Tuesday, December 23, 2014

God-awful: Problems of the postmodern Biblical epic

Christian Bale as Moses in "Exodus: Gods and Kings" -- no, he does not suppose his toeses are roses.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Dir: Ridley Scott
Prod: Peter Chernin, Mohamed El Raie, Mark Huffam, Teresa Kelly, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Hisham Soliman, Mirel Soliman, Adam Somner, Jenno Topping, Sebastian Alvarez
Scr: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Phot: Dariusz Wolski
US Release Date: Dec. 12, 2014

As eagerly as watchmen await the dawn, I yearned for the arrival of Ridley Scott’s new movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” As the gorgeous, slow-motion train wreck unfolded before my eyes, I leaned back in satisfaction. Here was another classic misfire for the ages.

Let me explain. I come from a family of Biblical-epic connoisseurs. As we are compulsive jokers whose religious beliefs range across the spectrum, leaning heavily by consensus towards nihilism, Biblical epics have been a touchstone of interactive family enjoyment for decades. Long before “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” we were seated before the TV, snacked up and ready to crack comic exegesis on “The Ten Commandments,” “King of Kings,” “The Bible: In the Beginning” and much, much worse.

These showed up at regular yearly screenings on network TV, or came on via the opportunistic and short-lived SFM Holiday Network, which would tar over the holes in regular programming created by holidays.

Having actually read and retained the Bible at one point, I was fascinated by the discrepancies between the Holy Word and Hollywood. I began to seek these scriptural extravaganzas out. (Maybe it was trauma – I was taken to John Huston’s “The Bible: In the Beginning” at the drive-in. Watching a 40-foot-tall George C. Scott overact as Abraham might have done it. Yep.) I have toiled through “Barabbas,” “Esther and the King,” even “The Big Fisherman” featuring Howard Keel as Saint Peter.

So I came into the screening ready for anything. This factors in my love/hate relationship with Ridley Scott. As far as I can recall, his first film, “The Duellists,” is the only one I have ever sat through, gone out to the lobby, paid again, and watched straight through a second time. This is the guy who gave us “Blade Runner,” “Alien,” “Thelma and Louise.” And – and – “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” “G.I. Jane.” The Russell Crowe “Robin Hood.” You see what I mean? I’m conflicted.

It’s particularly appropriate that Scott tackle the Moses story, as I think he has become our generation’s Cecil B. DeMille, just as I think of Spielberg as a modern-day John Ford. (Please note: I am aware that Scott has more talent in his pinkie than I have in my entire area code and that on his worst day he made more money than I will over the course of my entire life.) Like DeMille, Scott is addicted to scale. But what worked in a time when the shared values of the mainstream could sustain the mythic weight of the story didn’t work this time for Scott. How do you make a postmodern Biblical epic?

Like “The Ten Commandments,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” goes with the solid premise that all Egyptians walk around like they have poles up their bums and speak with, if not a British accent, a languid and effete tone and that the Hebrews are grungy, hairy, vernacular-speaking jist-plain-folks. We are quickly acquainted with Moses (Christian Bale) and his brother/rival Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Both are color-coordinated for ease in differentiation. Also, Bale is the only Egyptian sporting a full head of hair and a beard. Perhaps this is a bit of fore-five-o’clock-shadowing.

The story was made for CGI. One thing that always frustrated me but DeMille’s work, especially in “The Ten Commandments,” is the flatness of the compositional plane. With rare exceptions, everything moves along in a two dimensions; the stagings, postures, and even line readings are as stiff as a local religious pageant might be. When Moses parts the Red Sea, a trio of women poses in a setup remindful of a Raphael composition.
“The Ten Commandments” is meant to look like the faded religious prints handed out in Sunday school. DeMille’s presentation is steeped in tradition.

