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The Director’s Chair – William Friedkin

There are very few filmmakers out there who left quite the impression that the late William Friedkin had made, both behind the camera and in front.  Part of the young crop of filmmakers that rose up in the late 60’s and early 70’s as part of the “New Hollywood” movement, Friedkin was a maverick in every sense of the word.  His unglamorous, documentarian style was so unlike what the rest of the industry was making, and it grabbed a hold of audiences in a way that took many industry insiders by surprise.  He was also a brash, opinionated auteur who was not afraid of speaking his mind, even when it would burn a bridge or two with other creative collaborators.  But there was no one in all of Hollywood, even among his detractors, who denied Friedkin’s talents as a filmmaker.  He has gone on to become one of the most influential filmmakers of the last half century, with directors like John Singleton singling him out as a particular inspiration in their work.  And though the New Hollywood era came to an end with the dawn of the age of blockbusters in the 1980’s, Friedkin would continually still find work both inside and outside of Hollywood.  In addition to being a part-time film school instructor (including at my own film school Chapman University, though sadly before my time there), Friedkin would continue to direct small films for the big screen as well as for television, and remarkably enough was also a director of operas both in his home base of Los Angeles and for the National Opera in Washington.  Even in his final year, he was still working on what would be his final film, Showtime Network’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (2023), showing that even at the age of 87 he remained a tireless storyteller.

Friedkin was born in 1935 in Chicago, Illinois to a family of Jewish Ukrainian emigrants.  Given the person he would become one day, it may be surprising to know that he didn’t see his first film until he was 16.  But the movie that introduced him to the art of cinema would be a profound one and it would shape the course of the rest of his life.  That film was Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles, and anyone familiar with Friedkin’s filmography will undoubtedly find the aura of Kane looming large over Friedkin’s particular style.  Friedkin became a true cineaste afterwards and he spent much of his young adulthood indulging in the masterworks of that time period, both domestic and foreign.  Eventually, upon graduating high school, he gained a position working for the local Chicago WGN television station.  After working his way up from the mail room, he was granted the chance to direct programming for the station.  Friedkin would excel as a documentarian in those years, winning accolades and awards for documentaries like The People vs. Paul Crump (1962) and Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon (1965).  Eventually, he grabbed the attention of movie studios who were looking to make use of his talents as a director.  He initially started out with a Sonny and Cher movie called Good Times (1965) which he later described as “unwatchable.”  But, this experience did lead him towards directing an adaptation of the Mart Crowley play The Boys in the Band (1970).  Though Friedkin is not gay himself, he is lauded by the LGBTQ community for directing the first mainstream film to contain positive portrayals of queer identity, and Freidkin over the years did consider it one of his own personal favorites.  But, what came after may be one of the best back to back triumphs of any filmmaker in Hollywood ever.  He would go on to direct the crime drama The French Connection (1971), which would be an astounding hit that ended up sweeping the Academy Awards, including a win for Willaim who at the time was the youngest Best Director winner ever at the age of 35.  To follow that up, he directed the horror themed The Exorcist (1973) which even to this day is still one of the highest grossing films in history adjusted for inflation.  Of course, astounding heights soon lead to depressing lows, and Friedkin’s follow-up, Sorcerer (1977), despite being an impressive cinematic achievement was also plagued by production problems and was unable to make-up it’s colossal budget at the box office.  Friedkin’s remaining career would experience ups and downs, but it never quite returned to the height it had in the early 70’s.  But, it never got Freidkin down as he remained active all the way up to his passing earlier this year.  In this article, I will be taking a look at all of the important factors that made a William Friedkin film stand out in the cinematic crowd.



A lot of filmmakers carry the tricks of the trade that they started out with along with them as they create their body of work over time, and William Friedkin is no different.  From a filmmakers style, you can tell if they started off as a commercial director, a television director, or a documentarian before they got into narrative film.  Friedkin was definitely the latter, and it’s that documentarian spirit in his film-making that really makes his style stand out.  Every movie he made has a very voyeuristic feel to them, like the camera has unexpectedly captured a moment.  Friedkin’s films make particularly heavy use of hand held photography, which are especially present in his action scenes.  While Friedkin didn’t invent the first person car chase sequence on film (Bullit had done that back in 1968), his team did take it to the next level.  The car chase in The French Connection is one of the most wild and visceral action sequences ever put on screen, with Friedkin upping the ante by having Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chasing an commuter train.  The whole sequence has a chaotic feel and that’s because Friedkin is shooting the sequence with any artificiality involved.  Real cars on real roads, with the camera right there in the passenger seat.  For Friedkin, cinema was about getting as close to reality as possible, even if the story was something supernatural like The Exorcist.  And the documentarian in Friedkin’s style can even be found in the quieter dialogue moments, as he often shots his subjects from far away with shallow depths of field, again like he’s catching a moment rather than staging one.  Though the scales of his movies changed over time, Friedkin still would use his documentarian instincts in most of the films he made over the years.  His groundbreaking French Connection car chase scene would inspire similarly impressive action scenes in his later films like To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Jade (1995).  Friedkin would also continue to create the occasional documentary, including 2007’s The Painter’s Voice and 2017’s The Devil and Father Amorth.  Documentaries was the language of cinema where he found his voice, and it’s something that he carried with him all the way through his career.



One other thing that comes from a documentary background is the sense of letting the unexpected happen in order to create a magical moment on film.  This is something that certainly has it’s rewards, but also it’s consequences as well on a movie set.  Ever the maverick filmmaker, Friedkin would often make his movies with a sort of reckless abandon, hoping to create very naturalistic results for his film.  In many cases, this would bring his cast and crews dangerously close to the edge.  There are many stories from the sets of his movies of near death experiences and on set injuries.  That previously mentioned car chase from the French Connection was notoriously shot in some instances without a permit, making it illegal and dangerously hazardous to unsuspecting pedestrians that may have gotten a little too close to the shooting location.  There is one shot that made it into the movie where the stunt car has to quickly swerve out of the way of a pedestrian, and you see the car jump a curb, hit a trash can and nearly miss the camera by just a couple feet.  This is a chaotic way to make a film, but the end result is one of the most famous chase sequences in movie history.  Friedkin likewise used some extreme tactics on the set of The Exorcist.  Young Linda Blair experienced minor injuries from the ropes used to flail her around on the bed during her exorcism scene, and actor Jason Miller also violently confronted the director after he fired a gun near his ear in order to get the right startled reaction from him.  These were pretty extreme measures taken in order to create the amount of authenticity that Friedkin desired for his films.  No one would argue with him, as long as the results panned out.  This mode of filmmaking eventually came to a head with the filming of Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s big budget remake of Henri Georges-Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953).  The film is celebrated today as a colossal achievement in filmmaking, but Friedkin’s chaotic instincts got the best of him as the movie’s production turned into an over-budget mess that couldn’t recoup at the box office, showing his limits for the first time in Hollywood.  Most of the movies he made since then would try to replicate the action dynamics of his early years, but he would do so without the same amount of chaos, keeping things smaller and more controlled.



