Category Archives: The Director’s Chair

The Director’s Chair – Alfred Hitchcock

There are many filmmakers that people can point to as the ones who molded and shaped the horror genre into what it is today; Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante being among the most noteworthy.  But if there was someone who people consider the grandfather of modern horror, the name of Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind.  Which itself is strange, because Hitchcock was not exactly a horror filmmaker.  Only one of his movies could be considered a horror film, his iconic 1960 thriller Psycho, but it was such a high water mark for the genre that it would change horror film-making, and cinema for that matter, forever.  But, apart from that, Hitchcock’s true title in Hollywood was “the Master of Suspense,” which he had earned over the course of his career having directed some of the most exhilarating and tension filled movies that were ever committed to celluloid.  Murder mysteries were his main foray, as the majority of his filmography was devoted to crime dramas and whodunits.  But it wasn’t just the suspense that made him an icon as a director, it was the way he presented it.  Always an innovator, Hitchcock would find new ways to keep his audience on edge, and that included introducing untried techniques that for their time were cutting edge.  These included gimmicks like the long unbroken takes in the movie Rope (1948), the dolly zoom in Vertigo (1958), or the frantic cutting of the shower scene in Psycho.  He was a director that always played by his own rules and he thankfully found success making the kinds of movies that he wanted to make; which was a rarity in the Hollywood system during his heyday.

What’s also interesting about Hitchcock is that while there is a distinct character to all his films, since he rarely strayed away from the suspense genre, there are also definable phases to his career too.  He started out in his native England making spy thrillers like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Foreign Correspondant (1940), which garnered the attention of Hollywood.  He was swayed to cross the pond by mega-producer David O. Selznick to produce a series of dramas for his independent studio.  The first one was the Oscar winning Rebecca (1940), followed by Suspicion (1941) and Spellbound (1945).  While the movies under Selznick Pictures are still expertly crafted and feature some of the director’s best work, you can also tell that Hitchcock was feeling a little handcuffed at the same time, as these movies were more or less his most mainstream and micro-managed films of his career, with Selznick having much oversight over the final products.  After the Selznick partnership, Hitchcock made his way to Universal Pictures, where he would remain for the rest of his career, leading to his most prolific run of movies.  At Universal is where Hitchcock became the director that we know today, with full, unwavering confidence in his abilities as a director.  And the movies are one classic after another; Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Rope, Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds to name a few.  He even became the face of suspense thrillers, as Universal also produced an anthology TV series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with the director appearing in front of the camera to introduce each episode.  Because of all this, Hitchcock had become a new kind of filmmaker, which was one who had become a household name.  Some directors had become noteworthy in their time, but only the name of Hitchcock could be immediately identifiable in every American home, and that was quite a feat for his time.  Even to this day, Hitchcock is still one of the most celebrated, analyzed and frequently imitated filmmakers in cinematic history.  What follows is a couple of elements that are uniquely a part of the Hitchcockian style, and what helped to define him as a a filmmaker.

1.

THE WRONG MAN

Hitchcock would often return to tropes that had served him well in the past, and he would manage to rehash them again and again without making it seem like he was repeating himself.  One of those tropes that is unmistakably Hitchcockian is that of the “wrong man” scenario.  Hitchcock liked nothing more than to have his protagonists thrown into a situation that they are ill equipped to take on.  Most of the time this would involve the protagonist either by accident or by unfortunate ill judgment ending up in the middle of a larger conspiracy that they had no previous knowledge of.  This trope goes all the way back to his early years, with his main characters in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps both finding themselves involved in the middle of a plot, which they never expected to be in.  For the former, it happens when the villain (played marvelously by Peter Lorre) kidnaps the child of the hero (Leslie Banks), and the latter is when the hero (Robert Donat) is falsely accused of murder as part of a cover-up.  Hitchcock favored this trope because he found it as a good way to build his protagonist’s character over the course of the story, allowing them to learn as we follow along with them in the story.  It’s a great way to spotlight the charm and wit of the character as well, and he often liked to give some of Hollywood’s top leading men these kinds of roles, including Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart being among his very favorites.  And just to show how aware he was of his own style, Hitchcock even made a movie called The Wrong Man (1956), with Henry Fonda playing the titular role.  Despite being a long standing trope within his full body of work, there is probably no better use of it than the thrilling classic North by Northwest, with Cary Grant literally being the wrong man, at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Of course, it’s not the trope alone that carries the movie, but what Hitchcock does after that makes the movie such a classic, taking Grant on a cross country adventure as he grows from simple business man to death-defying spy by movie’s end.  It’s understandable that he continued to return to the same trope over and over again, because it served him well.

2.

AMERICANA

When Hitchcock came to America to make films for Selznick, I don’t think he initially realized the impact it would have on the rest of his career.  The English-born director not only became a naturalized citizen of the United States, but he would also use his newly adopted homeland as a thematic element in most of his latter films.  There is a strong presence of Americana throughout his movies made in Hollywood; some more overt than others.  For one thing, Hitchcock loved to use distinctive American landmarks in his movies as important settings for moments in his films.  These include the Golden Gate bridge where Kim Novak’s character nearly drowns herself in Vertigo; the climatic confrontation in Saboteur (1942), where Norman Lloyd literally hangs by a sleeve on the outstretched hand of the Statue of Liberty; and of course the epic chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.  But Hitchcock was not spotlighting American landmarks out of some newly found patriotic fervor.  They were part of his interesting introspection into the underbelly of America.  He put these moments around landmarks just to show how extraordinarily out of place such a moment would be around these icons.  He also distinctively tried to explore American society in the micro as well.  Long before David Lynch would do the same with Blue Velvet (1986), Hitchcock explored how a seemingly peaceful suburban American community could be hiding something sinister underneath with the brilliant Shadow of a Doubt, which Hitchcock considered one of his favorites.  Even Psycho follows in that same vein, with a seemingly unassuming little roadside lodge, typical of contemporary American travel culture, turning into a house of horrors by film’s end.  Hitchcock was both a filmmaker that was fascinated with America and critical of it as well, and it provided him with a careers worth of interesting stories to tell, all of which have appropriately become American classics.

3.

THE ELUSIVE BLONDE

On the flip side of his trope of the “wrong man,” there is another character type that has become a part of the Hitchcockian style.  And that type almost always is portrayed by a blonde haired beauty.  People have often claimed that Hitchcock was playing out a fetish in movies by always having his leading ladies be blonde and impossibly beautiful, but that I think is a misreading of him as a director.  In a way, Hitchcock cast his lead actress by the distinctive hair color because he felt that it represented a more angelic aspect to their character.  It was also something that became more common once he started making movies in color, as his previous leading ladies from the black and white era like Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine had distinctive brown hair.  It started with the casting of Grace Kelly in Rear Window that Hitchcock became enamored with blonde female leads, and we would see a distinct through-line of leading ladies for the next decade, as Doris Day, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren all followed in Grace’s footsteps.  But, what is also noteworthy about the use of blondes in Hitchcock’s movies is that they are often drivers of the plots themselves; sometimes in tragic ways.  Sometimes they are there as an accomplice to the male lead, like Grace Kelley in To Catch a Thief (1955) or Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, but oftentimes they would also be put into the path of peril.  To Hitchcock, blonde was a sign of purity and having a blonde lady fall victim to violence only made the deed more tragic.  He was probably fully aware of his obsession, since he made Jimmy Stewart’s protagonist in Vertigo so fixated on the blonde beauty that he tragically lost, to the point that he forces another woman to look just like her.  It’s a fascinating aspect to his filmography that is unmistakable once you become aware of it.  Hitchcock had a type in mind, but there is no doubt that the most important blonde lady in his life was his wife of 54 years, Alma Reville, who was his closest collaborator and creative confidant as well.  And she was far from elusive.

4.

BERNARD HERRMANN

Apart from his wife, Alma, Hitchcock never had too many close collaborators over his career.  His crews were often interchangeable depending on which movie he was making; he worked on scripts from a whole variety of screenwriters; and his production teams were often specialists specific for the different new experiments that he was trying to take on with each new film.  But if there was one collaborator that did leave his mark on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, even if it was for a short amount of time, it was film composer Bernard Herrmann.  Hermann was already a well established composer by the time he arrived in Hitchcock’s stable.  He started in the business in a big way, scoring Citizen Kane (1941) for Orson Welles.  For the next decade and a half he had worked up nearly 20 film scores, but once he met Hitchcock, things would take a very dramatic turn.  Starting off with The Trouble With Harry (1955), Herrmann would score 7 total films for Hitchcock, the most of any film composer; and some are often cited as among the best ever written.  His haunting love theme from Vertigo is one that instantly leaves an impression on it’s audience, and the rousing North by Northwest theme is a jaunting adrenaline rush.  But perhaps Herrmann’s most brilliant work was saved for the movie Psycho, which some have proclaimed as his best overall.  The main theme, with it’s off-kilter harshness is itself an already standout piece, and it does probably the best of any Hitchcock movie score to set the tone of a film.  But Herrmann’s most brilliant choice as a composer is the one that seems the most deceptively simple.  Instead of having the legendary shower murder scene play silently with only sound effects, as Hitchcock initially wanted, Herrmann composed an underscore of shrieking violins, which assault the viewer almost like they’re the ones getting stabbed.  It’s a genius choice of music and is probably just as much a part of what has made that scene legendary as Hitchcock’s own direction.  In many ways, it’s also probably the most imitated film music score of all time, which is a testament to Herrmann’s input.  Hitchcock would have still continued to be an influential filmmaker, but who knows how different his career may have been had his movies not included Herrmann’s music in them.

5.

THE MCGUFFIN

All us cinephiles are pretty aware of the term McGuffin by now.  The term is used to describe an object that is central to the plot of a film, but inconsequential to the story.  Famous examples could include the Maltese Falcon from the 1941 film of the same name; the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); the briefcase from Pulp Fiction (1994); you could even point to the six Infinity Stones as the McGuffins of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But it might surprise you that the term actually came from Hitchcock himself.  He didn’t coin the term (that was screenwriter Angus MacPhail), but he was the one who defined it.  In Hitchcock’s own words, the McGuffin is “the thing that the characters are after, but the audience doesn’t care.”  In other words, it’s the motivator for the human drama, and carries little significance apart from that.  The McGuffin is just there to passively exist, so that the characters can go through all the highs and lows of the plot in order to find it and obtain it.  The first true example of this plot device appearing in a Hitchcock movie is in The 39 Steps.  What are the 39 Steps; just a list of spies names, a detail you don’t know until the very end of the film, and that’s not what’s important.  It’s the fact that the bad guys are after it and the hero must find it before they do.  Similar McGuffins also factor into the plots of Notorious and North by Northwest as well.  Hitchcock even uses a McGuffin as a brilliant misdirection as well, as he does with the money Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals in Psycho.  Once she is killed off halfway through the movie, the money no longer plays a factor, despite having been a major motivator in the plot so far.  Had Hitchcock never defined and popularized the term, we probably would have coined a different, less distinct term for such a thing in movie plots, so we have him to thank for giving these elements a name that is characteristically unique in the way that only someone like Hitchcock could have done.