Scott, frantically dynamic in comparison, plunges us into battle almost immediately in the new “Exodus,” and by minute 12 there has already been a major disembowelment of the entire Hittite nation by the two princely brothers. Scott seemingly makes references to Ford, Wellman, and even Nolan in this first huge action sequence, as if to unleash all the compositional framing and editing tropes and get them chucked over the shoulder properly before proceeding.

In “The Ten Commandments,” the action centers around an invented love triangle involving Moses, Ramses, and Anne Baxter as the nostril-flaring Nefertiri. In the new “Exodus,” it’s all politics. Ben Mendelsohn plays a corrupt official who reveals Moses’ past to discredit him in so swishy a manner that it he seems he has involved the ghost of Franklin Pangborn. Aaron Paul is wasted as Joshua, who spends most of his time spying disbelievingly at Moses while he talks to his invisible friend God. Ben Kingsley is thrown into the mix for no particular reason at all, Sigourney Weaver has three lines, and the rest of the women’s roles are pretty much nonexistent. People come and go in “Exodus,” mainly to hold the space in between the effects sequences.

Ultimately, Scott stakes the whole narrative on the contrast between Moses and Ramses. Bale wavers between his normative British accent in “Egyptian” scenes and some kind of pseudo-Brooklynese when dealing with the Hebrews, as though they brought him in touch with his inner S.Z. Sakall. He is so human as Moses as to be uninspiring.

Meanwhile, Edgerton’s Ramses is so waspish, snotty, and passive-aggressive that after a while I thought he was doing a Ricky Gervais imitation. Deliberately. He is so lost in wimpy self-involvement that it’s a wonder he can summon up the energy to be the scourge of the Hebrews. There is zero dramatic tension generated, despite the smash-bang emphasis editing, and the portentously pointing scoring by Alberto Iglesias.

Of course, this story screams for CGI, and Scott is quite capable of making it as grand as we can stand. His visual imagination is so strong that, unless the material can stand it, the image drowns the idea underpinning it. In successes such as “The Duellists,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Thelma & Louise,” and “American Gangster,” there’s parity. In misfires such as the Russell Crowe “Robin Hood,” “White Squall,” and “Legend,” what’s up there looks great but makes little sense.

In this way Scott reminds me of another director, an expert genre stylist who faded when he moved into epics. Anthony Mann’s film noir and Western triumphs (“Raw Deal,” “The Naked Spur”) still overshadow the later big-scale efforts such as “El Cid,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” and “The Heroes of Telemark.” It’s almost as if these projects are so ambitious that the directors can no longer see the trees for the forest. Given the historic periods Scott chooses to work in, it’s frequently impossible not to think of Monty Python. It’s as if Scott’s films were made before the English comedy group’s satiric deflation of the epic form took place, instead of after.

There is a bigger problem underlying the weaknesses in casting, the pretentiously serious tone, the incongruous dialogue (Moses refers to his thinking as “delusional,” and Moses and Ramses have a nice colloquy about the tricky economic impact of the liberation of slaves en masse), the old Moses-sees-the-Burning-Bush-after-getting-hit-in-the-head gambit, the nervy conception of God’s messenger as a surly 8-year-old, the honey-I-brought-the-nation-of-Israel-home-for-hummus denouement, and the Ten Commandments afterthought. It’s the nagging problem with Scott’s Skeptic Hero.

In the Scott movies “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” the protagonist comes into the story alienated and distanced from his culture. Russell Crowe’s Maximus is a republican in an imperial time; Orlando Bloom’s Balian has no use for a faith that condemns his suicide wife to damnation. In these cases the tough-guy attitude of estrangement allows director and viewer to examine the film’s world with a critical eye, almost as if the heroes in these films were beamed in from our time, rigged out in full with modern rationalism and irony.

This doesn’t work for Moses, though. DeMille’s Moses is two-dimensional; he is just as earnest and overwrought at the end as he is at the beginning. Exodus is on one level a fable, and only stereotypes carry the mythic freight of so ancient and well-known a tale. Thinking of Moses as a cynical action hero who swashbuckles first and asks questions later just doesn’t work.

