INTRO TO FILM week 1

This is my last semester at the University of Colorado Boulder. Usually I teach production and screenwriting, but this time around I’ve drawn the introductory film class. The semester runs for sixteen weeks (minus one for spring break) so I have thirty classes and fifteen screenings to cover… to cover what, exactly? Academics have a very specific take on things, and a language all their own. But that take and that language aren’t mine. I’m a film director, writer, actor and producer. So my “intro to film” may be somewhat different from the standard introductory course.

Anyway, assuming my take may be of interest (if only to students who miss a class and want to know what they missed!) here’s the first of various posts on that subject.

We start with the title sequence of THE WILD BUNCH — because it’s an exemplary title sequence, because of the way it sets up the film’s conflict (outlaws versus railroad bounty hunters, all of whom are living on borrowed time), because the uniformed hero/villains who are about to provoke a massacre aren’t just a cinematic invention but a reference to the film’s context — the ongoing massacre in VietNam — and because the sequence’s heroic conclusion (“If they move, kill ’em!” / freeze frame / title: Directed by Sam Peckinpah”) is about as clear a celebration of the auteur director as you could ever get.

What’s an auteur? You probably have an idea, and I’ll come back to it, but let me first cover some other ground. What do we mean when we say, “a film”? A sequence of moving images which tells a story? Why is it called a film? Once all movies were shot on film. Now many of them are shot, and screened, on digital video. Yet we still call them films. And if they’re 80 minutes or more, we call them feature films. (As to the difference between a film and a movie, in class I tell my Michael Mann story, which I will share another time).

What kind of film is a film? Is it a drama? Most features are. Is it a documentary? Is it a full-length commercial for a product (think SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE or TOP GUN)? Is it experimental? (I ask that because CU’s founding father was Stan Brakhage and the school is heavily oriented towards experimental film, though most of the undergraduate filmmakers make narratives.)

What are its technical aspects? Is it sound or silent? Mono or stereo? 5.1 or 7.1? Colour or black and white? Why? (This is an interesting consideration. When sound came in in 1929, that was it. Henceforth films/movies had sound. But when colour arrived a few years later, black and white remained a popular medium – not only for financial reasons, but as an aesthetically preferable choice). What is its aspect ratio: the shape of the image projected on the screen, and who decides this? Is it 2D or 3D (hopefully 2D)? What is the frame rate (again, one hopes for 24 frames a second)?

This is a mixture of technical and aesthetic questions, and it brings us to MY questions: questions a filmmaker might ask, after seeing a film:

Whose idea was it? Where did the idea come from?
Who pays for it?
Who creates it?
How does it deal with censorship and other barriers?
Who sees it?
Who – if anyone – profits from it?

That last question may seem redundant, but not all films make money. Some films aren’t expected to make money, but are made for other reasons, as we shall see.

What Film Studies and film critics tend to do is concentrate on only one of those questions: the creative one. Who, the critic asks, is responsible for a film? Is it the director? the producer? the writer? the principal actor?

There’s a tendency among critics and academics to assume the director is responsible for everything — what the French call the auteur, or author. As a director, I can assure you this is not so. Directing actors, working on the script, casting the actors, and deciding where the vehicles must be parked is more than enough work for any one person. Even directors who hold the camera from time to time, or write their own music, rely on an entire camera department, and an art department, and costumers, and sound recordists and designers, and assistant directors and second-unit directors and truck drivers and caterers to get the job done.

I’m the writer/director of REPO MAN, but I’m not responsible for everything you see in that film. Robby Muller, Bob Richardson, J. Rae Fox and Linda Burbank are all responsible for its particular visual aspect. Perhaps to encompass this complexity the French came up with another concept – mise-en-scene – to describe the creative process by which a film, or play, is formed. Translated, it means, simply, “put in scene” – and though it’s sometimes used as a synonym for the director’s work, it really implies a lot more: the location, the props and costumes, the lighting, and the lens the DP chooses to capture the shot, or scene.

Clearly the French were thinking about these things before the rest of us, and finding language to describe new processes. They even came up with words to describe the cinema itself: le Septieme Art – the Seventh Art (the previous six being literature, painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre and comic books). It is a good term, because it describes the original art form of the twentieth century. Film existed in the 19th century, and it exists today, but it came to fruition with the marriage of sound and moving pictures, and inevitably most of the films Intro to Film covers will be 20th century films.

And because context is everything (why were those bandits dressed in US Army uniforms?) to understand a film you need to know when and where the film was made, and what else was happening at that time. Films either address the issues of the day, or attempt to ignore them. In either case, this is interesting. So to understand the films of the 20th century we need a timeline of the 20th century.

You can make your own. In fact, you must. My own timeline, unfortunately, concentrates on wars but also includes revolutions, economic collapses, and political assassinations. Your timeline will vary, depending on your interests. But a historical timeline of your own is vital, if you’re to understand the context in which these films were made.

The first film I screen entirely is THE WIZARD OF OZ (USA, 1939). I show it because it’s a film most people are familiar with, and because it addresses the auteur theory head-on while providing surprising answers to some of my film director-mindset questions.

