One of the films expected to win big during the approaching awards season is The Lost Daughter, the first film from actor-turned-director Maggie Gyllenhaal. Greeting Netflix on the final day of 2021, it seems aptly placed at the beginning of the new year, considering how central the fact of this being Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut has been to the critical discussion around it. A profile in The Observer by Wendy Ide specifically explored her transition from ‘difficult’ acting roles to ‘lauded Hollywood director’. Critics are suckers for feature debuts, perhaps attracted to the energy that is created when a new voice seems to shake up the status-quo. In fact, the BAFTA, Grammy and Forward Poetry awards all award artistic debuts in isolation. There is a euphoric wonder spun when artists like Billie Eillish and Dua Lipa emerge with albums so assured and confident that they immediately dominate over experienced, veteran creatives, or when debut works with less than universal acclaim are celebrated by the niche who wish to state, ‘I liked them before they became cool’. The artistic debut has always acted as a magnet, in the sense that critics seem to take pleasure from attempting to be the first to celebrate new voices in the field.
In the literary world, one of the most assured debuts of recent years has to be Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that it didn’t read like a debut at all. Yes, her voice seemed refreshingly new in perspective and tone, exploring the life of a generation only beginning to be written about. But Rooney’s style is so assured and confident, her characters so audaciously complex, varying on the brink of being unlikeable, that it seems you are reading a much more experienced novelist. As Zadie Smith reflects, “I love debuts where you just can’t believe that it was a debut,” – a fitting statement from an author whose own arrival with White Teeth in 2000 grappled with 150 years of history, whilst exploring themes of family, cultural alienation and religious isolation, a set up that would scare even the most accomplished writer. Both these authors have since become such a part of the cultural landscape so that it seems odd to think they haven’t always been with us. Rooney’s second book, Normal People, seemed to look in the face of that ‘difficult second album’ mantra and ask the publisher to hold its beer.
Yet, whilst magnets attract, they also repel. Debuts often create an uncomfortable alienation in audiences, where arriving to break down the status quo causes more enemies than admirers. The Daily Mail called Sarah Kane’s play Blasted ‘a disgusting feast of filth’ in 1995. It is now one of the most celebrated artistic debuts in theatre, forcing respected critics like Michael Billington to apologise for being ‘rudely dismissive’ of the play. Here, the debut provided critics with a unique angle of attack, where the Sunday Times snarked that Kane ‘has a lot to learn’; as if believing you can write a play is in some way arrogantly overconfident. To Kane, the notoriety to her arrival as a playwright was as much a springboard as a burden, first performing her fourth play Crave under the pseudonym Marie Kelevdon to distance herself from the notoriety surrounding her work. Throughout the entirety of her all too short career, she struggled to break away from the reputation Blasted had forced onto her.
Moreover, the seeming glorification of the debut seems alien to the actual physical act of artistic creation. Prior to every first film, most directors will have completed countless shorts, most writers countless rejected novels, every musician abandoned songs. The debut is only the first moment the world itself is made aware of the artist, the first time that widespread judgement is invited. It is far more like the arrival of Daphne to the London social scene in the first episode of Bridgerton than a birth of artistic endeavour. The debut lies in the presentation, not in the creation.
In fact, for Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter is not a debut but a new beginning, since her experience as an actor is surely long-term work experience for directing. The film is best released at the turn of the year to poetically foreground this fact, a theme frequently found within the film itself as character’s strive for reinvention. Similarly, Kane found a stylistic new beginning in Crave. As such, the new year is a time not of launching something new but of resetting and reconsidering; you can only build on what you have done previously. Like the new year, each new work is a second chance to affect your audience, cast out old themes that seem more stale than exciting. It seems no surprise that Sally Rooney has chosen to focus her latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You?, on the problems of sudden fame – it highlights that debuts are indeed more indeed problematic for an artist than we often think.
Image Credit: The Lost Daughter//The Lost Daughter Facebook