In the year’s earlier “Noah,” director Darren Aronofsky takes one of Scott’s favorite actors, Russell Crowe, and posits him as a proto-hippie patriarch. Despite the hallucinatory tang of the piece and some missteps such as the helpful golem/Nephilim, who resemble no one so much as the Excalbian in “The Savage Curtain” episode of the original “Star Trek” series, “Noah” maintains some coherence because Noah stands for something. Scott’s Moses always seems uncertain, provisional.
Rock Creature: "Noah"
Rock Creature: "Star Trek"
At the end of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the ramshackle tribes of Israel clatter across barren waste towards a undifferentiated, hazy horizon. Moses is hauled along in a cart, his tablets clutched at his weary side. The 8-year-old angel gives him a manly affirmative head-bob before vanishing. It’s the saddest, most anticlimactic ending since “Lawrence of Arabia.” The lights went up in the theater, but I still felt in the dark.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Daffy's Debut: 'Porky's Duck Hunt'

From the archives: as edited and presented by the fine folks at Senses of Cinema in Sept, 2005 -- 

Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937 USA 7 mins)

Source: NFVLS 
Prod Co: Warner Bros. 
Prod: Leon Schlesinger 
Dir: Fred (Tex) Avery 
Anim: Virgil Ross, Robert Cannon, Robert Clampett (uncredited) 
Mus Dir: Carl W. Stalling 
Voice: Mel Blanc (Porky, Daffy), Billy Bletcher (Upstairs Neighbour, Bass Fish)
Cast: Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, “Rin-Tin-Tin”

Even icons have to start somewhere.

Just as film divas of flesh and blood began their careers with humble bit parts, so did that of that temperamental, greedy, cynical waterfowl, Daffy Duck. And the unassuming cartoon short in which he first appears, Porky’s Duck Hunt, is significant not only as his debut, but as the launching point for the snappy, smart-ass tone that would separate Warner Bros.’ cartoons from its competitors, and keep their work relevant and resonant today.

American animators in the 1930s were a scruffy, itinerant bunch. Most bounced around from studio to studio, serving apprenticeships in the cartoon production houses of such figures as Walt Disney, Walter Lantz (best known as the home of Woody Woodpecker), the Fleischer Brothers (Betty Boop, Koko the Clown), and Disney’s once and future partner, Ub Iwerks. Serendipitously, an irreverent and rowdy crew came together at Leon Schlesinger  Productions, in a ramshackle, bug-infested back-lot bungalow that later earned the affectionate sobriquet of “Termite Terrace” (1).

For a time this group included such leading lights as Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, Robert McKimson, and Bob Clampett, all working under the loose supervision and raucous inspiration of Fred “Tex” Avery (who lost the vision in one eye during an office paper-clip fight!). The team enjoyed that most happy of fates to be found inside any corporate structure – they were largely ignored. Left to their own devices, they began gradually and collectively to shrug off the sickly-sweet sentimentality of the Disney studio’s approach, as well as the nominally logical, linear, kid-oriented whimsies that emerged from other rivals’ drawing boards.

In terms of structure, Porky’s Duck Hunt uses elements of both the “hunted-outsmarts-hunted” paradigm that dominated “Warner Bros. cartoons” (although that studio ultimately owned the characters, Schlesinger was, in essence, an independent contractor until Warners bought him out in 1944) until its demise, and the hodgepodge “riffing” technique that was in common use up to that point. This latter “attack” would take a generic subject (the city, hunting, hospitals) and wring all the gags the creators could out of it.

The opening of Porky’s Duck Hunt has a Pickwickian resonance to it. To the jaunty musical strains of “A-Hunting We Will Go”, the camera pans right across an assembly of objects – a manual on “How to Duck Hunt”, and several empty boxes labelled One Sure Fire Shotgun, One Wear-Well Hunting Suit, Assorted Duck Decoys, and 25 Shells. We then find our hero, Porky, admiring himself in a full-length mirror in his otherwise tumbledown apartment.