Alfred Hitchcock was not a horror film director, but he certainly has become a beloved icon of the genre nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s because there is an aura of danger and mystery that spans throughout all his films.  Apart from Psycho, his intent was never to horrify his audience, but instead to always leave them in suspense.  To him, the threat of death was always underneath the surface and it was always his intent to mine that dark side of human existence as a part of the drama within his films.  All his movies either involve a plot to kill, or the investigation into a killing, but rarely does he ever indulge in blood and gore.  That’s probably why Psycho was so shocking for it’s time, because it was even a stretch for him to take things as far as he did with that film.  But macabre themes aside, what has also made Hitchcock revered even to this day is his bold cinematic vision.  He was a director in full command of his art-form with enviable support from a major studio.  What’s even more remarkable is the fact that he reportedly never put his eye up to the camera itself, trusting he crew completely to capture the image that he had planned for.  Numerous filmmakers today, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and others take inspiration from the unparalleled work of Alfred Hitchcock.  With a filmography spanning nearly 50 years, he is one of the most prolific filmmakers ever, and probably without peers in the whole history of the industry.  And still to this day, the name Hitchcock remains a household name; still carrying weight in the realms of mystery, suspense, and even horror.  His legacy is as well preserved as the Bates Manor House that still sits on the Universal Studios Backlot to this day, nearly 60 years after it was first built.  Whether you know him by name only, or from that familiar portly silhouette that he began every episode of his show with, he is an indispensable part of cinema history, and a true Hollywood icon in every sense of the word.

 

The Director’s Chair – Tim Burton

A lot of filmmakers come into the business knowing exactly the path they want to take to become a success.  For many, they get their training, build their network, develop that killer concept that will gain attention from the industry, and then get that directorial gig that they always wanted.  For some, the road to success can fall into place like they expected but for many more others, it doesn’t work out that way.  The last thing that an aspiring filmmaker should do is enter the business with rigid expectations, because that’s not how the industry works.  Oh sure, Hollywood expects much when it comes to results, but the who and how of getting there is much more random.  The sad reality is that many people who come to Hollywood never make it in the business, and for some of them, it’s because the road to success never worked out the way that they expected.  What’s best for most aspiring filmmakers is to take the opportunities that come your way, even if they aren’t the ideal ones that you wanted in the first place.  Because the interesting thing about how Hollywood finds it’s talent is that they usually come out of the most unexpected of places.  Take the career of Tim Burton for example.  Burton certainly had ambition to work within the film industry, but when he started out, he believed that it would be in the world of visual development and animation. I don’t think he ever saw a prosperous career as a live action film director as his final destination, let alone as one who’s unique visual style has managed to be his greatest asset.  But, that’s exactly what happened to Mr. Burton, and even more shockingly, it happened very rapidly and early on in his career.  Tim Burton is the quintessential example of taking the opportunities that open up to you and never second guessing yourself along the way.

What makes Tim Burton so unique as a filmmaker is the uncompromising visual style that has become his trademark.  Before working in live action, Burton was cutting his teeth as an illustrator and animator.  He was trained at the prestigious CalArts Institute where his classmates included future titans of animation like John  Lasseter and Brad Bird.  He would follow with them into a post graduate career as an animation trainee at Walt Disney Animation.  Though Burton was praised for his talents as an illustrator, it was clear early on that he was an outsider at Disney, since his style was often seen as too bizarre or graphically grotesque.  After spending years being forced to assist on cutesy animal characters for films like The Fox and the Hound (1981), Burton tried to demonstrate for the Disney company areas in which his unique style could work.  He spent his free time working on a stop motion animated short called Vincent (1982), a black and white piece that was a homage to classic horror and the iconic personage of one of his idols, actor Vincent Price.  In addition, he also did designs for the monsters in Disney’s upcoming adaptation of The Black Cauldron (1985) as well as pitched his own original idea for a holiday special, which would later form the basis for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  Suffice to say, none of his attempts won Disney over, and he soon left the studio completely.  Soon after, he directed a short live action film called Frankenweenie (1984), which got the attention of comedic actor Paul Ruebens, who was looking for a director with a unique vision to bring his Pee Wee Herman character to the big screen.  With this opportunity, Burton suddenly went from failed animator to film director in quick succession.  Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) became an instant cult hit, which got the attention of Warner Brothers who gave Tim Burton another opportunity to showcase his unique vision with the macabre comedy Beetlejuice (1988).  That film also became an instant hit, which then convinced Warners to hand Burton their most plum jewel of all; Batman.  And with that, Burton suddenly was a household name, and it was all about taking the opportunities once they fell into his lap.  In this article, I’ll be looking at the essential elements that make Tim Burton’s films what they are, and how they’ve defined his work as a filmmaker over so many years.

1.

GOTHIC, GRAND GUIGNOL, AND B-MOVIE

More than anything, it’s Tim Burton’s visual style that defines him as a filmmaker, and it’s the thing that you can find traces of in pretty much every movie he makes.  And the thing that most people would label his style as would be Gothic.  While there are certainly Gothic inspirations to be found in his movies, Burton doesn’t always limit himself to just that.  His illustrative style, particularly found in the pre-production drawings that he makes himself for every movie, can be described as twisted and macabre, and for many, what they see in his illustrations reminds them a lot of Gothic architecture.  But, where Tim Burton really draws his inspiration from is how the Gothic is diffused through cinema and theater.  The burlesque tradition of Grand Guignol theater certainly can be found in Tim Burton’s work, because of it’s embrace of the macabre and the carnival-esque.  That’s something you see working together a lot in Burton’s films, visuals and story elements that appear sinister and foreboding, but are dealt with in a cartoonish fashion.  Which also stems from another inspiration for Tim Burton, which is B-Movie Hollywood.  In particular, Tim Burton’s movie’s celebrate the way in which Gothic visuals were presented through the cheap and often ridiculous production design and visual effects of the B-Movies of the 50’s and 60’s.  To Burton, these movies had their own charm, which is why he often pays homage to them.  You can see the pull between the grotesque and the cartoonish in many of his films like Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland (2010), but he also manages to find the right balance when he heads towards any of the extremes, especially when he makes something fully Gothic (1999’s Sleepy Hollow), Grand Guignol (2007’s Sweeny Todd), or B-Movie (1996’s Mars Attacks).  He even devoted an entire movie to honoring one of the sources of his inspiration with 1994’s biopic of the worst B-Movie director ever, Ed Wood.  Despite having an uncompromising visual style, Burton has somehow managed to focus it through these multiple inspirations and that’s made him surprisingly versatile.

2.

SUBURBAN ANGST

Apart from his visual inspiration, Tim Burton is also attracted to stories that appeal to his own sensibilities, particularly ones that speaks to him as an individual.  One of the most common themes found in his movies is the anxiety of living in a homogenized, featureless world, specifically funneled through the lens of suburban encroachment.  When you see someone of Tim Burton’s ilk, or watch any of his movies, you might imagine that he came from some cold, dark and old-World community.  But that’s the case at all.  He was born and raised in bright, sunny Burbank, California, which is not macabre or Gothic in any way.  And yet, his childhood years in Burbank is reflected in his movies, particularly when Burton focuses on the clash between the past and present.  He may not state it clearly in his films, but I think that the urban sprawl of Los Angeles into the San Fernando Valley during Burton’s childhood left a strong impact on him.  In the late postwar years of the 50’s and 60’s in which Burton grew up, many of the Victorian style homes and buildings found throughout Los Angeles were being torn down and replaced with rows and rows of identical single level house in a widening urban sprawl.  In a way, Burton witnessed the final days of a Gothic Los Angeles that no longer exists, and his movies often feel like a lamentation on that.  In many of his films, the monsters are found in suburbia and not in the spooky old houses.  This is best represented in the movie Edward Scissorhands, where a modern suburban community engulfs an old manor house, and where a lonely “freak” hides from a neighborhood that doesn’t understand him.  You see varying interpretations of that in other films like with Beetlejuice (1988) where the bourgeois suburban family takes over an old Victorian country house and “modernizes” it, or in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) where the hero leaves suburban Florida to live in an old house that literally exists in a nostalgic time loop.  But the narrative of Edward Scissorhands in particular illustrates this special aspect of Tim Burton’s work, because it offers an interesting insight into the kind of world that he values.

3.

THE OUTSIDER

The other major theme found in most of Tim Burton’s films is the focus on the “outsider.”  Being a pale kid interested in the Gothic and the grotesque while growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs probably made Burton feel like an outsider himself, and that’s why he finds so much sympathy in stories that spotlight those who are shunned or isolated in society.  In particular, Burton’s movies often spotlight the ones we often label as the “weirdos” or “freaks.”  Oftentimes these kinds of characters are heroes in his movies, but he also devotes a lot of attention to villainous oddballs as well.  This is probably what made him such a strong fit for the Batman franchise.  In both Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), you can see his fascination with “freaks” that exist within a society and how their peculiar identities spark the clashes that they get involved in.  Tim Burton’s Batman villains, Joker (Jack Nicholson), Penquin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), are just as damaged and corrupted by society as the hero Batman (Michael Keaton), only he has managed to use his freakish identity to elevate his community, rather than sink it lower.  And with Batman, Tim Burton explores another interesting aspect of the idea of the outsider, which is the persona of the isolated genius.  Bruce Wayne becomes a symbol of good in his community, yet still cuts himself off so that he can never be truly at peace as well.  You see this same dynamic played out with Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and with Margaret Keane in Big Eyes (2014), where the characters have created magnificent works of creation, and yet their social anxiety keeps them from ever feeling the joy of what their work has done in the world.  It’s that fascination with those who are kept isolated from society, whether self-imposed or by some kind of prejudice, that makes the characterizations in Tim Burton’s films so vivid.  Much like in how his own peculiarities have made him stand out in Hollywood, Tim Burton values the outsiders of his stories, good or bad, because they are the ones that we remember the most in the end.

4.

DANNY ELFMAN

Like many directors with a unique style, Tim Burton has kept a close knit group of collaborators through most of his movies, like production designer Rick Heinreichs and costume designer Colleen Atwood, as well as actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Christopher Lee and Michael Keaton who have appeared in multiple films of his.  But, if there was ever a collaborator that had the most influence on making Tim Burton films feel distinctly their own thing, it would be composer Danny Elfman.  Elfman, the once frontman of progressive rock band Oingo Boingo, has written the musical scores for all but two of Tim Burton’s films, the exceptions being Ed Wood, which was written by Howard Shore, and Sweeny Todd, which used the original Broadway score written by Stephen Sondheim.  It was actually Burton in the first place that pushed Elfman into a career of scoring films, giving him his first big break with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.  The combination of Elfman’s sound and Tim Burton’s visuals couldn’t be more perfectly matched, because Elfman likewise has a taste for the edgy, carnival-esque style.  His music can go from whimsical to unhinged in a heartbeat, and the music often is just as memorable as the movies themselves.  He also has shown incredible range from the sweet, nostalgia driven melodies of Big Fish (2003), to the terrifyingly chilly Sleepy Hollow, to epic grandeur of Alice in Wonderland.  He even managed to encapsulate the iconic status of Batman in brooding piece that is now synonymous with the character.  Naturally, when Disney finally accepted Burton’s dream to bring Nightmare Before Christmas to a reality, Danny Elfman was given the opportunity to score the film, but to write original songs as well.  And that he did, with a musical that not only stands as one of Disney’s best, but also one that retains the unique Burton/Elfman character.  Danny Elfman even provided the singing voice for the protagonist Jack Skellington, so you see his mark in Nightmare more than in any other film he’s worked on with Tim Burton.  It’s one of the most special collaborations in all of film-making, because it’s one where both artists bring out the best in one another and gives each other’s work the magical element that helps it to stand out.