Apart from his attraction to darker themed movies, Friedkin also was drawn to stories centered around imperfect characters.  While a lot of Hollywood dramas wanted to leave the viewer with a good sense of good triumphing over evil, Friedkin liked to view the deeds of people who operate within shades of gray.  The main characters in his movies are often people just skirting on the edge of the right side of the law and are not so easy to root for from the start.  No character better exemplifies this than Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection, brilliantly portrayed by Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance.  Hackman plays Doyle as a brash, unorthodox cop with violent tendencies and often a very racist attitude.  At the same time, we also see that he is the best person for the job in hunting down the villainous French drug kingpins that are plaguing his city.  Most of Friedkin’s movies would follow along with main characters that exemplify these moral gray areas, because in Friedkin’s worldview, there is no such thing as a pure hero.  These are real characters and like all real people, they have character flaws that make them far more interesting and individualistic.  The story then becomes how well the characters overcome their flaws in order to succeed in the end.  This is definitely true of all the characters in Sorcerer, where their initial motivation is greed but ultimately by the end it becomes about survival.  Some of Friedkin’s characters in the later part of his career also fall on different sides of that moral gray area.  In The Hunted (2003), the movie comes down to a battle of wits between two battle weary killers played by Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro.  Matthew McConaughey plays both sides of the law in Killer Joe (2011), as both a cop and an assassin.  Even the purer characters in his movies carry some kind of baggage with them that keep them from being just purely good and moral.  That’s true of the two priests in The Exorcist, Father Karras and Father Merrin (Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow respectively), as both are experiencing their own crises of faith in their own way as they try to summon the strength to battle an otherworldly evil.  It’s clear that Friedkin was never interested in the traditional standard of characterization from Hollywood, where good and evil was so black and white.  And that’s why he’s so celebrated now as a storyteller as his characters stand out as uniquely amoral.



There is something in William Friedkin’s style that very much owes a lot to classic Hollywood, and it’s something that harkens back to the movie that made him from the very beginning.  To his dying day, William Friedkin stated that Citizen Kane was his all time favorite film, and it shows very much in his body of work.  In particular, there’s something within Friedkin’s movies which has become known as a “Citizen Kane” shot.  In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles would accentuate the largeness of his character by shooting many scenes from low angles; so low in fact that special trenches had to be dug on the set for the cameraman to get as low to the floor as possible.  As a result, you see something in Citizen Kane that is often out of view in most movies, which is the ceiling.  William Friedkin loved this kind of camera angle so much that he frequently used in most of his films.  When the camera isn’t handheld in a scene to accentuate the action, Friedkin will often have it still and low to the floor, helping to still maintain that voyeuristic element.  While there is at least one of this kind of shot in the majority of his movies, it’s The Exorcist where you see the “Citizen Kane” shot deployed the most.  He keeps the camera low for most of the movie, which may have been a necessity given the fact that they were shooting in a real home for most of the movie as opposed to a soundstage set so space was likely limited.  At the same time, it gives an extra sense of claustrophobia as the visible ceiling boxes the scene of the exorcism in all that much more.  That confined feeling really elevates the violence on screen too, as the demonic paranormal activity of things flying around the room feel reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s violent outburst at the end of Citizen Kane, again with the low angle making the moment feel all the more visceral for the viewer who feels trapped.  It is beautiful to see the full circle of cinema as one cinematic classic is responsible for inspiring another in an unexpected way.



Violence is another crucial ingredient in William Friedkin’s movies.  But, unlike a lot of other action movie directors, he never once glamorizes his violence.  If anything, he wants the viewer to experience how truly ugly violence really is.  In his films, every violent act is shocking and brutal, even if it isn’t always bloody.  This is definitely true of the controlled chaotic movies of his early career, where there is a crazed manic energy to the violence in those films.  The most violent parts of The Exorcist achieve the effect that Friedkin desired, which is to make you feel uneasy and afraid.  It was reported at the time that many people would faint in the theater watching The Exorcist because of the sheer amount of unrelenting shock the viewer would go through in the movie.  As film standards loosened around what was acceptable with on screen violence, Friedkin would continue to push the boundaries to their limit.  His late career films are a great example of how he was trying to go as far as he could with on screen violence.  The Hunted features some very visceral moments of violence, particularly in the climatic riverside brawl between Jones and Del Toro.  Bug (2006) brought in the kind of claustrophobic insanity that you can find him recalling the close quarter violence of scenes from The Exorcist.  And Killer Joe became that rare movie to be slapped with an NC-17 rating for it’s violence.  But never once does Friedkin try to indulge and glamorize in any of that violence.  It’s always treated as an ugly action, and his use of it within his movies is part of his attempt to capture a sense of realism within his scenes.  There really is no other director out there who makes the spilling of blood on screen feel more real and personal than William Friedkin and it’s something that really has made him stand out as an influential filmmaker.

I have talked before on this site many times about my attendance for many years at the annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.  While there are many memories that I cherish from my time at the festival, some of my favorite moments are the ones that William Friedkin was a part of.  I feel so fortunate to have seen William Friedkin live in person at the festival not once but twice, for screenings of The French Connection and The Exorcist especially.  The Exorcist screening in particular stands out as one of my all time favorite festival experiences, as Mr. Friedkin shared an hour’s worth of stories and anecdotes from his experience working on the movie.  It was amazing seeing this filmmaker well into his eighties still manage to captivate an audience just through telling his own story on stage.  He was long winded to be sure, but we the audience didn’t care, because his stories were just so fascinating to listen to.  There is no doubt that he lived a wild life, and that is clear from the movies that he left behind.  He certainly was not a perfect human being, given some the controversial ways he made his movies, but at the same time perfection was never something he valued.  He was perhaps the best personification of what we knew as “New Hollywood;” a filmmaker who sought to break all the old rules and turn cinema into something different for a new generation.  At the same time, he was a man that still had a reverence for classic cinema; in particular for the films of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.  He remained a champion for the movies all his life, and it’s satisfying to see that he did indeed leave an impact.  So many action films today owe a debt to the innovations he made as a filmmaker, especially with the documentarian, in the middle of it style that he applied to the violent moments within his movies.  It’s also worth revisiting a lot of his film analysis from his scholarly years, especially when you see him getting especially salty in some interviews.  The man was just as much of a character in real life as the ones he put up on screen.  I will definitely miss his presence at the festival screenings, and I feel honored to have been there for the ones that I did see him attend.  He was certainly a giant in the history of cinema, and he thankfully never grew out of his reputation of being a maverick filmmaker.

