Not as Good as They Used to Be (A diversion about directors)

So I was having a polite discussion with someone this morning about film directors, and the person I was talking with told me that they thought a particular director's best films were behind him. When someone has a career in directing (meaning they make more than a few films over the course of their lives), it's hard to tell until they reach the end of their careers, or their lives, whether or not they suffered a decline.

It's easy for us to look at the career of someone like Alfred Hitchcock and say that he started slow, reached a creative peak in the early 1960s, and then suffered a pretty major decline at the end of his career. This is not the trajectory that every director follows however. The second group a director can fall into is one like Stanley Kubrick slow start, and then once he peaks, his quality never drops off. This is a fairly rare group as most directors suffer a decline over time, but I think that Kubrick's less than prolific manner of making films aided in the lack of a drop off in quality. The third group a director can fall into is the one made famous by Orson Welles. He started off with a bang, making Citizen Kane, and even though he made some great films after, nothing would be as good as that ever again. The fourth group that a director can fall into is the rarest of them all, and that is the director who gets better with every film and then makes their best film at the end of their career. I had a really difficult time coming up with a lot of directors that did this, and the only two examples I could come up with are Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luis Bunuel.

The average director follows the first trajectory, which I'll call the Hitchcock trajectory: Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Cocteau, Michael Curtiz, John Cassavettes, Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kramer, Sydney Pollack, the list is pretty endless. Then there's the second scenario, or the Kubrick trajectory which has its fair share of members: Robert Altman, Frank Capra, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Pierre Melville & Michael Powell being a few examples. The third group, or the Welles group, is smaller, great directors who made a lot of great movies, but none as good as their first includes directors such as Sidney Lumet, John Huston, & Sam Peckinpah (this seems to be a mostly American list). As I said earlier I can only think of two directors in the fourth group, but maybe someone can make an argument for others.

Now, with directors still alive and working, you could make a case that there are ones who fall into the first three groups. All of what I'm about to say is purely speculative, and is subject to change, but as of February 26, 2012, this is where I see them:

Hitchcock directors: Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Clint Eastwood, Tim Burton, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, & Spike Lee.

Kubrick directors: David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, James Cameron, Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino & David Cronenberg.

Welles directors: Peter Bogdonavich, Sam Mendes, Robert Rodriguez, George Lucas, Mike Nichols (though I think you can argue some of these men peaked with their second films).

Here's the thing though, these are subject to change. If you had asked me after I walked out of the theater from seeing The Ladykillers, I would have told you the Coen Brothers' best days were behind them, and then they came back strong with No Country for Old Men. If this were 1993, I would have put Spielberg in the Kubrick camp, but he's only made two great movies since then (Saving Private Ryan & Munich). I guess what I'm getting at here is that we can never truly judge a director until their career is over. We can put them in one camp or another, but they're pretty movable until they die.

What's the point of all this then? I think the most you can hope for a director is that they maintain a quality of work that's becoming of their past work. You could have walked out of The Godfather and said, well, Coppola will never make anything that good again, and then he unleashed three more undeniable masterpieces before the decade was out. So the next time you're ready to say that a director is down for the count, and won't rebound, remember, their true masterpiece may be just around the corner. Granted it might not be, but it could be, so we can't really judge anyone until they're done.
What are your thoughts?