Posted by Greg Ferrara on November 28, 2012
I was scrolling online through movies to watch last week when I came upon Defending Your Life, written and directed by Albert Brooks. Even though I have it on DVD, I considered watching it right then and there online (it’s free for Amazon Prime members) because I like it so much. Then I got to thinking about Brooks and his directorial career and how his 1985 film, Lost in America, is always cited as his best. It’s the film people think of when you mention Brooks as director and, yet, I thought (and think) that Defending Your Life is better and the more complete Albert Brooks movie. The problem is, once a movie comes to define you as a director, a lot of other very good stuff often gets pushed aside while your “signature” film gets endless mentions and props. The rest of your catalogue? It falls into the foggy, vague netherworld that resides in the shadow of your “greatest work” where it and your reputation are mercilessly pounded into submission at the hands of “the masterpiece.” Let’s call it the slow creeping death of the signature film. And let’s call it a day on the practice, the sooner the better.
The practice has long since bugged me and perhaps nowhere more than Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. First, for the record, Allen is one of my favorite film makers ever. I love most of his pre-2000 work but have seen very little of his post-2000 work (because the few I saw did nothing for me). Second, I love Annie Hall. I think it’s a wonderful film, filled with great writing, terrific performances and many genuinely brilliant moments but I tire of always seeing that Allen film and only that Allen film make Top 100 This or Top 100 That lists. From the director that gave us Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives and, perhaps most of all, Broadway Danny Rose, it seems like an awful case of neglect to keep name-checking Annie Hall in the face of everything else.
It’s not like the origins of the matter are even in dispute at this point. Allen was known as a clever stand-up comic, burst into movies in the sixties making silly slapstick-style movies and in 1977 released Annie Hall which represented a new period for Allen and showed his tremendous growth as a film maker (though that should have been more than clear with the superb Love and Death two years earlier). So, in other words, Allen had now become a kind of semi-serious film maker and could be taken seriously by the Hollywood and critical establishment. And Annie Hall is the film that got him there. Okay, fine. But can we acknowledge the many Allen films (for me, the ones I mentioned above) that are better?
Of course, no one knew this little pigeon-holing trick better than Orson Welles. In This is Orson Welles, the book based on the series of interviews Welles had with Peter Bogdanovich, a story is related of Welles meeting Norman Mailer and Mailer saying enthusiastically how much he wanted to discuss Citizen Kane to which Welles moaned and gave an “Oh God, no!” type response. Mailer nodded and said he understood because all anyone ever wanted to talk about with him was The Naked and the Dead.
Surely, Citizen Kane is the biggest “signature” film of all time. And I’m not going to tell you it’s not a masterful work of cinema on every level, just mention that Welles did an incredible amount of other amazing work and because of Citizen Kane’s standing, things like The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, though mentioned on “Greatest of All Time” lists here and there, never really get their proper due. I would place all three so close together quality-wise that any difference from one to the other would be negligible. And isn’t Ambersons, with its source-basis intertwined with Welles own family history, more of a Welles signature film than Kane anyway? Or maybe Macbeth or Othello? They may not be as well-loved or admired but given Welles’ love of Shakespeare, those might be considered films much closer to Welles’ heart.
Recently, another director with a stunning array of talent at hand and masterworks under his belt has come to be associated primarily with one film despite all the other great works in his catalogue. I’m speaking of Alfred Hitchcock and with Vertigo‘s assent to number one on the Sight and Sound Poll, it has become the movie most associated with Hitch, despite the seemingly endless list of great titles to his name. Oh sure, he’s known for Psycho, The Birds, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and a host of others, too, but Vertigo, you see, is his most personal film (deep sigh). It’s ready-made to be plotted into a Hitchcock connect-the-dots graphing kit (icy blond, dominant male making over blond, blah, blah, blah, Zzzzzzzzz) and is so to the point where I want to scream, “Okay, but what about the rest?!”
Or how about Ingmar Bergman? Being a big fan of his for years, I can’t imagine ever listing The Seventh Seal as his signature film but, hey, the movie personifies Death and has him play chess with Max von Sydow so it’s got to be his signature film, right? Bergman thought his signature film was Persona and I agree with him but for most of the world, if they’ve even heard of him at this point, it’s The Seventh Seal. Even if they don’t know what that movie is they would probably associate the Death playing chess image with Bergman (or “art film” at the very least) and nothing else.
And the list goes on. Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai. For me, Ran. Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game. For me, Grand Illusion or Boudu Saved from Drowning. Sergei Eisenstein, Potemkin. For me, Alexander Nevsky. Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey. For me, Barry Lyndon.
Or several others for all these directors. The point isn’t to pick one other film but to recognize that there are so many other films just as good, or better, than the one damn film everyone keeps listing for them. Take Stanley Kubrick, the last one I mentioned. He’s got Barry Lyndon and The Shining and Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and despite all that, it’s 2001, admittedly great, that keeps getting all the mentions. Frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it.
Fortunately, many contemporary directors have yet to have the signature film selected for them. Ask someone for Scorsese’s or Spielberg’s signature film and you might hear any number of titles, from Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or goodfellas for Scorsese to Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. or Saving Private Ryan for Spielberg. In fact, for either of those directors you could pretty much throw in almost any other title of theirs and it would work, too, within reason. And that’s a good thing, quite frankly.
Let’s appreciate and celebrate the whole career, not just one movie. Let’s talk about all the movies and all the meanings and all the great moments. We can only do this by not affixing a signature at the bottom of the page of any one director’s career but, rather, leaving it blank. Studying the whole catalogue of a director instead of focusing on one single work? That’s something I’ll sign off on every time.
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