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Saturday, 20 July 2019

On the character of Little Dorrit

Tom at Wuthering Expectations wrote 2 blog posts about Amy:  
http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.com/2012/01/nobody-cares-about-little-dorrit.html
http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.com/2012/01/why-i-care-about-little-dorrit-many.htm
I care about her, to some extent, but Amy Dorrit is still an insipid character.
Before any wandering Dickens hater jumps in to say Dickens can’t write believable characters and most of all can’t write women, I have to say that that’s not what I’m saying, and I don’t agree. Little Dorrit is populated with lots of fascinating, colourful characters—Mrs Clennam, Mr Meagles (“practical people”), Flora Finching (Arthur’s old flame, now a large chatty, insufferable woman), Mr F’s aunt (“a face like a staring wooden doll too cheap for expression”), Mr Merdle the merchant (“extensive bosom which required so much room to be unfeeling enough in”), his son (“his brain had been frozen up in a mighty frost which prevailed at St John’s, New Brunswick, at the period of his birth there, and had never thawed from that hour”), Mrs Merdle’s parrot (“broken into a violent fit of laughter, after twisting divers bars of his cage with his crooked bill, and licking them with his black tongue”), etc. These are the caricatures, vivid and believable in the Dickens world. 
At the same time, Dickens also creates the more realistic characters—characters with complexity and contradictions. William Dorrit, the debtor and the Father of the Marshalsea, is a good example. I went back to the beginning of the book and tried to find out what he was before going to prison, and couldn’t find the answer. What was he that allowed him and his children, except Amy, to think so highly of themselves and their family? So far I think he’s the most interesting character in the book, because he lives in such a bubble and refuses to see the truth and recognise his dependence on Amy. In him, there’s a mixture of pride (and false pride) with a deep sense of humiliation—he is aware of his position whilst trying not to acknowledge it. 
I sympathise with him—after all, degradation and humiliation is something I know too well. But I do dislike his self-entitlement, insensitivity, and selfishness. He thinks more about himself than Amy.
But to go back to Amy Dorrit, she is insipid. Too good, too forgiving and self-sacrificing, as people say, and self-effacing without a sense of self-righteousness. Does that not make her a 2-dimensional, saintly good character without flaws? 
Except that Amy has a main weakness—she does not protest, and allows the whole family to use and exploit her, to take her for granted. 
She also has pride. Chapter 20 is particularly interesting, because Dickens writes about the difference between Amy and her sister Fanny, and shows the 2 kinds of pride. In the chapter, Fanny brings Amy to meet Mrs Merdle because her son wants to marry Fanny, and she disapproves. Amy would be too proud to take money or anything from Mrs Merdle, whereas Fanny, because of pride, says her family is unfortunate but not common, sees herself as a different from Amy (for not being born in prison), and says she must make Mrs Merdle pay for being insolent to her family. That’s the difference between the sisters. But this would be the reason that Fanny would nurse that sense of being insulted—she would always be bitter because, in accepting the money, she allows Mrs Merdle to humiliate her and her family. 
I’m reading chapter 24, when Amy, or Little Dorrit, comes to meet Flora.
Will Amy become more interesting?

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The story strands in Little Dorrit

As Barbara Hardy wrote in her The Appropriate Form: An Essay on the Novel, “Henry James is almost always telling a single story, while Dickens and George Eliot and Tolstoy are telling several.” 
Middlemarch for example has 3 main plots (Dorothea- Casaubon- Will, Lydgate- Rosamond, and Fred- Mary). Anna Karenina has 2 main strands of story (the Anna one and the Levin one), each of which is expansive, complex, and populated with lots of different characters. War and Peace doesn’t have clearly separate strands, but tells the story of 5 families—the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, the Drubetskoys, and a bunch of other characters. 
So how many story strands are there in Little Dorrit
I think there are 4: 
1/ The Marshalsea prison: Little Dorrit (Amy), her father William Dorrit, her sister Fanny, her brother Tip, her uncle Frederick, the turnkey… 
Dickens writes about the pride of the poor, which reminds me of Great Expectations. Amy is the main character, but the one who interests me more in terms of psychology is William Dorrit—as the Father of the Marshalsea, he lives in his own bubble, he lives in delusion and denial. Amy knows well that after many long years, her father cannot survive outside the prison—there is nothing he can do, and outside he doesn’t get the respect and reverence he has within Marshalsea. 
2/ The Clennams: Arthur Clennam, his mother Mrs Clennam, her servants Mr and Mrs Flintwinch… Amy Dorrit is also in this plot because she works there as a seamstress. 
3/ The bureaucrats—the term I use collectively for the Barnacles and the Meagles. Tite Barnacle is William Dorrit’s main creditor. The Meagles family meet Arthur during their Marseilles trip—they are Mr and Mrs Meagles, their daughter Pet (Minnie), and Pet has a maid called Tattycoram (real name Harriet Beadle). Tite Barnacle and Mr Meagles both work at the Circumlocution Office. 
4/ The Marseilles prisoners: Monsieur Rigaud (alias Lagnier) and John Baptist Cavalletto. In chapter 13, Cavalletto has an accident and Arthur Clennam sees him, but for the time being, I don’t know how they relate to other characters and the rest of the story.
In short, Little Dorrit has an intricate plot, packed with numerous characters. I would say the main character is Arthur Clennam because Dickens follows him more than other characters and he’s present in all 4 strands. Amy Dorrit is the 2nd main character. 
I am now on chapter 18, and Dickens makes everything more complicated by writing that Arthur Clennam considers marrying Minnie Meagles (Pet), and introducing Amy Dorrit’s lover John Chivery, son of a turnkey.  
This is such a good line: 
“In this affair, as in every other, Little Dorrit herself was the last person considered.” (B.1, ch.18)

On graduation

Yesterday I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree with Honours in Filmmaking. 
This is my 2nd degree, after another BA, in European and American Studies: Language, Literature, Area (English). But that’s it, I’m out of studies, this time it’s serious. 
Here comes a time of struggle, uncertainty, self-doubt, and feelings of helplessness. But of course, it’s a feeling after graduation—excitement and a sense of triumph mixed with lots of fear and uncertainty for the future, because I have to leave the security of university and enter the world of competing for jobs and trying to survive. The film industry, everyone knows, is a difficult, highly competitive industry. But I’m not being negative, I’m preparing myself for the hardships ahead of me.
So this post will be a note to self: 
1/ You made Footfalls and won an RTS award (which was mentioned at graduation ceremony). You survived No More Than This and completed it, in spite of everything. You can do it. 
2/ In moments of self-doubt, remember that your greatest strength is that you get things done. 
3/ It is the nature of filmmaking that shit happens and people let you down. 
4/ Try again. Try harder. Try different ways. 
5/ If you can choose, work with the right people. If you happen to work with the wrong person, remember it won’t be forever. This too shall pass. 
6/ Whenever you’re angry at somebody, ask yourself if they will still be in your life in 5 years. If not, they don’t matter. 
7/ Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, especially at the beginning. People have different journeys, and there are different paths to success. It’s the long run that matters. 
8/ There will be injustices, as there have always been—that’s life. Accept it. When you feel like everything’s unfair and pointless, remember why you’re in film—you love cinema.
9/ Take care of yourself. Work hard but don’t overwork. Rest. Relax. Give yourself a break sometimes. 
10/ It’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to take a different path.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Repetition in Little Dorrit