5.

BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR

Tim Burton has his inspirations in aesthetics and themes, but there is definitely something about his sense of visuals that really sets him apart as well.  In particular, Tim Burton is a director who likes to experiment with the use of color in his movies, and it’s a tool that he often utilizes to emphasize those same themes discussed earlier.  In particular, Burton is especially drawn to the visual clash between stark black and white.  Characters with striped clothing are especially common in his movies; most notably with Michael Keaton’s Betelgeuse and his trademark striped suit.  It’s not particularly a visual trademark to emphasize a bad character, as good-natured Jack Skellington is also known for his striped outfit.  The same can also be found with a character caught in between good and evil, like Johnny Depp’s Sweeny Todd.  Burton also displays an interesting take on clashing colors with the duality of Batman and the Joker, with the justice seeking Batman cast completely in black, shadowy tones, whereas the Joker is white-faced and wears flashy colors.  The use of color, and even the absence of it, are both important visual factors in Tim Burton’s style, no doubt taken from the sensibilities he formed as an illustrator.  He surprising manages to maintain his style between the those extremes, with his style shining through even in black and white photography, which he showed in Ed Wood and his animated Frankenweenie remake from 2012.  At the same time, he can also splash a lot of color into a scene, sometimes with the intent of emphasizing the grotesque nature of something.  This can be found in scenes of gore from Sleepy Hollow, where the especially red blood stands out amongst the gray landscapes, or in the garish plastic world of the suburbs in Edward Scissorhands with the pastels and neons almost aggressively applied.  Tim Burton makes deliberate choices when it comes to colors, whether it be applied to characters, a setting, or the movie entire, and it’s often deliberately done to cast his stories in clear black and white terms with the actual clash of black and white, or bold color.

Tim Burton, whether his style appeals to you or not, is no doubt a one of a kind in film-making.  Few other directors have been fortunate to have their visual style brought to the screen un-compromised, and even less have succeeded with a style as weirdly refreshing as Tim Burton’s.  It’s also amazing how Burton almost kind of stumbled into the business, not really realizing how quickly it would take off.  I’m sure that he always dreamed of making his own films, but I don’t think that he ever saw himself becoming the icon that he is so quickly.  He probably imagined he’s be some kind of underground artist, rather than the man tasked with bringing Batman to the big screen.  But, he saw that door open before him and he walked through without ever looking back.  Today, Tim Burton has one of the most unique filmmographies of any filmmaker, even if it’s not the most consistent.  He’s had his fair share of disappointments too, with his 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes being probably the least effective representation of his talents as an artist.  He has had a shaky track record as of late, with the good (Frankenweenie, Big Eyes) often overshadowed by the bad (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows).  But even still, Hollywood still trusts him with high profile projects, some of which seem to be almost tailor-made for his unique style.  It’s funny how the company that once shunned his art, Disney, are the ones who’ve since fully embraced it.  The current slate of live action remakes to animated classics feel very much inspired by the Tim Burton aesthetic, which easy to see because it was launched primarily with his Alice in Wonderland adaptation, and continues now with his newest version of Dumbo, out this very week.  His films still have that unique Burton feel, but it was never stronger than in his earlier years when he first was starting out.  Those first five features of Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns are what really made Tim Burton a legend.  Quite simply, there was no one else who was making movies like him, nor had the kind of creative ideas that could make it to the big screen in tact like he had.  Since then, he’s grown more mainstream, and his legacy is becoming more and more harder to live up to, but there’s no doubt that he left an indelible mark on the industry.  And it’s a mark that’s made it more acceptable in Hollywood to be an “outsider” and a “freak,” because in many ways they are the ones with the best stories to tell.

The Director’s Chair – Wes Anderson

Every new generation of filmmakers that comes onto the world stage usually has to try very hard from the get go to define themselves in the ever competitive world of showbiz.  And with each new generation you have many different types who approach the art of film from a different standpoint.  Sometimes you get the workman style, adapt to the business kind of filmmaker that doesn’t so much create a definitive signature style of their own, but manages to find consistent work in Hollywood because of their ability to conform.  And then you have the independent minded, flashy styled filmmaker who absolutely want to leave their own mark on cinema.  These are the kinds of filmmakers who create a brand around themselves and turn every film they make into a personal statement of their own unique vision.  Unfortunately for many of these filmmakers, they are usually unable to sustain long careers in Hollywood, because by focusing too much on style over substance they often fall into self-parody and audiences eventually grow tired of their overt attempts at gaining attention.  But, those who do manage to sustain an extensive career while also staying true to their artistic style often become some of the most beloved filmmakers of all time.  One such filmmaker who has managed to achieve that in recent years is Wes Anderson.  Anderson falls into that rare category of filmmaker whose body of work is unmistakably his own.  One only has to look at a single frame of each film and they will immediately recognize it as an Anderson picture.  And even more remarkable than finding that unique style is the fact that he’s managed to sustain a prosperous career without ever having to compromise his vision.  Sure, his films are not box office bonanzas, but they do find their audience and each one has over the years has achieved almost cult status.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Wes Anderson found his film-making voice in quirky comedies that often centered around absurd characters.  Most of his early work were collaborative in nature, involving many of the same crew, as well as the help of his writing partner Owen Wilson, his friend and classmate whom he first met at the University of Texas.  But, as Anderson and Wilson’s careers took different paths in later years, with Wilson pursuing his acting career more fervently, you would also see a shift in Anderson’s directing style as well.  His movies became less grounded and often ventured into more surrealism.  Some would say that his movies are almost like modern fairy tales, which is a statement that I don’t think he would shy away from.  He clearly is no longer trying to make his movies feel natural anymore, although he still gives each of his movies their own sense of logic that helps to ground them just enough to feel real.  In many ways, it’s the confidence that he brings to his own cinematic voice that has earned him the respect of audiences and the industry alike.  Few directors can move from movie to movie like he does without repeating themselves and still remain true to their style.  Though he has worked exclusively in comedy throughout his career, his movies all place his humor in different worlds and situations making them feel fresh.  He has taken his style around the world into different cultures, different points of view, and has even made it work in the medium of animation.  How many filmmakers do you know who can make an animated movie still feel exactly like one of their live action films?  Like other directors in this series, I’ll be looking at the main things that define Wes Anderson’s movies the most and how they have contributed to the unparalleled body of work that bears his personal stamp and has turned him into a force within the world of cinema.

1.

SYMMETRICAL FRAMING

The first thing that will come to mind when the name Wes Anderson is brought up is the way that his movies look.  His visual style is unmistakable, though not unusual.  What you’ll find in every movie of his is deliberate staging to emphasize the symetricality of the shot.  This usually involves the focus of the shot being center frame, with the mise en scene of the setting drawing the eye directly to it, whether it be an actor or a prop.  Anderson also employs the technique of “planimetric staging,” where the camera is placed at a 90 degree angle with the subject of the shot.  This is an age old framing style that has been used by the likes of Buster Keaton, Jean-Luc Godard, and Stanley Kubrick over many films, but none of those directors relied on it as heavily as Anderson.  Wes Anderson almost exclusively uses this style of staging in every shot, which is what gives his movies that unique look.  It’s best utilized with interiors, like in the house from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or the titular hotel from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), where the symmetrical framing emphasizes the boxed in quality of those environments.  One could say that Anderson’s reliance on this technique is part of his way of emphasizing the storybook style of his narratives, like every frame is picture from a storybook or comic.  It’s an idea that seems intentional on the director’s part, as one of his reoccurring motifs in his movies is showing overhead shots of book covers on a flat surface.  The planimetric staging also changes the way action works in his movies, as his camera never tilt, but rather pans across, almost perpendicular to where the shot started, something that was very noticeable in the shifts from subject to subject in Moonrise Kingdom (2012).  Though this style runs the risk of devolving into self-parody, Anderson has managed to make it work for himself and it’s something that endears himself to the audiences who appreciate his work.

2.

CARTOON LOGIC

Apart from the look of his movies, there is one stylistic choice that also sets his movies apart, which is the often hyper-realism that his movies exist within.  Though on the surface his movies do look earthbound, they sometimes take leaps of logic that seem to defy explanation.  Some would call this cartoon logic, which is where physics and reality are bent just slightly in order to achieve the right punchline for a gag, visual or otherwise.  This is normal in the world of animation, where logic is limited only to one’s imagination, but in live action, it becomes a lot trickier, because there are some things that just have to make sense in the long run.  Sometimes Anderson manages to work around the laws of physics in order to achieve the right punchline by showing us the aftermath of some incredible event, rather than the event in full.  Some examples include how Owen Wilson’s character from The Royal Tenenbaums managed to be flung out of a car and into the third floor of the Tenenbaum house without a scratch on him.  We never see the crash itself; only the sound of it followed by the sights of Wilson’s character reeling from the flight he took as well as the wrecked car itself, and what remains of the poor dog who got in it’s way.  Moonrise Kingdom is also full of seemingly ridiculous sight gags that wouldn’t work in the real world but completely make sense in these movies, like the climatic image of Bruce Willis holding tight to the two young protagonists while dangling from the wreckage of a broken church steeple.  It only made sense that Anderson would eventually be drawn to animation as a medium, where these absurd visual punchlines feel more at home, which he has now done twice with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018).  But even in animation, his films still retain the same cartoon logic, which he has managed to make work in live action as well.  It’s something that helps to make all of his movies not only visually interesting, but consistently funny as well.

3.

