A free way to build your virtual collection, make lists, and share them. It’s your new home on Criterion.com.
Learn More »
Filmmaking, many say, is a young person’s game. You need creative energy, lots of ideas, and the ability to get by on very little sleep. I once charted out some typical careers and concluded that the odds do favor youth: If you haven’t made a significant film by the time you’re thirty or so, chances are you won’t. (For evidence, see my blog entry here.)
So I thought it would be fun to chart how some Criterion filmmakers stacked up in the 30-and-below sweepstakes.
Often, of course, this means looking at debut films, which is fun in itself. First films tend to teem with ideas, as if the director was worried that she or he might never make another movie. But first film or not, younger directors charge the screen with a unique spark: taking risks, exorcising the demons of childhood, getting your peers together on an adventure, or just reveling in the heady possibilities of the medium. Look, ma, I’m making a movie!
So I’ll count down from age 30.
The forbidding Tarkovsky was young once, and at age 30 made this wondrous film about a boy who serves as a spy for Russian forces during World War II. The drama of WWII heroism was a staple of Soviet cinema, and usually it aims to impress by vastness of scale and force of arms. Tarkovsky lyricizes the genre conventions with magnificent moments of natural poetry—a spiderweb, a horse cropping apples, and as ever with this director, a sense of the textures of earth, water, and rock. The title is only partly ironic.
Jiri Menzel made Closely Watched Trains when he was only twenty-eight, but that film is so famous that it needs no promoting by me. Much less well-known, but no less beguiling, is this effort from two years later. Here Menzel seems to invent magical realism before our eyes: A mysterious tightrope walker arrives at a village with his beautiful assistant, and the locals will never be the same. The movie has that mixture of quiet comedy, pain, and yearning we came to associate with Czech cinema.
“We don’t need two Ozus,” the boss of Shochiku studios told Mikio Naruse before Naruse left. That was a bit ungrateful, since the young director had made a couple of dozen films for the company in only four years. Most don’t survive, but this superb melodrama does. The main plot centers on a poor girl who marries a rich wastrel and becomes the punching bag for his sister and mother. The climactic scene in the hospital is one of the great moments in Japanese cinema. As if this weren’t enough, a lighter secondary plot takes place in a movie studio. Naruse was 29, and would go on to be one of the greatest Japanese directors.
No whippersnapper had a hotter hand than Ozu. His earliest surviving movies, including his charming 1927 student comedy Days of Youth, show a confident talent. At age 30, he made three masterpieces (Passing Fancy, Woman of Tokyo, and Dragnet Girl). A year earlier he made what many consider his best film, I Was Born But…. Today I’m favoring his bittersweet comedy, Tokyo Chorus, made when he was a mere 28. A college kid graduates and struggles to get a job, to keep his dignity, and to survive unemployment. (Sound familiar?) The first section is insolent comedy; the second mixes bawdy comedy—including a memorable scene in a men’s toilet—with sly social observation; and the finale has the characteristic Ozu poignancy. His first masterpiece, I believe.
Halfway between Antonioni and the Nouvelle Vague (before the fact), with touches of Jean Epstein’s regional realism, this remarkable quasi-feature by twenty-eight-year-old Agnes Varda is a key work of film history. The young director experiments with framing and voice-over in ways that look forward toHiroshima mon Amour. (Resnais was the editor.) Varda’s personal blend of almost geometrical plotting and picturesque local color is on full display in this pioneering work.
Like Kubrick’s debut feature, Killer’s Kiss of the year before, this is a cerebral piece of genre clockwork. It fuses the time-juggling of noirs like The Killers (1947) and the hard-edged documentary feel of Naked City (1948) into a dry, precisely engineered story of a doomed racetrack heist. A source for Reservoir Dogs (1992), but Kubrick got the jump; Tarantino made his film at age 29, while Kubrick created this pitiless exercise in bad timing at 28.
As quintessentially a young person’s film as any New Wave work: a twenty-seven-year-old director with a very distinctive sensibility rounds up some pals to make a heist movie. The result is a study in likable disaffection, goofiness, and sun-parched Texas landscapes, all enlivened by Wes Anderson’s frontal-stare camera style.
I’m cheating a bit with this: Ingmar Bergman, at age 26, was the scriptwriter, not the director. But critical tradition treats Torment, in hindsight, as his first film. It has all the marks of youth—humiliation in high school, morbid romanticism, fascination with erotic secrets, and envy of a patriarchal figure. The director, Alf Sjöberg, was no slight talent either, and his own taste for gloomy expressionism (this is Swedish noir) may have influenced the look of Bergman’s works.
Belgian like Varda, the twenty-five-year-old Chantal Akerman sets the unglamorous world of housework under a microscope. Akerman captures, in fixed, exquisitely composed and cut-together frames, a woman’s practiced gestures of cooking and cleaning. But minute changes of routine betray an underlying anxiety that eventually bursts out. An engrossing demonstration of how minimalism can generate maximal implications.
In one of the earliest debuts in commercial cinema history, Bertolucci made this film from a Pasolini story when he was only twenty-two. A classic police procedural—the cops interrogate people involved in a prostitute’s murder—is handled with harsh sobriety in Bertolucci’s debut feature. The by-then-conventional flashback structure that dramatizes each suspect’s testimony pays homage to American noir and looks forward to the audacious use of time in The Spider’s Stratagem.