I’m on chapter 15, about Mrs Flintwinch’s dream. Check this out: 
“Strange, if the little sick-room fire were in effect a beacon fire, summoning some one, and that the most unlikely some one in the world, to the spot that must be come to. Strange, if the little sick-room light were in effect a watch-light, burning in that place every night until an appointed event should be watched out! Which of the vast multitude of travellers, under the sun and the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another; which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey’s end, be travelling surely hither?” 
(emphasis mine) 
That sounds similar to a line in chapter 2: 
“The day passed on; and again the wide stare stared itself out; and the hot night was on Marseilles; and through it the caravan of the morning, all dispersed, went their appointed ways. And thus ever by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.” 
(emphasis mine) 
I always get some amusement, and a slight sense of triumph, when noticing something like this. 



The key element to Dickens’s style is repetition. He creates rhythm in his sentences by using lots of repetition, especially anaphora and epistrophe, as written in my previous blog post. 
According to Wikipedia, “In rhetoric, an anaphora (Greek: ἀναφορά, "carrying back") is a rhetorical device that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses, thereby lending them emphasis.” 
Example: 
There was the dreary Sunday of his childhood, when he sat with his hands before him, scared out of his senses by a horrible tract which commenced business with the poor child by asking him in its title, why he was going to Perdition?—a piece of curiosity that he really, in a frock and drawers, was not in a condition to satisfy—and which, for the further attraction of his infant mind, had a parenthesis in every other line with some such hiccupping reference as 2 Ep. Thess. c. iii, v. 6 & 7. There was the sleepy Sunday of his boyhood, when, like a military deserter, he was marched to chapel by a picquet of teachers three times a day, morally handcuffed to another boy; and when he would willingly have bartered two meals of indigestible sermon for another ounce or two of inferior mutton at his scanty dinner in the flesh. There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage; when his mother, stern of face and unrelenting of heart, would sit all day behind a Bible—bound, like her own construction of it, in the hardest, barest, and straitest boards, with one dinted ornament on the cover like the drag of a chain, and a wrathful sprinkling of red upon the edges of the leaves—as if it, of all books! were a fortification against sweetness of temper, natural affection, and gentle intercourse. There was the resentful Sunday of a little later, when he sat down glowering and glooming through the tardy length of the day, with a sullen sense of injury in his heart, and no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament than if he had been bred among idolaters. There was a legion of Sundays, all days of unserviceable bitterness and mortification, slowly passing before him.” (B.1, ch.3) 
The opposite is epistrophe, also known as epiphora, which is “the repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences.” 
A combination of anaphora and epiphora is symploce, “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used successively at the beginning of two or more clauses or sentences and another word or phrase with a similar wording is used successively at the end of them”. 
Dickens also uses them: 
Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it—or the worst, according to the probabilities.” (B.1, ch.3) 
There was a fire in the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a kettle on the hob, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a little mound of damped ashes on the top of the fire, and another little mound swept together under the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow’s dress for fifteen months, and out of the bier-like sofa for fifteen years.” (ibid.)
(emphasis mine) 
If this sounds too theoretical, I find this particularly interesting because I myself use anaphora (and epiphora) a lot in my Vietnamese writings. Not sure why I don’t do that much in English.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The houses in Little Dorrit

If you’re here expecting a full synopsis of Little Dorrit, you’ve come to the wrong place. Head to Wikipedia, you. 
For now, I won’t write much about the plot either. I don’t read Dickens for the plot, but for his rhythmic prose, his descriptions, and colourful characters. 
1/ Look at this line: 
“Miles of close wells and pits of houses, where the inhabitants gasped for air, stretched far away towards every point of the compass.” (B.1, ch.3) 
Such a good line to describe how cramped and suffocating the area is. 

2/ This is the Clennams’ house: 
“An old brick house, so dingy as to be all but black, standing by itself within a gateway. Before it, a square court-yard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank (which is saying much) as the iron railings enclosing them were rusty; behind it, a jumble of roots. It was a double house, with long, narrow, heavily-framed windows. Many years ago, it had had it in its mind to slide down sideways; it had been propped up, however, and was leaning on some half-dozen gigantic crutches: which gymnasium for the neighbouring cats, weather-stained, smoke-blackened, and overgrown with weeds, appeared in these latter days to be no very sure reliance.” (ibid.) 
I like that: “gymnasium for the neighbouring cats”. 
The interesting passage about the house is this one: 
“There was a fire in the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a kettle on the hob, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a little mound of damped ashes on the top of the fire, and another little mound swept together under the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow’s dress for fifteen months, and out of the bier-like sofa for fifteen years.” (ibid.) 
Dickens, I notice, uses anaphora and epistrophe a lot. 
As I read Little Dorrit, I talk to my friend Himadri (a Dickens fan), and he has said 1 thing I keep in mind: the main image in the book is prison—Mrs Clennam is in a kind of prison because she cannot walk and cannot go out, but she also occupies a prison of the mind, and many other characters too inhabit their own mental prisons. 
In Mrs Clennam’s “prison”, nothing changes over time, as though time doesn’t pass. 

3/ Among the several houses in Little Dorrit, the one that stands out is Tite Barnacle’s house: 
“Arthur Clennam came to a squeezed house, with a ramshackle bowed front, little dingy windows, and a little dark area like a damp waistcoat-pocket, which he found to be number twenty-four, Mews Street, Grosvenor Square. To the sense of smell the house was like a sort of bottle filled with a strong distillation of Mews; and when the footman opened the door, he seemed to take the stopper out.” (B.1, ch.10) 
And then: 
“Still the footman said ‘Walk in,’ so the visitor followed him. At the inner hall-door, another bottle seemed to be presented and another stopper taken out. This second vial appeared to be filled with concentrated provisions and extract of Sink from the pantry. After a skirmish in the narrow passage, occasioned by the footman’s opening the door of the dismal dining-room with confidence, finding some one there with consternation, and backing on the visitor with disorder, the visitor was shut up, pending his announcement, in a close back parlour. There he had an opportunity of refreshing himself with both the bottles at once, looking out at a low blinding wall three feet off, and speculating on the number of Barnacle families within the bills of mortality who lived in such hutches of their own free flunkey choice.” (ibid.) 
That is a strange house. For those who haven’t read the book, or who don’t remember, Tite Barnacle is a man of high position in the Circumlocution Office, and the main creditor of William Dorrit, Amy’s father. 
Why do you think Dickens describes his house in such a way, when other houses in the book so far don’t have such attention and description? 