FAMILY UNITS

One reoccurring theme that Wes Anderson always returns to in his movies is the cohesiveness of family.  Nearly all of his movies in one way or another address the internal issues that each family faces.  The most obvious example would be The Royal Tenenbaums, which is exclusively centered around the trials and tribulations of a broken family.  In that film, you see how actions taken by different generations cause ripples on those who come after, and how it often leads to misunderstanding and oftentimes complete withdraw.  And yet, Anderson’s movies always stress the importance of family in each of our lives.  Primarily, Anderson’s films examine the role of the father figure more than anything else.  In every movie, the primary protagonist is either a father who’s trying to prove his worth to his family who feel estranged from him, or is a young lost soul trying to find guidance from a surrogate father who takes them under his wing.  The former is best represented in characters like Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum and George Clooney’s Mr. Fox.  Both men are forced to realize that years of selfishness has alienated themselves from loved ones, and they only find their true happiness in learning that it’s better to be involved as part of a family rather than an island to oneself.  The latter is best illustrated through the relationships seen in Rushmore (1998) and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave in particular perfectly encapsulates the idea of an Anderson father figure, because he’s this force of nature who inspires loyalty from his young ingenue, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) even when it takes both of them down some very self-destructive paths.  Though father figures are an important aspect of his movies, Anderson does leave room for other dynamics, like in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), where three brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) make a journey to confront the mother who abandoned them (played by Angelica Huston).  No matter which avenue he takes, this theme of family is an important one in Anderson’s movies, because it’s usually the thing that makes them relatable to most people.

4.

BILL MURRAY

Though not an essential part of Wes Anderson’s entire filmography, one thing that does tie most of Anderson’s films together is the presence of famed comedian and actor Bill Murray.  Murray has appeared in every single Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore, the director’s second feature.  Since his critically acclaimed performance as the alcoholic deadbeat Herman Blume in that feature, Murray has become something of a good luck charm for Anderson.  Though Murray does have an appearance in all of Anderson’s movies, and even lends his voice to both of the director’s animated features, he doesn’t always take the spotlight.  Sometimes he’s just another face in a large ensemble of great actors, like in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel, or even just makes the briefest of cameos, like he did in the opening of The Darjeeling Limited.  But, when Anderson wants to spotlight Bill Murray in something, it’s usually going to be something special.  Perhaps the greatest of his roles in these movies would be as the famed nautical filmmaker Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic (2004).  Zissou is a character tailor made for the hilariously deadpan actor, and much of the film’s best humor comes from Murray’s perfect ability to remain straight-faced through all the absurdity in the film.  Though it’s interesting that the movie that spotlighted Murray the most in Anderson’s filmography is also the one that strained their relationship the most, as the grueling shoot caused a rift between the two.  They have since reconciled their differences, but Murray’s chosen since then to take a more supporting role in Anderson’s work.  Even still, for many Wes Anderson fans, it’s still a treat to see where Bill Murray shows up, since he’s become such a beloved part of these movies as a whole.  Hopefully, it’s a working relationship that continues on much longer.

5.

NOSTALGIC SOUNDTRACKS

The one other thing that usually defines Wes Anderson’s films is their use of music.  Anderson usually underscores his movies with a collection of classic tunes rather than original orchestral scores, although that’s changed in more recent years with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest Hotel all being scored by Alexandre Desplat (the latter which won an Oscar).  But everything before Mr. Fox usually lacked any definable score, and instead used a playlist of songs ranging from Bob Dylan to the Beatles to the Kinks.  But more often, his soundtracks would favor the sounds of indie folk singers who are largely unknown.  More than anything, the choices in music are meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia, helping his movies to retain a sense of a time gone by, even if it’s set close to the present.  They emotionally underline the mood of the story, and also help to give the movie character as well.  Even in his fully scored features, Anderson still samples some classic tunes in sometimes funny ways.  Fantastic Mr. Fox has a scene that features the love theme from Disney’s Robin Hood, which is a funny reference because in that film the legendary hero is played by, of all things, a fox.  Anderson also recalls cinematic inspirations in some of his culturally specific movies.  In The Darjeeling Limited, you hear select pieces from the films of legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, as well as the opening theme from Merchant Ivory’s Bombay Talkie (1970), and more recently in Isle of Dogs, the main theme from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is used in one scene.  The Life Aquatic also played on Anderson’s penchant for nostalgic tunes by using the works of David Bowie,  but instead had them performed by musician Seu Jorge entirely in Portuguese within the movie itself.  It shows that Anderson not only uses music to give his movies a nostalgic flavor, but to also be playful with the choices, especially if you have a keen ear and can recognize the references that he’s purposely pointing us to.  For him, the music is not just there to drive the story, but to also enhance the experience overall and reinforce the idea that movies can have a playful side as well.

Wes Anderson’s style makes him something rare in Hollywood, which is a true original.  Nobody else makes movies the same way that he does, and few if any even attempt to.  To be so unique an artist in this day and age is a real talent, since this is an industry that usually favors safe and universal voices behind the camera.  It’s clear that Wes Anderson is not to everyone’s taste, and he does have his few detractors, but his movies still are true to their own self and that has earned him a strong following over the years.  His signature framing style is certainly what makes him stand out the most, since no one else has the same eye for composition that he does.  In an age where most filmmakers want to broaden the scope of their image to show all the possible dimensions, Anderson embraces flatness and makes it look beautiful.  That storybook style of imagery also translates well into his often cartoonish brand of comedy.  Most often the thing that I find most endearing about his movies is the fact that they embrace their absurdity and willfully lean into it.  It’s because of the confidence that Anderson approaches his humor that we are able to suspend our disbelief and appreciate that not every joke makes logical sense.  But, despite the flights of fancy, Anderson still finds stability in creating identifiable human stories within them, most often centered around family.  And it’s in his larger than life characters like Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou, Mr. Fox, and M. Gustave that we see Wes Anderson at his most inspired.  These characters are what ultimately helps to give Anderson’s films the beloved status that they have enjoyed.  And considering the fact that Wes Anderson is still relatively young as established filmmakers go, we should continue to expect to see even more interesting stories and characters from him for many more years to come.  He may evolve as a filmmaker in that time, but one hopes that he’ll remain true to his own style, because no one else is capable of replicating it.

 

The Director’s Chair – Steven Spielberg

Every era of film-making certainly has it’s trendsetters and generational voices who rise up and define the movies of their time.  But most of the time, some filmmakers either diminish as their styles conflict with changing times, or they reinvent themselves by adopting a new style altogether.  Very few filmmakers ever retain success all the way through their careers without compromising some aspect of how they make movies.  Those that do change over time do run the risk of alienating some of their original fan base, but if the filmmaker is able to maintain the same amount of quality in their work throughout their careers no matter what film they are making, then they are able to illustrate their versatility and maintain their popularity.  No director in the last half century has managed to navigate the highs and lows of a career in film-making better than Steven Spielberg.  Without a doubt the most successful filmmaker of his time, and arguably the greatest one as well, Spielberg has managed to become a household name over his nearly fifty year career in Hollywood.  And what is remarkable about his body of work in that time is not just the quality of his film-making, but also how well most everything he has made has connected with audiences.  Both as a director and a producer, he is responsible for many of the most iconic films of the last 30 years.  He’s brought characters like Indiana Jones to everyone’s attention; he made dinosaurs walk the Earth again in Jurassic Park (1993); he made everyone afraid to go back in the water again after Jaws (1975); and he made music with extraterrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  But, after creating so many imaginative moments that no doubt shaped the childhood memories of many a film-goer for years, he suddenly shifted his talents away from the realms of fantasy and towards a more grounded reality, all the while still always remaining true to his craft.

The story of Spielberg the filmmaker is one of two different eras, which could be summed up as before Schindler and after Schindler.  While there is overlap between the two eras, with Spielberg experimenting in more grounded dramas in his early career (1985’s The Color Purple and 1987’s Empire of the Sun) and returning to more fanciful films from time to time in his later years (2002’s Minority Report, 2005’s War of the Worlds, 2016’s The BFG), it is clear that his directorial style made a dramatic shift with the release of Schindler’s List in 1993.  The brutal, black and white portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust was the most dramatic cinematic stepping stone that the once whimsical filmmaker had ever made, and since it’s release, Spielberg has focused his efforts as a storyteller towards true life stories with an often moral center at it’s heart.  That’s not to say that he became a different director altogether.  In fact, many of the techniques that he honed over so many years are still present in all his movies; only the subjects have changed.  Stylistically he is just as innovative and creative behind the camera as he’s always been; it’s just now he’s more concerned with more serious subject matters.  Essentially, his vision matured just as his audience did.  Apart from the shift in his directorial tone, his style can also be defined by the gracefulness of his ability to visualize a story.  For someone who had no formal film school education, it is amazing how well Spielberg understands the language of film, in some ways far better than most of his contemporaries.  Spielberg doesn’t show off behind the camera; instead he immerses you into the scene, never directing your eye but instead allowing moments to play out in front of you.  Like other directors I’ve spotlighted here, I’ll be taking a look at the techniques and themes that define most of Spielberg’s work, and illustrate just how much they have contributed to his unparalleled success in the industry.

1.

INSTINCTUAL DIRECTION

Unlike many of his peers at the time, Spielberg did not attend film school (though he had applied very hard to get into USC’s esteemed film program, where his good friend George Lucas attended).  Instead, he had managed to secure an apprenticeship at Universal Studios which in turn led to him becoming the youngest director ever signed to a contract at the studio, at the age of 20.  From this, he developed his skills working on episodes for many of the shows filmed on the Universal lot, which would go on to influence the way he would direct for the rest of his life.  Spielberg, though responsible for some of the most lavish films ever made, is in essence an economical director, working within confines that allow him to retain full control of his work while at the same time grounding him with a sense of restraint.  It’s clear that working on television budgets allowed Spielberg to innovate in order to work around those constraints and figure things out on the fly.  It’s also to his benefit that he is a bit of a film buff himself, and carries a wealth of knowledge about the language of film purely from all the movies he’s scene.  It’s because of this that even to this day, Spielberg is a director that is guided by his instincts on set more than anything else.  He rarely does pre-visualiztion on his movies and instead chooses to block his shots on the day of filming, believing that his best ideas (and they often are) come to him in the moment while he’s observing the environment around him.  This spontaneity is often what makes his movies feel more alive than most others.  A prime example of Spielberg’s instincts manifesting in an unforgettable experience is the Omaha Beach opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  According to Tom Hanks and other actors in the scene, they were basically directed to run up the beach without any warning about what they were going up against, with Spielberg following behind with a handheld camera.  That chaotic situation is exactly what leads to the unforgettable mayhem that we see on screen, but even in less bombastic moments, Spielberg still finds his a way to let the camera absorb a scene in rather than force it through.

2.

THE SPIELBERG ONER

Which leads to the most interesting single technique in Spielberg’s arsenal; the oner.  This is a shot that normally would be broken up into several different shots, but instead is allowed to play out with simple pans from one subject to another, alternating between stationary framing and moving framing.  This is different from the more famous long tracking shots, which often call more attention to themselves.  Spielberg’s oners often last no longer than a minute or so, but still represent a careful construction of visual storytelling that manages to relay all information to an audience without ever cutting away.  There are many amazing examples of Spielberg using this technique in all sorts of movies; whether it’s in having his actors move across the setting while delivering dry expositional dialogue, or having one action play out in the background while another is being framed in the foreground.  Most of the time, Spielberg uses these short little scenes to establish his settings and immerse the viewer into the moment, like Oskar Schindler’s introduction at a night club in Schindler’s List, or allow his actors to comfortably perform a scene without it having to be interrupted by a cut, like Daniel Day-Lewis’ lengthy monologues in Lincoln (2012) or Richard Dreyfus finding himself immersed in sculpting his mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  And this is a technique that stems back to his television days, because it allows him to work with less set ups for shots, which ultimately makes the shoot less expensive and less time consuming.  Oddly enough, his most complicated and prolonged production, Jaws, features some of the best examples of this type.  When production issues regarding the mechanical shark plagued the shoot, Spielberg worked around it with using simple “in one” shots.  There’s a remarkable one where the camera remains stationary in front of the actors, but is positioned on a moving ferry, allowing the background to change while the camera remains still.  The famous reveal of the shark is also a wonderful example of getting everything in one shot for maximum impact, with Roy Scheider focused in the foreground and the shark appearing without warning behind him.  They are short, but effective, and almost unnoticeable most of the time, which is a testament to Spielberg’s skill with how he uses his camera’s eye.

