Thursday, 1 May 2014

Dom's Top Eleven Favourite Film Directors : Part One

Top Eleven Favourite Directors

Definition of a film director – from Wikipedia ( that font of knowledge ) “a person who directs the making of a film. Generally, a film director controls a film's artistic and dramatic aspects, and visualizes the script while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision. The director has a key role in choosing the cast members, production design, and the creative aspects of filmmaking. The director is often viewed as the “author” of the film.”

Definition of Dom – an obnoxiously anal padant, prone to long rants, putting ones foot in ones mouth before ones mouth is open; likes writing lists.

And so it comes to pass! I enjoyed writing a list about my top eleven fave movies for the time being and so I decided why not do some MORE lists sort of centered around the same sort of thing! Actually that was a question more than a decision, but the point still stands.

I have promised to write a feature based on sequels, and LO I shall probably do this at some point. But I set an addendum – that I had other ideas too. So fuck anyone who thinks I'm in some way ignoring my heartfelt promises in favour of quick thrills. I'm male, I'd never do that!

So the top eleven list of movies actually surprised me. I had it in my head that certain films would automatically hit the list, but as I trawled through my four hundred strong collection ( not sure if that's boxes or films, might be more if it's films, don't judge me, I'm a sucker for box-sets and live five minutes away from Tesco ) it became abundantly clear that I was a liar and a cad.

So instead of “Taxi Driver” I gave you “Dead Man's Shoes.” Instead of “Airplane” I gave you “Three Amigos.” And so on. And you like the sap you are, just kept READING! You idiot.

But what really struck me as I delved into this list was, with the exception of two, none of the films were actually directed by what I would consider my favourite directors.

That kind of fascinated me so I thought, well let's explore that a little. Why would my favourite directors tend away from my favourite films and vice versa? Isn't that weird and hypocritical? Well maybe but so's your ma so let's let bygones be bygones and move the fuck on. You precious fuck.

SO – what is a director and what attributes make them stand out from the crowd?

I wrote a little article discussing acknowledgement in the arts not so long ago ( though it feels like an eternity ago now! ) which touched on the idea of coincidence feeling like fate. As it happens, I'm a member of an actors and writers studio called “Wordplay” which meets once a month in The Wexford Arts Centre and workshops pieces by new writers. We just had a meet not two days ago ( it was five ) about this very concept, about what a director is, what makes them good, bad or indifferent, and what their responsibility is and to whom. A lot of people had a lot of interesting things to say but very quickly boiled it down to adaptability and confidence. As a performer and I believe as an audience member, you have to be able to trust your director. But who are they responsible to?

It's a hard one to truly answer, that last one. Someone like Stephen Spielberg is answerable to more than just his creative calling – try and struggle through “Indiana Jones and The Crystal Maze” and you'll witness a film that never considered the audience for one moment, other than as a cash-cow ready to fork out spondoolies for a familiar brand name and imagery – yet in no way could he be called a hack. Like him or loathe him ( I respect many of his choices without ever truly admiring his work ) he fits the auteur theory pretty firmly, and watching a movie like “War of the Worlds” shows how skillfully he can play to the audience, when they are his primary concern ( check out the “Independance Day” and “911” in-jokes and that extraordinary first tripod scene. If that ain't a director practically clapping his hands with joy at how his audience will react, I don't know what is!)

So generally speaking the responsibility of the big-time Hollywood director avers between the coffers, and the art. I would suggest that this permeates through all art, high and low, and all directors big-time or am.

So when does a good director become noticeable as opposed to someone like Ed Wood? And is a GOOD director different to someone who simply makes good movies?

I'm not sure if I can – or want to – answer that last question. I can only tell you what I see as good direction in my own opinion, or rather what I almost instinctively like in a director, and hope it helps us come to a conclusion. And that just because I admire a director doesn't mean they make my favourite movies, apparently. Weird.

As one studies a body of work, one starts to notice themes and motifs appearing, perhaps shots or a style of shot emerging. A continuous use of composer, or in Tarantino's case a continued stealing from better movies and directors with little new added beyond lengthy prosaic dialogue and an increasingly bloated set of running times. Scorcese would be nowhere without his Catholic guilt, montage, and swirling camerawork. Boyle, without his frenetic editing and brilliant subversive streak.