4/ Later on, there is another house that mirrors the lack of change of the Clennams’ house: 
“When his knock at the bright brass knocker of obsolete shape brought a woman-servant to the door, those faded scents in truth saluted him like wintry breath that had a faint remembrance in it of the bygone spring. He stepped into the sober, silent, air-tight house—one might have fancied it to have been stifled by Mutes in the Eastern manner—and the door, closing again, seemed to shut out sound and motion. The furniture was formal, grave, and quaker-like, but well-kept; and had as prepossessing an aspect as anything, from a human creature to a wooden stool, that is meant for much use and is preserved for little, can ever wear. There was a grave clock, ticking somewhere up the staircase; and there was a songless bird in the same direction, pecking at his cage, as if he were ticking too. The parlour-fire ticked in the grate. There was only one person on the parlour-hearth, and the loud watch in his pocket ticked audibly.
[…] This was old Christopher Casby—recognisable at a glance—as unchanged in twenty years and upward as his own solid furniture—as little touched by the influence of the varying seasons as the old rose-leaves and old lavender in his porcelain jars.” (B.1, ch.13) 
I find it interesting that Arthur Clennam notes the dull and lifeless sameness of Mr Casby, only to later perceive the disappointing change in his daughter Flora, Arthur’s past love, now a widowed Mrs Finching. 




_________________________________________

Now the last bit is not a house, but the description is so good that I can’t help putting it here: 
“This was an amazing little old woman, with a face like a staring wooden doll too cheap for expression, and a stiff yellow wig perched unevenly on the top of her head, as if the child who owned the doll had driven a tack through it anywhere, so that it only got fastened on. Another remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that the same child seemed to have damaged her face in two or three places with some blunt instrument in the nature of a spoon; her countenance, and particularly the tip of her nose, presenting the phenomena of several dints, generally answering to the bowl of that article. A further remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that she had no name but Mr F.‘s Aunt. 
[…] The major characteristics discoverable by the stranger in Mr F.‘s Aunt, were extreme severity and grim taciturnity; sometimes interrupted by a propensity to offer remarks in a deep warning voice, which, being totally uncalled for by anything said by anybody, and traceable to no association of ideas, confounded and terrified the Mind. Mr F.‘s Aunt may have thrown in these observations on some system of her own, and it may have been ingenious, or even subtle: but the key to it was wanted.” (ibid.) 
Passages like these are the joy of reading Dickens.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Starting Little Dorrit

After reading Plum Pie (and concluding that Wodehouse is my new favourite writer), I’m now reading Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit
There isn’t much to say at the moment, except that I do love Dickens’s rhythmic prose. 
“The day passed on; and again the wide stare stared itself out; and the hot night was on Marseilles; and through it the caravan of the morning, all dispersed, went their appointed ways. And thus ever by day and night, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.” (Book 1, ch.2) 
Or: 
“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick-and-mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world—all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do, but to compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it—or the worst, according to the probabilities.” (Book 1, ch.3) 
Have you read Little Dorrit?
There’s something slightly strange about the way Dickens introduces characters. I’m not complaining, but I missed Amy Dorrit’s 1st appearance. When I read that Arthur Clennam asked his mother’s servant Affery Flintwinch about the unfamiliar girl, I came back and reread several times the pages of his visit, and couldn’t find any line mentioning Amy’s presence. 
Where is it?* 
At the end of chapter 5, Dickens writes: 
“At last he resolved to watch Little Dorrit and know more of her story.” 
(He is Arthur). 
Then in the next chapter Dickens introduces the Marshalsea prison and tells the story of a debtor/prisoner that he does not name. The baby is born—Dickens doesn’t say what her name is, either. It’s only near the end of chapter 7, when she’s a grown-up, that we hear her name is Amy, and that she’s Little Dorrit.  
Interestingly enough, the copy I have is a Penguin Popular Classics one, and every other page has a heading. If you open the book, the heading on the left page is always “Little Dorrit”, but the heading on the right page is like a title or summary for the page. So on the page of the unnamed baby’s birth is the heading “Little Dorrit born in prison”. Do you have the same thing in your copy? This ruined it for me a bit. 
I haven’t mentioned the beginning—chapter 1 is about Monsieur Rigaud and John Baptist in Marseilles prison. How do they relate to the story? I’m on chapter 10, I have no idea. Probably one of them will turn out to be Arthur’s biological father or something. Then chapter 2 introduces a bunch of characters who are fellow travellers: the Meagles family and their maid Tattycoram; Arthur Clennam; and Miss Wade. We have several pages of the Meagles, then several pages of Miss Wade and Tattycoram. Then chapter 3 begins, and it turns out that the main character is Arthur Clennam.  
Will I see the Meagles again? Will I see Miss Wade again? I have no idea. 
Are these random characters who populate the book? Or false clues? Or will they have some significance later on?


*: Update on 15/7/2019: I have found it. 

Monday, 1 July 2019

On reading Kurosawa’s autobiography

Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography is a terrific book—he writes about his childhood, his life, and his path to become a film director, and the major events that shaped him. 
As a director’s autobiography, it’s more captivating and enjoyable than Bergman’s The Magic Lantern, not because Bergman’s book is tedious, but because a Japanese man’s life is most likely more interesting than a Swede’s. After all, Kurosawa was born in 1910 and lived through WW2, and he’s part of a samurai family! 

