The Black Sheep of Director Filmographies

The majority of film directors have a unique style, an imprint that they place on all of their films. It can be something as significant as David Lynch’s surrealism or something as minor as Quentin Tarantino’s car trunk POV shots. A large part of the fun that I have in watching movies is seeing a director’s style develop, recognizing what they’re doing, and seeing the patterns when they do these things again and again. However, there are occasions where directors have films that break from their own conventions. They create something entirely different. They create a black sheep, as it were. These are films that stand out (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) in their catalogue. Here are several examples:

Director: Robert Altman
Film: Secret Honor (1984)
First and foremost, Robert Altman is known for drowning his viewers in overlapping dialogue. His characters all speak all at once. It’s quite an immersive feature for the viewer. Some may find it distracting. Personally, I find that it makes me feel like I’m in the room with his characters. You find it all over the place in Altman’s movies. Imagine my surprise when I watched Secret Honor, a movie that featured only one character (a fictionalized Richard Nixon) and his endless monologue. It’s a credit to Altman that the film works so well. It’s also a testament to the film’s sole actor, Philip Baker Hall.

Director: Oliver Stone
Film: The Hand (1981)
Oliver Stone has crafted a long career revolving around political and historical biopics, often featuring controversial themes. They’re stylized and generally work around social statements. Politics, history, and social statements were nowhere to be found when he made just his second full-length film, The Hand. It’s a horror film about a severed hand that murders people, much in the tradition of the silent The Hands of Orlac (1924) and the American re-make, Mad Love (1935). Thankfully for Stone, it starred Michael Caine, which enhanced the film’s quality considerably.

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Film: Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Chaplin is known worldwide for his “Tramp”, a saccharine lovable character with funny little mannerisms. Just as Warren Zevon surely got tired of hearing people ask him to play “Werewolves of London”, Chaplin no doubt relished a chance to free himself from his tramp-shackles. He did so in the most fantastically perverse way, playing a serial killer. That’s not a typo. Charlie Chaplin played a serial killer. There are definitely traces of the tramp in place- the comedy, the unemployed character- but he’s cleaned up. All of this irony makes the film so wonderfully deviant.

Director: George Lucas
Film: American Graffiti (1973)
My understanding of this story is as follows. Lucas had several ambitious fantasy films that he wanted to create, fantasy films that paid homage to genres that he loved like westerns and samurai films. He caught a huge break in 1971 and made THX-1138, which did poorly. One of his friends from the New Hollywood gang (Spielberg, Scorsese, DePalma, etc.)- Francis Ford Coppola- told Lucas that he should make a film that’s more emotionally involving. Lucas, annoyed about the way things turned out with his baby THX-1138, decided to make a film so dripping with nostalgia that no studio or audience could turn it down. Basically, he was going to create a big fat middle finger to people who didn’t like THX-1138. That middle finger became American Graffiti, widely recognized as one of the best American films ever made. The rest is history. Lucas used the cred to create Star Wars, executive produce some Indiana Jones films, create LucasFilm, and never bothered with anything as conventional as American Graffiti ever again.
Source: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood 

Director: Peter Jackson
Film: Meet the Feebles (1989)
Peter Jackson has crafted quite a name for himself by mastering special effects and weaving great stories around them, most notably in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it wasn’t always that way. Jackson is a self-made director. He started filming on 8mm cameras before he was ten years old. As a man with a vision but no budget in his early 20’s, Jackson had to create his own effects to make his own movies. What he came up with was Bad Taste in 1988. But he really broke the mould in 1989 with the subversive Meet the Feebles. The same man who brought Frodo and Bilbo Baggins to life, the same man who brought back King Kong… also created a bunch of muppets who engaged in S&M, Vietnam flashbacks, illicit drug use, mass murder, and profuse vomiting. It’s fun for the whole family!   

Director: Martin Scorsese
Film: After Hours (1985)
Scorsese’s films feature lots of urban crime themes. They feature socially awkward characters. They are never light-hearted. The one time prior to After Hours that he explicitly made a comedy was The King of Comedy, and the humor was blacker than a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night because it all revolved around Rupert Pupkin’s completely inappropriate behavior. And I had no idea what to expect from After Hours. Stylistically, it’s not as reliant on camera movement as most of his other films. Oh… and it’s funny. Really funny. Shockingly funny. And it’s completely different from anything else Scorsese ever made.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Film: Marnie (1964)
While it does feature loads and loads of suspense and the usual Hitchcock trappings, the film winds up taking the viewer to a completely different place than the majority of Hitchcock’s work. I’d love to say more but I feel like I’d spoil it for the uninitiated.   

