Thursday, 25 September 2008

Good Directing: The Dark Knight 2

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, USA, 1942)

My series of discussions of 'good directing' continues today, as promised, with my drawing on VF Perkins' article 'Moments of Choice', first published in The Movie, no. 58 (Orbis Publishing, 1981) and republished online (link HERE) by the Australian film journal Rouge (issue no. 9, 2006).

I do this because it's hard to begin discussing good directing in relation to a particular film without a detailed sense, in advance, of what the potential components of a good directorial performance might be. One of the best, and certainly the most detailed, senses of this, I believe, can be derived from Perkins' subtle understanding of mise en scène as the complex film texture (my phrase) that emerges from many 'moments of [directorial] choice' (his phrase).

I will begin by snippeting (in their original order) what I think that 'Moments of Choice' sets out as the component parts of fine film directing in classic, 1930s-50s Hollywood films - 'Old Hollywood', as Perkins refers to it below.

[Just to contextualise the first snippet in my list, Perkins opens his article with a remarkable discourse on Orson Welles's expensive choice to build a set for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) 'inside the largest available refrigeration plant', showing the lengths to which some Hollywood directors went in achieving their 'vision'. He concludes that passage with this next sentence.]
  • "The very breath of an actor can be made significant when the director places it in an expressive relationship with the other aspects of the scene."
  • "[D]irecting a film is always about making choices of this kind – hundreds of them every day and at every stage in the translation from script to screen."
  • "Many of the choices are matters of craft. The director works to make the scenes vivid and varied, so as to achieve an arresting presentation of the characters and their story."
  • "The most promising script, judiciously cast, will still fall flat if the director is unable to get all the elements of the production working together – either in harmony or in lively contrast – so that the end result flows when it is played to an audience. If it does not work on the screen, we are likely to think that there was not much of a story or that the performances were lacking. But often the fault lies in the director’s inability to find a style that brings the material convincingly to life. Just as often, it is the director who should take the credit for our belief that we have seen a credible and forceful story with colourful and engaging characterisation."
  • "Old Hollywood was well aware how much its product stood to gain, as entertainment, from a style that rendered its drama effectively and made it look, move and sound as if it had a sense of direction."
  • "[Old Hollywood] expected directors to be capable production managers and to complete their work on time, on budget and without major damage to studio morale. But it also valued and rewarded the ability to control performance, image and editing so as to create moods and viewpoints through which the story could persuade and grip the audience."
  • "Physical aspects of production like décor and dress can help the actors to feel themselves into their roles. But the detail of performance that brings the characters to life – movement, gesture, intonation, rhythm – has to be established on the set. Here the director’s job is, particularly, to hold each and every moment of performance within a vision of the scene as a whole so that the impact and effectiveness of today’s scene is not achieved at the expense of what was filmed last week or what remains to be shot. The continuity of the end product is, most often, an impression that has to be constructed and protected in spite of the radically discontinuous method of shooting."
  • "The pacing of a scene may seem just right in itself, but how will it look when the audience reaches it halfway through the film? Directors work in the knowledge that nothing is right ‘in itself’ but only in relation to the developing design. Balance and proportion are crucial."
  • "[I]n movies everything is designed to be filtered through the eye of the camera and remade in the patterns created on the cutting bench. [...] The camera’s frame and the editor’s scissors provide the means whereby the director carves a particular path through the world constructed on the set. [...]Selection and sequence are the keys to viewpoint that the director controls. [...] Cutting and camera movement are both means through which direction shifts and manipulates viewpoint."
  • "[T]he expansiveness of a film style is so much a matter of balance, of what happens when you put together, in a particular way, a posture, a facial expression, an off-screen voice and a camera viewpoint. At the very centre of the director’s job is this task of co-ordination. Direction works with the various talents of highly skilled artists to ensure their contributions meet in a coherent design."
I would further summarise Perkins' points as follows. Fine film directing in 'old' Hollywood involved:
1. Taking responsibility for 'expressive relationships'

2. Achieving the 'vivid and varied' presentation of characters, scenes, and story as part of the translation from script to screen