Very often it's the repetition of these themes, motifs etc throughout a body of work that keeps a fan coming back, along with a feeling that the director often “speaks for” the viewer. It is certainly pleasing to be treated intelligently by a director, and even more so to be able to understand their body of work.

But even then, sometimes it's just that a director – like Christopher Nolan – can be relied on to make good looking movies.

So let's delve into Dom's rampantly contradictory mind-mood and see just what he likes and why...

PS - you're only getting the first two today, coz it'd be a hell of a lot of reading ( and hopefully viewing ) otherwise!!!!

David Fincher

In some ways Fincher is an obvious choice for a male film fan in his late thirties. Shit. He directed “Seven,” one of the seminal mid-nineties movies and an influence on pretty much everything that came after. He then followed that up with pretty much the worst and stupidest movie ever made, “The Game.” So, you know, then that happened.

Originally a part of that early nineties MTV wave of ad-and-music video directors ( see also Dominick Senna and Michael Bay ) who briefly stormed the cinema, then went straight to DVD, Fincher came to a certain amount of controversial prominence when he was handed the reigns of the ill-fated “Alien 3” and promptly became the scapegoat for it's failure. It's not hard to see why – even under the studio influence clearly wielded over those movies, Fincher's emerging, precise, subversive style was clashing with the increasingly more audience friendly franchise. 

Apparently, on his introduction to “Aliens” director James Cameron, Fincher opened up the discussion with “I'm killing off Newt.” Now, that probably means nothing to anyone who isn't a fan of the franchise. But to Cameron, and to audiences, it was a salty slap to the slapper. Fincher hasn't stopped saltilly slapping slappers ever since, metaphorically speaking. ( He was wrong to do it, by the way – by removing all warmth from the movie all that's left is the introduction of a new set of interchangeable characters – the death knell in a threequel - which is a tough enough sell, but also his stubborness in this matter robbed the film of an extra level of tension and pathos, by having a young girl also stuck on a planet populated by harsh, religious zealot criminals. He also robbed the returning audience of a character they had spent the preceding movie fearing and ultimately caring for. He essentially pissed in the face of the audience for the sake of a controversial stamp.)

So what is Fincher's style, and why does it appeal? Visually, he still maintains a fondness for the slick, MTV-esque style he brought to "Alien 3" ( even if strangely, his best and most interesting movie “Seven” is typified by jolting handheld camerawork and grimy, almost pitch-black cinematography ) and has developed with increased budgets to the brass-polished slickness of his “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” remake. His films look good, his compositions are interesting and often unusual, his camerawork precise, and his films are edited fluidly. He draws you along, treats you with intelligence, and compels you, and has a strong populist streak in him that often results in "cool" imagery and moment. Plus, generally speaking, you can see what's going on. Do not overestimate this quality in a world where Michael Bay rapes your eyes with the mean-spirited ferocity of a 911 terrorist.

Beyond the slickness – which is by itself not enough to draw you in – there is a fierce intelligence to Fincher's movies. He rarely gives his audience an easy ride, and in that way it's easy to understand why a male film viewer would subconsciously find himself attracted to his alpha-male qualities without even realising it. This is most explicitly obvious in his most controversial, and least interesting ( beyond “The Game” obviously ) film, “Fight Club.” Here, he seems to be suggesting to the audience that he too is Tyler Durden, commanding and misdirecting your attention, the alpha male you don't quite trust but find yourself in awe of all the same; while you the audience are in fact Ed Norton's character, doing your best not to follow the rabbit too deeply down the hole only to realise you're too late, too late.

His is a dark vision, but what is most interesting is that though the topics of his films are often dark in nature, this is down more often than not to the scripts he chooses, than the way he shoots them. He often handles very literate, wordy screenplays, and treats them with respect, without delving into reverence. He clearly understands the source material enough to deviate or compliment visually, most apparent in his treatment of Aaron Sorkin's script for the excellent “Social Network” and the still-too-rapey for my liking remake of “Dragon Tattoo.”