The Director’s Chair – Mel Brooks

There are certainly quite a few filmmakers who have shaped what we know as American comedy.  From the silent era masters like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to the current standard bearers of contemporary comedy like Adam McKay and Judd Apatow, there have been many great writers and directors who have helped us all to laugh over the last century of cinema.  One of the most prolific and influential filmmakers to have come out of this grand tradition is himself nearing the century mark, and not slowing down even into his late 90’s.  That director is the timeless Mel Brooks.  Brooks is universally beloved throughout the world of comedy, and his films are continuously ranked among the funniest of all time.  He also has made movies that have remained hotly debated even many years later, as he was the kind of filmmaker that wasn’t afraid to tackle some hot button issues with a satirical eye.  A lot of his style emerged out of his background in writing jokes and sketches for television.  There is a playfulness to his movies, straddling very much.  And even with his background in television, he surprisingly had a very cinematic eye, as his movies often go to great lengths to replicate the same kinds of movies that they are parodying.  Mel’s filmography remains very much the gold standard of modern comedy when looking at how best to find truth in mockery.  Though his movies are often farcical and perversions of genre conventions, they at the same time can be considered prime examples of those same genres and quite impressive film achievements in their own right.  But what exactly is it that puts Mel Brooks’ comedies in such high esteem.  For the most part, it’s about trusting in the audience and subverting their expectations; comedy in the unexpected.  Whether it’s with a funny line of dialogue, an elaborate visual gag that takes absurdity to another level, or just a general feeling of silliness through the whole movie, Mel Brooks seemed to have the instinctual knowledge of what would make every second of his movies the funniest it could be.

Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn 1926, Mel formed his comedic chops through working odd jobs in the Borscht Belt venues in Upstate New York.  Absorbing the influence of the entertainers and stand-up comedians that performed at these venues, he later gained the confidence to perform stand-up comedy himself; taking the stage for the first time at the age of 16.  Working in comedy clubs through the post-War years eventually helped him gain the attention of comedian Sid Caesar, who was about to launch a new career in television, with the program Your Show of Shows.  Mel was offered a position as a staff writer, where he met another writer and performer on the show, Carl Reiner, who would remain a lifelong friend of Mel’s for the next 70 years, up until Carl’s passing in 2020.  Mel would write several classic sketches Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour afterwards, and he even got to appear on screen a couple times himself, most notably as a character he dubbed the 2,000 Year Old Man.  In the 1960’s, Mel teamed up with another legendary comedy writer, Buck Henry, to create what many consider to be one of the greatest TV comedies ever; the spy spoof called Get SmartGet Smart ran for 5 successful seasons, earning Mel a few Emmy awards along the way.  But, he found himself being drawn more and more towards film, and he knew he had a story that would be his big breakthrough.  He wrote and directed his first feature The Producers in 1967, starring Zero Mostel and newcomer Gene Wilder, and it was a smash hit and cemented Mel Brooks as a force on the big screen in addition to the small screen.  Over the next decade, he would be known as the King of Spoofs, as he exceled at flipping different genres on their head, as well as mocking quite a few other conventions in the process.  While he began with general genre send-ups like Westerns with Blazing Saddles (1974) and sword and sandal epics with History of the World Part I (1981), the later part of his career would make fun of very specific popular movies like Spaceballs (1987) being a parody of Star Wars (1977).  His last film, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) sadly paled in comparison to his earlier work, but Mel would indeed find a new creative front in live theater where he achieved record breaking success with a musical adaptation of The Producers, netting him a record 12 Tonys in the process.  This resulted in him achieving EGOT status, and there’s no doubt that he is deserving of that high honor.  Arguably he is the funniest person to ever become an EGOT.  But, it’s his cinematic work that we are focusing on here, so let’s examine the different elements that distinguish Mel Brooks as a filmmaker.



Certainly the first thing you think about when looking over Mel Brooks’ body of work is that he almost exclusively made parody movies.  It’s something that he didn’t set out to do initially, as his first two movies were either based on an original idea (The Producers) or a source novel (The Twelve Chairs).  The year that certainly pushed Mel towards the direction of parody movies was 1974, when he created two classics back to back.  Young Frankenstein (1974) and Blazing Saddles both released in the same year, and they both show Mel’s incredible knack for not only parodying the plots of certain movie genres, but also their visual aesthetic.  Young Frankenstein is a beautiful black and white recreation of the classic Universal Monster movie, even down to the shot compositions and mood lighting, which contrast very well with the absurdist shenanigans that Mel has his actors do in each of the scenes.  Blazing Saddles likewise is shot the same way that Western masters like John Ford and Howard Hawkes would’ve filmed a John Wayne vehicle.  In fact, Mel tips his hat a little to the history of Hollywood westerns by zooming out of a climatic fight scene to show that he’s making the movie on the same Warner Brothers Studio backlot that so many of those other Westerns were filmed on.  Subsequently, the raucous fight spills over into the other parts of the studio lot in a hilarious escalation, eventually ending in, of all places, the Chinese Theater.  One of his later films, Spaceballs, is probably the most elaborate spoof he’s ever undertaken, recreating even some of the groundbreaking effects from the movie it’s parodying, Star Wars, which helps to make the absurdity even more hilarious.  He one upped light speed with “ludicrous speed” and his special effects team managed to make even that look cutting edge on screen.  Though he is merciless to poking fun at these movies, you can also tell that Mel loves the films he’s spoofing as well.  Parody is often the highest form flattery, and his send ups of these genres demonstrates his general love for the movies as a whole.  Considering the care he puts into recreating the look of the movies he’s spoofing, it’s clear that he is an enthusiastic student of film himself.



While he always keeps his movies humorous and irreverent, Mel Brooks is also not afraid to take on some touchy subjects in his movies also.  This is definitely evident in his earlier films, which pushed quite a few buttons when they first came out.  The most obviously incendiary example of this was the movie Blazing Saddles.  The focal point of the movies is America’s rough legacy of racism, something that was even baked in to the Westerns made by Hollywood in it’s early years.  Mel came up with the novel idea of what it would be like if a small backwards racist town in the American West had to rely upon the protection of a black man as their sheriff.  Naturally, you would expect there to be tension, and Mel Brooks did not shy away.  Aided by a smart and fearless script co-written by legendary comedian Richard Pryor, the movie shows the ugly side of racism very blatantly, probably with the most uses of the “N-word” ever in a movie, but it’s all done with the purpose of mocking those same racist attitudes and exposing how absurd they are.  The untarnished examination of racism shown in this film still makes it somewhat controversial to this day, but Mel’s expert craftmanship still makes the overall tone of the movie hilarious and the message behind it all is still a potent one.  Likewise, Mel’s comedy helps to steer the mockery in the right direction, aimed at the people and things that deserve it.  After the horrors of World War II, most people couldn’t find themselves able to laugh at the aura of Nazi Germany anymore.  But, with The Producers, Mel showed us that we could indeed make fun of Nazi’s again.  As a Jewish man himself, he probably took great pride in finding the right way to mock Hitler and the Nazis again in his movies.  In the face of evil, sometimes the greatest weapon one could have is to be able to laugh right at it.