3.

WILLIAMS, KAHN, AND KAMINSKI

Most directors usually have their common collaborator who more than others have contributed to forming the characteristics of their signature style.  Most often it’s an editor or a cinematographer or a go to actor that helps define a director’s body of work.  Spielberg has uniquely kept his core group of collaborators intact for pretty much most of his career, pretty much through all departments.  He often refers to his crew as a second family, and indeed his whole filmography is filled with the same names filling the final credits, showing his comfort with people he can trust on every project.  Three collaborators in fact stand out as the ones who have done the most to define what makes Spielberg’s film what they are.   The often least heralded but still fundamentally crucial part of Team Spielberg is his editor, Michael Kahn.  Kahn has edited all but one of Spielberg’s films since Close Encounters, and is the one that most closely works with Spielberg through the storytelling process.  Spielberg has often referred to him as the twin he never had, because of how like minded they are when it comes to finding the story through all the shots that they’ve assembled.  Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski partnered up with Spielberg much later, first joining the team on Schindler’s List.  Since then he has cemented what you could say as being the look of a Spielberg film, which often has a silvery glow to it with bright lighting, stark contrasts, and cool saturation of the colors.  This style has been very helpful lately with Spielberg’s shift towards grounded historical features, because of the more naturalistic texture it brings.  But, of course Spielberg’s whole body of work would have felt a whole lot different had it not been for the magnificent musical scores provided by the legendary John Williams.  Arguably the greatest film composer of all time, Williams is responsible for majestic, iconic epic melodies, and many of his best work has been saved for Spielberg.  I still get goosebumps when I listen to the Jurassic Park theme, and “Slave Children’s Crusade” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is probably my favorite piece of music from any movie ever.  Spielberg’s talents as a director are great enough, but it makes it even better when you’ve got the best help in the biz by your side.

4.

SENTIMENTALISM

Spielberg can cover a wide range of emotion in his movies, and can make anything from childlike wonder to harsh, gritty terror a part of his narratives.  But, at the end of the day, he is an optimist who wants to leave his audience with a sense of hope for the human condition and a level of comfort as they leave the theater.  Some have argued that Spielberg’s films stray too much into a sentimental tone, sometimes making them a bit too saccharine and diminishing the power they could have had if Spielberg had been a little more cynical with his stories.  It can be argued that Spielberg sometimes reaches a bit too far by indulging in some sentiment.  This is very true in some of his lesser films, which often feel burdened by some of Spielberg’s indulgences, like the tonally confused Hook (1991) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).  Most of the time it shows the director trying extra hard to create what many refer to as the “Spielberg moments” which often are emotional moments punctuated with a small touch of whimsy.  They are often Disney-like in their execution, and can at times feel out of place.  But, when a “Spielberg moment” lands, it is quite often magical.  You can’t help but love the wonder he brings to the first moment you see the dinosaurs close-up in Jurassic Park, or gaze in amazement as the mother-ship flies over Devils Tower in Close Encounters.  He even brings needed sentiment into darker moments, like the girl with the red coat in Schindler’s List.  But perhaps his most powerful use of sentimentalism can be found in E. T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982).  From beginning to end, it is a story of a boy bonding with an alien creature and creating a deep friendship that ultimately must end.  Telling this story through the point of view of a child, Spielberg had to make it as sentimental as possible, because of the childhood innocence involved.  And because of that, the sentimentalism is very potent and elevates the story, making it almost fairy tale like in it’s execution.  It also connects the audience so deeply with the characters, and by the end, the movie has earned it’s sentimental payoff, with one of cinema’s most emotional finales ever.  It may be a weakness sometimes for Spielberg, but at the same time, no one does sentimental on film better than he can.

5.

FANTASY AND HISTORY

Spielberg may have written much of film history himself with the movies he has either directed or produced over the years, but he himself is informed by an appreciation of what cinema has been able to accomplish in all the years prior.  He has said that the things that influenced him the most have always been cartoons and historical epics, and those are certainly apparent in the movies he has made over his career.  He loves fantasy and humor, which he attributes to the magical beauty of Disney animation and the zany mayhem of Looney Tunes shorts.  And many of his more fantastical films often carry with them a cinematic language that feels akin to animation.  At the same time, he also felt inspired by Hollywood historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, which illustrated how cinematic wonder could be derived from even grounded, true life stories.  It’s these two areas of inspiration that have defined Spielberg’s interests as a filmmaker.  He’s either Spielberg the dreamer or Spielberg the historian, and oftentimes, they feel like two different roads running parallel with each other.  He goes back and forth, but each one represents two very different directions for Spielberg, while at the same time feeling like they are from the same mind.  You do get some movies that overlap, like the gritty science fantasies of Minority Report  and War of the Worlds, as well as whimsical grounded dramas like The Terminal (2004) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).  But, often, the director is at his best when he sticks to one direction at a time.  It’s especially interesting when he maneuvers effortlessly from one to another, sometimes in the same year, like 1993 with both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.  Lately, he favors the dramatic over the fanciful, with some of his movies like Munich (2005) hitting some shockingly gritty depths that you never would have imagined from the sometimes playful director.  But, it’s a testament to a filmmaker who is committed to making his choices of film more than just satisfying towards his indulgences, but also thoroughly honest to what they need to be, whether they transportative or informative.

I for one cannot imagine a life without a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg.  The man is just a machine that keeps churning out one cinematic milestone after another.  Imagine where cinema would be without movies like JawsE.T., or Jurassic Park and all the innovations they made along the way.  He also sparked conversations worth having with his insightful historical dramas.  A much needed spotlight was cast on the memories of Holocaust survivors after the release of Schindler’s List, and since then so many more of them have shared their own stories, making an essential document of one of history’s darkest moments all the more detailed.  World War II veterans were also finally able to have their true, horrific experiences finally realized on film with Saving Private Ryan, and allow for many of them to finally open up about the true costs of war that they had seen for themselves.  And even beyond the movies, Spielberg is a tireless champion of cinematic innovation and expression.  Indeed, most other filmmakers my age can attribute much of our own inspirations to one or more films that Spielberg has had his hands in.  He is not one for flashiness, but his impact on all cinema is undeniable.  We all have that one “Spielberg moment” that is forever ingrained into our psyche, whether it’s the bicycle crossing the face of the moon in E.T., or the ripple in the glass of water from Jurassic Park.  And the while he is a director that has matured over time and gotten a bit more serious, he’s still one who embraces the innocence of the past and finds ways to liven up his movies with a sense of wonder, no matter what story he is telling.  Even in these next couple months, with his new film The Post opening wide this week and Ready Player One only a short couple of months away, he is continuing to fulfill both aspects of his style in ways that are both satisfying to him and his base of fans.  We are likely to see that continue for many years to come, and it’s great that our generation has had a voice like his so linked to the concept of film as being both art and entertainment, which in turn has become the driving method of our modern cinematic world.

 

The Director’s Chair – Michael Bay

For the first couple entries in this series, I spotlighted filmmakers who are universally praised as among the best to ever step behind the camera.  Now, let’s take a look at a filmmaker with a somewhat different reputation in Hollywood.  Director Michael Bay is, putting it lightly, a divisive filmmaker.  On the one hand, he’s prolific, efficient, and has a distinctive style that sets him apart in the field.  On the other hand, he’s also brash, a show-off, and indulgent to the point of inanity.  Oftentimes, he’s labeled as the poster child for what is wrong with Hollywood, with his movies often being panned by critics for the crime of being overstuffed with Bay’s own unrestrained style.  But, at the same time, Michael Bay can’t just be dismissed as just another bad director.  The truth is, he does have talent as a filmmaker; it’s just not always focused on the right things.  He does know how to create eye-catching images, utilize complex on set special effects to spectacular effect, and more remarkably he manages to keep his movies under budget and on schedule.  That last aspect is probably what has kept him in good standing within the industry, because they know that he can deliver a product without worry.  And his films for the most part continue to reach an audience, even if they do appeal to some of humanity’s lowest cultural aspects.  His indulgences prove to be a blessing and a curse, as they allow his films to stand out, but also spotlight his sometimes not too appealing personal tastes.  All of this makes him a fascinating individual overall, and as a filmmaker, it’s interesting in seeing how his career defines the distinctive line between those who are storytellers and those who just make movies.

Bay himself is an interesting case of how Hollywood grooms talent over time.  After earning his degree in film-making from Wesleyan University, Bay made a quick rise within the industry, cutting his teeth on commercials and music videos.  His “Got Milk?” ads in particular launched him to national attention, which eventually led him to being assigned to direct a Will Smith vehicle called Bad Boys (1994).  From their, he made a steady stream of blockbuster hits including The Rock (1996), Armageddon (1998), and the sequel Bad Boys II (2003).  He also was assigned by Disney to helm their Titanic (1997) copycat Pearl Harbor (2001), which itself was deemed an indulgent failure.  But, it wouldn’t be until he teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg that he would find the production that would ultimately define his career in a nutshell.  That project was Transformers (2007), a movie that showcases all the good and bad aspects of Michael Bay as a director.  It’s a well constructed, but emotionally hollow and obnoxiously indulgent film, that mirrors exactly the kind of person that we imagine Michael Bay to be, and sometimes are confirmed as much by his own actions.  Essentially, what we see in Michael Bay is someone that has been shaped by the industry, instead of himself shaping it.  He has become a workman who fulfills the obligations that are placed in front of him, but never once pushes to do anything beyond that.  And the sad truth is that because of this, he has limited himself as a storyteller.  One wonders what kind of filmmaker he might have been had he not skyrocketed so quickly, and had been trying to hone his skills for years in order to gain notoriety.  It might of meant he would have taken far more risks over the years, instead of just returning to that Transformers well again and again.   In this article, I’ll be looking at the different aspects that define Michael Bay the filmmaker, and see how they represent the good and the bad throughout his career.

1.

