We’ve all heard those stories of debut films that catapult their filmmakers to instant success. Think Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, Clerks, American Beauty, etc. But what about those times when a film ends up costing its helmers everything? Here’s a look at a few films, some of them masterful, some awful, that had profound effects on the careers of those that brought them to life. Spanning 80 years, let’s look at them in chronological order.
1. L’Atalante (1934) – directed by Jean Vigo
The earliest film on this list is arguably the greatest of them all. Jean Vigo’s masterpiece of beautiful and tragic romance cost him not only his career, but his life. Vigo was already ill with tuberculosis when he began work on what was to be his only feature film. As it takes place on a barge, travelling the Seine, conditions were cold and often wet and Vigo’s health deteriorated to the point that he directed while bedridden for large portions of the shoot. Refusing to compromise on his vision, he insisted on finishing his work. After shooting his health never recovered and he died at the age of 29, before the final cut was completed by his faithful editor. L’Atalante is one of those films that manages to somehow define cinema itself while one watches it. It is rough, naturalistic and unsentimental but somehow dreamlike, lyrical and emotional. A glorious film that makes us wonder what else this great voice might have produced.
2. Peeping Tom (1960) – directed by Michael Powell
Michael Powell, of legendary Powell and Pressburger fame, found his career destroyed (certainly in Britain) by the immensely controversial release of his psychosexual thriller Peeping Tom. Calls for the films to be banned and destroyed were not uncommon, even from professional critics, and although the film is now understood as a brazen masterwork, at the time its story of a troubled protagonist who films his own murders of beautiful women before watching them back was altogether too much for the British public. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese (whose editor Thelma Schoonmaker is Powell’s widow) and critics such as Roger Ebert have championed the film as a singular achievement. But for Powell, who had brought gloss and erotic prestige to a remarkable string of films in the 40s and 50s, this was a commercial and critical failure from which he was never to recover, directing only 3 more theatrical releases in the remaining 30 years of his life.
3. Playtime (1967) – directed by Jacques Tati
Continuing the theme of unappreciated genius, this is one of my favourite films ever. Tati spent 3 years making this, his magnum opus, for which he built several blocks of his version of Paris in order to be able to move freely and stage things as he’d like, along with its own power plant. This was nicknamed “Tativille” and, coupled with his insistence on shooting with 70mm film and stereophonic sound, made production an arduous process. Budget overruns made financial success an imperative and when the film came out it didn’t come close to recouping its cost. Tati insisted it only be screened in cinema’s with 70mm capabilities and audiences resented his relegation of his signature character, Hulot, to a supporting role. Although this failure is said to have haunted Tati both professionally and personally for the rest of his life, Playtime is an utterly astonishing film. Its scope is unbelievably ambitious and its jokes are complex visual structures that reward multiple viewings, which also reveal the powerful social critique Tati wove into the benign comedy.
4. Heaven’s Gate (1980) – directed by Michael Cimino
Fresh of 1978’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, Cimino set out to make one of the most ambitious westerns ever. Budgets ballooned and studio execs interfered and the end result was a colossal mess, a muddled saga of economic power struggles. Cimino’s dictatorial demeanour on-set and his wanton cruelty to animals were just the tip of the iceberg as the film ran four times over-budget and weeks over-schedule. Upon release, this film was such a critical and commercial failure that not only did Cimino’s career nosedive (having been one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars) but his studio, United Artists, collapsed. So if you’re looking for who to thank for the current Hollywood model of studio power over directors – look no further. Recent re-edits of Heaven’s Gate have seen it reappraised as a lost masterpiece but, while I’m as big a supporter of an epic Marxist western as anyone, a great film this is not. Willem Dafoe’s film debut can only go so far to make up for the lost hours of my life…
5. One from the Heart (1982) – directed by Francis Ford Coppola
My favourite artist is Tom Waits, who contributed the soundtrack to this one. Terri Garr was also unreasonably attractive. Neither of those things can mitigate the disaster of this one. Coppola had come off the legendary shoot of Apocalypse Now and one can only assume his truly unbelievable run of 1970s filmmaking had burnt him out because this tale of love lost and regained is a real mess. It is almost hard to believe just how relentlessly brilliant Coppola was in the 70s because post-One from the Heart, which left him in massive debt and forced him to close his studio Zoetrope Studios, you can count on one hand the good films he’s made (here they are: The Outsiders, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Godfather Part III if we forget the first two and the fact that by Coppola’s own admission debt from One from the Heart forced him to direct it at all). I think it’s fair to say that this massive miscalculation signalled the end of one of cinema’s great voices.
(I have to interject here, just to say, I thought Tetro (2009) was pretty inspired – moody, beautiful, mysterious and strangely magical. – Dixie)
6. Donnie Darko (2001) – directed by Richard Kelly
This one is a little different. Sometimes, a film can be destructive by bringing about success that hasn’t been earned. Who hasn’t seen this film? Who doesn’t love it? It’s brilliant, warped, funny, oh-so-dark and all the more brilliant for being a debut work. That Kelly was able to successfully manage a $4.5m budget on his first try is impressive. But when success like this comes round and studios give you carte blanche to bring them another hit…let’s just say that if Pulp Fiction is one end of this spectrum, Southland Tales is the other. Tales is a spectacularly awful film, all misanthropic jock posing and directorial arrogance. It is a complete mess, a poster-child for why all artists need an editor, and bombed massively in both critical and financial senses. Its craziness is counteracted only by Kelly’s third and most recent feature, The Box, starring blandest-leading-duo-of-2009 Cameron Diaz and James Marsden and a creepy Frank Langella. Both of these subsequent films underwhelmed hugely and it remains to be seen if Kelly truly did use up his brilliance on one gem of a film or if he plans to mature and bring us more.
7. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) – directed by Stephen Norrington
It is one of cinema’s tragedies that this turd, which manages to ruin both a magnificent graphic novel series and a slew of literary heroes for future generations, will also go down as Sean Connery’s final film. Blade director Norrington has not directed a film since and seems to have nothing on the horizon, which is just as well if this is any indication of his future cinematic offerings. Like a Victorian Expendables, this is all macho bombast and wafer-thin plot and seems designed to introduce a dazzling array of characters with no point save future installments that, thanks to its magnificent tanking, will never come to be (hopefully). I think it’s better for everyone out there if all involved with this one just take some time away from making films – a lifetime should do the trick.
posted by Dave.
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