Porky would be the last of the studio’s harmlessly “cute” leading characters. His toddler-like appearance, clumsiness, and gentle disposition marks him as a figure geared to appeal to preliterates. Even his stutter contributes to the pity the audience may have felt for him.  Joe Dougherty, Porky’s original voice, was genuinely afflicted with one, and in this film, Mel Blanc “plays” Porky for the first time, retaining the character’s distinctive speech impediment.

Poor Porky is all thumbs – he frightens his pet dog, and then accidentally blasts a hole in his ceiling. This prompts a knock at his door, and a punch in his face, from his upstairs neighbour, who displays the buckshot hole in his pants as he turns to go back upstairs.

The scene quickly shifts to the wild, as Porky cautions his dog to “be very, very quiet” – foreshadowing Elmer Fudd’s lisping catchphrase in his appearances with Bugs Bunny (and sometimes Daffy Duck). The gags, good, bad and indifferent, begin to flow. A single duck flies overhead, prompting a phalanx of hidden hunters to emerge, blasting away – and missing. A dog-headed, cross-eyed hunter (the soundtrack dredges up “I Only Have Eyes for You” – Carl Stalling’s nimble manipulation of pop tunes is displayed here) brings down a brace of airplanes.

Finally, Daffy enters the picture, landing amid a raft of decoys and quacking. Porky winks at the camera – not the first time the fourth wall will be broken here. He wades out under the surface of the lake and pops up, getting the drop on Daffy. The duck cringes but remains in place patiently, so that the joke will play out (the gun squirts a harmless stream of water). Already we are in new territory. This is vaudeville, not naturalism. Avery and company seem to have an unstoppable need to transcend the conventions of the still-new medium. To mockingly play to the audience is the most effective way to get that audience to subvert its expectations, a tendency that only grows as the years pass at Termite Terrace. Now we are complicit with the animators – and now there’s a reason for adults to keep an eye on the screen as well.

More tangential joking breaks up the flow of the narrative. Daffy alighting on an unlikely floating barrel of booze leads to its blasting, transitioning to a chorus of drunken fish crooning “On Moonlight Bay” in close harmony. Later, a hand holding a sign will point out “This is an electric eel, folks”, right before Daffy swallows it and lights up – a contemptuous deflation of a bad joke.

Daffy’s first speech erupts from another interruption. Porky downs Daffy, his dog makes like a retriever (“Go g-g-get him, R-R-R-Rin-Tin-Tin!” exclaims the ecstatic swine). When the two animals return, it is Daffy who has rescued the unconscious pooch. Quickly, he whips out a sheaf of paper and cries, “Hey, that wasn’t in the script!”

Daffy replies, “Don’t let it worry you, skipper – I’m just a crazy darn-fool duck! HOO-HOO! HOO-HOO!” And away he goes, strutting, flipping and bouncing away across the surface of the lake. Clearly, after this, anything goes. Although Daffy was destined to change from pure zany to disgruntled egotist, the foundation of the basic driving conflict in Warners animation shorts is here. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey – only the damned quarry won’t cooperate! The Elmer/Bugs, Tweety/Sylvester, Road Runner/Coyote dynamic is established. (In fact, a loose remake of this film made the following year, Porky’s Hare Hunt, gives us a rabbit that, two years later, will crystallise into the Bugs Bunny we know and love.)

Later in the film, Porky again draws a bead on Daffy. The gun won’t fire. Tsk-tsking, Daffy takes the gun from Porky, fixes it, and returns it. “It’s just me again!” Daffy announces. “HOO-HOO! HOO-HOO!” Even the target’s assistance can’t facilitate his demise.