THE WIZARD OF OZ was made because the head of MGM studios, Louis B. Mayer, wanted a big fantasy picture to compete with Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE (released the previous year). It was the pet project of its producer, Mervyn LeRoy, who wanted to direct it: Mayer told him no. Mayer saw it as a “prestige project” — that is, it didn’t need to make money, just prove that MGM was a match for Disney in the fantasy game. So it got a huge budget: two million dollars, which swelled to almost three by the time the film was done. The film didn’t break even until, decades later, it was sold to television.

Who directed it? Victor Fleming received the credit, and directed most of the picture. But the first director was Richard Thorpe, who shot for two weeks with Judy Garland wearing a blonde wig. Thorpe was replaced by George Cukor, who lasted three days and took the wig off. Before the film was finished, Victor Fleming was taken off it and loaned to another studio: Clark Gable wanted him to direct GONE WITH THE WIND. The film was finished by King Vidor, who shot the black and white scenes. Another director, Norman Taurog, is also said to have worked on the film.

In these circumstances, who is the auteur? Fleming? Mervyn LeRoy, who supervised the whole show? Or the studio which wanted the picture made? And whose is the mise-en-scene? A constantly-moving camera was rare in those days. Was this the choice of the DP, Harold Rosson? What of the film’s extraordinary look? One art director – Cedric Gibbons – and one costumer – Adrian – were credited, but clearly multiple talents were involved.

The examples of THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE WILD BUNCH suggest there is more than one type of director. There is the director-for-hire (Fleming, the Scott brothers, say) — Steven Frears told me he happily fits into this category, not initiating his own projects, but waiting for his agent to bring him work. There is the auteur director, who may commission the screenplay and raise money for the film (think Kurosawa, Arturo Ripstein, the Coppolas). And there is the hybrid, who does both (Oliver Stone, Alejandro Iñarritu and others).

The more money at stake, the more tightly-controlled the director is likely to be. And conversely, the further away from the studio, and the lower the budget, the more freedom the director may enjoy.  THE WIZARD OF OZ was made on sound stages in Culver City. THE WILD BUNCH made on location in Parras, Coahuila, Mexico, a long way from LA.

Even an auteur director faces limitations: what is affordable, what is available, what can be safely done without endangering cast and crew. These are serious considerations.

Directors and writers usually face an impossible task when the subject matter of their film is disapproved of. Most often the film cannot be made because financiers won’t support it (it took me thirty years to get BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO off the ground as a feature after studio feedback declared it “too anti-war”). If a controversial film is made, it may well fall foul of censorship. In most countries, the censorship body is government-appointed. In the United States, censorship was in the hands of cities and municipalities — till in 1930, the studios published a “Production Code”, drawn up under the supervision of Will Hays, president of the studio’s lobbying group, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (later renamed the MPAA – the Motion Picture Association of America).

Supposedly voluntary, the Hays Code was strictly enforced by the Studio Relations Committee. It prohibited depictions of illicit sex, and disrespectful portrayals of authority figures, stating “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”

In 1934 the studios established the Production Code Administration, which required all films released on or after July 1 1934 to receive a certificate of approval.

Failure to receive a certificate meant a film could not be released in the US. What a coup for the studios! They now had a lock on what films could and could not be distributed. Independent producers could apply for a certificate, but they were obliged to abide by the studios’ view of things. This situation lasted into the 1960s, when independent filmmakers like Roger Corman and Dennis Hopper broke the mould with lively, controversial subjects and forced the studios to compete with them.

But even today, eighty years on, the MPAA rating system still exists and the studios are able to marginalize independent and foreign films in the US by giving them the dread “NC-17” rating while their own films continue to receive an “R” for similar content.

Some directors’ careers were wrecked by coming into conflict with the censorship regime. In 2010 the Iranian director Jafar Panahi was subjected to house arrest and banned from making films for 20 years. In 1965 Peter Watkins, one of the most talented of British directors, saw his film THE WAR GAME banned by the BBC, the broadcaster which commissioned it. Suppressed in England, THE WAR GAME won an Oscar for “best documentary” – and it wasn’t a documentary. We’ll look at that film later in the semester.

This first week concludes with a film by a director who is an undisputed auteur, and a highly original and successful one: Frederico Fellini, one of the great Italian directors, whose films include EIGHT & A HALF and LA DOLCE VITA.

It’s based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe, and was made as part of a French/Italian “portmanteau” film called HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES (SPIRITS OF THE DEAD, 1968). Context being everything, an Edgar Allen Poe movie didn’t just appear by magic. This European coproduction followed a series of seven successful Poe-based horror movies, directed by Corman for A.I.P., including FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964).

Fellini’s film is based on Poe’s Never Bet The Devil Your Head (published in 1841 — another reason the Poe stories were popular is because they had passed out of copyright, and were in the public domain). It shares the devilish centrepiece of Poes’ story – but it’s also about the movie business, and worth your attention for its take on that, too — as a decadent actor played by Terence Stamp shows up in Rome to attend a film festival and star in a Vatican-financed Western, in return for a Ferrari.

TOBY DAMMIT is example of a genuine auteur at work — a director who has thought about the project, worked on the screenplay, chose the cinematographer and designer, and spent time in the editing room.

Fellini directed more than 20 films, several of them classics. TOBY DAMMIT might just be the best of them all.

(Week 2 will deal with Cinematography, Camera Language, and Crew Roles)

 

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