1992: A good year for first-time filmmakers

WITH JUST UNDER TWO MONTHS TO GO in 1992, I’ve been dismayed to note that a few critics have already begun claiming that it has been a bad year for films.

I disagree with this assessment. Even if none of the anticipated year-end pictures turns out to be any good, world cinema has been markedly richer this year than in the past several stanzas.

One measure of any year is the number of interesting new filmmakers it introduces onto the scene. In this regard, 1992 has been notable, possibly even remarkable. In a year when the upper level has been dominated by veteran directors (Clint Eastwood, James Ivory, Robert Altman, Woody Allen), a large number of debut features have been very much worth seeing, not only for the promise they indicate, but for the fresh, often bold perspectives they offer.

At a careful but not entirely scientific count, I know of more than 100 first-time features so far this year. This is a frightening number, actually, when you compare the enormous amount of work, imagination and hope that went into these efforts with the small chance that many of them will ever be seen in any significant sense.

Surprisingly, some 40 of these films are of more than routine interest, either in my opinion or in those of my invariably reliable Variety colleagues at far-flung film festivals. Among the first films that would do credit to this or any year are Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” Tim Robbins’ “Bob Roberts,” Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging,” Edward James Olmos’ “American Me,” Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg’s “The Waterdance,” Stacy Cochran’s “My New Gun,” John Turturro’s “Mac,” Nick Gomez’s “Laws of Gravity,” Martin Bell’s “American Heart,” Robert Rodriguez’s “El Mariachi,” Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice” and Anthony Drazan’s “Zebrahead.”

Even though they are technically not first features, Carl Franklin’s “One False Move” and Christopher Munch’s “The Hours and Times” must be included because they had the effect of debuts by virtue of putting their directors on the map, as “Laura” did for Otto Preminger, for example.

Two of the most popular foreign films on the festival circuit this year, both of which will be released here shortly, were Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom” from Australia and Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde’s “Man Bites Dog” from Belgium. Overseas debuts that scored with American audiences in 1992 included Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s “Delicatessen,” Jaco van Dormael’s “Toto Le Heros,” Christian Vincent’s “La Discrete” and Gillies Mackinnon’s “The Playboys.”

Other first-time U.S. features that made an impression with some segments of the public were Tom Kalin’s “Swoon,” Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” Tom DiCillo’s “Johnny Suede,” Barry Primus’ “Mistress,” Bernt Capra’s “Mindwalk,” Brett Leonard’s “The Lawnmower Man” and Steve Anderson’s “South Central.”

HOWEVER YOU LOOK AT IT, and whether one likes most of these films or not, the list is undeniably impressive. What nearly all of these independent-minded projects have in common is a point of view about some aspect of modern life. In many cases, they are somewhat askew takes on contemporary society that introduce the viewer to unfamiliarelements of our culture or make us see things in a new way. This quality is enhanced by the number of the year’s new artists who are women, gay, black and/or Latino.

With the exception of “Juice” and “American Me,” all the films mentioned so far have been produced without the assistance of the major Hollywood studios. Not that the majors should take the brunt of the responsibility for breaking in new talent, or that struggling with studio politics provides the preferred method for a director to break in. Usually not.

Still, it’s interesting to note that the list of first features produced by the majors in 1992 makes for much more of a mixed bag, especially artistically–Billy Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” John Mellencamp’s “Falling From Grace,” Simon Moore’s “Under Suspicion,” Jeff Stanzler’s “Jumpin at the Boneyard,” Randall Miller’s “Class Act,” Arne Glimcher’s “The Mambo Kings,” Greg Beeman’s “Mom and Dad Save the World,” Kevin Hooks’ “Passenger 57,” Mike Herman’s “Blame It on the Bellboy,” Kenny Ortega’s “Newsies,” David Fincher’s “Alien3,” Mark Frost’s “Storyville,” Nora Ephron’s “This Is My Life,” Bruce A. Evans’ “Kuffs,” Les Mayfield’s “Encino Man” and Jeffrey Hornaday’s “Shout.” Very few of these will be on 10-best lists at year’s end.

TO PUT THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE, it may be worthwhile to look back to see what it was like for first-timers in another year. Arbitrarily turning back 10 years, I could only find 35 debut features in 1982. Those that seem of any interest today are Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing,” Neil Jordan’s “Angel,” Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract,” Robert Towne’s “Personal Best,” Tim Hunter’s “Tex,” Caleb Deschanel’s “The Escape Artist,” Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Garry Marshall’s “Young Doctors in Love,” Michael Hoffman’s “Privileged,” Jonathan Kaufer’s “Soup for One” and Slava Tsukerman’s “Liquid Sky.”

That the latter two directors have never made another film, and that several of the others have never surpassed or even equaled their initial efforts, points up one of the most poignant aspects of many film careers–that what is recognized as great promise in young talent often ends up being the accomplishment itself, that many artists start with their most adventurous work and slowly slide from there into compromise, complacency and mediocrity.

This will no doubt happen to some of this year’s crop of newcomers, but their beginnings have made for some exciting viewing this year, and one can at least hope that a good number of them will continue to have something to say worth watching for and listening to.

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