“BAYHEM”

If there is one thing defines Michael Bay as a director, it’s his very clear love for mayhem on screen.  Whether it is overblown pyrotechnics, or whiplash quick editing, or CGI enhanced screen filler, he definitely tries to fill every frame of his movie with activity.  This use of cinematic overkill has even been given it’s own term called “Bayhem,” owing it’s namesake to him specifically.  While Bayhem does illustrate the directors prowess on a technical level, it is often the thing that many people also hate about him as a filmmaker.  It may seem like so much activity on the screen helps to give the movie more epic weight, but oftentimes, it purely just numbs the audience down when it’s done way too much.  It’s cool seeing an explosion happen for the first time, but when it’s the ten one you’ve seen in a row in one action sequence, then it just doesn’t feel special anymore. Truth be told, nobody films an explosion better than Michael Bay.  Utilizing multiple camera set ups and a variety of tricks like slow motion, he can turn what was a quick explosion on the set and make it feel much bigger on screen.  Some spectacular instances of this include actual pyro blasts set off on real WWII era warships in Pearl Harbor, as well as the desert fight out in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  But, again, after you see one, you’ve seen them all, and too many in one film diminishes the returns over time.  The unfortunate result of Bay’s success, is that other filmmakers mistakenly believe that more “Bayhem” is exactly what their movies need too.  You see this in Transformer clones like Battleship (2012) and series reboots like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Power Rangers (2017).  The problem is that no amount of onscreen eye candy can fix a hollow story-line, and Bay’s problem is that he often puts visuals ahead of narrative.  It’s overall a mistaken belief that a static screen creates a boring scene, and that more thing going on within the frame will correct that.

2.

AMERICA

Every filmmaker has certain motifs that they like to return to over and over again, and Bay has his own as well.  If there is something that you can easily spot consistently throughout his movies, it’s the use of American iconography.  Bay steeps his films in heavy patriotic fervor, so much so that his movies are often criticized as being too “flag-waving” and sometimes even propaganda.  It’s not a bad thing necessarily to showcase the country you’re from in the best possible light; that’s his prerogative as a filmmaker.  But, again, like his use of cinematic mayhem, too much use of it eventually makes it feel hollow by the end.  Bay’s films are often carry over the patriotism further than what’s in the movie.  The American flag has been used several time as a background for the advertising of his movies, including the less reverential Pain & Gain (2013).  The only other filmmaker who uses the flag as much is Oliver Stone, but his intentions with the American flag are often meant to be ironic.  Still, Bay makes American iconography stand out in his movies, not just with the red, white, and blue, but also with it’s landscapes and landmarks.  He even set a whole movie within a famous American landmark with the Alcatraz set The Rock.  Perhaps Pearl Harbor demonstrates his Americana motif more than any other film, as it portrays everything about the places and people of it’s setting in a larger than life way.  The movie also demonstrates the very cozy relationship that Bay has with the armed services of the United States.  In exchange for a positive portrayal of the American military apparatus, Bay gets special access to film his movies with authentic military equipment and on location on their bases as well.  Some would say that makes Bay a propagandist, but at the same time, Bay is not deceitful in this aspect either.  He respects military men and women and tries to give them as heroic a portrayal as he possibly can.  One can’t fault his attraction to this motif, just the effectiveness that he utilizes it.

3.

MAGIC HOUR

If there is something that I can definitely praise Michael Bay for as a filmmaker, it’s his expert use of ‘magic hour” in his films, and his almost obsessive devotion to it.  For those who don’t know what “magic hour” is, it is the brief late afternoon span between say 5 and 7 pm when the lighting of the sun is just right to give a filmed image a distinctive, cinematic glow.  If a film is shot any earlier than than, like at “high noon” when the sun is at it’s brightest, everything will appear too washed out.  Michael Bay’s style has become unique in the industry because of how well he uses this “magic hour” to effect in his movies.  In fact, if you look at his entire filmography, you can easily see that the majority of his scenes are filmed in the “magic hour.”  Even morning scenes appear like they were shot in the late afternoon, just to give the movie the consistent look that Michael Bay desires.  And, for the most part, it works very well.  In the magic hour, Bay manages to balance light and dark in a more appealing way than it normally would if he shot the scene fully lit.  It also gives his movies a distinct feeling of atmosphere that also elevates the viewing experience.  In movies like Bad BoysThe Rock, and a few of the Transformers, he often uses “magic hour” as a way of conveying warm temperature, steaming up a scene to give his characters that extra element to work with.  It also gives Bay’s films an interesting hue of color that makes them feel distinct; not over-saturated with extreme high contrasted, but not washed out and pale either.  The only time I see the technique not used is in the night time scenes, which themselves are lit in a way that blends together with the “magic hour” moments.  So, despite Bay’s more unfortunate directorial choices, this is one that has actually benefited him as a filmmaker, and I hope that it’s a discipline that can extend to improve his other techniques.

4.

CGI… LOTS OF IT

One of the negative aspects of Michael Bay’s post-Transformers career trajectory is that it has made him far more reliant on CGI than he ever was before.  One wishes he would show more restraint and try more in camera effects like he had earlier in his career, because those scenes at least play to his strength as an expert in shooting pyrotechnics.  But, with Transformers, he began to look at CGI enhancement as a way of eliminating the middle man and giving his movies epic scale without ever having to set up the shot the normal way.  The unfortunate problem with this is that Michael Bay can’t compose a CGI template shot the same way that he can a practical effect.  He likes to move the camera around too much, and that impacts the way that we experience the CGI effect on screen.  Too often now we see his movies putting a lot of CGI activity on the screen without it ever leaving an impact on us.  The frantic camera movements combined with the overly animated effects also spotlight just how unreal the effects look as well.  You can tell that a lot of work went into creating the models of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, but we are never able to get a satisfyingly close look to appreciate them.  And Bay’s continued insistence on using CGI more in his movies often has the end result of looking cool, but never actually feeling cool.  This problem stems as far back as Armageddon, which itself suffered from too high a reliance on CGI effects.  Oftentimes, you couldn’t tell what was going on in a scene, especially when the characters are on the asteroid itself, because Bay never stops to let us appreciate the work.  My guess is that Bay is continually fascinated by the limitless potential of computer enhanced imagery, but he’s never picked up on learning the subtle applications that can make it work better.  Like everything else in his movies, it’s more mayhem masquerading as art.

5.

SELF-INDULGENT CHARACTERS

One other major complaint that Michael Bay has faced with every film is his serious lack of appealing characters.  In many ways, Bay likes to imagine every character in his films as an extension of himself.  They are often eccentric, cocky, have an air of superiority despite never earning it, a bit nerdy, and very self-involved.  Not all of Bay’s characters are unappealing though.  I found myself very much enjoying the quirkiness of Nicholas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed and the cockiness of Sean Connery’s Mason in The Rock, and the trio of Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie in Pain & Gain also proved to be a winning combination of Bay “bros.”  But, his style of characterizations only work when there is some other factor to balance them, like a more natural performance from a co-star or a supporting player.  But, when every character in the movie is cocky and brash, and very, very Bay-ish, then the movie suffers.  This is the big problem with the Transformers movies, because every character is an archetype, or even worse, a stereotype, which only makes them annoying and not redeeming.  The character of Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf) may in fact be one of the least appealing characters ever committed to cinema, purely because both Bay and LaBeouf mistakenly thought that defining his character as this cocky, self-absorbed nerd would actually click with audiences.  It’s a bad sign when your main character is so unlikable that he’s completely written out of the series with no explanation.  Unfortunately, Witwicky is only one of a wide range of poor character choices on Bay’s part.  There has to be a balance of diverse personalities to make your cast of characters appeal to all audiences, but when you fall in love with only one type of personality (even worse, one that mirrors yourself) then you alienate large sections of your audience that are put off by that personality, and that’s an unfortunate defining aspect of Michael Bay’s films.

Michael Bay is certainly unique within the industry, which I guess is a triumph in of itself.  He manages to continually deliver large scale productions, but is often condemned for being too self-indulgent.  Nevertheless, one cannot take away the fact that he has skill as a filmmaker, at least when it comes to the production side.  For someone who creates these massive scale productions, it is pretty remarkable that he’s able to deliver them on time and under-budget nearly consistently.  One wonders if a messier, more craft obsessed approach might have made him a better storyteller.  His style is still distinct and surprisingly influential.  I’ve talked about the Bay affect on action films today, which has varying degrees of success.  Bay even has some surprising fans out there, including an arguably way better director like Edgar Wright, who cites Bad Boys II as one of his all-time favorite movies.  Wright even pays homage to the Michael Bay style with his spoof movie Hot Fuzz (2007).  I won’t lie; not everything that Michael Bay has made has been terrible.  I often find that he’s at his best when he’s working outside of his element.  One of his best films is the little seen and very underrated The Island (2005), which has Bay working with a complex sci-fi concept and centering it around characters played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson that are not cocky and are actually worth caring for.  I kind of think that Bay missed the opportunity to improve himself as a filmmaker by latching on too quickly to success.  If he had been brought through the ringer in order to make it into the industry, he might have turned into quite an accomplished storyteller given his skill with the camera.  Instead, he’s become a product of the industry, someone there to churn out new product without ever taking any risks.  That’s why he continually keeps making the same movies over an over again, because he doesn’t want to disrupt his flow of work.  But as we’ve seen, a detour into the unknown has benefited him before.  In the end, he is a divisive figure in the industry, because he is the very representation of the mundane in the Hollywood machine.

The Director’s Chair – Martin Scorsese

When we think of the quintessential film director persona, a few faces certainly come to mind.  Usually it’s a larger than life individual who wields a strong commanding presence, with a touch of god-like will that strives to make everything on camera perfect.  While there are some directors that shy away from the spotlight, a few do step forward and not only give a face to the directing profession as a whole, but also become celebrities in their own right.  Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock were certainly the first of many film directors to become familiar faces to the average audience members, but their ability to put themselves forward also accomplished something even more than just extra publicity.  It made the director more accessible, and showed that this was a profession that was more than just work, but also a way of cementing authorship for the films they make.  The idea of the auteur filmmaker rose out of this time, and audiences began to take note that there was value in the collective works of each selective director and that it sparked interest in many wannabe filmmakers to follow in their footsteps.  But, even more important than the celebrity status that a film director achieves is what they choose to do with it.  Certainly most successful filmmakers today want to tell stories that have meaning and can inspire something in the viewer, but there are also a few that like to step back and view the medium of film-making as a whole and show the worth that it has in itself, and how it’s a gift that needs to be cultivated and preserved.  And certainly no filmmaker today has championed film history and preservation as passionately as Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese came out of an era of film-making that was decidedly separated from the Hollywood glitz and glamour of the past.  This was an era of rebel film-making, putting emphasis on darker story-lines and far less polished and grittier imagery.  Scorsese, who grew up in a impoverished immigrant community in Queens, New York, certainly brought the roughness of life on the streets with him as he began his film-making career, but he also brought with him a sense of the magical escapism that Hollywood also instilled into him, as he has been a lover of all cinema from childhood.  He was of a class of filmmakers during this time who had been reared up with cinema and were keenly aware of concept of auteurship in film-making.  That’s why today when you watch a Scorsese picture, even in some of the earlier ones, you see an assuredness of style that is un-mistakenly tied to the person that he is.  And it helps that he has a distinctive personality too.  The fast talking, hyperactive director is such a great ambassador of the film director profession, because he so perfectly articulates his process of film-making and convinces us the absolute power that cinema can have.  What I love best about Martin Scorsese is how he’s not just a great filmmaker, but also a champion of the art, casting the spotlight on cinema from all around the world that normally might fall through the cracks, and also advocating strongly for the preservation of cinematic treasures.  With his latest and very ambitious new film, Silence, about to be released nationwide, I thought it would be fitting to examine his body of work as a whole, and spotlight the things that define what makes up a Martin Scorsese picture.