This is an essential read if you’re interested in Kurosawa, and Japanese cinema in general. I myself have seen Stray Dog, Rashomon, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, Ran, and Dreams—9 films. My only regret about the book is that Kurosawa only writes up to Rashomon (released in 1950), so we don’t get to read about the inspiration for, ideas behind, and circumstances of, the later films. 
Having said that, I have learnt quite a bit from the book. 
1/ He quotes Yamamoto Kajiro as saying “If you want to become a film director, first write scripts.” 
Then he goes on to say: 
“… Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only 1 page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script. I began in this spirit, with a target of 1 page a day. There was nothing I could do about the nights I had to work till dawn, but when I had time to sleep, every after crawling into bed I would turn out 2 or 3 pages. Oddly enough, when I put my mind to writing, it came more easily than I had thought it would, and I wrote quite a few scripts.” 
Look at this quote from the addendum: 
“With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this.” 
2/ About editing: 
“When I reached a certain level of achievement in scriptwriting, Yama-san told me to start editing. I already knew that you can’t be a film director if you can’t edit. Film editing involves putting on the finishing touches. More than this, it is a process of breathing life into the work.”  
This is something I already know. Among the directors I’ve been reading recently, Kieslowski seems to think of filming as collecting raw material to be formed and created on the editing table, whereas Tarkovsky doesn’t seem to think much of editing (which you can tell from his films), and Sidney Lumet says a film is not created on an editing table, you can’t put together things that have not been filmed. I don’t disagree with Sidney Lumet—because I can edit, I think of the edit when writing scripts and planning the shots, and have myself experienced not getting enough shots/ cutaways as well as losing footage. But at the same time, editing is a very powerful tool. With editing, you can improve on an actor’s performance, improve on a scene, shift the focus/ change perspective, juxtapose images to create a new idea/ meaning, manipulate time, restructure the story, and so on. 
In my previous post, I shared Kurosawa’s story of editing Uma
Here he writes about editing Stray Dog
“For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it. What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques. The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters’ range. He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen. When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chronological time, the effect was terrible. As an introduction to drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer. 
Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel. I had written as follows ‘It was the hottest day of that entire summer.’ Immediately I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting. Then the narration begins, ‘It was unbearably hot that day.’ After a sign on a door indicating ‘Police Headquarters, First Division’, I proceeded to the interior. The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk. ‘What? Your pistol was stolen?’ Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story. This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama.” 
3/ Life experience is extremely important. 
I think when people criticise student films, people often talk about performances and technical mistakes, which are understandable. But I think most of the time the greater issue is in the story, in the script, and that is mainly because of lack of life experience. 
4/ It’s better to write a script with someone else. Writing alone, you may suffer from one-sidedness; writing with someone else, you have 2 perspectives on a character. 
“Also, the director has a natural tendency to nudge the hero and the plot along into a pattern that is the easiest one for him to direct. By writing with about 2 other people, you can avoid this danger also.” 
5/ In writing a script, avoid explanatory passages. This is called exposition. 
6/ Kurosawa also says: 
“The camera should follow the actor as he moves; it should stop when he stops.” 
7/ Filming with multiple cameras is efficient, but not easy as it may sound—how do you move them? 
“As a general system, I put the A camera for the most orthodox positions, use the B camera for quick, decisive shots and the C camera as a kind of guerrilla unit.” 
8/ Kurosawa demands authenticity for sets and props, even if they don’t appear on camera. 
“The 1st Japanese director to demand authentic sets and props was Mizoguchi Kenji, and the sets in his films are truly superb. I learned a great deal about filmmaking from him, and the making of sets is among the most important. The quality of the set influences the quality of the actors’ performances. If the plan of a house and the design of the rooms are done properly, the actors can move about in them naturally. If I have to tell an actor ‘Don’t think about where this room is in relation to the rest of the house’, that natural ease cannot be achieved. For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting, but encourages that feeling of authenticity.” 
In a way, this view is extreme. We all know that in films, for convenience and for freedom with camera angles, filmmakers can have moving walls or use a set without ceiling, or film at multiple locations and make them look like different parts of the same location. For example, for Dekalog 6/ A Short Film About Love, Kieslowski used 17 locations because he couldn’t find 2 apartments in 2 blocks opposite each other. 
Nevertheless, Kurosawa’s right that the quality of the set influences the quality of the actors’ performances. This is why I strongly dislike Hollywood’s excessive use of green screen and CGI. People excitedly share behind-the-scenes videos of Hollywood blockbusters, especially fantasy and sci-fi films, and I just think, what’s the fun of filming amidst all that green? 
9/ The last point is interesting—when choosing music for films, try counterpoint. Sometimes it can work a lot better.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Kurosawa on film editing

I’ve been reading Akira Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography (translated by Audie E. Bock). It’s a very good book, an essential book if you like Kurosawa’s films. 
Here is what he says about editing: 
“I learned a mountain of things about editing from Yama-san, but I think the most vital among them is the fact that when you are editing, you must have the intelligence to look at your own work objectively. The film that Yama-san had laboured painfully to shoot he would cut to pieces as if he were a total masochist. He’d always come into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and say things like, ‘Kurosawa, I thought it over last night, and we can cut that so-and-so scene’, or ‘Kurosawa, I thought it over last night and I want you to cut the 1st half of such-and-such a scene’, ‘We can cut’ ‘I want you to cut!’, ‘Cut!’ Yama-san in the editing room was a bona-fide mass murderer. I even thought on occasion if we were going to cut so much, why did we have to shoot it all in the 1st place? I, too, had laboured painfully to shoot the film, so it was hard for me to scrap my own work. 
But, no matter how much work the director, the assistant director, the cameraman or the lighting technicians put into a film, the audience never knows. What is necessary is to show them something that is complete and has no excess. When you are shooting, of course, you film only what you believe is necessary. But very often you realise only after having shot it that you didn’t need it after all. You don’t need what you don’t need. Yet human nature wants to place value on things in direct proportion to the amount of labour that went into making them. In film editing, this natural inclination is the most dangerous of all attitudes. The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time. Among all the teachings of Yama-san on film editing, this is the greatest lesson.” 
Yama-san is Yamamoto Kajiro, a Japanese film director who is now mostly known as the mentor of Kurosawa. 
Kurosawa goes on to talk about Uma (Horses), “which I had co-scripted and which Yama-san had put entirely in my hands for cutting.” 
“There is one place in the story where a foal has been sold and the mare frantically searched for her baby. Completely crazed, she kicks down her stable door and tries to crawl under the paddock fence. I edited the sequence most diligently to show her expressions and actions in a dramatic way. 
Bu when the edited scene was run through a projector, the feeling didn’t come through at all. The mother horse’s sorrow and panic somehow stayed flat behind the screen. Yama-san had sat with me and watched the film as I was editing any number of times, but he never said a word. If he didn’t say ‘That’s good’, I knew it meant it was no good. I was at an impasse, and in my despair I finally begged his advice. He said ‘Kurosawa, the sequence isn’t drama. It’s mono-no-aware.’ Mono-no-aware, ‘sadness at the fleeting nature of things’, like the sweet, nostalgic sorrow of watching the cherry blossoms fall—when I heard this ancient poetic term, I was suddenly struck by enlightenment as if waking from a dream. ‘I understand!’ I exclaimed and set about completely re-editing the scene. 
I put together only the long shots. It became a series of glimpses of a tiny silhouette of the galloping mare, her mane and tail flying in the wind on a moonlit night. All that alone proved sufficient. Even without putting in any sound, it seemed to make you hear the pathetic whinnying of the mother horse and a mournful melody of woodwinds.” 
That’s a very interesting point.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Russian Ark: a one-shot film

Every review of Russian Ark starts with the same point: it is a 90-minute film (without credits) that comprises of a single unbroken shot.
The story is of an unnamed narrator (the camera), who wanders around Winter Palace in St Petersburg with a character called The European (meant to be Marquis de Custine), who is contemptuous of Russians and Russian culture. They wander around and in each room meet fictional and historical people from different periods of the city’s 300-year history.
Russian Ark, to me, is less of a film than a formal experiment and a challenge. It is impressive, especially in the 1st 5 or 10 minutes—at some point, the camera seems to fly above the orchestra and land on the seating area and then follow the character to another room. Filmmakers and anyone interested in the technical aspect should watch it. 