Fincher has a fondness for breaking the fourth wall, too – consistently reminding his audience that they are watching a movie ( some would call it showing off, reminding the audience who's in charge, and I would suggest that's a fair enough charge ) yet treating them with respect enough to keep them watching. This fourth-wall smashing is again most obvious in “Fight Club,” with its sometimes cheap tics and tricks – subliminal edits, narration nudges toward the audience, scenes where the film literally jolts out of the camera, and several moments where Edward Norton's Narrator or Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden directly address the camera. It is most apparent in the woefully disappointing final reveal, not so much in the nature of it, but the way in which Fincher points towards it throughout.

It is also apparent in the Alien-eye-view in “Alien 3,” and in the CG-assisted camera-work speeding through the house in “Panic Room,” in “Seven” when John Doe faces down Brad Pitt and points his rain pouring gun down the barrel of the camera; and almost everywhere in “The Game,” where everyone seems to be having fun except the audience.

Is Fincher a perfect film-maker? No, he's flawed, pretentious, aggressive, and far too willing to show off. But he's also intelligent, trusting of the audience to follow him and understand, clever, subversive, often angry and always compelling.

Best Fincher film : “Seven”
Worst Fincher Film : “The Game”

David Lynch

Mel Brooks, the over-rated ham-comedy actor and spoof director who made exactly three good comedies – “Blazing Saddles,” “Spaceballs,” and “Young Frankenstein” – once referred to David Lynch as Jimmy Stewart from Mars. What is interesting about this comment is that it has nothing to do with David Lynch's movies and everything to do with his persona. When I first encountered Lynch it was through the much lauded, and then much derided TV series “Twin Peaks.” It was around this time that I began to understand how films were made, and that there was something interesting about the idea of the “director,” that the director could have a style of their own that could influence the overall feel, tone, look, and ambience of a feature or TV episode. The success of this TV show was – and still remains – attributed to David Lynch's unique and twisted worldview. In other words to his persona.

It's interesting to note that, in fact what really made “Twin Peaks” work was the grounded experience of co-creator and show-runner Mark Frost, whose influence on the skeleton structure and character based nature of the show should never be ignored.

However it was Lynch's name on the marquee, and so at the time I became somewhat obsessed with him, discovering his early works on VHS and being equally thrilled and disappointed as I worked my way through the positively shit “Eraserhead,” through his singular “Blue Velvet,” past the irredeemable “Dune” and on to the weird on top “Wild at Heart.” ( Yes he did “Elephant Man” but I still couldn't watch this movie because it frightened me too much! )

The accepted wisdom surrounding Lynch is that he is weird. His films are weird, his friends are weird, his art is weird, and he does weird things. I guess there's no smoke without fire, and I must admit I felt for Lynch what a child might feel for their uncle in a similar situation, when watching David Letterman's – admittedly affectionate – interview with him in the nineties and realising the audience were laughing at Lynch, not with him. Worse, I understood why – when you go on a telly-show to advertise your exhibition of pierced bees, what else can you expect?

I often wonder however, if the people who call him this pretty tame epitaph, have actually ever sat down and watched his movies. I don't mean the clips they drag out in retrospectives, of Frank in “Blue Velvet,” sucking oxygen and calling for his mama or the backwards talking dwarf, Michael J Anderson, in “Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me.”

I mean sat down, and studied his movies. Because, although Lynch has now become synonymous with “weird” in much the same way as Tarantino has become synonymous with stealing from better film makers and making more money than they did, in reality Lynch trades in very normal situations which he treats, in his own words, with a “hair's breadth” off-kilter manner. He's described as disturbing, but only by creating recognisable imagery could he possibly then disturb you, most exemplified by the “baby” in “Eraserhead.” Ugly-cute to look at, it is – brilliantly – very recognisable as a child, albeit a malformed one. The audience is disturbed by their familiarity with what it is and by the reality of what it looks like.

Lynch's approach can't really be called “weird” then. Surreal may be a closer, and much more accurate description. In other words, a hair's breadth off-kilter. Another description that could be ably applied to almost all of his projects is : very funny. He has a wicked sense of humour.