1.

THE CRIMINAL UNDERWORLD

Scorsese has worked within a number of genres, but if there was ever one that made up the vast majority of his body of work, it would be the crime genre.  In many ways, the first thing you think about when you think of a Scorsese movie is that it has gangsters and mafioso in it.  Scorsese may not have set out to become the go to guy for crime thrillers, but it’s something that he has certainly embraced over the years.  And it’s easy to see why; he’s just so good at it.  Certainly being raised in Queens may have given him some insight into this world.  Though his family largely spared him from gang violence, it’s probably very likely that he had run across a few members of the mafia in his youth.  And this insight helps to give him a different perspective on the genre.  Instead of just portraying violence for it’s own sake in his gangster pictures, Scorsese looks deeper into the culture of organized crime, and shows it as this fascinating world of different personalities, some more extreme than others, who approach the American dream in their own way.  Indeed, it’s the characters that really define a Scorsese gangster picture.  Just look at all the character dynamics at play in Goodfellas (1990); with Ray Liotta’a even tempered Henry Hill clashing so vividly with Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in the famous “do I look funny to you” scene; a role that won Pesci an Oscar.   Scorsese also looks at criminal behavior outside of the New York crime world of his youth and gave us an interesting history of the mafia in Vegas with Casino (1995), and also the sometimes too often blurred lines between the crime world and the law with his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006).  He also used his unique style to spotlight the blue collar crime world with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).  But, the great thing about his mark on this genre is that he doesn’t resort to making them action movies.  He instead attempts to tell the story of American crime in our modern age, and vividly portray all the different characters that inhabit it.

2.

PERFORMANCES OF CHARACTER

Like the worlds that he portrays on screen, the other thing that Martin Scorsese meticulously cultivates in his films are the characters.  What particularly interests him however are characters that feel like they are fully part of the world he is creating; characters who live, breathe and completely exist in the story.  For these characters to work as well as they do, it means that Scorsese needs to have actors that he can have complete confidence in.  That’s why I think he’s a director that likes to work with the same set of actors over and over again.  You certainly see this in his crime films, which usually has the same character actors like Pesci or Frank Vincent playing the same kinds of roles, usually because they are so good at fitting that type of character.  But even outside of the crime genre, you see a love of Scorsese’s for actors who disappear into their role.  It’s something that I’m sure he valued in the two time he’s worked with the master of method acting, Daniel Day-Lewis, who starred in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002) respectively.  But there are two actors in particular that have especially defined his films over the years, and have been his two muses as it were.  They of course are Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio.  DeNiro was the face of Martin Scorsese’s early career, which focused more on the gritty underworld, with incredible raw performances as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980).  Both films in particular show the commitment to the role that DeNiro labored for, even to the point of transforming his physical appearance.  DiCaprio on the other hand is the perfect star for Scorsese’s newer era of more polished, matured era of film-making.  And in their work together, we see performance ranging from the reserved (Billy Costigan in The Departed), to the unhinged (Howard Hughes in The Aviator) to the completely bonkers (Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street) and all perfectly matched to Scorsese’s vision.  Keeping familial company with the same actors could become problematic for some filmmakers, but for Scorsese, it’s better to work with who you trust.

3.

THELMA SCHOONMAKER

Often times when you look at the closest collaborator that a director has, who’s the indispensable part of their team that makes the director’s style come through, it often comes down to either the writer or the cinematographer, because they shape the language and the look of any movie.  For Scorsese, his most essential collaborator has been his editor.  Mrs. Thelma Schoonmaker has edited nearly every single film that Scorsese has made, with Taxi Driver being the most notable exception.  Her influence can not be understated because her input into the movies is felt so strongly.  In particular, she is a master at with montage editing.  You see that in her work on Goodfellas and Casino, which have to convey time passage without losing the narrative flow.  The death montage from Goodfellas, which is set to the melody of Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” is a particularly great example of her work.  But her editing also provides some great insights into character, like the delirious moments of isolation seen in The Aviator (2004) or Shutter Island (2010), which perfectly underline the mental breakdowns of their protagonists.  She’s also a master of making the violence in the movies carry greater impact.  When a character dies in one of Scorsese’s movies, you feel the loss of life, because it often comes without warning.  It takes a keen eye for pacing to know when to shock an audience and when to hold off.  The shootings at the end of The Departed in particular are perfect illustrations of this, because Thelma does such a great job of making all the moments that come before the gunshots feel so relaxed.  Her slow motion stretching out of the boxing match in Raging Bull also carries that same impact, but in the opposite way.  That’s why every great Scorsese film is marked by the incredible work by Thelma Schoonmaker, who really stands as one of the greatest film editors of all time.  They complement each other perfectly and have been essential to bringing out the best in each other, as all the best film collaborators have done.

4.

 

CINEMATIC LITERACY

While not the first nor last filmmaker to emphasize the influence of cinema as a whole in his work, Scorsese nevertheless has been one of the most vocal in the field.  He has shown through both his movies and his advocacy that movies are his driving force.  He references other movies in his films all the time, either overtly or suddenly, and many times he will try to emulate another filmmaker’s style as a gesture to their impact on his own style.  I particularly noticed this after watching his new film Silence, which is thankfully playing early here where I live in Los Angeles.  The Japan set feature has many moments that feel very much inspired by the work of Akira Kurosawa, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was intentional on Scorsese’s part.  He’s been a fan of Kurosawa’s work for many years and even got to act in one of the Japanese master’s last films (1990’s Dreams, where he played Vincent Van Gogh), so it’s not inconceivable that he looked to Kurosawa’s films for inspiration when making Silence.  There are other clever ways that Scorsese has worked his knowledge of film history into some of his own movies.  In The Aviator, there’s a subtle but noticeable trick he does with the cinematography that helps to convey the time period.  For the first hour or so of the film, the color is graded in a way to make it look like the two strip color processing of the early 1930’s, which made everything look awash in sick greens and tan-ish reds.  Only a student of film history, like myself, would notice the difference and I’m glad that he put in the effort to include it there.  Scorsese also made a film that more acutely spotlighted his passion for film in 2011’s Hugo, a surprisingly family-friendly effort for the director.  In Hugo, we see the growth of a young boy who discovers the magic of cinema and helps a long forgotten master of the art, Georges Melies, believe in himself again.  I have no doubt that Hugo was a personal statement for the director and it’s really encouraging to see him share that with a movie that can speak to audiences of all ages.

5.

 

RELIGION

If there is also another common theme that runs throughout his movies alongside violence and cinematic influences, it would be religion.  Scorsese himself has even stated, “My whole life has been movies and religion.  That’s it.  Nothing else.”  Naturally coming from an Italian immigrant family, the Catholic Church was a strong influence in his upbringing.  He even strongly considered joining the seminary to become a priest before a career in the cinematic arts came calling.  Even still, his Catholic faith remains a strong point of inspiration in his movies, sometimes focused on in surprising ways.  Though devout, Scorsese is not one to use his films to proselytize or preach.  Instead, he looks at religion from a very introspective angle, looking at the many good and negative things that faith brings to the world.  You see characters who deal with the conflicts of faith and real life in his crime movies like Mean Streets (1973) and The Departed (2006).  There are also films that very directly address man’s relationship with God in this world.  His first real statement on this was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which was widely panned by religious organizations because of it’s perceived flawed and too human portrayal of Jesus Christ, which is a misreading of the film’s intentions entirely.  He also examined faith of a different kind with Kundun (1997), a movie about the early life of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.  And his new film, Silence, also focuses on religion, this time telling the story of two Jesuit priests trying to spread the faith in a part of the world that might never be able to accept it.  In all of these, you see Scorsese finding meaning in the complicated notions of religion and presenting an interesting voice that represents his own level of faith; one that is aware of it’s limits and interested in reaching for a deeper understanding.   His religious themed movies have a better grasp on religion overall than most other faith based films, so that is something that alone makes him a god send in the film community.

Even in these latter years of his amazing career, Scorsese is still a filmmaker that takes chances, which is itself something remarkable.  Just looking at something like The Wolf of Wall Street, you would think that it’s a movie made by some up and coming energetic hotshot and not from a seasoned veteran.  But, at the age of 74 as of this writing, Scorsese is not only slowing down, he’s revving up.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a manic, full of life cinematic wonder that perfectly resembles the energy of the man himself and the way he tells a story.  And it’s this kind of personal drive that he’s brought into every film he makes.  Scorsese is the kind of filmmaker that makes film-making look like the greatest job in the world.  It’s his love for trying new things and for being unashamedly in love with the medium of film itself that opened the door for other voices like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, and a whole host of other self-reflexive filmmakers.  His passion for keeping the history of film preserved is something that has also earned him due praise and you can’t help but wonder what treasures we may have lost over the years had people like Scorsese not worked hard to save them.  In addition, his personality alone makes one want to keep up with his body of work and follow in his footsteps to making films themselves.  It just shows that if you want to make films that have a great sense of character to them, it helps to be a character yourself, at least one that everybody can end up loving in the end.  Whether he’s sharing his love for cinema, or showing the gritty reality of life in the criminal underworld, or giving a personal introspection into faith, Scorsese is without a doubt a master storyteller and one of the greatest filmmakers of our time or any time.

The Director’s Chair – The Coen Brothers

While film-making in general is a collaborative process, the role that takes the most prominence in the creation of a film is that of the director.  It’s the director who makes sure that everything captured in the camera’s frame is precisely in tune with the storytelling.  Primary among all their different tasks on the set is to guide the rest of the production team itself, ensuring that everything that the camera captures creates the perfect illusion of life.  This includes working with the cinematographer to determine how the film will be shot, dictating to the production designers what is needed on the set to fill each shot with foreground and background details, and of course, helping the actors find the motivation they’ll need to perform as their character within each scene.  It’s a multifaceted job that requires a lot of personal involvement, and that is why the director is often given the most important credit on a film.  Authorship in film-making often falls to the director, because they are the chief creative force behind each project.  In many cases, there are filmmakers whose style is so distinctive, that you can look at their whole body of work and see some chief characteristics that define it as a whole.  That’s why I wanted to start a new series for this site dedicated to looking at the distinctive film-making styles and cinematic breakthroughs made by some of the most celebrated filmmakers.  Entitled “The Director’s Chair,” my hope is to spotlight a different director in each entry of this series and spotlight 5 distinctive things about each one that has made them a special contributor to cinematic history, whether it be a distinctive trademark, a unique cinematic style, or just the impact that they have left on the industry as a whole.  And for the premiere article in this series, I decided to not just look at only one director, but instead spotlight two filmmakers that somehow have established themselves under a singular visionary style: the Coen Brothers.