3. Getting the end result to 'flow' when presented to an audience; including taking responsibility for the appropriate shifting and manipulating of spectatorial viewpoint, as well as for the 'developing design' -- the pacing, balance, and continuity -- of the end product as a whole.
4. Ensuring that the contribution of all the creative participants in filmmaking meet in this coherent design, thus achieving, in the final product, a style which, amongst other things, might give a particular film a rich sense of direction.
On this final matter of style, in the last part of his essay Perkins draws an interesting distinction between the full directorial achievement of ‘style’ and that of ‘manner’, as follows:
Many directors seem to have lived quite happily within these prescriptions [those of 'the classic ['Old Hollywood'] approach which valued formal design only so long as it supported the spectator’s involvement, understanding, pleasure and belief in the narrative' and in which 'quite strict notions of what was appropriate were in play'], being ready to exert their skills within a range of genres to achieve effective versions of the accepted manner. The limitation of such adaptable know-how was that it would seldom carry a film beyond the qualities of the package originally handed down by the studio. A movie directed by, say, Michael Curtiz would be neither more nor less than the sum of its carefully blended ingredients. Sometimes that was enough. It is no mean praise to say that Casablanca (1942) was as good as its script and cast.
But it is probably fair to claim that Curtiz’s best films achieve a dramatically effective manner, rather than a style. The various elements of the film are harnessed only to a reliable judgement of what will make the story work. More is possible. The films of Ophuls, Ray and Sirk, among others, are there to demonstrate how, with no sacrifice of movie-craft, the director can bind the movie together in a design that offers a more personal and detailed conception of the story’s significance, embodying an experience of the world and a viewpoint both considered and felt. At this point, manner becomes style.
Personally, I don't think it is possible to 'quantify', or indeed to 'qualify', very good, Hollywood, film directing any better than this.
In my next post in this series, I will turn my attention fully to Christopher Nolan's direction of The Dark Knight, and ask some questions of it, including the following:
  • Will Perkins' thoughts, which were very much intended to be contextually specific (referring to the classic Hollywood years), help us to discern the extent of directorial achievement in Nolan's contemporary Hollywood work?
  • Will they help us know what to do with an interesting issue raised by Len Esten (of the Illiterary Fiction blog?) in his comment about my first post on The Dark Knight: what of those moments where films seem deliberately to choose not to be 'vivid and varied' but, indeed, to be potentially ponderous and verbose (e.g. the 'psychiatrist sequence' near the end of Hitchcock's Psycho [USA 1960])?
  • Do we need to have lots of information about the production process in order to apply Perkins' insights about 'moments of choice'? Or can his insights be applied retroactively, the choices, and thus their 'directorial quality', 'read' off the resulting texture of the finished film?

In the meantime, please feel encouraged to comment about these and other questions on this topic.

© 2008 Catherine Grant

P.S. There's an insightful and beautifully written blog post -- entitled Good Manners -- on television authorship and mise-en-scène (in particular relation to Kim Manners' direction of fifty or so The X Files episodes) by Sergio Dias-Branco, my very talented friend and former colleague in Film Studies at the University of Kent, the first of several upcoming posts by him on this important topic.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Ye Olde Movies About Movies Blog-a-Thon

Just discovered that the rather fantastic goatdogblog held a (now so over) movies about movies blogathon. 28 films were written about, from the 1930s to the present day, ranging across lots of different national cinemas.

Plenty of films you'd expect to see in the list, including Mulholland Dr., King Kong (1933), Be Kind Rewind, and La Nuit américaine (also see HERE); and some I hadn't come across before: Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) (Mario O'Hara, 1998), and Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers) (Guru Dutt, 1959).

Please visit goatdogblog for all the links to entries. I look forward to reading them, belatedly, and also to expanding my most active blogroll, as a result, over at Film Studies For Free.

My upcoming post about - On Good Directing: The Dark Knight 2 (see 1)- should be ready in the next couple of days (it's a little bit of a b l o c k b u s t e r).

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Humberto Solás Dies

Sadly, the great Cuban film director Humberto Solás died from cancer on September 17th, aged 66.

There's a great and touching obituary by Latin-American film scholar and fellow filmmaker Michael Chanan in today's Guardian newspaper (online link HERE). For anyone who wants to know more about Solás's film work, including his wonderful 1968 film Lucía, there's a good study by Peter Rist (Concordia University, Montréal) for the Canadian online journal Offscreen (Volume 10, Issue 2 (February 28, 2006), accessible HERE.