Director: David Lynch 
Film: The Straight Story (1999)
Lynch is notorious for his surrealist orgies, ripe with undecipherable plots and symbolism that may or may not be symbolism. The Straight Story is just that- Lynch’s straight story biopic about an Iowa farmer who rides his tractor for several weeks until he gets to Wisconsin to visit his dying brother. It’s simple, it’s easy, it’s accessible, and it’s overwhelmingly likable. Some might even say that it’s heartwarming. Try saying that about Mulholland Drive or The Lost Highway.

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Film: Good Morning (1959)
To quote the IMDb biography page for Ozu, “Family, marriage, parents, leaving the family and traveling are prominent themes in his films.” Most of what I’ve seen has had a bit of a depressing tone, as well. Good Morning does feature the family unit but abandons travel and marriage. The protagonists are children and the tone is very light-hearted. At the core is the role of television in the family. That’s it. There’s even a recurring fart joke, which probably makes it the only Criterion Collection choice with a recurring fart joke (although Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander has a one-time fart joke).

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Film: The Serpent’s Egg (1977)
This film represents the only time that Ingmar Bergman ever worked with Hollywood. And that’s why David Carradine stars in it. Some people (me) might even say that Carradine completely wrecked a Bergman film. The plot itself isn’t too far off from what you might expect from Bergman but it certainly lacks some of the Bergman “sizzle”. In his book, Images: My Life in Film, Bergman notes that his arrest for tax evasion disrupted the creative process. He goes on to point out that it put him in a “schizophrenic” state of mind that hurried the film. In short, it had loads of potential but a detrimental environment led Bergman to create the least “Bergman” film he ever made.

Director: Ang Lee
Film: Hulk (2003)
When I think of Ang Lee, I think of gut-wrenching drama from a director who has a very healthy and genuine respect for the titans of art house cinema. It shows up in movies like Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm. It doesn’t show up so much in his blockbuster comic book movie about a giant green monster who smashes things.  


Filed under Foreign Film, Ingmar Bergman, Japanese Film, Movies, Swedish Film

40 responses to “The Black Sheep of Director Filmographies

  1. The Straight Story is the only movie I haven’t seen from one of my favourite directors, David Lynch, and it’s partly because I’ve become so accustomed to his mammoth, confusing tales that I feel like stepping into a Lynch family-drama would be too big a step back. It’s a stupid reason, I know, but it is nevertheless, my reason. It is on my queue but God knows when I’ll see it.

    As for your other choices, they are all very well-picked, though I haven’t seen the Altman, Stone and Ozu choices.

    • The Stone film is pretty forgettable, even for a horror fan. I loved the Altman film but I’m kind of a junkie for the shenanigans of Richard Nixon. The guy was such a mess. The final scene is one of my favorites. And I’ve struggled with a lot of Ozu but “Good Morning” sure did the trick for me. It was really likable.

      I was probably halfway through “The Straight Story” when I remembered that it was a Lynch film. That’s how different it is from the rest of his work. Completely unlike anything else he’s ever done. I’d almost recommend forgetting that he even directed it if you watch it.

    • Dan

      You should see The Straight Story. While it isn’t as labyrinthine as your usual Lynch fare, it’s a Lynch film, through and through. The camerawork, the performances, and the tone are all very much Lynch.

  2. What I find most interesting about ‘The Straight Story’ is that it proves Lynch is a good storyteller – not just director. Everyone loves him for his bizarre tenancies, absurd filmmaking, and completely incomprehensible structure. But deep down inside he’s made critically acclaimed and very successful mainstream work with ‘The Elephant Man’, ‘The Straight Story’, and ‘Twin Peaks.’

  3. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    I like the fact that all of Altman’s characters are talking at the same time. In fact, this is the polar opposite of Kevin Smith films–mostly Clerks. I know it is borderline blasphemy to be critical of Clerks but it seemed a little unusual that there was no overlap in characters’ lines. It seemed a little unrealistic. Nobody ever gets interrupted.

  4. Yeah, The Straight Story is lovely. It’s like Lynch was having a day off. And I’ve got to say I enjoyed it more than something like Inland Empire.

  5. I like to think Straight Story was Lynch’s most surreal movie of all. Either in the truth > fiction sense, or the sheer unnerving subtext of a movie that’s surreally not so, waiting for a homeless man to jump out of a dumpster.

