Andrew Bujalski on the art and business of film / Charles Lyons on going for broke / The Puffy Chair / Why Film Production Majors Should Be Replaced by Auto Mechanics / JuneBug, 2046, and Mutual Appreciation / David Chien on Caveh Zahedi's I am a Sex Addict / Donal Foreman on Independent Film / Donal Foreman on the Irish Television and Film Industry / Quotations about the artistic process/ Tarkovsky on film school and trying to please people / Donal Foreman on the State of the Art / Other films and filmmakers / Quiet City / Henry James, Art of Fiction 1 / Henry James, Art of Fiction 2 / Emerson, Circles, 1 / Emerson, Circles, 2 / Avedon on Alfredson / David Ball Interview

 

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Ray Carney recommends a new book by Paul Cronin about the life and work of Alexander Mackendrick. The text of the Times Higher Education Supplement review appears below.

'Any fool can see that!...'
Mamoun Hassan salutes Alexander Mackendrick, a mischievous film teacher

On Film-Making By Alexander Mackendrick
Edited by Paul Cronin
Faber and Faber, 2004 ISBN 0 571 21561 0
copyright Times Higher Education Supplement , 2 July 2004

Is it possible to teach film-making? When one thinks of the result of spending millions in Europe on screenwriting courses, the answer must be probably not. European cinema is hardly better now than in the days before failed American hacks came to tell us how to do it. They have blocked our minds with Lego constructs and phoney jargon and filled our TV and cinema screens with Hollywood fakes. Then along comes Alexander Mackendrick's On Film-Making , and one has to think again.

The book is the result of failure – the failure of an industry that could not accommodate the talents of one of Britain's greatest directors. The man who made Whisky Galore! , The Man in the White Suit , The Ladykillers and Sweet Smell of Success was effectively made redundant when he was at the height of his powers. Luckily for generations of film-makers, he was offered a post as dean of film at the newly founded California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1969. He became a film teacher. He made copious work notes – some with accompanying illustrations and storyboards – and a selection of these has been made for this book by Paul Cronin, who additionally writes a short introduction.

CalArts, like the film industry before it, did not know what they were getting. Mischief-making, which is at the heart of most of Mackendrick's films, was part of his unsettling charm. At Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios, where he was nourished and where he was happiest, he was a disturber of the peace. Balcon defined Ealing self-deprecatingly as a place "where a group of middle-class people made middle-class films", and Mackendrick and fellow iconoclast Robert Hamer ( Kind Hearts and Coronets ) pretended to go along with the ethos but actually went their own way. Their films are about as cosy as a porcupine. But I suspect that, secretly, Balcon liked that.

CalArts, on the other hand, was a free-wheeling institution, whose culture of doing one's own thing grew out of the protest movements of 1968. Mackendrick fazed them by talking about discipline and endeavour. He was a traditionalist among radicals – just as he was a radical among traditionalists back in the UK. He was at his most comfortable when he did not quite fit in, which is not surprising when you consider that he was born in the US, educated in Scotland (where he trained to be a commercial artist) and worked in England.

When Mackendrick took over at CalArts, there were few film schools. Until then, training had been through ad hoc apprenticeship in the big studios. When that system collapsed, film schools emerged to take over.

In the Soviet bloc, training was long established in the great schools of VGIK in Moscow, FAMU in Prague and Lodz in Poland. They had a theoretical basis for their curriculum; our schools did not even have a curriculum. Mackendrick was inventing the training of directors and screenwriters from zero.

His notes are a way of thinking aloud. He examined the films he admired and looked at his own work to recall and excavate his reasons for doing what he did. The more he dug, the more convinced he was that "film-writing and directing cannot be taught, only learnt, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education". So, what was he doing? Well, he was influencing their system of self-education.