Though Mel often liked to work with some of the same people over and over again in his movies, with comedic icons like Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise and many others, the one frequent collaborator who left an indelible impression on his career was probably Gene Wilder.  Wilder only appeared in three of Mel’s movies, but they were the films that came to define the ascent of both of their careers, and it was a symbiotic creative awakening for both of them.  When Mel cast Gene in the role of Leo Bloom opposite Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock, Gene was still a relative unknown, but his scene-stealing manic performance quickly turned him into an instant star.  By the time Mel and Gene crossed paths again, Gene had gained even more notoriety for playing the part of Willy Wonka in the 1973 adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic.  But the next collaboration would be entirely different than The Producers.  It could be said that Gene Wilder was the one who directed Mel into the path of making genre spoofs, because their next film, Young Frankenstein, started off as Gene’s brainchild.  Gene clearly was attracted to the idea of playing a Dr. Frankenstein type character, as it fit with the manic over the top kind of performance that he exceled at.  The movie was certainly up Mel’s alley too, because it allowed him to make a cinematic love letter to the horror classics of the past, while also utilizing the opportunity to create some hilarious situations to have fun with.  Mel stayed in that same genre send-up mode immediately after with Blazing Saddles, but while developing the film, he struggled to find the right actor to play the key role of the Waco Kid (or Jim as they call him).  Mel went through a number of actors (including John Wayne at one point), before ultimately asking his friend Gene to help him on short notice.  Though hesitant at first, Wilder did eventually accept and he delivered yet again another stand-out and hilarious performance.  The neat thing about Gene as the Waco Kid is that it is a very different kind of performance compared to the other two he played for Mel.  The Waco Kid is stoic and quiet, whereas Dr. Frankenstein and Leo Bloom are loud and manic, and yet he still got the same amount of laughs.  Though it was a brief collaboration, and minimal compared to some of Mell Brook’s other regular players, this pairing of actor and director was perhaps the most monumental out of all of them, and one that left an indelible mark on both of their careers.



It was no surprise that Mel Brooks would find his way to Broadway eventually.  Hey, it’s what his first film was all about anyway.  But, one of the reasons Mel had a destiny with the Broadway stage is because all the movies he made up to his Tony Award winning The Producers had at least one elaborate music number in them.  None of his movies would be considered a musical, but they had at least one scene with song and dance in them.  Whether it was Madeline Kahn’s Dietrich inspired saloon show number “I’m Tired,” from Blazing Saddles, to the title number from High Anxiety (1977), to the can-can line of “Men in Tights,” each one of his movies took a moment to have the actors perform a little dance and song routine, but of course with a funny twist to them.  This is something that likely harkens back to the variety show days of You Show of Shows, which had musical performances woven frequently into the program.  Mel indeed is quite as good at writing lyrics to songs as he is writing jokes.  Of the big musical numbers found in his movies, there are two in particular that stand out.  One is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical performance that’s central to The Producers, a scene that perfectly encapsulates Mel’s style of comedy, with a ridiculously over the top Broadway number poking fun at a very taboo subject matter.  The other is one from Young Frankenstein, which may count as one of the funniest moments ever put on film.  As a demonstration of Dr. Frankenstein’s achievement in reanimating the dead, he and the monster (a hilarious Peter Boyle) perform a routine of “Putting on the Ritz” complete with top hats and tails.  The sight of the monster dressed so fancifully is funny enough, but when it’s his turn to sing the key part of the song, his mangled primal growl of the words “Putting on the Ritz” is enough to make you roll on the floor laughing.  Like with everything else with his parody movies, Mel is brilliant at spoofing the musical as well, and that scene in particular is proof of that.  Just like The Producers, Mel also brought Young Frankenstein to the Broadway stage, and though it was received well enough, I don’t think it could come close to matching the sheer absurdity of that moment in the movie.  You can definitely see their through line of musical theater in Mel Brooks’ movies, and they certainly contribute a lot to the overall hilarity of each movie.



Definitely the hallmark of absurdist comedy is crossing the line between reality and cartoonish logic, and that’s something that is found throughout the films of Mel Brooks.  One top of all the verbal gags, Mel also loves to incorporate elaborate visual gags as well, and some of them are quite ingenious.  There are some very elaborate set piece gags, like the toll booth in the desert that stops the marauding bandits from attacking  a town, to the scene in Spaceballs, where the bad guys are literally “combing” the desert.  But there are also hilarious character details that are visually hilarious.  Madeline Kahn’s character in High Anxiety color coordinates to the point where the paint job of her car matches the pattern of her dress.  And one of the funniest character visuals is seeing the villainous Dark Helmet’s absurdly oversized head gear sitting on top of Rick Moranis’ small frame.   Mel Brooks is also fond of his use of slapstick, which is prominent in most of his movies.  Some of the slapstick moments are crazy in of themselves, like football star Alex Karras punching a horse in Blazing Saddles, or Marty Feldman’s Igor (pronounced Eye Gor) telling Dr. Frankenstein to “walk this way.”  Mel made more use of visual gags in his latter films, to more diminishing degrees especially at the end, but there is definitely a sense of playfulness to how absurd he takes things to in his films.  In his latter movies, some of the more subtle visual gags are what works the best, like the fight in Robin hood: Men in Tights (1993) between Cary Elwes’ Robin Hood and Eric Allen Kramer’s Little John on a bridge spanning a tiny brook, which Little John later falls into and panics, because he can’t swim.  Not every visual gag lands, but Mel Brooks throws enough at you that one is bound to get a huge laugh.  It’s the same kind of manic energy that you would see from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, which Mel is better than most in bringing to real life on the big screen.

It is remarkable how even after a 70+ year career in entertainment, Mel Brooks is still out there creating.  Just this year, he made good on his promise and released History of the World Part II, a series sequel to his 1980 original film, streaming right now on Hulu.  Though he didn’t direct this new series, he still contributed as a producer and he even provides the narration himself.  For a man now at the ripe old age of 96, his continued creative drive is truly remarkable.  In a way, creating History of the World Part II as a series filled with individual sketches mocking historical events is kind of a full-circle return to where his career started as a sketch writer.  Though his impact on television and the Broadway stage are undeniable, I think it’s his collection of films that display his most genius work.  The trio of movies he made with Gene Wilder in particular (The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles) are almost universally considered to be among the greatest comedies ever made.  They also remain heavily influential so many years later.  The team of Zucker and Abrams probably wouldn’t have made their classic Airplane (1980) so wall to wall filled with visual gags had Mel’s movies not set the standard so high before.  And even more recently, Taika Waititi cited the films of Mel Brooks as a huge inspiration for his Oscar-winning comedy Jojo Rabbit (2019), especially with the way it mocks the Nazi regime and yet still finds the right tone to make the absurdity work with such a dark subject matter.  Taika was especially happy to have been given the seal of approval from Mel personally, which mattered a lot to him.  I would think that Mel must be especially blessed to have lived so long and see how much of an impact his legacy has made on cinema and comedy over the years.  The world would be a lot less funny had he not gotten out there and helped us all to laugh, even at the things we shouldn’t.  And thankfully, at the time of writing this, he’s still alive and well and ready to lighten out lives again.  It’s good to be the king.


