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.