I’m glad I’ve seen it, but personally I don’t like it. As an audience, I agree with Stanley Kauffmann “What is there intrinsically in the film that would grip us if it had been made--even excellently made--in the usual edited manner? […] We sample a lot of scenes that in themselves have no cumulation, no self-contained point... Everything we see or hear engages us only as part of a directorial tour de force.” (source) As someone who loves 19th century Russian literature and has some interest in Russian history, I’m indifferent to the film—Russian Ark is not devoid of ideas, it may even have interesting points about Russian culture, but it didn’t have my interest beyond the making of the film itself.
As a filmmaker, I would say that Russian Ark is against everything I believe in, about cinema. 1st of all, I love editing—it was editing, or the power to cut and put together different shots to tell a story, that gave birth to cinema. Editing is the main strength of cinema, compared to theatre—the use of different shot sizes (ability to show things in detail—close-up, or in context—wide shot), juxtaposition of images/ ideas, manipulation of time, structure and the ability to restructure a story. A film is made 3 times—in the script, during the shoot, and on the editing table. 
The filmmakers of Russian Ark therefore deny the most interesting tool of cinema.
To make a feature film in a single unbroken shot is a fascinating task, but it is a challenge and an achievement for the crew rather than something for the audience. It is no more than a gimmick—an impressive one indeed, but still a gimmick. As I was watching the film, there was no interest in the story and ideas—all of my attention was for the technical aspect, especially when some image looked weird, probably because they reframed something in post-production or stabilised it and created a warped image.
In addition, I like a good frame. On this blog, for example, I have singled out the most interesting shots in Citizen Kane and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. In Russian Ark, because the entire film is in a single shot and the camera is constantly moving, to follow The European and/or go around a room, there is hardly a single frame that looks good. Russian Ark is not cinematic.
I’m surprised when some people name Russian Ark among the most beautiful films they have seen. The film has a magnificent location, and gorgeous costumes. It’s more interesting when the film looks beautiful even though there’s nothing remarkable about the location. The Double Life of Veronique, for instance, has mediocre locations, but it’s one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, thanks to the lighting and framing (and the charming actress). Stalker, which was filmed in desolate, ramshackle buildings and deserted factories, is breath-takingly beautiful 
Overall, Russian Ark is an impressive challenge, something I would not attempt myself. It’s worth watching for that alone. But honestly, it’s not cinematic.

Monday, 17 June 2019

An art gallery and a feminist: A rant

1/ Yesterday I went to Manchester Art Gallery. Lovely gallery, with some great artworks. But 1 thing ruined the entire experience: The feminist revision. 



(Right click and open in new tab to see in full size). 
And more.
These notes were written by Anne Louise Kershaw. 
There is no enlightenment, no new information—everyone knows that women in the past didn’t have the same opportunities as men, we are talking about the art world centuries ago. How sad and pathetic are you that you’re looking at great art, and all you can think about is gender? This obsession with the identity of the artist shows an indifference to artistic merit and artistic quality. To be honest, people who don’t give a shit about art should stop talking about art and spouting nonsense. 
These notes don’t belong in an art gallery, at least not a serious one. Apart from the bitter tone, pointlessness, and irrelevance, it’s not even good writing—it’s casual, inarticulate, and carelessly phrased. 
People like Anne Louise Kershaw give feminism a bad name. 

2/ Sadly this way of thinking is not uncommon. Identity politics is now the norm. Society is full of people who talk about art, or even create art (or “art”), but don’t care about art. I mean, if you care more about social issues, intentions, and messages, you don’t really care about art. If you care more about the artist’s identity, background, and private life, you don’t really care about art. Does artistic quality not matter? Does talent not matter? Does vision not matter? 
To promote equality and diversity, you don’t have to attack the past and its achievements. 
To promote equality and diversity, you don’t have to wage war against dead white males. 
To promote equality and diversity, you don’t have to fill yourself with hatred and bitterness.
I’m sick of people who see everything through the lens of identity politics, and distort all to fit their agenda. I’m sick of people who like to categorise and label and divide. 
People should be seen as individuals, and art should be judged from the aesthetic point of view. 

Saturday, 15 June 2019

The 2 Kieslowskis


If you’re familiar with Kieslowski’s career, you know there are 2 Kieslowskis: the Polish Kieslowski—realistic, social/political, grey, unglamorous (Blind Chance, Dekalog…), and the international Kieslowski—metaphysical, poetic, visually dazzling… (The Double Life of Veronique, the Three Colours trilogy). 
Marek Haltof talks about the turning point: 
“In his Polish- French co-productions […] the realistic, often uncomplimentary vision of Poland—a realm of drab landscapes populated by grey characters that are dwarfed by the political system—gives way to dazzling photography, as if taken from glossy illustrated journals. Individuals struggling with themselves replace earlier recognisable characters struggling with communist reality. The unglamorous female characters from Kieslowski’s previous films, often portrayed as narrow-minded and not understanding the aspirations of the male protagonists, are replaced by glamorous foreign characters. From being almost always on the margin of Kieslowski’s stories, and often not deserving of the viewer’s sympathy, they move to the centre of his films. They are young, beautiful and tirelessly dynamic.” 
I don’t agree with every single point. It’s true that women are on the margin of the story in Blind Chance and I don’t know about Kieslowski’s earlier films, but the 10 episodes of Dekalog are about stories of both men and women, and Kieslowski depicts both sexes with humanity and without judgment. The female characters in Dekalog exist as individuals, with their strengths and shortcomings, like the male ones.
However, the passage does explain well the differences between the 2 periods in Kieslowski’s career. He moves inward. The Double Life of Veronique is a film about feelings, and Three Colours: Blue is an internal film.  