The question that bedevilled him, and still bedevils us, is this: are there rules? Mackendrick cannot make up his mind. He says yes, he says no, he says absolutely not, and he says maybe there are some rules but forget them if you are doing OK without them. What he does is to raise questions that a fledgling director or film writer should consider. His notes represent the musings and thoughts of a highly intelligent man and a fine film-maker who is preparing for his next film. Realistically, there was no future in that direction, but the tone and urgency of his writing suggest that film-making is a live issue. He both looks back and forwards.

At no point is there a sense of a great man sitting on his laurels. On the contrary, years after Mackendrick had finished his last film, he was still smarting over his mistakes. For instance, when he criticises subplots and how overused they were at Ealing – "All of the characters became essentially cameo roles that couldn't be developed" – he cites his own Whisky Galore! as a bad example.

He writes copiously about Sweet Smell of Success not because "it is an important work. It isn't" but, among other things, because of "the gutter poetry of [Clifford] Odets's melodramatic lines". Mackendrick takes a swipe at himself: "In a number of ways Sweet Smell of Success does seem ludicrously hammy and theatrical."

When he berates students for avoiding problems of dramatic construction by escaping to the "easier" problems of shooting, his comments do not come from a great height but from a fellow toiler. He describes how he focused on the shooting of Sweet Smell of Success because he hoped to conceal fundamental flaws by "fancy footwork of visual effects".

Still, for Mackendrick all the problems and opportunities start and end in the script. One of the most thrilling things in the book is a comparison of the same scene, written by Ernest Lehman and then redrafted by Odets. It is worth the price of the book on its own. If you don't learn about film-writing from this, do something else – become a critic.

Mackendrick may have been essentially modest, or maybe he was a perfectionist, but he was no saint.

The first time I met him he was on a short (and, it turned out, last) visit to the UK to teach at the National Film and Television School. I mentioned that the students and I had analysed some scenes from The Man in the White Suit and were surprised to discover that the film was about the atom bomb. He turned on me and shouted: "Any fool can see that!" I consulted some other fools but, no, there was no mention of the bomb. He confirms in the book that he wanted to make a film about the lack of social and political responsibility of the scientists who developed nuclear fission. He knew he would not get backing for a serious drama, so he collaborated with Roger MacDougall to adapt and transform one of the latter's plays into one of the greatest comedies in British cinema.

He knew enough about the problems of "theme" – the thing that gives unity and meaning to the whole – to tackle it head on. Most film teachers have taken their cue from imported gurus and insist on finding or, more likely, imposing a theme from the start. I agree with Mackendrick that this is destructive theory. The intention may be to focus the writer's attention, but it also hems in his imaginative world, encourages tendentiousness, reduces the scope of dialogue and leads to a rigid and mechanical structure with no give in it. Don't try too hard, he says, to find the theme – it will find you. You need to trust yourself that the theme will emerge organically.

Mackendrick explored the painful post-war period of adjustment through comedy. The audiences loved him; the critics' admiration was more muted. For some reason, comedy has a lower status than drama. But because comedy deals with exaggerated characters and stark differences where power struggles are played out in an obvious way, the choreography of the relationships within the frame is crucial. It requires greater control of mis-en-scéne . The comparative importance of the characters must be clearly defined.

And this is where Mackendrick's initial training at the Glasgow School of Art comes in handy. He uses storyboards to dissect and explain such scenes. His illustrations have a charm all of their own, and they are better than using still frames because he can concentrate two or three shots into one to make his point. It is one of the many pleasures of the book.

Cronin has done us a service in putting together Mackendrick's thoughts and ideas. The book is almost a film school. Mackendrick touches on every aspect of the craft and art of film-making.

And Mackendrick was such fun. An NFTS student saw him coming out of the preview theatre where he had viewed a rough cut of Terence Davies' Madonna and Child . "It's a gay movie, Sandy, isn't it?" Absolutely deadpan, Mackendrick replied, "Not at the moment."

In the end a fine teacher teacher more than a subject. He teaches what he is.