In his obituary of the Cuban filmmaker, Chanan writes of Lucía:

Lucía was a tour de force: three episodes in three different cinematic styles about three women, each called Lucía, set during three different moments in Cuba's history. Lucía 1895 is shot in a histrionic style, influenced by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, replete with the extraordinary image of naked black liberation fighters riding out to meet the Spanish cavalry. Lucía 1933 turns to Hollywood models and adopts the more sedate style of domestic melodrama by Cukor or Kazan, while Lucía 196? takes on the hue of the nouvelle vague

Here's a (sadly unsubtitled) YouTube video of some sequences from Lucía, posted by videotrading on August 06, 2006. The video gives some sense of Lucía's radical form.

And, finally, here's a wonderful YouTube video of a Cuban television segment, posted by cedecom in July of this year, in which Solás talks about cinema and his career, including his turn in latter years to digital technology. Apologies, but it's also unsubtitled.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Good-looking new book and article on auteurism

I'll return very soon to The Dark Knight, but a little narcissistic 'aside' first: isn't it always the way that, when you are very near to finally 'pronouncing' on a topic, in print, you discover that someone else has just pipped you to it... The good thing about this, almost inevitable, pre-completion phenomenon is that the researcher who publishes the later tome will have the undoubted benefit of being able to bounce off the work and the insights that others have laboured long and hard over. In my previous experience, it's usually been a highly productive authorial circumstance, as I'm sure it will be in the instance of it I'm about to describe.

My own book on contemporary global film directing practices and auteurism (Directing Cinema: The New Auteurism, for Manchester University Press) should come out next year. This project, which is obviously very closely connected in its topic to the Directing Cinema weblog, builds on my already published work on this topic over the last ten years, in particular my article for the millennial issue of the journal Screen (2000 41 (1). pp. 101-108), called '' (links to some online versions of this earlier work can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

Anyway, all of this is why I was probably more interested than many film researchers -- not to say more anxious than most! -- to hear of one new academic book, and one new, peer-reviewed article, which focus, respectively, on Western European and Spanish forms of auteurism. I look forward to reviewing both these items, on this blog and elsewhere, in due course, once I've studied them properly (Maule's book is hopefully on its way to me in the post), but they both look excellent, so I wanted to publish some information about them, and their authors' other related work, immediately.

The new book is called Beyond Auteurism: New Directions in Authorial Film Practices in France, Italy and Spain since the 1980s, and it is written by Rosanna Maule. Maule is the author of lots of very high-quality work on film authorship: amongst other books and articles, there's a very good essay of hers on the authorship of Germaine Dulac online at Senses of Cinema (link HERE); but she also published a 1998 article on the auteurism of Pedro Almodóvar (“De-authorizing the Auteur: Postmodern Politics of Interpellation in Contemporary European Cinema.” in Cristina Degli-Esposti, Ed. Postmodernism in the Cinema) which was very influential on my own thinking about auteurism (see '').

The publisher's blurb for Maule's new book reads as follows:

Beyond Auteurism is a comprehensive study of nine film authors from France, Italy and Spain who since the 1980s have blurred the boundaries between art-house and mainstream, and national and transnational film production. Maule examines how the individuals have maintained a dialectical relationship with the authorial tradition of the national cinema to which each belongs. In considering this tradition, Maule seeks to illustrate that the film author is not only the most important symbol of European cinema’s cultural tradition and commitment, but is also a crucial part of Europe’s efforts to develop its cinema within domestic and international film industries. The book studies the work, practices and styles of European film-makers including Luc Besson, Claire Denis, Gabriele Salvatores and Alejandro Amenábar. Beyond Auteurism offers an important contribution to a historicized and contextualized view of film authorship from a theoretical framework that rejects Western-centred and essentialist views of cinematic practices and contexts.

The new article on some aspects of Spanish auteurism is by Núria Triana-Toribio, author of the classic study Spanish National Cinema (Routledge, 2003). Triana-Toribio has also published other influential work on film authorship, including a co-authored article (written with Peter Buse and Andy Willis): on Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia 'The Spanish "popular auteur": Alex de la Iglesia as polemical tool', New Cinemas, 2: 3 (2004), pp.139-48., which was followed up by a co-authored book on that filmmaker. The article and the book helped to further establish in academic discourse the notion of 'popular auteurism' (following on from the foundational work on contemporary film auteurism by Timothy Corrigan, which began with his 1990 essay 'The Commerce of Auteurism' [JSTOR link HERE]), and usefully focused study on the seeming migration of previously 'highbrow' and 'middlebrow' artistic concepts into areas of popular cultural commerce.

