Monday, July 15, 2013

After The First Big Hit: Second (or third) time's the charm? Think again.

Often, we’re told to go for broke. Many of us have an instinct to shoot higher after some initial success. I guess there is nothing wrong with that, or is there? Is it so wrong to find one thing that you do well and then stay in that groove for awhile?

In the past few months, I have seen Mud and Place Beyond The Pines and Upstream Color, all of which were eagerly anticipated follow-ups to critically acclaimed indie debuts. Okay, technically, Mud is director Jeff Nichols’ third film, following up on the wonderful Take Shelter and the little seen but still noteworthy Shotgun Stories. All three of the new films are getting mixed reviews overall and, for my part, I was underwhelmed at best and bored to the brink of despair at worst.

With Derek Cianfrance and Shane Carruth whose last films were respectively Blue Valentine and Primer, their new films Pines and Color are sophomore efforts. But what I am talking about is not technically a sophomore slump and not exclusive to little, indie filmmakers. I’ve noticed that there is a trend (syndrome?) where filmmakers make it big with a little first or second film and take on a “go big or go home” mentality.

Spike Lee followed his minimalist-by-nature debut feature She’s Gotta Have It with the overblown, unsatisfying School Daze. Steven Soderbergh followed up the intimate, introspective “sex, lies and videotape” with the grandiose Kafka. Bryan Singer made a splash at Sundance with his first film, Public Access, and then hit it big with his terrific second film, The Usual Suspects. He next film was the disappointing Apt Pupil and he has since settled into a groove as the main creative force behind the popular X-Men series as well as executive producing some hit TV shows but nothing has been on the same level as Suspects.

I won’t get into the whole love it or hate it conversation about Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, though I will point out that it was two little seen micro-budget features, Creative Nonfiction and Tiny Furniture, that put her on the map. The film world is fickle and often, one big bomb is all it takes for your latest film to be your last film and many directors might have that mentality playing in their heads when seeking out new projects.

Of course, this phenomenon is not exclusive to indie up and comers. There is Spielberg’s 1941, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Coppola’s One From The Heart and Lucas’ production of The Radioland Murders – all of which were personal, pet projects that got greenlit after the directors became proven entities, backing themselves up with box office hits, if not critical acclaim. In each case, the film was a disappointment.

That said, I am really looking forward to All Is Lost, writer-director JC Chandor’s follow-up to his impressive debut Margin Call, which was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Lost comes out later this year and Chandor is already in pre-production on his third film A Most Violent Year.

Now comes talk that the freshly ‘retired” Soderbergh plans to release a new cut of Kafka that promises to be “A Hardcore Art Movie.” Maybe he’s onto something. Maybe more filmmakers will follow suit and re-do the disappointing films that they got the chance to make after their initial breakthrough. Maybe not.