    Therefore, The Straight Story might just be the weirdest, most experimental horror movie of all time.

  6. Oskar

    Yeah I’m gonna join the hordes of The Straight Story fans as it is a really strong, emotional and accessable film especially coming from a director such as Lynch. Orson Welles “The Stranger” could also be mentioned as it is probably his most mainstream and least Wellesian work.

  7. Awesome post! AFTER HOURS is probably my favorite Scorsese film so far- I like that it’s so out-there and goofy, since he’s normally fairly serious. And I would never have believed Lynch directed THE STRAIGHT STORY if it didn’t say it on the dvd box. So different from his usual stuff, but then again he didn’t write it.

    I definitely want to check out MONSIEUR VERDOUX, sounds interesting!

    • After Hours floored me because I never in a million years thought that Scorsese could pull off a comedy. But I laughed really hard at the last 20 to 30 minutes of that movie.

      What makes Verdoux so great, for me anyway, is that I’ve always preferred Buster to Chaplin (it’s an impossible question to ignore if you like silent comedy). I have a huge appreciation for Chaplin but I’d always found his tramp a bit cloying. And then he did a serial killer movie, which definitely tamped my “cloying” opinion down.

      • Jed

        John – I am in complete agreement with your thoughts on Keaton, Chaplin and Monsieur Verdoux. Verdoux is rarely brought up in any discussions on Chaplin’s career and it should be. The film has several amazingly dark sequences that I found hilarious.

        Of course, I would take a Keaton silent classic any day over MV.

  8. Wheelsdude

    This was an awesome post, thanks for it! I’m really happy to see this write up about Monsieur Verdoux, which completely blew me away, because I just got it today purely because it was in the “1001 Movies You Have to See Before You Die” book, without knowing anything about it. All I knew was that it was a Chaplin film, but this makes me SOOOOOO much more excited to watch it!

  9. StarkyLuv

    You forgot Spielberg’s ‘Always’. So unlike him.

    • The Spielberg movie I nearly included was “Duel”- a Hitchcockian suspense movie about road rage. It really gave me a fresh perspective on Spielberg (in a great way).

      • StarkyLuv

        Wasn’t that like his very first movie? I mean even before Sugarland Express? Can can you count a debut effort as a ‘black sheep’?

      • Fairportfan

        “Duel” (my own favourite Spielberg piece) was a TV movie – and, let’s face it, in many ways “Jaws” is basically a big-budget remake of “Duel”…

        • This is a good point re: Duel. I think that’s part of what amazes me about it- it’s just so good, and it was made for TV. With all due respect to TV writers and the like, I’m not used to seeing quality THAT good in a TV movie.

          How “Jaws” would’ve turned out if the shark had worked the way Spielberg wanted is one of the great questions of Hollywood history.

  10. Stu

    “I haven’t seen the Altman, Stone and Ozu choices.” – magnoliaforever

    You should definitely seek out “Secret Honor.” What a performance!

    Great list, John. I personally love “After Hours” and, while I’m not a fan of Lee’s “Hulk” I can definitely back it being his Black Sheep.

  11. Joel burman

    Really nice post some of these are really memorable.

    The Straight Story is by far Lynch’s best film together with the Elephant Man.

    • There were a few others that focused more on the negative- films where directors made a really bad one- but I honestly didn’t want to focus on those.

      The Elephant Man is due for a re-watch.

  12. Greg

    I don’t quite think Meet the Feebles is Jackson’s black sheep film; it was very much in line with the types of films he created at that point in his career, which ended at The Frighteners (with Heavenly Creatures being the most different film in that era of his career). I’d have to say The Lovely Bones is the one that stands out as the black sheep.

    • Definitely a fair point re: Jackson. “Feebles” jumps out at me because of the sheer depravity (admittedly, fun depravity, but depravity none the less). It seemed to cross lines that Bad Taste and Dead Alive didn’t.

  13. Oliver

    ‘Good Morning’ is no more an odd or inferior Ozu film than the very similar (and similarly, excellently satirical) film he made 27 years earlier, ‘I Was Born, But…’

    You have to remember that our image of Ozu as an austere, humourless art-house director is almost entirely the concoction of Western critics in the decades since his death, and very different from the man himself (who loved cartoons, jokes and drink) or how his work was regarded in the Japan of his day.