Haltof also talks about the stylistic changes: 
“Unlike Kieslowski’s earlier works, his films made in the 1990s become visually refined to the point of being ornate. The camera does not reveal as in his early films, but intrudes, and calls attention to itself through symbolic, ‘unnatural’ use of colours, camera angles and lighting. The same can be said about Zbigniew Preisner’s music which sometimes takes over the films. Kieslowski’s change of direction can be described as follows: from functional to ‘expressionistic’ photography, from unobtrusive soundtrack to overwhelming musical score, from ordinary characters in everyday situations to literary characters set in a designer’s world, from the particular to the general, from outer to inner reality and from realism to ‘artiness’. A director of detailed realistic observations becomes a director of metaphysical experiences.” 
Is it just me, or does Haltof reveal himself to prefer the Polish period to the international period? 
First of all, Kieslowski’s Polish-French films are undeniably beautiful, especially The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colours: Blue are among the most beautiful films I have ever seen. But they are not beautiful in a superficial, empty, style-over-substance way—the cinematography is visually dazzling but it’s Kieslowski’s skills for visual storytelling, attention to details, and poetic sensibilities that I admire. The best example is the opening of Blue, in which he does not use words or anything lengthy but hints and suggests in close-ups and lets the audience piece together what’s going on. 
Secondly, if we exclude Three Colours: White (which is mostly set in Poland and different from the other international productions anyway), Kieslowski moves inward, exploring feelings such as loneliness, grief... so his style naturally has to change to fit it. People who prefer the realism of the Polish films may call it artiness, but he utilises lots of POV shots (which I would say do not call attention to themselves) and lots of music, because these films are internal and abstract, showing the main character’s inner world. In addition, The Double Life of Veronique and Blue are both about music. 
Thirdly, the “core” remains the same.  
Grazyna Stachowna, as quoted by Haltof, lists the motifs in the trilogy that are also in Kieslowski’s earlier films: 
“… blind chance, Van den Budenmayer, voyeurism and eavesdropping, an old woman with a bottle, the final cry of the protagonists, windows, beads made of glass, the 2-franc coin, loneliness, jealousy, humiliation, contempt, sex and suicide.” 
More importantly, Kieslowski, whether he’s dealing with social/political issues or private struggles, is still most of all interested in the individual. He’s interested in emotions, relationships, moral dilemmas, choices, and the different paths we may take. He’s interested in depicting and exploring people, as individuals, without judgment—he seeks to understand.



________________________________________

It is strange the way some directors have a clear turning point in their career. Fellini can be divided into early Fellini (neorealism) and late Fellini (Felliniesque—grotesque, dreamlike, cartoonish, heavily influence by Carl Jung). 8 ½ is the peak of his career, which stands apart and can’t be categorised this way, and the same might be said of La Dolce Vita, but before La Dolce Vita is early Fellini (The White Sheik, I vitelloni, La Strada, Il bidone, Nights of Cabiria…) and after 8 ½ is late Fellini (Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini Satyricon, Roma, Fellini’s Casanova, Amarcord, City of Women…). My favourite Fellini film is 8 ½, and generally I prefer early Fellini, apart from Amarcord
(Perhaps that means I’m not truly a Fellini fan). 
Another example is Zhang Yimou. Early Zhang Yimou (before Hero) is serious drama films, about socio-political issues in Chinese society. Some of his early films are masterpieces, such as Raise the Red Lantern and To Live, and I like or once liked very much some others such as Red Sorghum and Ju Dou. That Zhang Yimou is the great director in Chinese cinema. Since Hero, his career has taken a new turn—he not only turned to commercial cinema but also betrayed himself and sold his soul to the devil (by which I mean the Chinese communist party), attempting to rewrite history and making propaganda movies for the Chinese government. Since Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower, I have not seen anything else by Zhang Yimou. I despise him only less than Jackie Chan. However, because of his great talent, I might watch Shadow for curiosity, if I can find it. 
To go back to Kieslowski, he didn’t betray himself. I like both periods, for different reasons. And he’s great.

Friday, 14 June 2019

The Double Life of Veronique: doubles and choices

I have always found it difficult to write about The Double Life of Veronique

The film is about 2 young women—Weronika in Poland and Veronique in France. They look alike (both played by Irene Jacob), though Weronika is more animated and passionate, and Veronique is more melancholy, with her head in the clouds. They have many things in common: both grow up with a single father; both sing and have beautiful voices; both have a heart condition; both rub their eyelids with a gold ring, and so on.  
They are not aware of each other till 1 day, Weronika happens to see Veronique on a trip. Soon after, Weronika dies. 
Reviews and essays usually say the basic premise of the film is that the 2 women are not aware of each other’s existence, but somehow Veronique “learns” from Weronika’s mistakes, like she is given a 2nd chance. Weronika prioritises singing above everything else, including her heart, and it kills her; Veronique gives up singing lessons.  
That’s not the way I see it. To me, The Double Life of Veronique, above all, is about a feeling—the feeling that maybe there is someone in the world who is just like me, like a lost twin, a double. Have you ever had that feeling? I have, which is why I have a bit of an obsession with doubles. It could be a warm thought—maybe I’m not alone. But at the same time it’s also discomforting—maybe I’m not unique, maybe I don’t really matter. 
At the same time, it should also be seen in the context of Kieslowski’s work. Kieslowski’s interested in chance, and the different paths one may take. In Blind Chance, 3 scenarios lead to 3 different lives and career paths. It could be that all 3 are the different possibilities. It could also be that the 3rd one is real, as the film begins with Witek screaming, and he thinks about the other lives he might have had if he had got involved in politics—perhaps that could have saved him. 
Later in Three Colours: Red, Kieslowski again tackles the theme of chance and different paths: a retired judge meets Valentine (also played by Irene Jacob), after years of disillusionment and cynicism, and wonders what may have happened if they had met 40 years earlier; but his life finds parallels in a young law student, and at the end of the film, the student meets Valentine. 

In The Double Life of Veronique, Kieslowski uses doubles and the idea of parallel existences (Weronika and Veronique) in order to play with the same theme—the 2 women are like the same person in different scenarios because of their different choices. 
See what Roger Ebert says: 
“Kieslowski almost never made a film about characters who lacked choices. Indeed, his films were usually about their choices, how they arrived at them, and the close connections they made or missed.
Most films make the unspoken assumption that their characters are defined by and limited to their plots. But lives are not about stories.
Stories are about lives. That is the difference between films for children and films for adults. Kieslowski celebrates intersecting timelines and lifelines, choices made and unmade. All his films ask why, since God gave us free will, movie directors go to such trouble to take it away.” 
Read the entire review. 
“Because he made most of his early work in Poland during the Cold War, and because his masterpiece "The Decalogue" consists of 10 one-hour films that do not fit easily on the multiplex conveyor belt, he has still not received the kind of recognition given those he deserves to be named with, like Bergman, Ozu, Fellini, Keaton and Bunuel. He is one of the filmmakers I would turn to for consolation if I learned I was dying, or to laugh with on finding I would live after all.” 
I’ve read Kieslowski on Kieslowski (edited by Danusia Stok) recently, and at the moment I’m reading The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance by Marek Haltof. These books remind me of how much I love Kieslowski.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Birthday, with showreel

Today is my birthday.
I've just made a showreel, showcasing my main works, so look at it:

Hai Di Nguyen | Writer-Director Showreel 2019 from Hai Di Nguyen on Vimeo.


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Blind Chance by Kieslowski

We follow a young man named Witek, after his father dies, he takes time off medical studies, and tries to catch a train—as he runs through the train station, he knocks the money off a woman and a man picks up a coin to buy a beer, and Witek’s behaviour towards the beer-drinking man would affect everything else. This is the concept of the film: Witek’s behaviour and whether or not he catches the train lead to 3 different scenarios, 3 different career paths, 3 different lives. 