Triana-Toribio also wrote one of the best studies of Pedro Almodóvar that I have had the pleasure to read: her 1994 PhD thesis, 'Subculture and popular culture in the films of Pedro Almodovar', a section of which is available in a pamphlet version, in addition to two article versions (1996: 'Almodóvar's Melodramatic Mise-en-Scène: Madrid as a Site for Melodrama', Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol.73, 179 - 189; and also 1996: 'Pedro Almodóvar's Recreation of Melodrama', Journal of Iberian Studies, Vol.9, 46 - 54).

Triana-Toribio's new article on auteurism appears in the new issue of Screen (2008 49: pp. 259-276). It is entitled 'Auteurism and commerce in contemporary Spanish cinema: directores mediáticos' (restricted Screen Online link HERE). Here's the abstract:

This article studies the evolution of auteurism and commerce in Spain using technologies such as the Internet. Spanish directors are becoming mediáticos (media friendly and using media as marketing tools) in response to the new conditions in which the national cinema is immersed among them the saturation in European screens and the ever-present competition with Hollywood. Those directors who can claim the status of auteur do so as part of their commercial strategies. In this analysis of the present-day conditions in the commerce of Spanish cinema, the focus is on two case studies of media-friendly and established auteurs, Isabel Coixet and Álex de la Iglesia who have and manage homepages where information about their work, their careers and other aspects of their authorial personas. Both auteurs can be considered to be at opposite ends of the spectrum genre cinema/art cinema within the Spanish cinema traditions. The questions that inspire this exploration deal with the functions of these homepages and what they can tell us about the present and future of film commerce and auteurism in Spain.
So, lots of reading to do of Maule and Triana-Toribio's studies of aspects of 'new auteurism'. I'll post again on what I find.

Monday, 15 September 2008

On good directing: The Dark Knight 1

I saw The Dark Knight yesterday. Yes, I know, I was a tad late in so doing, for a researcher of contemporary cinema, but, in my defence, it's been a busy summer of moving house and jobs...

Anyway, I found it such an interesting film and think it a perfect candidate upon which to pin a whole series of blog posts, over the coming weeks, on the notions of 'good' and 'bad' film directing, of which this is but the first instalment. I've been preparing the ground for this in my recently posted discussions of the practice of film directing (see HERE and HERE).

As in those earlier posts, I will be elaborating on the insights about film directing set out by Victor Perkins in his brilliant chapter 'Direction and Authorship', in Film as Film (London: Penguin, 1972), as well as in his great essay on film directing 'Moments of Choice', available online HERE.

Despite the fact that The Dark Knight is not the usual kind of film to which seemingly 'auteurist' concepts are routinely applied (say, for instance, notions of the quality of directorial mise-en-scène), I'm convinced at the outset of my exploration that Christopher Nolan is a director whose previous record of achievement can easily bear a very great deal of critical weight. While I haven't yet seen Following, Nolan's first movie (I've just ordered it), I have long been a fan of his film writing, producing, and directing (Memento [2000], Insomnia [2002], Batman Begins [2005], and The Prestige [2006]). Before I saw The Dark Knight, I believed him to be one of the most talented directors working in English-language cinema today.

As for The Dark Knight itself, much of the critical discussion about it, online and in print, has endlessly pondered its value as a 'good film'; but, in any case, do 'good films' have to be 'well-directed' (do 'bad films' have to be 'badly directed', for that matter)? Indeed, is the notion of a 'well-directed, good film' a rhetorical tautology, or two different kinds of evaluative statements? With its two separate Oscars awarded for 'Achievement in Directing' and 'Best Motion Picture', the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences clearly ascribes to the latter view, but should everyone else?