So what is Lynch's style? If you have recently tried to sit through his last few, digital movies, you might find yourself shocked at how amateur films such as “Inland Empire” and his internet-based, digital output seem. In a similar way to Robert Rodriguez ( funnily enough, of all the “auteurs” out there, I could state a very strong case comparing these two film-makers ) Lynch has embraced the grubby DIY ethic of digital film-making and is now churning out ugly, poorly produced, poorly paced shite that, worse, plays into the very stereotype he found himself confounded by while trying to market the widely derided – but utterly brilliant - “Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me.”

Twasn't always this way. At his best, Lynch's style could be considered lush, raw, sly, and naive. He is a world builder, from “Eraserhead” and it's entirely industrial setting ( shared in look, feel and sound design by “The Elephant Man” ) to the dark corners and angry, bleak jazz of “Lost Highway.”

An interesting thing about Lynch is how precise his movies seem, yet how improvised the images often are. When asked about his striking imagery, Lynch often points to the fact that he himself does not understand the symbolism behind the image but rather, is trying to paint something that just came to him in a dream, a nightmare, or during the mundanity of a morning cup of coffee.

This could help explain why his films often jolt and jar between twee, nostalgic moments and often quite harsh and brutal violence, sometimes in the same frame.

I personally am not entirely convinced by this apparent naivity on Lynch's behalf – I would put forward that he is playing to his persona here. It's hard to watch a movie as clearly thought out as “Blue Velvet,” with it's riffs on hard-boiled detective movies, and it's very specific sexual fetishsism ( Lynch now claims that at the time he did not know that there even was a sexual fetish centered around Velvet – again I would take that claim with a pinch of salt, and perhaps even attribute a modicum of respectful modesty to it as it belies the intelligence behind deconstructing the Bobby Vinton song that plays such a central part in the film, with the velvet-fetish motif ). This movie is essentially a meta-movie, and in it's own way achieved much the same trick as Wes Craven's movie “Scream” ten years later in its use of genre deconstruction.

Like that horror movie, “Blue Velvet” constantly reminds the viewer of genre movie tropes, while using them intelligently to compel and disturb the viewer. A cake and eat it piece of fourth wall-breaking movie making that Lynch has continued to play with throughout his career, most notably in his last truly excellent movie, “Lost Highway.”

Lynch has a very particular shooting style, with often raised camera-angles, long-focus shots, and very deep use of shadow. His editing is gentle, allowing for long-takes and developing story. He has a sequence of recurring images that could irritate were it not for the way it places each of his films into a larger world of his own creation : the flickering strobe light signifying danger, the porcelien-faced beauty with too-bright-red lipstick, the damaged human scrabbling desperately for some kind of peace, black and white tiled flooring signifying another world, and the theatricality of billowing stage-curtains, and one of his favourite devices - music, and in particular the mimed song!

He returns time and time to themes of sex and violence, often placing both as part and parcel of existence. His characters are often extreme, operatic, and his returning repertoir of actors often relish the opportunity to push the envelope in their performances. Yet it never seems out of place in the world he has created.

Lynch occupies a peculiar niche between genuine fuck-off pretentious art and more commercial fare. He can be accused, rightfully, of being mysogynist in his on-screen approach to women; of having a peculiar fascination with extreme violence; of being obscure; and in some cases of racism ( that last one I'm not entirely convinced by, aimed as it is toward a particularly violent beating at the outset of “Wild at Heart” - a film filled with particularly violent encounters ).

Generally speaking when people are looking for a short form description of David Lynch, it follows this line : he scratches beneath the surface of apparent normality to show you the darkness beneath.

Watching his body of work this can be seen as a shallow and lazy description. Lynch's skill as a film maker is in showing you the darkness, the oddness, and the mundanity, of giving you an image that contains all of these things, in one shot and in one moment, be it the slow motion fireman waving in “Blue Velvet” or the somehow off-kilter home in “Lost Highway.”

He shows you the surface menace and allows you to delve beneath.

But Lynch's greatest skill as film maker is simply taking his own peculiarities and preferences, and presenting them as if they are universal.

Best Lynch film  :  "Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me"

Worst Lynch film  :  toss-up between the grubby "Mulholland Drive" and the just downright shit "Inland Empire."

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