The seeds of the transition of Porky from leading man to sidekick is in that exchange. Daffy’s relentless putdowns and humiliation of Porky, as well as his grandstanding, turns  Porky into a comic foil – a role he would play to perfection in such outings as Chuck Jones’ Drip-Along Daffy (1951), Deduce, You Say (1956) and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century (1951). Only in his few appearances as the disgruntled owner of a nervous, mute Sylvester (Jones’ Scaredy Cat, 1948, Claws for Alarm, 1954, Jumpin’ Jupiter, 1955), or as the unwilling master of the little-remembered but strongly conceived Charlie Dog (Jones’ Little Orphan Airedale, 1947, The Awful Orphan, 1949) will he get to re-exercise any kind of dominance.

As Porky’s Duck Hunt plays out, the padding becomes more apparent. Porky’s shooting a hole in his boat prompts Joe Penner to rise from the water, delivering his then-familiar catchphrase “Wanna buy a duck?” (2) Porky jackhammers himself into the ground with the force of his firing. Finally, Porky’s dog swallows his duck call and begins to hiccup-quack, and the two flee for home, pursued by shot and shell.

Porky returns home. Continuity is completely abandoned – it bears no resemblance to the apartment Porky left at the beginning of the cartoon. Outside his window, a flock of ducks led by Daffy display themselves, in spite, as a shooting-gallery menagerie. Porky aims, but his final impotence is underscored when he discovers, “D-d-d-d-doggone it! No more bullets!” He throws the gun to the ground – and of course, we get a reprise of a blast through the ceiling, and the neighbour’s angry retaliation.

All in all, the introduction of Daffy, as well as the full debut of Blanc (the defining voice talent of his generation) and the intimations of the “license” to come, all make this short a groundbreaking effort.

© Brad Weismann, September 2005

1.      Camera Three: The Boys from Termite Terrace, CBS-TV documentary, 1975, passim.
2.      Joe Penner (nee Josef Pinter), 1904-1941, was an American vaudeville and radio comic who enjoyed a brief but spectacularly large burst of fame during the years 1933 and 1934. His famous non sequiturs “Wanna buy a duck?” and “Oh, you NAS-ty man!”, as well as his nyuck-nyuck laugh, made him the first comedy star of the radio era. See entry on Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0672101/bio.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Formative Film, Part 5: Ballad of the Arvada Plaza

Richard Fleischer's "Fantastic Voyage," 1966.

The former site of the Arvada Plaza
It couldn’t be a more mundane location. The Arvada Plaza movie theater (9374 W. 58th Ave.) anchored the end of a row of stores at the local shopping mall. It was modestly scaled, strictly functional, and designed with economy in mind. There was no grand fa├žade – just a simple marquee. Inside, there were no decorations, no gilt, no Art Deco frippery – just a streamlined box of a theater, dominated with the burnt orange and sour-cherry color scheme of the mid-‘60s.

It didn’t look like an exploding box of dreams, but for me that’s just what it was.

From the time we moved to the Denver area in 1967 until I escaped 10 years later, the Arvada Plaza was our local movie house. A decent bike ride or long walk from home, it was a place where we were always welcome . . . even if we weren’t actually old enough to see the movies inside, thanks to parents who didn’t care, a profit-minded theater management, and a staff that usually included some of our neighbors, and older brothers and sisters.

This was both problematic and wonderful. We were only forbidden to see such extreme fare as “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist” – but of course we all sneaked away and saw them when they came to our unromantic little home away from home. And were traumatized for life.

Being dumped off with a carload of friends, with $1.20 in hand for a ticket and perhaps even A WHOLE 50 CENTS for treats was a Saturday morning ritual, and eventually we branched out into catching whatever opened on Friday night. I still remember the burning scent of overtaxed vacuum cleaners in the lobby, and the solid, waxy taste of my most beloved Flicks chocolate-drop candies, which came in a cardboard tube covering in glittering foil and a logo of a Dutch boy running towards or from something . . . I could never figure out what.
The tubes made excellent blowguns after emptied, and we would routinely assault each other if the movie wasn’t that hot. Occasionally, an extremely unmotivated usher might appear and caution us to keep it down.