The Director’s Chair – Billy Wilder

One of the most common titles that you’ll see in many movies is that of writer/director.  What normally can be two jobs held by two different people on any given movie will also sometimes be a role held by a singular person.  And as is the case with writer/directors, they are far more in command of the film’s narrative and vision.  We see a lot more people today that direct films from their scripts; some of whom I have spotlighted in this series.  And it is true that film directors have existed throughout Hollywood history that often wrote the screenplays themselves.  The only difference today is that the writer/director was less commonplace in old Hollywood than what we see in the film industry today.  There were some noteworthy directors who wrote the bulk of their own filmography.  There was John Huston, Preston Sturges, and of course Orson Welles (though his authorship of the screenplay of Citizen Kane is challenged somewhat, as many believe it was mostly Herman Mankiewicz who wrote the bulk of that movie).  But, there hasn’t been a filmmaker before or since who mastered both crafts of scripting and directing with such versatility and with his own unique voice intact as Billy Wilder.  Wilder was unlike most other double threat filmmakers, as he carved out his own cynical, satirical voice while working in so many different genres.  He effortlessly went from making film noir, to psychological drama, to hard boiled political satire, to elegant romance, to wacky screwball comedy without losing that special Wilder touch.  That’s why even in today’s Hollywood  he’s celebrated as a true original, and he remains one of the most consistently successful filmmakers of any era.  What is also interesting is that he managed to create movies with a distinctly American sensibility, both in his movie’s sense of humor and their observations of American society; a remarkable achievement considering his immigrant past and the fact that English was his second language.

Samuel Wilder was born in Austria-Hungary in 1906 to a Polish Jewish family just outside of Vienna.  His family moved around a lot, including a brief time in New York City, which left an indelible impression on him as his latter career would attest.  As he grew older, he sought a career in journalism, with a special interest in the field of entertainment.  He found himself visiting night clubs everywhere between Vienna and Berlin interviewing jazz musicians and the like.  Unfortunately, the rise of Nazism in Germany and Austria forced Billy Wilder to relocate.  He settled in Paris, where for the first time he was commissioned to write for the movies.  He contributed a number of screenplays to many films made by his fellow German ex-pats as they were in their Parisian exile.  In that time, he also got to make his debut as a director with the French language film Mauvaise Graine (1935), which he also wrote.  However, as Nazi occupation of France inched closer, Wilder knew he would have to uproot once again. Thankfully, by this time, Hollywood finally came a calling, as he was granted the chance to write the screenplay for Ernst Lubitsch’s next comedy, Ninotchka (1939).  Billy Wilder’s brilliant comedic mind translated perfectly into Hollywood and his work on Ninotchka was wildly celebrated; a film that famously was sold on the tagline “Garbo Laughs,” a reference to the out of character turn in the movie from the mostly stoic Scandinavian leading lady at it’s center.  Building off of that success, Wilder would go on to have one of the most successful runs of any filmmaker in Hollywood, both as a writer and director.  His filmography is full of movies that are still celebrated as essential American classics, like Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like it Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960).  And while all his films are very different in tone and subject, they nevertheless feature the same distinctive voice that was unmistakably his own; which was often slick, irreverent, and sharply critical while at the same time maintaining a sense of playfulness.  So, let’s take a look at what made the movies of Billy Wilder the works of cinematic wonder that they are.



If there was ever a common thematic element found throughout the movies of Billy Wilder, it would be these human failings.  The characters within Billy Wilder’s movies are often motivated to do the dark deeds that they do by one or the other, or even both.  The movie Double Indemnity, one of the films scholars cite as one of the grandfathers of Film Noir as a cinematic style, is a movie where both sins come into play within the narrative.  Fred McMurray’s Walter Neff falls under the seduction of lonely housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who sees an opportunity to scam the insurance company that Neff works for while also getting rid of her husband, thanks to knowledge of the double indemnity clause in her husband’s insurance plan that Neff clues her into.  In the movie, Wilder explores the depths that people will go to satisfy their greedy intentions while at the same time falling under their lustful inclinations against their better judgment.  Wilder liked to explore this aspect within the human condition, how desires cloud our better instincts and often lead to ruin.  While Double Indemnity takes a salacious and dark view of the complications of dark desires at play, he also knows how to make fun of society’s underbelly when it comes to seeking power and sexual gratification.  The film The Apartment also takes a look at scandalous behavior behind the veneer of “normal” domestic life, but does so with a bittersweet sense of humor as well.  To get ahead in life, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends him apartment to his bosses from work so they can have their extramarital affairs in secret, until he suddenly finds himself in love with one of the girls caught up in the affairs, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).  Here, Wilder finds sweetness in the same kind of story that more often would turn sour in the past, showing that he could indeed tackle the same thematic elements with a great amount of nuance and intelligence.  More importantly, in both cases, he’s confronting the fact that both lust and greed are very human traits that often carry a degree of consequence for his characters, and he’s allowing the audience to confront these same issues to in a way that was quite daring in Hollywood for that time.



Billy Wilder had a special knack for creating iconic characters that go on to become among the most famous in movie history.  But what also makes his characters interesting is the fact that most of them are very much morally compromised.  Most of his characters fall very much in the moral gray zone, and there are genuinely very few pure souls in his movies.  But it seems he especially is interested in the most depraved characters of them all; the ones who have fallen off so sharply that there is no hope for redemption for them in the end.  He seems to find these characters the most fascinating, because their falls from grace are often when his satirical voice finds it’s sharpest edge.  More often than not, his flawed characters are men who grow increasingly corrupt as the movie goes along, but he has also created fascinating female characters that also ride that moral line in the darker shadows.  Phyllis Dietrichson for instance can be viewed as one of the original femme fatales of American cinema.  Particularly in his earlier films, it’s hard to find a person to root for, as pretty much all of his characters have some irredeemable flaw.  In Sunset Boulevard, we hear the story from the point of view of William Holden’s Joe Gillis, who as we learn ends up exploiting the connections of a delusional aging movie star named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to get himself ahead, only to find out too late that Norma’s delusions drive her to enact bloody revenge.  One predator falls victim to his prey once she feels betrayed.  That’s a common thread in Wilder’s movies; bad people trying to overcome the situations they got themselves into with worse people.  And then there are the characters whose spirals are predictable and the story becomes awaiting to see how far they will go before the fall.  In the ahead of its time Ace in the Hole (1951), Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a sleazy journalist who exploits local tragedy for his own gain, until it turns into a literal circus.  We know that a man as bad as him will eventually meet his fall, but the harsh indictment that Billy Wilder makes, as he does in most of his movies, is showing just how far society is willing to indulge the bad behavior of these characters.



