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.


Len Esten said...

It's good to see you take on the revered masters instead of just brushing aside any negative commentary like most would.

Too often people put everything great directors on a pedestal without considering that maybe some of the stuff they have done is sub par, at least in part.

Adrian said...

A marvellous site, Catherine - like your other blog sites! I am completely and utterly hooked. Keep up the great work!

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks Len and Adrian for your kind comments.

Len, I will come back to the Psycho example in my next posting on this topic.

And Adrian, I'll touch on your wonderful 'mise en scene is dead' piece hopefully in that posting (or the next one), too. You'll know from Girish's site that I'm a big fan.