Here are some of the films I saw there that really stuck with me. The dates attached are initial release dates. Hard as it is to believe in this age of instant gratification but in some cases, we got the movie a year or more after its premiere – such were the mechanics of film distribution at the time.

Fantastic Voyage
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Prod: Saul David
Scr: Harry Kleiner, David Duncan
Phot: Ernest Laszlo
Aug. 24, 1966

The conceit that an epic film can be made inside the human body worked for this 6-year-old. Richard Fleischer, son of master animator Max, was one of those hit-or-miss directors who have made some remarkable films (the original “Narrow Margin,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “10 Rillington Place,” “Soylent Green”) and some absolute train wrecks (“Doctor Dolittle,” “Mandingo,” the Neil Diamond “Jazz Singer,” Amityville 3-D”).

It’s a Cold War-themed sci-fi thriller, complete with Bondian operative (Stephen Boyd) and a miniaturized submarine full of saboteur suspects, including a saintly surgeon (Arthur Kennedy), his lissome assistant (Raquel Welch), an affable pilot (William Redfield) and the shifty, shuttering Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence).
Note the patented gloomy stare and suspect sweat of exemplary film villain Donald Pleasence.
Guess who the saboteur is!

You see, in a world where miniaturization is possible an hour at a time, a genius defecting to Our Side carries the secret to indefinite miniaturization in his mind, but is injured after an assassination attempt. The CDMF (Combined Miniaturized Deterrent Forces) team has to be shrunken to microbe size and injected into the patient to eliminate a blood clot in his brain so that, presumably, he can wake up tell us what he knows and we can create tiny armies and beat the Russkies. Of course, the team only has 60 minutes before it returns to normal size, which tends to damage the patient.

So we have a ticking clock, huge graphic interfaces in a NASA-like control room, scuba divers on high-wire harnesses, and fanciful art direction. The typical military men are played by typical military men -- character actors Edmond O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell. If they could have squeezed in Whit Bissell, we would have had the trifecta!
O'Brien (left) and O'Connell expressing concern in the control room.

The film does as well as one can hope for a pre-CGI vision of the human body. One body that stood out in particular was Raquel Welch’s -- the primary actors are described, in the sexist parlance of the time, as "four men and a BEE-YOO-TI-FUL girl"; she was ogled an appropriate amount for a movie of that era, and her staid beehive hairdo is in stark contrast to the racier silhouette of her extremely pneumatic diving suit.

Note the assertion: "THIS IS THE WAY IT WAS". . . . "a savage world whose only law was lust!"
One Million Years B.C.
Dir: Don Chaffey
Prod: Michael Carreras, Aida Young; Hal roach (uncr)
Scr: Michael Carreras, Mickell Novack, George Baker, Joseph Frickert
Phot: Wilkie Cooper
Feb. 21, 1967

What do you get when you combine Britain’s Hammer Studios (lurid color horror), stop-motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen, and Raquel Welch in a fur bikini? A moderately interesting, staggeringly inaccurate fantasy film (dinosaurs vs. cavemen) that makes money. As Tumak says, "AI-YEEE!"

I mention this trip to the movies not because of the feature, but because this is when I saw the trailer for “Bonnie and Clyde.” (“NO CHILDREN’S TICKETS SOLD” trumpeted the ads.)What’s going on here? Is it a romance? There's faux-Copland Americana scoring under the initial montage. Wait now they're shooting. Now it's a comedy? There’s banjo music and Denver Pyle and . . . oh Lord they just shot someone in the face! I stripped my gears as I tried to fathom it.

I can’t find the trailer I saw in digital records, but what sticks with me 50 years later is the brief vision of Faye’s Dunaway’s body as she races to her closet and throws on a dress after catching Clyde stealing her mother’s car. That glimpse did something to me.
Dunaway in "Bonnie and Clyde" -- her nakedness obscured and punctuated by symbols of the domesticity she's about to spontaneously spurn.
I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I had seen, but I found nekkid ladies profoundly interesting. And I made a mental note to see more of them when possible.