If the concept sounds familiar to you, it’s because it has been used in later films such as Sliding Doors, Mr Nobody, and Run Lola Run, with some variations. Blind Chance most likely has inspired them. 
Kieslowski’s interested in chance—how many things in life are actually because of chance. Without giving everything away, in Blind Chance, Witek joins the communist party in the 1st scenario; joins the underground and becomes a religious anti-communist in the 2nd scenario; and in the 3rd scenario, goes back to become a doctor and chooses not to get involved in politics either way. Unlike Kieslowski’s later films, this one has lots of politics, so it helps to know about the political climate in Poland at the time (it’s made in 1981 but not released till 1987).  
The question is, are people that malleable? If people have objections to Blind Chance, it would be this point—are our political affiliations simply because of someone we meet somewhere? Do people not have a core set of values and beliefs? 
Now let’s look at Witek. He doesn’t become different people in the 3 scenarios. Note that in the 1st one, when he has to represent the communist party and go to talk to the underground group, he agrees with them (the anti-communists). In a communist country like Poland, people sometimes join the party not because of beliefs but because it’s convenient and an easy thing to do. It’s not like you live in the US nowadays—if you meet somebody, you join the Democrats, if you experience something else, you become a Republican; the situation in Poland was different, the communist party was the only one in power and if you joined, you could have convenience and some kind of protection.  
It should be noted too that at this point Witek has just lost his father, and is directionless, and right away he adopts another father figure and follows him. 
The 2nd scenario is also possible for someone like Witek. I know people in Vietnam, also a communist country, who for years lead simple lives and choose not to be involved in politics until something happens to them that pushes them to the other side. The scenarios in Kieslowski’s film are extreme, because the situation in communist Poland is extreme. If anything, I’m not really convinced that Witek becomes religious in the 2nd scenario, but at the same time I also know that many dissidents in Vietnam turn to God because of their helpless situations. 
Then we have the 3rd scenario, where he joins neither side and still gets caught up in it. In such a regime, you can’t afford to be apolitical—politics still gets to you. 
Blind Chance is a very good film, and a very interesting film. It forces you to think, are we who we are today because of our core values, or because of our experience—because of something that happened at the some point, thanks to chance? Perhaps if the something hadn’t happened, we might have followed a completely different path?

Friday, 7 June 2019

Final thoughts on The Scarlet Letter

In an earlier blog post, I wrote that with my 21st century mindset, I couldn’t understand why Hester chose to stay in the town to be disgraced and mocked. But now I do.
Her decision to stay and wear the letter A openly on the chest is not a passive acceptance of the punishment, not even an admission of guilt—for she feels no shame for her transgression. It is a quiet defiance—she chooses to stay and bear it, instead of being driven away in humiliation. When the town decide she can remove the letter, she responds: 
“"It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off the badge," calmly replied Hester. "Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport."” (Ch.14) 
She doesn’t need their mercy or their forgiveness, because she doesn’t accept their charges in the 1st place. As Hester lives in solitude, away from society, she changes and grows, and no longer accepts the social rules—their moral codes mean nothing to her. In a way, she is freed. 
Arthur Dimmesdale, in contrast, can never be freed, except by death. He is too weak-willed and cowardly, too afraid of public exposure, with too much to lose. He may not be punished by the town, but he has his own kind of punishment, because of guilt and a keen awareness of his own hypocrisy and deceit. It is amusing that he is aware of his own hypocrisy, but doesn’t realise that his worst deed is not the fornication, but the fact that he leaves Hester (and their child) to be punished alone. 
Hester and Arthur “commit the same sin”, but they view it very differently, and afterwards live with it differently.  
The Scarlet Letter is a great book. I’ve finished reading it. Despite ideas floating around in popular culture, The Scarlet Letter is not an adultery novel. It’s not about sin either—less about sin than about the concept and idea of sin. Himadri would agree with the narrator that it’s a tale of human frailty and sorrow. I don’t disagree, but I think it is, above all, a book about symbolism and the (stupid) meanings that people attach to it.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

On Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies

I think every filmmaker should read this book. If you’re not a filmmaker but interested in his films, or interested in the making of a film, read it anyway. 
Sidney Lumet writes about all aspects of filmmaking, from the director’s point of view: choosing projects, working with writers (he’s not a writer), style, working with actors (how to get the best out of them), working with cinematographers (style, the look of the film, lens, filters…), working with the art department (style, colour scheme, architectural style, locations…), being on set, working with editors (pace, mood, tempo, rushes, rough cut…), working with composers and sound designers, working with timers (in the film age—now in the digital age, the equivalent are colourists), and working with the studio. 
In lucid prose, he writes about all aspects of filmmaking from pre-production to production to post-production, the myriad of possibilities a director has, and all the decisions a director has to make, with lots of invaluable insight and advice for young/aspiring filmmakers like me. Take this passage about editing: 
Image may contain: text
That is good advice. 
Earlier I was amused that both he and Tarkovsky wrote about cinema and directing but Tarkovsky’s book was called Sculpting in Time and Sidney Lumet’s was Making Movies. But the different titles also hint at their different approaches: Tarkovsky’s book is a thoughtful read, offering his thoughts on the art of cinema and the ideas behinds his own films, but Sidney Lumet’s book is more practical, and more useful. 
It’s also refreshing to read a book by a director who is not an auteur. He writes about everyone with respect and gratitude. Film is collaborative. That of course doesn’t mean that everyone in a film crew is equal, as some people seem to think in film schools. Sidney Lumet repeats throughout the book the phrase “making the same picture”, which refers to the director’s vision. 
Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that even though Sidney Lumet, throughout the book, writes with respect of actors and people in different departments of a film crew, you can tell that he doesn’t have warm feelings for studio and executives, especially in the final chapter, “The Studio”. He mentions that it helps, but also writes about the silliness of previews (early screenings for a small audience whilst a film is in late stage of post-production) and the lack of correlation between them and a financial success of a film. He writes, early in the chapter, that stars don’t make a film a hit, but later writes that studios push for stars anyway, and how it affects the budget of a film (not only the stars’ salaries but also their “limos, secretary, cook, trailer, makeup, hair, and clothes person”—“a lot of money that won’t wind up on the screen”). 
But that is the problem with cinema—it is an art, but also a business. 
Image may contain: text
Above all, Sidney Lumet says cinema is an art form, and: 
“Commercial success has no relationship to a good or bad picture. Good pictures become hits. Good pictures become flops. Bad pictures make money, bad pictures lose money. The fact is that no one really knows.” 
He says: 
Image may contain: text
And adds: 
“It’s the movies that are works of art that create this interest, even if they’re not on the 10-highest-grosses list too often.” 
This is a very good book.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Sidney Lumet’s rules for looking at rushes

To get it out of the way, rushes are raw footage from a day’s shooting. 

