AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL this year, there were a notable number of films directed by exceedingly young directors. Jennifer Lynch of “Boxing Helena,” Rob Weiss of “Amongst Friends,” Robert Rodriguez of “El Mariachi,” Tony Chan of “Combination Platter,” Bryan Singer of “Public Access” and Leslie Harris of “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” are all reportedly between 24-27 years old.
As usual, however, people overly caught up in looking for the story of the moment or latching onto this year’s model seldom step back to put things in historical perspective. Like most areas of the arts, directing has almost always been a field in which, more often than not, artists destined for big things achieve their breakthroughs at an early age while people in other disciplines are just getting their graduate degrees or are still jockeying for a good job.
In this connection, a passage from Frank Capra’s lively, if now significantly discredited, autobiography “The Name Above the Title” comes to mind. Contemplating his Hollywood comeback at age 60, Capra consulted an old friend, Dr. Carl Anderson, the Nobel Prize-winning head of high-energy physics at Caltech, who mentioned that, whenever a big question in his field presented itself, “some student of 26” could usually be counted on to provide the answer.
Asked by Capra if 26 is the age when the brain is most active, Anderson replied, “No, but it’s the age when the combination of knowledge and brashness is the most potent. At 26 a student is flush with up-to-date learning, yet is rebel enough — and full of beans enough — to defy the conservative scientific establishment, and come up with some wild ‘guesses.’ ”
Capra then listed more than a dozen great figures from history for whom 26 was a crucial age — everyone from Alexander the Great to Napoleon to Lincoln, Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin, who became a worldwide star at that age.
Capra added that D.W. Griffith directed his first films at 27, Eisenstein made “Potemkin” at the same age and Orson Welles was only 25 during the production of “Citizen Kane.” The latter is certainly one of the most intimidating facts in film history, and the notion of competing with it has probably both inspired and depressed more would-be filmmakers than any other single achievement.
BUT, FOR ANYONE OVER ABOUT 28, it only gets worse. A little research shows that an overwhelming number of the top directors in film history have been firmly launched on their careers by the time they were in their mid-20s. Just to offer a random sampling, those who made their first features at 25 include Ernst Lubitsch, Kenji Mizoguchi, Michael Curtiz, King Vidor, Otto Preminger, Stanley Donen, Louis Malle, Stanley Kubrick, Wim Wenders and Capra.
At 26, Rene Clair, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog made their first features. At 27, John Ford, Buster Keaton, Marcel Carne, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, Ingmar Bergman, Volker Schloendorff and John Frankenheimer did the same. At 28 it was Roman Polanski, Claude Chabrol, Andrzej Wajda, Carlos Saura, Jean Vigo, Roger Vadim and, when he created “Un Chien Andalou,” Luis Bunuel.
Of course, all of the above are pikers compared to Bernardo Bertolucci, who made his first feature at 21, and William Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who did the same at 23.
The point here is that it’s never been particularly unusual for directors to get their starts at an age when they have often been among the youngest people on the set. Precociousness, brashness, arrogance and unearned ego have always been part and parcel of the directorial package, along with talent, so it shouldn’t be seen as a remarkable phenomenon that a number of directors, at any given time, are in their mid-20s.
What would be remarkable, of course, is if any of the first efforts by these new filmmakers were a brilliant, fully realized work. It’s one thing to find the wherewithal to get a project made, but quite another to produce something of genuine substance. Of all the directors mentioned above, only a few of them dazzled the world with their very first films — Welles, of course, Truffaut, Polanski, Wajda, Vigo, Clair and perhaps one or two others. The rest generally turned out initial features that were promising enough to guarantee another shot , and the work progressed.
PERHAPS THIS CAN GIVE SOLACE to the young directors at Sundance this year, whose films may have been technically accomplished and expressed seldom-seen aspects of the American experience, but were almost invariably short on maturity and substance.
The dark side of this obsession with age is that, all too often, especially in the New Hollywood, the promising first or second film turns out to be the ultimate achievement. Many directors now in or approaching middle age — you can supply the names as well as I can — made their marks with some genuinely exciting or interesting films back in the 1970s and 1980s, but more recently have been getting by with what can only be called hack work.
One telltale sign is when a director who started by writing or co-writing his or her films essentially drops that part of the job, which is another way of saying that some creative death occurs when you start doing projects other people want you to do rather than films you simply have to make.
Inevitably, as always, some of the directors at Sundance this year will be happily sucked up into the system and add their names to the roster of efficient industry assembly line workers. Others, with more on their minds than their bank accounts, will steer a more independent course and possibly carve more idiosyncratic careers. It’s very often harder to make a second film than a first , and the sophomore efforts of this year’s young crop will probably tell us more about where they intend to go than did their initial outings.