Mamoun Hassan was formerly head of directing at the National Film and Television School and taught at CalArts.

Copyright Times Higher Education Supplement and Mamoun Hassan 2004

All rights reserved by the original copyright holders.

***

RAY CARNEY'S RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE BAM SCREENINGS OF OZU'S FILMS

Below is the text of an email he wrote to a friend with his recommendations:

Hi Ray!
Hope this email finds you enjoying your work and keeping happy (cause I KNOW you're busy!) in light of all this Criterion bullshit... Everyone I talk to can't believe the politics of the situation. And we're all pulling for you, you have to know.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has been playing OZU films all month and tomorrow I'm going to get to see Flavor of Green Tea over rice

Must see!!! A critical work that brilliantly shifts from sit. com. to tragedy in mid-course

for the first time. I won't be able to make all the other films but I wondered if I could impose on you to tell me which you felt were MUST SEEs (if you had to choose! Since I do...) here are the rest that I haven't seen. Do any stand out over the rest as more 'key' films of his? I eventually hope to catch them all, but I wondered if you had an opinion as to order of 'importance'. I'll understand if you just say "all of them".

There Was a Father (Chichi ariki) (1942) 87min

skipable

Early Spring (Soshun) (1956) 144min

must see

Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya shinshi roku) (1947) 72min

skipable

Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku) (1974) 141min

should see, but not the ultimate highest supremo

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori) (1948) 84min

skipable

Good Morning (Ohayo) (1959) 93min

must see

Floating Weeds (Ukigusa) (1959) 119min

should see, but not the ultimate highest supremo

Late Autumn (Akibiyori) (1960) 129min

must see....

An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma no aji) (1962) 113min

must see
And where is Late Spring in your list? Add it to the Must See group!

In anycase, thanks and if you get a chance let me know what's been doing with you.
yours,
Matthew

Ozu IS amazing. All the films are interesting, but just as with any other artist, there are "roughly zones." Even Homer wrote some lines in haste. Even Bach has a few unnecessary repeats. So, yes, some of the early films in particular are "skippable." But the ones I've marked Must See you really should try to get to. Ohayo is the only one in that group that you might skip,  but since it is comic and has fart jokes, I know you wouldn't want to, so I put it on the Must See custom for you! : ) Just kidding! It's a sweet, charming flic!

Keep making trouble!

Ray
Your one stop mini-review center

***

Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle

"Anyone who cares about the art of film today must see Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. Must see. In a world whose vision has become bleary with clichés, in a world where we think we know what a movie is, Barney gives us new eyes and ears. Cremaster Cycle re-imagines what film can be and do.

"The magic began for me only minutes into Part 1. Barney intercut a series of images of fashion models in a blimp and held on them so exceptionally long that I was forced to look at them in a new way from the images in movies. I couldn't "consume" them as normal cinematic events. I had to enter into a new and different relationship with them....wondering, speculating, pondering....

"....Part 2 took me on a voyage stranger and more challenging than anything in Kubrick or Lynch, precisely because it didn't turn the images into sociology or psychology.....

"And then Part 3 occurred. I don't know if I have been as frightened and upset by anything I saw on screen in the past ten years.... It's a vision of horror, dementia, aspirations, and dreams. It is like few things I have ever lived through. Parts of it are like re-living the events on September 11th; other parts are like a particularly turbulent and upsetting nightmare; other parts are like going to the circus. Barney's work is not about life, it is life. It is something you experience the way you experience things in your own life....."