Of course, many critics, including Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing Nolan's film on July 17 2008 for Salon.Com, were not at all convinced that The Dark Knight was a 'good film' in the first place. Zacharek's review opened thus:
Somewhere between his first hit, the tricky backward teaser "Memento," and his most recent picture, the tricky dueling-magicians teaser "The Prestige," Christopher Nolan began gathering, like a lucky squirrel having stumbled upon a hoard of exquisite nuts, comparisons to Hitchcock [not the least of which was one drawn, back on October 20, 2006, by Zacharek's Salon.Com colleague Andrew O'Hehir - see HERE]. "The Dark Knight" makes me question whether he has actually seen any Hitchcock. It's true that Nolan, like the filmmaker he's so clearly trying to emulate, takes delight in teasing and tricking his audience. But Hitchcock was more than just a tease. He was a visual storyteller who knew how to build complex narratives frame by frame. He'd never use two shots if one would do. Although he used sound brilliantly, the dialogue in a Hitchcock film generally tells us very little; the visuals, and the implied but indelible connections between them, tell us everything. The trickery of Hitchcock is interactive, springing directly from the demands he makes on us: Even when we can't believe our eyes, we have to trust them, because they're all we've got. [my emphasis]
Like this quotation, which uses Alfred Hitchcock as a kind of gold standard for 'good directing', the rest of Zacharek's review is full of fascinating assumptions about this concept (like those ones I've emboldened, to emphasise them, above). I will return to these and other assumptions about film directing in my future posts on this topic.

I would, as always, be fascinated to hear what any of you think about these matters; so please consider yourselves very warmly encouraged to comment.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Film directing in La Nuit américaine/Day for Night: agency within constraints

Opening sequence of La Nuit américaine/Day for Night (François Truffaut, France/Italy, 1973)
(YouTube clip posted by siobhanalba)

In François Truffaut’s great 1973 film, some of the forms of 'agency within constraints' which comprise on-set film directing are clearly represented. We see (and hear) the call to ‘Cut! ('Coupez!’), actioned by the director Ferrand (played by Truffaut himself). We also watch Ferrand perform urgent gestures, in between takes, in his repeated attempts to get the actors (Alphonse, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud and Alexandre, played by Jean-Pierre Aumont) to do his bidding.

Film directing on set (like assistant directing on set, for that matter, too) is an activity thus shown to be largely comprised of performatives -- in other words, the doing of things with words (verbal utterances) and gestures (physical utterances), 'doings' which are executed in the hope of generating certain actions in others (with no automatic guarantee of success, it must be added); as well as of necessary (preceding or concurrent) reflexive processes (decision-making, etc.). In this sequence, individual directorial actions are shown in (unpredictable) interaction with the agency of those others who occupy different places in the on-set hierarchy.

What I love about the opening sequences of a number of films about film directing (see my previous posting on this topic), is that, as we can see in La Nuit américaine/Day for Night, there is often a hugely celebratory quality to the (re-)presentation of the processes of filmmaking. In this instance, the opening sequence of La Nuit américaine concludes with a virtuosic crane shot (repeated later in the film); our view of the plateau (film set) is dramatically pulled back and up, away from the organised bustle of the set, a move underscored by the equally soaring, or swelling, strains of the film's musical theme.

The scale of the visual spectacle in this sequence, together with the exuberance of its musical accompaniment, evoke for me notions of orchestration and, especially, conducting. The latter idea, in particular, resonates because of the presentation of Ferrand/Truffaut’s gestures as he verbally and physically directs (guides, orders) and conducts (leads) his actors and technicians. Because of the mode chosen here of the director's 'irruption' into the film (a jump cut from a long shot of the actors performing to a brief close up of Ferrand/Truffaut speaking), Ferrand (and Truffaut) is seen as a Little Big Man, compelled by his vision, and repeatedly, even frantically, trying to impose it throughout the various (fragments of) takes that we see, before, it seems, finally getting everything more or less together. The subsequent crane shot then leaves us with a harmonious and pleasurable image of cinema, produced under its usual ‘factory-like conditions’ (V.F. Perkins, Film as Film [London: Penguin, 1972], p. 158); the shot retrospectively imputes some calm, harmonious method to the evident, partial discord and madness of the whole process.

Alongside the depiction of the activities of a director, what is also graphically figured in the opening sequences of La Nuit américaine/Day for Night, then, are the huge constraints of the space within which the director’s activities take place. Here and in other films (another good example would be David Mamet's State and Main, 2000), this space (here, that specifically of the plateau) is clearly shown to be a ‘time-space’: a field of, and for, action which is constrained by time, by ambient conditions and practicalities, by multiple agencies, and by the need to co-ordinate/orchestrate the activities in this field, these circumstances, to get everything (or as much as humanly and technically possible) done in time.

(Some thoughts on the conceptualisation of the practice of film directing, which draw upon 'Film authorship studies and the concept of agency', a paper I gave at the Screen Studies Conference, University of Glasgow, on July 1, 2000).

© 2008 Catherine Grant