If there was one thing that especially marked Billy Wilder’s career in the latter half, it was way that he turned Marilyn Monroe into a cinematic icon.  Ms. Norma Jean was already well known for her musical comedy work like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), but it was once she began to work with Billy Wilder that she catapulted to the height of her onscreen career.  You know that iconic moment where her skirt is blown up by the updraft of a subway vent, the most famous image of Marilyn Monroe that is replicated everywhere?  That was from Billy Wilder comedy called The Seven Year Itch.  Indeed, Wilder was able to get the best out of Monroe, far more than any other filmmaker had before or after, and that is most evident in what was their most celebrated collaboration; the screwball comedy Some Like it Hot.  Monroe gives without a doubt her best and most effervescent performance in that movie, and it’s the one that absolutely plays to her talents the most.  She of course excels in the musical numbers, but her ability to handle the comedy is also admirable, especially working with heavyweights like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  The movie itself is also one of the best examples of another trait of Wilder movies; the more open, frank discussions of sexuality in film.  Though Wilder still worked within Code era guidelines, he was able to address sex in a more frank and direct way that few other filmmakers would even dare to address.  The extramarital affair at the heart of Double Indemnity is evidence of that, as is Sunset Boulevard’s implied sexual history with regards to it’s two leads.  In Some Like it Hot, sexual attraction is a major part of the plot and humor.  And long before it was acceptable in society, Some Like it Hot even addresses same sex attraction, as Jack Lemmon’s cross-dressing character becomes the object of affection for a rich playboy (Joe E. Brown).  Even when confronted with the information that the woman he adores is really a man in drag, Brown delivers the now immortal phrase, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”  Only Billy Wilder would dare to put that in his movie and get away with it, and Some Like it Hot is now celebrated by LGBTQ fans for it’s groundbreaking stance, even if it’s played up for a laugh.  It’s one of the most endearing parts of Billy Wilder’s filmography; not being afraid of addressing underlying issues of sexuality in society in an honest fashion, while also solidifying and legitimizing Marilyn Monroe as an icon, something that the gays are also grateful to Billy Wilder for.



Billy Wilder was often viewed as a cynical man based on his movies, though that can be a misleading thing to characterize him with.  What ended up leading many to this conclusion is the fact that he often didn’t give his characters a satisfying conclusion in the end.  There is no redemption for his flawed characters; no riding off into the sunset for his heroes.  Often, his characters end up dead or in prison by the end of the movie, or in William Holden’s case in Sunset Boulevard, dead from frame one.  But, he doesn’t share these bleak endings as a comeuppance alone for his characters sins.  Often these characters are caught up in societal evils that they willingly participate in, but only too late learn the perils that they have put themselves into.  The descent of Norma Desmond is a particularly potent example of Billy Wilder indicting a segment of society; ironically the one that took him in during his wartime exile, Hollywood.  In Sunset Boulevard, we see the madness that Norma Desmond has fallen into, living within this delusional bubble inside her Beverly Hills mansion, but there is a sad reason for her isolation.  Hollywood has deemed her too old to be relevant anymore, but she’s too stubborn to accept that unfair reality and it sinks her even deeper into madness, something that Joe Gillis shamefully exploits.  There is few indictments of Hollywood as harsh as the closing of Sunset Boulevard, as Norma poses for her “close-up” as she’s being dragged to the asylum, having lost all touch with reality and can only react the only way she knows how, by performing for the camera.  It’s not the only thing that Billy Wilder examines with a sharp satirical eye in his movies; Ace in the Hole examines sensationalized tabloid journalism, Double Indemnity looks at the greediness of insurance brokers, and The Apartment takes a stab at soulless corporate culture and the sexual harassment that arises from it.  Wilder would have examined these assets of society no matter what country he was making movies in, but he especially found America fertile ground for finding these darker aspects of society.  He was by no means anti-American; he remained a grateful émigré to the United States and lived out the rest of his days here, thankful for the creative freedom it gave him.  But, he was also not afraid to call out the darker sides of American culture in his movies, and that made him a very crucial and fearless voice in Hollywood for many years.



It’s hard to believe that Billy Wilder didn’t speak a word of English before the age of 10.  Circumstances of world politics led him to come to America in his latter years, but German still remained his first language.  So it is amazing that his screenwriting style feels so attuned to an American sensibility.  His sense of humor and style of writing, which he cultivated during his years of covering Jazz club life in pre-War Europe, translated into English without losing any bit of wit in the process.  He managed to capture the language of American culture perfectly once he settled into Hollywood.  Just listen to the frantic paced back and force exchanges in Double Indemnity, innuendos and all.  Billy Wilder could write in English better than most native born speakers who were writing movies around the same time, both in quantity of dialogue and in quality.  Sure, he had co-writers through much of his career, such as Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity), Charles Brackett (Sunset Boulevard), and I.A.L. Diamond (The Apartment), but if you listen to him in any of his late career interviews, as he speaks in that charming Austrian accent that he never quite lost, a lot of the wit of those movies definitely came from him.  He had a knack for writing character interactions with dialogue that sounded natural yet still clever when you listen closely.  From the Code challenging sexual tension of Double Indemnity, to the charming small talk in an elevator ride from The Apartment, he could write any kind of mode for his stories.  Not only that, but he’s responsible for some of the most quoted final lines in movie history, like Norma Desmond’s Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” to Fran Kubelik’s perfectly succinct, “Shut up and deal,” to the already mentioned iconic and daring closer of Some Like it Hot.  It’s a testament to Wilder that he also exceled behind the camera as a director, because he could have stayed a screenwriter and still would have been considered one of the greatest of all time.  The fact that he was a master of both crafts really cements him as a Hollywood legend, and probably one of the best examples ever of what it means to be a writer/director.

One of the best things about Billy Wilder’s life and career is that he endured long enough to benefit from the impact that his movies had on Hollywood.  He passed away in his home in West Los Angeles at the ripe old age of 95 in 2002.  Though he hadn’t made a movie since the 1980’s, he still maintained a presence in Hollywood, being a vital bridge between old and new Hollywood.  Though he became a naturalized American citizen over the years, he nevertheless held a special place in his heart for the home he left behind.  One of his last cinematic contributions was offering uncredited script contributions to a project he hoped to direct one day called Schindler’s List (1993).  Ultimately he passed on directing, believing himself too old at the time and not a good fit in the end, eventually leading to Steven Spielberg taking on the project.  Still, Billy Wilder was instrumental in getting Schindler’s List off the ground and he remained slightly involved in helping Spielberg shape the final story.  It was important for him to be a part of the movie, because he himself lost family members to the Holocaust, and he felt this was his way of honoring them after so many years.  One of the benefits that he probably had in his long lived life was seeing how so many filmmakers aspired to make the same kinds of movies that he made; especially when it came to the more subversive stuff.  In his whole career he managed to spark the beginnings of film noir, helped to shed a light on the darker aspects of cultural institutions like Hollywood, the media, and capitalism itself, and even pushed the boundaries of sexuality for his time.  What he left behind were what many consider to be among the best films in cinema history, and it is astounding how varied all of them are as well, ranging across multiple genres.  He was recognized in his time for his cinematic contributions, with The Lost Weekend and The Apartment both taking home Best Picture in their respective years, as well as Directing and Screenwriting honors for Wilder.  But the real reward for his long career is how well his movies hold up even today.  Some Like it Hot still gets a laugh, Sunset Boulevard still manages to be chillingly relevant, and Ace in the Hole is eerily prophetic in it’s account of what the media would end up turning into.  Few can command the roles of writing and directing a film with equal measure, and Billy Wilder is one of those few that really made Hollywood what it is today, and he’s got the sharp-witted iconic masterpieces to back that up so many years later.

