The Successful Sons and Daughters of Experimental Filmmakers

By  · Published on September 2nd, 2014

Marvel Studios

In March, Evan Kindley asked a compelling question about musicians and their like-minded descendants: “Why is it that the kids of cult folk musicians (e.g. Kristy MacColl, Rufus Wainwright), often go on to respected solo careers while the offspring of major rock stars (e.g., Jakob Dylan, Julian Lennon) are more often one-hit wonders flashes in the pan?”

As Kindley and his responders note, there is no scientific basis in this observation, just a sense that the rules of cultural value apply differently when it comes to the offspring of marginal artistic figures – and, seemingly more often than not, those offspring find success in arenas more conventional than their parents.

The world of filmmaking is similarly full of dynasties that produce children who seem to inherit opportunities (if not success) not immediately available outsiders. When the American Zoetrope logo introduces Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, for example, it’s easy to speculate the ways that the Coppola filmmaking legacy, and all its resources, afforded Roman an opportunity he may not have had otherwise.

But while one’s status as the son or daughter of an independent, experimental, underground, or avant-garde filmmaker may similarly bear the weight and burden of a famous name, it cannot possibly work the same way in terms of economics and industry-based reputation. Being the offspring of a Filmmakers’ Co-Op co-founder might carry some cultural capital in certain circles, but rarely does that guarantee access to the actual capital needed to make a movie. It’s something of a limited case for speculative nepotism.

So, to unscientifically speculate further, here are some sons and daughters of “famous” experimental filmmakers, and how they’ve distinguished their work from their namesake.

Azazel Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is best known as a major contributor the New York’s 1960s New American Cinema scene. Like Hollis Frampton and Stan Brakhage, Jacobs’s work shows a depth of interest in film itself as a subject of continued investigation. But his work, including Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son and his epic Star Spangled to Death, often manipulated and combined existing film footage – specifically from non-canonized and overlooked areas of filmmaking like industrial and early “primitive” cinema – in order to investigate the phenomenal power of moving images.

Azazel Jacobs grew up appreciating the art of his father and mother, Flo Jacobs, but he admitted to struggling to find his cinematic identity leading up to his first feature, The GoodTimesKid. The younger Jacobs said in a 2008 interview, “I’m the traditional one,” but that statement is inevitable by his very choice to make narrative films at all.

Nick, Xan and Zoe Cassavetes

John Cassavetes is an essential figure in American cinema whose work constitutes a requisite chapter in independent filmmaking history. But despite his commanding reputation, he was always want for resources through endless post-production schedules and even a from-scratch reshoot on his first feature, Shadows.

Filmmaking was always a family affair in the Cassavetes household, with Gena Rowlands’ incredible talents on display throughout his films, and their children making onscreen debuts in Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz. It’s no wonder, then, that all three of the Cassavetes children eventually went into acting and filmmaking.

Nick Cassavetes was the first to venture behind the camera, and he appeared initially to be openly carrying the family torch, casting his mother in his feature debut Unhook the Stars and following that up by posthumously realizing one of John’s unproduced scripts, She’s So Lovely. But his career quickly took a turn towards a notable embrace of Hollywood convention with The Notebook, My Sister’s Keeper and, most recently, The Other Woman. Notably, Nick Cassavetes has shown dedication to a type of female-driven drama that Hollywood rarely pays attention to anymore, and with select titles like John Q and Alpha Dog he displays an interest in dramas of ordinary struggle that made his name. But, decidedly or not, it’s hard to think of a career that’s as dissimilar from John Cassavetes’s than the work of his son.

Younger sisters Xan and Zoe went rather different routes. Xan Cassavetes helmed the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, one of the best primers in existence of cinephilia in the video age, and more recently made the stylized, sleek, and retro vampire film, Kiss of the Damned, exhibiting an incredible range for different types of filmmaking. Zoe Cassavetes has shown a dedicated interest in the human drama her parents’ films were known for, but highlights a feminist perspective arguably absent in that work, from her 2007 feature Broken English to numerous shorts to her upcoming narrative portrait of Hollywood gender politics, Day Out of Days.

Robert Downey, Jr.

It’s difficult to imagine a more asymmetrical relationship to the industry of filmmaking than that shared between the Robert Downeys, especially as Robert Downey Jr’s name bears a direct indebtedness to a father than comparably few people know of. Robert Downey, Sr. made a name as a jester of the American counterculture, an equal opportunity lampooner who looked at radical times through a manic lens. His best-known work likely remains the crucial Putney Swope, a searing examination of American racism and a hilarious indictment of the advertising industry.

Robert Downey, Jr.’s career, by contrast, has told perhaps every story to be told of Hollywood stardom, from becoming a teen icon in the 1980s to a short stint on Saturday Night Live to early critical acclaim that was cut short with a substance abuse problem from which he emerged as a clean, bankable comeback king in the form of Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes and Kirk Lazarus.

But behind the scenes, the Downeys shared a great deal – they bonded and shared, so to speak, through their respective drug addictions. In their relationship to cinema, they have held relatively little in common (the closest connection that comes to mind is that Downey, Jr was originally cast in the newest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, a good friend of Downey, Sr), but the younger most certainly inherited the older’s personal struggles.

The case of the Downeys speaks to something common across this list – that the scope of circumstances, influences, and privileges shared between parents and their children can hardly be known. Industry nepotism is almost always assumed when the offspring of a famous person seeks to make a name for themselves – but what we call “nepotism” is only an assumption of privilege made through the transparent sharing of a name. Filmmaking is a vast and diverse practice, and one’s name can mean a variety of different things (including nothing) to a varied array of people (including something to escape from).

Filmmakers who made their names in underground, experimental, avant garde and independent films having children that make or star in anything from TV documentaries to mainstream indies to Hollywood tentpoles produce a frame of reference for us via a name shared within the same medium. But for them, that name bears a completely different meaning, for their mom and dad were hardly a series of titles or even icons within an industry’s history, but living, changing people that their children have no doubt seen the best and worst of.

These filmmakers’ complex relationships to the lives and work of their children bring to bear something that should be considered in the case of any famous family: regardless of access to resources, there are aspects of influence that can never really be known by the work itself.

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