Monday 8 January 2018

The Ten Best First Films (3) - Scholar and cinephile Bruce Hodsdon sends in a remarkable selection

Editor's Note: Previous lists by moi and by Rod Bishop if you click here  and here. Entries invited to

The impact sticks in the memory of these 'first films' out of left field, pretty much by then unknown filmmakers,   I can't think of such first film equivalents since the mid seventies that have had, for me, quite the same impact. I'm not sure what that indicates.

Skolimowski (l) Walkover
Walkover  - Jerzy Skolimowski's first feature out of film school screened at the 1966 Sydney Film Festival. It was a completely unexpected film from Poland, a semi autobiographical work with the director also in the lead, filmed with a mobile camera in sequence shots averaging more than 2 minutes each. Barrier followed at the 1967 Festival.

Badlands - no downtown exhibitor would give a premiere run to Terrence Malick's astonishing first feature. SUFG gave Badlands its Sydney premiere in the Union Theatre, Sydney University for a week in June 1975 (on a double with Coppola's The Rain People). The opinion of staff in the booking office at Warner Bros seemed to count it amongst the worst films of the year and they were happy to 'dump it' when I enquired about its availability sight unseen, having been alerted by a Sight & Sound review.

The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator
The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator/ Love Affair - this was, from Dusan Makavejev, like a 'second first film' for me and I think many others when it appeared at the 1969 SFF. His first film, A Man is Not a Bird, had screened in 1966 without comparable impact. Coming out of Tito's Yugoslavia, Switchboard Operator is an especially startling Brechtian mix of documentary and narrative drama incorporating Eisensteinian and Godardian influences, but very much a Makavejev film.

Ride the High Country/ Guns in the Afternoon – I was alerted to Sam Peckinpah's  'second first' feature by another cinephile and memorably first caught up with it in the mid sixties, a year or two after its perfunctory release, on a western double bill at a Wednesday 'ranch night' in a Sydney suburban cinema.

Take the Money and Run – I came across Woody Allen's first feature unawares, on the bottom half of a double bill at Sydney's Embassy theatre which didn't usually run double bills ( I can't remember what the main feature was). I thought at the time that Woody is to Jerry Lewis as Keaton is to Chaplin. This thought didn't stand the test of time as Allen soon went into his Annie Hall-Manhattan-Sleeper trilogy etc, etc.

The Structure of Crystals
The Structure of Crystals is the first feature of Krzysztof Zanussi, about a reunion between two scientist friends in an isolated metrological station in the tundra.  Beginning as an amateur filmmaker Zanussi completed an elective filmmaking course as a component of his physics and philosophy studies which are reflected in his filmmaking, as well as toughing it out in the director's course over several years at the Lodz film school. Through a formally engaging realism Crystals probes, with observant poignancy, how to live a life in relative isolation. I only saw it because it was included by Film Polski in a season of new Polish cinema screened by the NFTA in the late sixties and on recollection am regretting not pursuing it and other Zanussi features on DVD. Four more of his them appeared in the SFF through the seventies and into the eighties. 

Yesterday Girl  is the first feature of Alexander Kluge a public intellectual in print, television and cinema, who was a leader in the New German Cinema in sixties and seventies. In this film he critically ranges over postwar German history through the experiences of Anita G, an East German refugee in the West played by Kluge's sister, inventively showing some influence of  Godardian cinema of the early to mid sixties. It was distributed and and screened here in the late sixties largely unnoticed. On my last viewing, back I think in the eighties, its mix of political-social critique, not without a certain mordant humour and lyricism, had not dated.

The Man who had his Hair Cut Short
The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short which I took the chance to see twice at the SFF in 1967 before SUFG imported a 16mm print a few years later, Belgian academic and filmmaker Andre Delvaux' first feature atmospherically reflects the filmmaker's acknowledged influence of Hitchcock's Vertigo absorbed into a surrealist narrative which continues through the atmospheric ambiguities of Delvaux' subsequent features.

Blue Collar  I, like many fellow cinephiles, before he was a writer-director, knew Paul Schrader by his writing as editor of Cinema in the sixties to mid seventies and Transcendental Cinema his published Phd thesis on Dreyer, Ozu and Bresson. I didn't see his first feature, Blue Collar (which was leased and circulated on 16mm amongst film societies for years by their national council), until after I'd seen some of the others like Hardcore, The Comfort of Strangers and Cat People, but I'm inclined to think that more than any writer-director, each one of his movies, as you see them, is like a pathbreaking first movie. Blue Collar did impact me as a film about black and white workers like no other from Hollywood in its portrayal of the underside of American working class life. David Thomson writes that Schrader is one of the best talkers, “capable of mixing high flown theory with nuts and bolts Hollywood anecdotes.” I think as a filmmaker he has been just as eclectic and yet...

Point Blank is my tenth 'out of left field' first film. I initially encountered it at a city Metro cinema c1967 on a double bill with a retitled and probably dubbed Alain Cavalier movie, set during the Algerian war, which I've had to look up, called L'Insoumis (or 'Have I the Right to Kill?'). Set in such relief I recall, although hardly needed, it helped heighten the impact of Boorman's film on me which together with Sweet Smell of Success still constitute the two most riveting 'break-outs' by British auteurs in Hollywood. Hell or High Water (2016) could now be added.
Point Blank

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