Dir: Ivan Tors
Prod: Art Arthur, Ben Chapman, Sven Persson
Scr: Art Arthur, Arthur Weiss
Phot: Lamar Boren, Sven Persson

This 1964 film about saving megafaunic ungulates was no winner in itself, save for a classic Harry Guardino bad-guy performance, a lovely Shirley Eaton (who was to next play the ill-fated, gold-plated Jill Masterson in "Goldfinger"), and nifty little score from Lalo Schifrin. However, it was my first and most treasured kiddie matinee at the Plaza.

This was probably near the final manifestation of an old-fashioned “full” film program, recreated by a theater manager who must have wanted to recreate the good old days. For our money, we got previews, a Pink Panther cartoon (really hated them), and a chapter of the old 1954 Western serial “Riding with Buffalo Bill,” before the film! After the show, they held a drawing, called my ticket-stub number, brought me up to the front . . . and laid a Baby Ruth bar on me the size of my forearm.
I don’t recall winning another prize, but I was a faithful Saturday attendee for years.

NEXT TIME: Charlton Heston’s Superapocalyptic Trilogy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: "Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics," Fifth Edition

Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, Fifth Edition
Michael Rabiger & Mick Hurbis-Cherrier
Focal Press, Burlington, MA, USA
517 pgs.

So you want to be a movie director? Read this book. That’s it, you’re ready!

Comprehensive is too weak a word for the contents of the freshly updated “Directing.” In contrast to past tomes I’ve reviewed in the publisher’s FilmCraft series, this is not a string of anecdotal accounts about an aspect of the film profession. Possessed of a depth and scope far beyond what might suffice for laymen, this is a playbook for people who are serious about learning how to do this job called directing.

Film-school education has long turned away from the days when theory, interpretation, and critique held sway. The film industry is the quintessential capitalist/industrial venture – every movie a startup, an invention, an experience, a product, a gamble on the ability of the filmmaker to connect with a paying audience. And, like most artistic endeavors, you learn a lot more and a lot faster on the ground getting it done than sitting around thinking and talking about it. Film is a practicum: if you can’t make it happen, you won’t get far.

That being said, this would be the book to read before diving in to the daunting business of directing. The key to its effectiveness as an introduction, a classroom text, a reference work, or as a literal template for a specific film project is its straightforward, forthright style, peppered with both flashes of humor and a serious sense of purpose. The concern of the authors to be as clear and logical as possible is clearly felt, and the text is profusely illustrated with relevant stills and diagrams as well.

The organization of “Directing” is as impressive as the scope of work it suggests is the director’s responsibility is staggering. The book begins with basic premises through storytelling, film aesthetics, and cinematic “language,” on to preproduction, casting, working with actors, hiring a crew, breaking down the script, all the way through post and concluding with a friendly reminder to the filmmaker not to drink too much after the first screening, so that he or she can network more effectively.

Original author Michael Rabiger’s work has been seamlessly updated by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, who writes with a similarly engaging thoroughness. (We are even treated to a photo of Rabiger’s father, makeup artist Paul, brushing Shirley Eaton down with gold paint for her memorable appearance in “Goldfinger.”)

The upshot for me, personally, after reading “Directing” is that I do NOT want to direct. It seems to demand a combination of the personality traits of Superman, Moses, Patton, and Renoir, with a double portion of the patience of Job.

A caveat – this is a text loaded with valuable content, and it means slow going and careful digestion for the reader who wishes to make full benefit of it.

“Directing” is exemplary not only in its address of its subject, but as a model for anyone who would seek to cover a subject thoroughly, with insight, and a healthy sense of how a neophyte should proceed. Really? You really want to direct? Read “Directing” and call me in the morning.