The Director’s Chair – Jane Campion

Since starting this retrospective series examining the many great directors that have contributed to the history of cinema, I’ve come to realize that there is a certain kind of filmmaker that I have yet to spotlight here; mainly women.  It’s no secret that Hollywood has had a fairly lackluster record in recognizing women as filmmakers within their industry.  Thus far at the Academy Awards, in all of it’s 94 year history, only two Best Director honors have been given out to women, and the second one was only in the last year.  That being said, there have been women directing films ever since the early days of cinema.  In Hollywood, there have been often unheralded names like Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino who stood out as part of the Golden Age, and in later years, there were filmmakers such as Elaine May and Penny Marshall who not only managed to direct studio films, but they also managed to make them big hits as well.  Internationally, there were also standouts like Lina Wertmueller and Agnes Varda who won acclaim for their groundbreaking work.  But, for most of those years, a lot of the women working in cinema were not able to stay competitive with their male counterparts.  This, thankfully, is a trend that’s now starting to crest and become a thing of the past, as there are far more movies, both independent and studio made, that are helmed by women.  Half of the comic book super hero movies from last year in fact were made by women: Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman 1984), Cate Shortland (Black Widow) and Chloe Zhao (Eternals).  But, if there was a certain woman director that has stood out as one of the most groundbreaking in the last few decades, and whose films have become uniquely identified as a distinctive body of work, it would be Kiwi filmmaker Jane Campion.

Jane Campion was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1954 and before she pursued a career in film, she originally studied to become an artist.  She enrolled at the Sydney College of the Arts in Australia and found herself drawn to the School of Film and Television.  There she found her true calling, and she immediately left a mark as a unique cinematic voice.  Her student film, Peel (1982), would go on to win the Short Film Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, which is pretty remarkable for a first time director.  She would continue to direct further shorts and films for Australian television, before making her feature debut with Sweetie (1989).  That movie with it’s idiosyncratic look at female sexuality and social interactions would establish many of the themes that she would continue to  explore throughout her career.  She would release another introspective look at female identity in her follow-up, An Angel at My Table (1990), but that was only a warm-up to the movie that would cement her as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.  In 1993, Jane released her ambitious period piece The Piano to wide acclaim.  With it, she became the first woman director to win the feature Palm d’Or at the Cannes Festival, and she would further go on to win an Academy Award for her Original Screenplay.  She also became only the second woman in history to be nominated for the Best Director honor, which she ended up losing to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List (1993).  In the years that followed, she would build upon the success of The Piano to create more unique and lavishly crafted movies about the lives of women, including Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1998), In the Cut (2003) and Bright Star (2009).  She then suddenly left the directors chair completely, citing her growing frustration with Hollywood and the growing capitalistic nature of the industry in general.  During the 2010’s, her sole project was co-creating the short-lived but acclaimed series Top of the Lake.  And then, suddenly, it was announced that Jane was suddenly making a return to film with her new revisionist Western entitled The Power of the Dog (2021) thanks to Netflix; a film that again has set her up historically as the first woman nominated for Best Director twice, and this time with a better shot at coming away victorious.  Needless to say, she is a very interesting filmmaker to examine and what follows are some of the cinematic traits that have defined her body of work thus far.



If there is something that really stands out in Jane Campion’s oeuvre, it’s her cinematic eye.  You can really see the art school influence in her work, as she treats the lens of the camera like a brush on a canvas.  What is interesting is the way she frames her scenes, often choosing to have her action either outside of center frame or even sometimes strangely cut off by the edges.  This is especially true with her earlier films like Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, where she plays around with perspective in interesting ways that in many ways is reflective of the fractured nature of her characters.  In many ways, she uses things like her framing and color palette to reflect the emotional state of her characters, with an intentional eye towards making things disorienting for the audience as well.  Campion is not afraid of testing the sensibilities of her audience, and she certainly has the talent and natural vision to pull that off.  What is also interesting is how she often uses color to reflect the emotional state of her characters.  Her upbringing in a picturesque country like New Zealand no doubt was influential in giving her a visual perspective, but what I find interesting is the way she explores colors to the extremes.  There’s a very interesting mix of bright and muted colors in her films.  Some of her earlier work in movies like Sweetie show her pushing the full spectrum of color visually.  But in movies like The Piano, she also spotlights the lack of color as a key visual element in her story, as much of that film takes place in cold, overcast atmosphere.  Her more recent The Power of the Dog also displays interesting usage of color themes in the story, especially against the barren dirt brown setting of her story.  Overall, these two elements have shown her to be a powerful visual storyteller, and it’s nice to see that it has remained as uncompromising as it was in the earliest part of her career.



As a reflection of her native New Zealand surroundings, Jane Campion has used nature as an important thematic element in her movies as well.  Her period films in particular have a strong sense of openness of the larger world and how it overwhelms the inhabitants of her stories.  Two films in particular, The Piano and The Power of the Dog feature many unforgettable visuals of the characters being dwarfed by their wide open surroundings.  Remarkably, in The Power of the Dog, Campion managed to successfully have the countryside of the South Island of New Zealand play the role of rural Montana, and you would be hard pressed to know the difference. Not only that, she pulls the camera way back in vista shots that really capture the expanse of the film’s setting wit epic grandeur.  She likewise accomplished the same thing with the beachfront scenes in The Piano, where her stars, Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, are practically overwhelmed by the expanse of their surroundings.  Campion has only ventured away from her homeland rarely as a filmmaker, but even when she does, she brings the same kind of sense of the surroundings informing the emotional state of her characters throughout the films.  For Holy Smoke, it’s the lush exoticism of India, for In the Cut, it’s the oppressive modernity of New York City, and for Portrait of a Lady, it’s the rigid conformity of Victorian England.  For most of her filmography, she has used the outdoors as a key part of her storytelling, and often it’s in the wilds of nature that we see her characters discover the most about their own identity.  This is something that has carried through most of her work in film, and sets her apart as a visual storyteller.  Every shot of wide expanses reveals something about the characters that inhabit it; and often it’s a catalyst for her characters to evolve, especially if being out in the wilds of nature is an entirely new experience for them in the story.



One thing that Jane Campion also likes to accomplish in her stories is catch her audience off guard and even leave them uneasy with some rather out of left field choices.  One way she does that is through music.  Sometimes music becomes a way she allows her characters to express their buried emotions, but she even uses this in uncomfortably challenging ways.  One of the most unusual uses of music she has made in any of her films can be found in an early short movie she made called A Girl’s Own Story (1984).  In that movie, we watch this gritty story of awkward sexual awakening between teenage girls.  And then, all of a sudden at the very tail end of the film, the characters break down the fourth wall and we are suddenly launched into a music video.  It’s really bizarre, and yet thematically in line with Jane Campion’s sensibilities.  She further explores the idea of music as an expressive element far more overtly in the film The Piano.  Naturally, with a movie named after a musical instrument, this theme would be a part of the narrative, and indeed the story centers around a mute woman (played by Holly Hunter) who communicates her emotional state through the playing of the piano.  The piano becomes this deeply connected element in her story, and it even plays a part in determining her fate by the end of the film.  There’s also an unforgettable use of music in The Power of the Dog, where a musical duet between two opposing characters becomes this unnerving act of terror.  Benedict Cumberbatch’s sadistic and hyper masculine cowboy uses a melody throughout the film to psychologically torture his new sister-in-law (played by Kirsten Dunst), bringing yet another challenging usage of the theme by Campion to put her audience in an unsettled state.  Though her films are scored by some great composers, like Michael Nyman and Johnny Greenwood, it’s these moments of diegetic music within the story that take on unnerving and out-of-left-field  thematic elements, that become unforgettable parts of her movies overall.