—Ray Carney,
author of Cassavetes on Cassavetes
www.Cassavetes.com

***

Larry Holden's My Father's House

What a gift! What a joy! Just when the cinematic landscape feels like a vast, boring desert of sameness, along comes a triumph of low budget brilliance like Larry Holden's My Father's House—a beautiful, delicate study of men's lives and relationships. The film was so good I could hardly believe it. I held my breath as I watched it, waiting for a false note, a weak line delivery, or a sentimental moment. But there was none. Holden probes his central characters' emotions without a single misstep. Watch carefully because this film is as subtle as our most interesting interactions in life. Holden understands that with men in particular, everything or almost everything emotional is hidden under the surface, between the lines, in the depths—and the miracle (and this film is miraculous) is that he finds a way to take us down there into the emotional depths of his characters' lives to help us to see what is going on inside them. The succession of scenes may at first seem random or haphazard, but shot by shot Holden wonderfully weaves the strands together to tell the story of a life. One of the truest, subtlest, best films I've seen in years.

—Ray Carney
www.Cassavetes.com

***

A one night only New York screening of legendary underground indie smash FUNNY HA HA by Andrew Bujalski

Thursday July 17 @ 6pm
Two Boots Pioneer Theater
155 E. 3rd St. (at Ave. A)

"What a breath of fresh air. I absolutely loved Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha. It's funny ha ha, but also funny peculiar, and funny like the tickle that makes you wince and brings a tear to your eye. The loose weave of experience—the shaggy, baggy randomness of young adult life and love—has never been captured more truly and convincingly on film. Never.

Compared with Bujalski's characters, the ones in most other movies look and act like robots on autopilot. Funny Ha Ha brilliantly and touchingly communicates the awkwardness, the hesitation, the doubts and uncertainties of our souls as we muddle our ways through life–inadvertantly and unconsciously stepping on each others toes, changing our minds, hurting, then apologizing and healing, and then hurting ourselves or someone else one more time. What a deep, beautiful—and funny!—understanding of life. Move over, Harmony Korine.

In fact, Bujalski 'gets' women much better than Harmony ever does. Funny Ha Ha is one of the few films that really enters into a female point of view and doesn't just turn the woman into another 'guy.' The female performances are touching and deep and unique. About time! I hope to hear much much more from Andrew Bujalksi in the future. Bravo. I highly recommend this movie."

—Ray Carney
author of Cassavetes on Cassavetes

Ray Carney also highly recommends Andrew Bujalski's new (and as of this date--Summer 2005--unreleased) Mutual Appreciation. It's just as good as Funny Ha Ha, or maybe even better (but rankings are invidious). It deserves to be well-known.

Bujalski is one of the shining lights of the younger generation American indie movement. He is the Renoir of Gen Z (or whatever the heck letter we have devolved down to in this new and otherwise fairly unfunny century). Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation give us new eyes and ears. They let us hear emotional dog frequencies--and watch the butterfly flutters of feeling that bring us together and pull us apart. Bujalski makes us laugh at our foibles--and shed a tear of self-recognition at our fumblings of love.

It's a cause for celebration when a new artist comes on the scene and helps to write the history of the present, helps us to understand our own lives. His career is one to watch. Please support him in any way you can.

***

Mouth Pieces, an evening of monologues and features the work of 7 of the talented writers and 11 actors in the Paradise Theater Company

July 10 - 26
Thur - Sun, 8pm
$10
Paradise Theatre
64 East 4th Street (between Bowery and 2nd Avenue).

For more information see: www.mouth-pieces.com

Andrew Bujalski on the art and business of film / Charles Lyons on going for broke / The Puffy Chair / Why Film Production Majors Should Be Replaced by Auto Mechanics / JuneBug, 2046, and Mutual Appreciation / David Chien on Caveh Zahedi's I am a Sex Addict / Donal Foreman on Independent Film / Donal Foreman on the Irish Television and Film Industry / Quotations about the artistic process/ Tarkovsky on film school and trying to please people / Donal Foreman on the State of the Art / Other films and filmmakers / Quiet City / Henry James, Art of Fiction 1 / Henry James, Art of Fiction 2 / Emerson, Circles, 1 / Emerson, Circles, 2 / Avedon on Alfredson / David Ball Interview

 

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.