if there ever was one (you may recall Siskel and Ebert’s famous argument over the film’s merits). Regardless, it garnered Lynch his 2nd Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Director,’ on the heels of Woody Allen calling it the single best movie of 1986. Since its theatrical release – through VHS, laserdiscs, DVD’s and now Blu-Ray — the film has reached legendary cult status, playing on many a midnight movie screen.

College student Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Lynch fave Kyle Maclachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to see to his ailing father when he stumbles across the detached ear. He takes the ear to the police, but his own voyeuristic tendencies take over and Jeffrey proceeds to begin his own investigation, with the help of the police detective’s daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern). The ear draws him deeper into his hometown’s sordid underworld, where he meets the captivating torch singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), whose son and husband have been kidnapped in return for sexual favors by the sadistic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper, at the top of his game in a career-resurrecting role). Jeffrey becomes further involved, running into a cast of sleazy characters, trying his best to save the helpless Dorothy – and later, himself.

Lynch had the idea for this film in the early 1970’s – before his first feature film Eraserhead (another cult classic) was released. After his marvelous work on The Elephant Man (1980) and the failure that was Dune (1984), he was given complete artistic freedom and final cut privileges with Blue Velvet, culminating in a truly personal work. His casting choices here are right on the mark. Rossellini no longer had to cling on to those Lancome advertisements – she is finally given the opportunity to test her acting chops in a meaty role. With all that her character must endure at the hands of Frank, it is a truly courageous performance – and opened up a whole new career for Ms. Rossellini. Dean Stockwell plays Ben, a drug dealer and one of Frank’s accomplices. His lip-synched performance to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is both chilling and somewhat comical and makes for one of the film’s highlights. Laura Dern turns in a solid performance as the high school girl who is a perfect paradox for Dorothy and all that she represents. Maclachlan holds the film together quite – he is strong when he needs to be (remember that tremendous backslap to Dorothy in a moment of pleasure and rage) and completely naïve and vulnerable when at the mercy of Frank. The film also delivers one of cinema’s greatest villains of all-time in Frank Booth, played deliciously by Mr. Hopper. This guy is one scary sociopath. Between his palpable Oedipal issues, vulgar mouth, peculiar sexual proclivities, and that oxygen mask (which Hopper later said was Amyl nitrite) – Frank Booth remains one of film’s most iconic characters. On top of the stellar performances, Angelo Badalamenti’s score is a true stand-out, creating that film noir atmosphere while also helping to create a haunting mood.

The film isn’t all that’s polarizing though – Lynch himself is one of film’s most divisive figures. You either love him or can’t watch his stuff. There are many directors who I greatly admire, but there are a small handful that I would call true auteurs – David Lynch is surely one of those very few. Perhaps it is because of his background and work in the visual arts, but Lynch is the only director who comes to mind where you can take a snapshot from any moment in one of his films – and it comes off as a true work of art. His attention to color, to place, to character, and to the human psyche is truly unique. So unique that many dub his style to be “Lynchian.” He changed television with his phenomenal opus, Twin Peaks and has continued to perplex and dazzle his audience with one daring work after another. But it is Blue Velvet that, to date, is his seminal work.

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