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Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

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From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

Michael-Mann

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Birdman

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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is acerbic, scathing and merciless. It’s also quite brilliant, excelling in every area including script, production design, cinematography, editing, music and performance. Every character bares their banality, pretentiousness and insecurity, none more so than protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, never better), former star of the superhero franchise Birdman, trying to regain artistic credibility with a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he also directs and stars in. Riggan’s protracted expostulations, combined with an internal monologue from the Birdman character, steadily dissect popular culture and highlight Riggan’s failures while also proclaiming his continued value and relevance. Not only is Riggan at war with himself, he also clashes with everyone around him: his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who constantly tries to keep Riggan and the play up and running; his recently-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who understands the fickle nature of the Twitter generation and is endlessly frustrated at her father’s refusal to face reality. More ludicrous are Riggan’s clashes with his fellow actors: Broadway artiste Mike (Edward Norton), whose attitude towards the art of theatre acting satirises Norton’s own reputation for perfection; Riggan’s lover/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who cannot keep her personal and professional issues separate any better than Riggan; Lesley (Naomi Watts), wrestling with her own insecurities as an actor as well as a strained relationship with Mike. Only with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) does Riggan appear to have some measure of peace, though it is clear his own self-absorption ruined this relationship as well.

BirdmanThe relentlessness of Riggan’s trail of destruction is manifested by the film’s extraordinary style, Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki appearing to capture almost the entire film in a single shot. The continuous shot takes the viewer on a breathtaking ride through the theatre as well as the surrounding streets in several bravura sequences, one of which is a nightmare for many actors and another that takes the film into the realm of magical realism. These technical flourishes are never extraneously flashy but help pull the viewer into Riggan’s skewed world, ensuring that the extreme characters are never bereft of sympathy. Riggan is frequently (and fairly) described as an “asshole”, yet the viewer is drawn into the exposure of Riggan’s soul. Meanwhile, discourses including celebrity culture, art VS entertainment, critics and relationships are all drawn into the personal dramas. Yet despite its biting satire, this lampoon of the superhero film never feels mean-spirited, the laughter tinged with sadness throughout, right up to the denouement that even manages to include the fundamental theme of superhero narratives, that of hope. Amongst all its scabrous energy, Birdman finds time for warmth and a deep affection for the special kind of madness that drives people to create.

Expression in Editing

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In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.

Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).

By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.

Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.

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