    • I must admit, I’m not extraordinarily well versed in Ozu. I do know, however, that there was a big gap between the Western opinion of Kurosawa and the Japanese opinion of Kurosawa during his heyday. So it’d make perfect sense that Ozu would have a completely different connotation for the two cultures.

  14. Rishi

    After Hours is my favorite film of his but I wouldn’t call it a comedy. Sure, its dark comedy but I would classify it as more of a surrealist, quirky feature. Kafkaesque if you may.

    What is your opinion of Ridley Scott? Alien is my favorite film ever and Ridley is one of those rare directors who has tackled every genre possible. Even by those standards Matchstick Men is something of a sore thumb. It is a great film but not something I expect to see in his filmography!

    Alien 3 with David Fincher? The man never touched SCI-FI again.

    Steven Soderberg is another one of those varied artists but Solaris was an anamoly of sorts. I loved it!

    • Ridley Scott is a director who I need to tackle more. I’ve seen the obvious stuff, and enjoyed it all, but he’s a big black hole for me.

      Fincher is really interesting to me because he’s a bit of a chameleon. He seems to adapt his style in everything from The Social Network to Se7en to Benjamin Button. He’s not easy to pin down, and that’s a good thing.

  15. Leon van Huyssteen

    Another list that has long been brewing in my head, and kind of (but not always) intersects with the above is the movie SOME directors choose to make after winning the Best Director Oscar. It seems the measure of prestige and clout they have accumulated compels some to tackle risky, not overly commercial projects, instead of being paralyzed by a sense of “What will I do next?” fear. Good examples are Stone, who followed “B4July” with “The Doors,” Scorsese with “Shine a Light” and Bertolucci with “The Sheltering Sky.” Of course, for every risk taker there are those who cash in and consolidate, like Soderbergh with “Ocean’s 11!!!!”

  16. Pingback: Hit List: June 7, 2011 « IMDb: All the Latest

  17. Zak

    Criterion movie with fart jokes:

  18. Mark

    I like how Lynch took his style and subtly added it to scenes in Straight Story – like the music used during the nature shots, the way Sissy stared at that ball at night with the child running, or, most famously, the lady in shock who ran over a deer – all these added a surreal context to the overall story and made this family drama into something else entirely different.

  19. “Stylistically, it’s not as reliant on camera movement as most of his other films.”

    Sorry, but I have to call you out on this. That is not a factual statement. Notice shot #1 in AFTER HOURS…a super-fast camera movement into the character. A few shots later the camera is circling the characters. When Grifin Dunne walks to Rosanna’s table, the camera MOVES UP when he stands up, then MOVES FORWARD as he moves forward…then MOVES DOWN when he sits down. Now try to find that show ANYWHERE ELSE in the Scorsese cannon. Then notice the PUSH IN shots on characters and objects. The 180 degree shot around Dunne in the apartment. Total Scorsese camera moves. In fact, this was the first film that Michael Ballhaus photographed for Scorsese, and they would work together on THE COLOR OF MONEY, LAST TEMPTATION and GOODFELLAS.

    There’s even more camera movement as Dune’s hand holds the flier to the club (The “Marnie” shot), or when Dunne rips of the $20 bill from the statue, or any number of other subtle, but still moving camera shots littered all over the picture.

    Scorsese has given interviews that this was the film that re-sparked his fire for filmmaking again after KING OF COMEDY, and a big part of it was that Ballhaus was able to keep up with the numerous amount of moving camera shots Scorsese had planned out, while staying on schedule.

    In fact, your statement would only really apply to THE KING OF COMEDY, which was intentionally static and square, like television was shot.

    Otherwise, a nice collection of choices.

    But isn’t NEW YORK, NEW YORK really the Black Sheep for Scorsese?

    • Don’t apologize for that at all! I appreciate the info and the insight. Apparently, my memory of the film was wildly different from the reality.

      “New York, New York” would definitely be a contender, as would “Boxcar Bertha” (if nothing else than for the theme).

  20. Josh

    How is Coppola and the movie “Jack” not on this list?

  21. Matt Golden

    Quintet should have been the pick for Altman.

  22. b_e_n121

    Great list, although I have to say that you picked the wrong Hitchcock film. The correct one would be Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) that was a straight comedy and made as a favour for it’s star Carole Lombard. Unfortunately Ms Lombard tragically died in a plane accident soon after the film’s release. Not to be confused with a certain recent film with a stolen title. I haven’t seen the Hitchcock film yet but hope to.

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