Joel and Ethan Coen have worked together continuously for the last 32 years, beginning with their debut film Blood Simple in 1984, all the way up to their most recent film, Hail, Caesar (2016), and they plan on continuing to collaborate for many years to come.  They’re working relationship has been so close in fact, that they’ve often been jokingly referred to as “The Two-Headed Director.”  And it’s easy to see why.  While many other films that have been directed by two or more directors feel disjointed in their storytelling, every single Coen Brother movie is uniformly distinct and feels characteristically in line with every other movie they have made.  Sure, their style has evolved over the years, moving from the straight-forward thrills of Blood Simple to the complex, psychological tension of No Country for Old Men (2007), but the Coen Brother’s filmography has become something quite unique in the world of film-making that is purely of their own design.  One of the main reasons they have built such a unique body of work is mainly because of that close collaboration.  They write, produce and direct all of their movies, as well as work solely on the editing, under the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes.  They also remain in charge of picking each of their projects; never taking on a commercial studio production and always working independently.  It’s worked out for the most part, apart from a few misguided speed bumps (2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers).  Their ability to experiment in different genres has also given their filmography a nice bit of variety, even though their style remains the same.  And among their body of work, distinctive characteristics become apparent, and it’s those features that I want to elaborate upon in this article, and see how they define each of the different films that the Coen Brothers have made over the years.

1.

CHARACTERS

barton fink

If there was ever something that truly defined a Coen Brothers movie, it would be the unforgettable characters that populate them.  The Coens are masters of creating easily definable, enduring characters in their movies, and it’s mainly because their characters are perfect representations of every day human foibles personified in a single being.  Whenever we watch a Coen film, we always end up remembering these characters.  We don’t always remember their names, but we remember their personalities.  There are some extreme personalities that exist within their strange universe, such as John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998), or Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona (1987), but the most endearing characters the Coen Brothers have ever created are the ones more grounded in reality.  One of their most beloved creations would have to be Marge Gunderson from Fargo (1996), played by Joel Coen’s own real life spouse Frances McDormand.  Marge, a pregnant small town cop in the American Midwest, is such a fascinating character in the movie simply by being so ordinary.  Her charm is not in being quirky, but by being the audience’s eyes into the crazy world that she stumbles into, and the more identifiable she is, the more we relate to her.  She’s just the average working class American hero, the kind of person who you’d want to meet in real life and listen to her stories, and that’s why we love her.  Another interesting aspect of Coen Brother characters is their often helpless situation.  The Coens had a religious upbringing in the Jewish faith, and while their movies aren’t based in religion, some biblical themes do manifest within their stories; in particular, the story of Job.  Like the biblical character, many of their characters often have to deal with situations well out of their control.  But while Job was shown mercy by God in the Bible, Coen Brother characters often left out to dry with no redemption or hope, like John Turturro’s Barton Fink or Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man (2009), or Oscar Isaac’s Llewellyn Davis in Inside Llewellyn Davis (2013).

2.

fargo

PITCH BLACK COMEDY

Another trademark aspect of the Coen Brothers’ movies is their incredibly dark sense of humor.  There are certainly some Coen Brother films that are more serious than others, but the one thing that defines them all is a twisted, often absurdist outlook on the world.  Oftentimes this is played off of the different quirks of the characters interacting with one another, but other times it’s because of the completely insane situations that the characters find themselves in.  Fargo is often cited as one of the perfect examples of a black comedy, and that’s due to the film’s horrific situation of kidnapping and murder being undercut by the silly personalities involved within it.  Any other filmmaker would have played a story like Fargo straight, but the Coens found the interesting angle of exploring how this situation would play out within this type of Western Minnesota community.  The backwaters setting and peculiar regional accent are certainly poked fun at within the movie (never in a mean spirited way though) and that helps the audience to find the humor in such a bleak story.  Some of the Coens’ more broader comedies also are injected with some horrifically dark moments, showing just how masterfully the Coens can walk the fine line between the unsettling and the hilarious.  A perfect example of that would be in the movie Burn After Reading (2008), where Brad Pitt’s dimwitted character Chad sneaks into the home of George Clooney’s equally dim Harry.  When discovered hiding inside a closet, the funny moment suddenly turns dark as the startled Harry shoots Chad in the head in a very grisly and graphic way.  By shifting the tone so dramatically, it actually punctuates the moment making it even more hilarious, just cause of the audacity of the Coens to go that extreme in the moment.  That’s why their comedy works so well, because of the fearless way that they shock our sensibilities in order to get a laugh out of us.

3.

no country for old men

SHOT AND REVERSE SHOT

Something about the Coen Borthers’ style that might not be apparent to most viewers right away is the masterful use of one of cinema’s oldest techniques.  Shot and Reverse Shot, or the practice of editing between characters to establish on-going action during scenes of dialogue, is a technique as old as cinema itself and is often taken for granted by most filmmakers.  The Coen Brothers on the other hand use this technique to it’s full advantage by crafting their movies around it.  Character interactions are key parts of any Coen Brother film, so it makes it more important to capture the little reactions each character makes in each scene, because it reveals a lot about them that the writing itself cannot tell.  The Coens capture this by changing the rules a little bit with their framing.  Most dialogue conversations between two characters in movies are usually done over the shoulder, putting both actors in the frame.  The Coens put the camera in between the characters and capture each actor in a single composition.  By cutting back and forth between the two actors, they are able to emphasize more of the reactions that each character gives the other in their conversations, and given the way they edit each scene, those different reactions can often determine the tone.  Probably the most brilliant example of this is the Gas Station scene from No Country for Old Men, where Javier Bardem’s villainous Anton Chigurh asks the petrified proprietor (Gene Jones) “what’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss.”  Apart from a single insert of a candy wrapper, every moment in this scene is in one-shots of the two actors.  The choices of how long to stay on each shot and when to cut back to the other determines the tempo of this whole scene, and it is a masterwork of building tension.  By determining which character is focused on in each shot, the Coens establish how important their reaction must be, and thereby reveal more about what each one of them is thinking.  By perfectly executing a technique that most of us take for granted, the Coens make their stories resound a whole lot more than they normally would, and it’s a testament to their skills as filmmakers.

4.

o brother where art thou

ROGER DEAKINS

The Coen Brothers often fill many of the most important roles themselves, but the one position that they rest heavily on the shoulders of someone else is that of the cinematographer, and they could not have found a better man for the job than Roger Deakins.  Deakins is, apart from the Coens themselves, the one most responsible for crafting the look of a Coen Brothers film.  Since first working with the duo on Barton Fink (1991), Deakins has been the cinematographer on almost all of their subsequent films.  And even the movies of their that he didn’t work on, like Burn After Reading (shot by Emmanuel Lubezski) and Inside Llewellyn Davis (shot by Bruno Delbonnel) still retain a Deakins inspired aesthetic to them, showing just how much the Coens value his input.  Roger Deakins style is a perfect match for the Coen Brothers, because it perfectly understates the style of storytelling they are after.  Deakins often muted colors and faded lighting helps to define the bleakness of the Coen Brothers’ world, and his extensive use of wide-angle lenses help to make much of the real world details of the settings part of the focus along with the characters.  It was because of him that the Coens put the camera in between the actors for their scenes of dialogue, because of his interest of showing the characters within their environment as part of each scene, making their uses of the Reverse Shot technique all the more effective.  I also like how his choices of color grading help to enrich the setting of each film.  When you look at the washed out colors of O Brother, Where art Thou (2000), or the Black and White photography of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), you get a strong sense of a bygone time that these two movies are trying to invoke.  The Coen Brothers movies have a distinct look all their own, and it’s because of the valued input of a high class cinematographer like Roger Deakins that we can identify a Coen film from all the rest purely in a visual sense.

5.

the big lebowski

UNRESOLVED NARRATIVES

One of the things that I love about a Coen Brothers’ movie is the fact that they rarely play by the standard rules of storytelling.  Whereas most Hollywood films follow a simple three act structure, Coen Brothers movies tend to be much more flexible.  This is mostly due to the brothers’ writing style, which relies less on pre-planning and instead involves them just writing scenes out and letting the story build out of that.  This can be infuriating to viewers who just want a story to go somewhere familiar, but the way that the Coens build their stories as they go along actually feels very refreshing.  And the unique thing that I noticed about a number of their movies is that they don’t resolve themselves at the end; at least not in a conventional way.  Oftentimes, each story just seems to play out as a series of unfortunate events that ultimately change nothing about their main character’s life in the long run.  In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ Dude gets involved in a caper involving kidnapping and ransoms, but instead of him figuring the mystery out and triumphantly exposing the conspiracy around him, the whole plot ends up resolving itself without his help and he just goes back to the life he had before, apart from losing his car, his rug, and his friend Donny (Steve Buscemi) in unrelated incidents.  Burn After Reading goes even further by stopping the movie cold right after John Malkovich’s character murders Richard Jenkin’s character with a hatchet.  The scene shifts abruptly to J.K. Simmons’ CIA director literally closing the book on the crazy case told in the movie and simply asking, “What did we learn?”  Sometimes this unconventional route can be frustrating, like Josh Brolin dying off-screen in No Country for Old Men, but other times it can be provocative, like the ambiguous Tornado finale A Serious Man, and it’s that ability to not take the conventional route that makes the Coen Brothers movies memorable in the end.  I like that they don’t have to rely on happy endings, or have their characters transform by film’s end, because usually it’s those differences that make the story better.

It’s easy to see why the Coens are some of the most beloved filmmakers working today.  Remarkably, they are two minds that have created a singular vision and it’s one that has maintained it’s own, uncompromising character over several, now classic films.  They are celebrated the world over, with Joel Coen being the only 3 time winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival (for Barton FinkFargo, and The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the duo being only the second team of Directors to ever win the award for Best Director at the Oscars for No Country for Old Men (the other two winners being Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, sharing for West Side Story in 1961).  The Coen Brothers have also had a long lasting legacy in cinema, with Fargo now adapted into a critically acclaimed series on FX.  The Big Lebowski is also considered today to be among one of the funniest and most often quoted movies ever made, also turning the Dude into a cultural icon in the process.  Regardless if you find their style appealing or not, each one of their movies is worth looking at; even some of the bad ones.  I particularly think that the back-to-back masterpieces of Fargo and The Big Lebowski perfectly illustrate the brilliance of the brothers at the peak of their craft.  The Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men is also a cinematic treasure worth experiencing.  And if you haven’t seen it already, please watch their newest film Hail Ceaser, which is a near perfect love letter to classic Hollywood that any film buff will enjoy.  Watching any film of theirs becomes especially interesting when you start to notice the common themes and stylistic choices that tie them all together, especially with their editing choices and their twisted sense of humor.  It’s filmmakers like them that make it so enriching to look at their body of work as a whole, which I hope to continue with more beloved filmmakers in future articles like this.