Sidney Lumet has a chapter titled “Rushes”, and mentions some of his rules for looking at rushes. This one stands out for me: 
“Don’t let the difficulty of actually achieving a shot make you think that the shot is good. In the finished movie, no one in the audience will know that it took 3 days to light or 10 people to move the camera, the walls, or whatever.” 
A short while ago, I read In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, one of the best editors in the world, and he wrote something similar. This is a problem with directors sometimes when they look at footage, the problem of “seeing” beyond the frame—because a shot was so complicated and took so long to be completed, it’s difficult to cut it out of the film. That is why it’s useful to have an editor (who doesn’t come to set), so he has enough distance and detachment from all the troubles of shooting. 
Then Sidney Lumet says about the reverse: 
“Don’t let a technical failure destroy the shot for you. Obviously, any mechanical error endangers the reality of the movie. And those errors must be eliminated in the future. But you have to keep your eye on the dramatic impact of the shot. Is there life there? That’s what matters.”
This is a good point, and it’s already similar to my view. I’m a film student, we are all learning, so errors and imperfections are to be expected. We of course try to get everything as technically good as possible (after all we get graded on it), but if for some reason I have to choose, I’d rather sacrifice a bit of technical thing to prioritise emotion/ acting and the dramatic impact. For example, on a film we had lots of trouble with a scene, many things went wrong, 4 shots on the shot list were combined into 1 shot and we could only film it in 3 takes, I chose the best take, in which the actor was moving and the camera was also moving. Then we realised the boom was in shot, in a corner, when the camera was tilting up. To cut the boom out of shot, the editor changed the frame, cutting off the actor’s head. I said we couldn’t do that, I’d rather have boom in shot (a mistake) than cut off the actor’s head (the editor asked if I was sure—in the end, we tracked it and adjusted the frame as the camera moved, so we kept the boom out of shot but didn’t have to sacrifice anyone’s head).  
Another example, there’s an important scene. The shot I’m talking about is extremely important, because it’s the climax of the film. Excluding all the ones that didn’t work for various reasons, I had 3 “usable” takes—the 1st one was bad, the 2nd one was so-so, not great, and the 3rd one was best for dramatic impact but for whatever reason didn’t have sound. I went with the 3rd one, which didn’t have sound. Others were not sure, we did the best we could, it’s not perfect. But in the end, after the film was screened, nobody came to ask me if that shot was post-synced.

On Sidney Lumet (and other directors)

I’m reading Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, which I think is a very good and enjoyable book, especially for aspiring film directors. 
Look at this: 
Image may contain: text that says "dialogue. Dialogue is not uncinematic. So many of movies of the adore are con- stant streams of dialogue. course remember James Cag- ney squashing a grapefruit Mae Clarke's face. But does that affectionate memory than "Here's kid"? knows Chaplin anized feeder in Times is I've ever laughed harder gag. But at the end of Some Like It Hot, E. says to Jack Lemmon, nobody' perfect." The is no between the and the Why not the best of both? I'll go further. love long speeches. of the the studio resisted doing Network"
Isn’t that such a good “defence” of dialogue? The writer-director who has created the most memorable lines is Billy Wilder, who has 3 contenders for the best closing lines of all time—The Apartment (“Shut up and deal”), Some Like It Hot (“Nobody’s perfect”), and Sunset Boulevard (“All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up”). Dialogue is not uncinematic. It is only uncinematic when it is superfluous exposition, and worst if it’s the director’s way of explaining the film to the audience (which is common in Christopher Nolan’s films). 
Now look at this passage: 
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That is fascinating and scary at the same time—would I be able to tell? 
The book offers some invaluable insight and advice about directing. I admire Sidney Lumet immensely, and now love him even more as I read the book. He is not an auteur, he might not even be seen as a stylist, but does it matter? I would say that 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon are masterpieces, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a great, heartbreaking film that should be better known. Many of his other films are also highly acclaimed, such as Serpico, The Verdict, Network, Murder on the Orient Express, Long Day’s Journey into Night... Why are some other directors ranked higher just because their films are more stylistic or technically more impressive? 
That leads me to another point: is the ability to work with actors not important? The directors who I think are masters at getting the best performances out of actors are Ingmar Bergman, Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, and Francis Ford Coppola. And perhaps Roman Polanski (Adrien Brody never had anything remotely as good as his performance in The Pianist). 
Some other directors who are also good at working with actors are Billy Wilder, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Zhang Yimou, Krzysztof Kieslowski… (I don’t include Kurosawa and Mizoguchi because Japanese acting is a different style). 
As you follow a director’s work, you realise what their main strengths are—they are better at some aspects of filmmaking than others. Fellini’s main strengths, for example, are in blocking/staging, cinematography, and visual storytelling. Billy Wilder’s are in story, structure/ pacing, dialogue, and working with actors. Orson Welles’s are in cinematography (especially lighting), structure, editing, and sound. Luis Bunuel’s are in story/ plot, ideas, and pacing. Andrei Tarkovsky’s are in ideas, cinematography, sound, and atmosphere. 
You also notice, not weaknesses, but that some aspects don’t interest a director as much as others. There isn’t much to say about cinematography and lighting in Luis Bunuel’s films, for example; or editing in Tarkovsky’s; or story in Wong Kar-wai’s.  
It is not without reason that I think Ingmar Bergman’s the best director of all time, because his films do have everything—good story, interesting idea, depth, pacing, great cinematography (especially lighting), great sound, great editing (most notably in Persona), good production design (at least in Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander), wonderful performances, good visual storytelling, experiments… But usually, directors have their strengths, and they may be weaker, or at least not as spectacular, in some other aspects of filmmaking, so why is it that directors who are good at techniques valued much more highly than directors who are good at drama (emotional complexity in a scene, and pacing for the film as a whole) and working with actors? 
When a film looks good, it is visually pleasing, but at the end of the day, so what? I like good acting. I like touching stories. I like films that make me see life differently and learn something about myself. I never use the word “great” for directors like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson—they’re good at what they do, and their films are entertaining, but have no depth and offer no more than that. But even if we talk about Stanley Kubrick, a director I admire very much when it comes to techniques (especially the production design, cinematography, and use of music), none of his films has ever touched me on an emotional, personal level like 12 Angry Men or Dog Day Afternoon has. In Dog Day Afternoon, people talk a lot about Al Pacino, who indeed delivers a fine performance, one of the best in his career, but we should also talk about John Cazale—for some reason, I can never forget the incredibly sad look on his face when Al Pacino asks where he wants to go if he could go anywhere, and he says “Wyoming”. 12 Angry Men shows Sidney Lumet’s talent at working with actors, and also his ability to make an engrossing film in an enclosed space. I’d choose Sidney Lumet over Kubrick anytime. 
But that’s enough. Get Making Movies. It’s a good book. Even Roger Ebert said: 
“Invaluable… I am sometimes asked if there is 1 book a filmgoer could read to learn more about how movies are made and what to look for while watching them. This is the book.”