One theme that is also very much central to Jane Campion’s body of work is the exploration of sexuality; particularly female sexuality.  It’s something that she has explored in most of her films, even going back to her early shorts.  Her feature debut includes sibling rivalry over the competition of gaining the attention of the same desired man.  In The Piano, her female protagonist falls into a passionate affair with a plantation worker (played by Harvey Keitel) after becoming emotionally resigned from her unhappy marriage to an abusive husband (played by Sam Neill).  The theme is explored even more overtly in Portrait of a Lady, where Nicole Kidman’s heiress ends up entrapped in a loveless marriage that denies her the autonomy and freedom to be the woman she desires to be, again because of cruel and possessive husband (this time played by John Malkovich).  Her one film that takes a more positive outlook on love is the tragic love story fond in Bright Star, which still tells the story from the perspective of the woman in the story; in this case poet Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) who becomes the muse and love of legendary writer John Keats (Ben Whishaw).  It’s interesting that with her new film, The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion actually breaks from the norm and instead examines male sexuality instead, albeit still keeping with the theme of unrequited desire at it’s heart.  In that movie, we learn that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank uses his hyper masculinity as a mask to shield his true queer sexuality, and how the resentment built up from having to always keep that hidden makes him menacing to those around him, especially when he encounters his new nephew (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who exhibits feminine qualities without shame.  Jane Campion isn’t afraid to explore the darker side of sexual awakening, and that has made her films all that much more interesting.  She knows the complexity of sexuality is best explored when her characters have to struggle to discover what it means for themselves.



There are a lot of women filmmakers out there that don’t want to be thought of as directors of “women pictures,” and you’ll often see many try hard to define themselves as capable of tackling any genre regardless of what’s expected of their gender.  Many definitely excel at that to.  But Jane Campion will definitely say that she makes pictures for women about women and proudly so.  What helps her to stand out is that she tackles female issues within her stories, but doesn’t play it safe as well.  She makes an effort to make sure that her female characters are not 100% pure or morally in the right.  Her female protagonists can often for the most part be more flawed than their male counterparts, and that in turn helps to make them even more interesting.  The two sisters at the center of Sweetie are petty and selfish, but in a way that makes them endearing to the audience.  Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano gives in to adultery, but only after her husband has denied her any happiness in her new home.  And Kirsten Dunst’s Rose in The Power of the Dog is a raging alcoholic, but as we see it’s in response to being oppressed by her sadistic brother-in-law.  For all these women, they have to continually assert their feminine dignity in both opposition to the men that dominate their lives, but also the faults of their own character.  It’s refreshing that Jane Campion is un-compromising in showing the complexities of her characters.  Her stories really do shed a necessary light on the real lives that women lead, and there is a lot of honesty in showing how character morality is never so easily defined.  It’s especially rewarding to see her explore the issues that she does in movies that often pander to certain audiences; the Western, the period romance, and the coming-of-age tale.  That’s why her female characters are often the most interesting in all of cinema.

Jane Campion is a pioneer filmmaker with regards to how she has been a role model for up-and-coming female directors from around the world.  What makes her especially special is the fact that she has refused to comply with the standards of the industry.  She is a filmmaker who stands by her vision, even if that puts her at odds with the rest of the industry.  You’ve got to admire a filmmaker who decides to walk away in response to the unfair standards that the industry places on women who aspire to work in the same fields that have often been dominated by men.  Thankfully, she also has managed to find a way to make a return.  She must have been drawn to Netflix’s release strategy, which puts less pressure on a movie to perform strongly at the box office.  The Power of the Dog is a movie that likely would’ve been enriched by a big screen presentation, with Campion using her keen cinematic eye to capture some beautiful vista shots, but by virtue of being on a platform like Netflix, her film is likely going to find a bigger audience than it would’ve in a theater and that probably is what appealed to her.  She was not under any pressure to compromise her vision and make the movie that she wanted to make.  It’s a deal that worked out for both parties; Jane Campion gets to make a triumphant return to feature films and Netflix has a surefire Oscar contender.  Campion’s history making second nomination is a milestone long overdue, and hopefully she can translate it into a Best Director win, which will solidify her legacy even more.  Regardless, she is an artist of unique vision who dares to tell stories that most filmmakers wouldn’t, and does so with a very strong visual sense as well.  She comes from a long line of historic women who have worked behind the camera, and has been the inspiration for many more that have followed after.  Hopefully, with the success of The Power of the Dog this last year, we are seeing the beginnings of an exciting second act for Ms. Campion.

The Director’s Chair – Quentin Tarantino

In the years following Hollywood’s Golden Age, a new crop of filmmakers rose up that not only possessed the skills to make movies of their own, but were also keen on the importance and historical significance of the movies that had influenced them.  For the first time, a generation of filmmakers were making movies that were reflective of the movies that had come a generation prior.  Many new filmmakers not only sought to replicate the kinds of movies that they had grown up with, but they also began to deconstruct them as well, viewing old tropes through newer sensibilities.  You can see this through the works of French New Wave auteurs like Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut as their early films took heavy inspiration from pre and post-War film noir. And then there are the many directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone who breathed new life into the Western, with far more attention paid to the horrific violence that really did mark the Old West.  You can also see how  old sci-fi serials of the past were reimagined by a filmmaker like George Lucas into a groundbreaking gamechanger called Star Wars (1977).  It was a generation that made a profound impact on cinema for several decades, and brought the industry into a whole different identity than where it started.  Even still, there is a consistent line of new filmmakers standing on the shoulders of those that had come before them, and using their influence to inspire what was to come next.  So, it’s interesting to see what kind of new generation would follow in the footsteps of the first generation fully influenced by the cinema of the past.  It turns out that the cycle keeps moving along, as each new generation strives to replicate the kinds of movies that left a deep impression on them.  Particularly with a generation as rebellious and experimental as those that had risen up in the 60’s and 70’s, it was going to be interesting to many scholars of cinema how the next generation would develop in it’s wake.  Indeed, beginning within the early 90’s, a new crop of filmmakers did begin to emerge and change the face of cinema again, and one of the most noteworthy of those new voices was a fresh young rebel named Quentin Tarantino.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee but raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Tarantino seemed born destined to be a filmmaker.  Spending much of his early years going to movie theaters in the heart of Hollywood, Tarantino not only grew an appreciation for the movies that the studio system was putting out, but also the ones that were being made on the fringes as well.  Tarantino is an unashamed fan of what has been deemed over time as “grindhouse” cinema.  These were movies made on the slimmest of budgets, often dealing with taboo subjects and containing many button pushing elements, and were almost always showing in cheap seat theaters that were not always well kept.  These were movies that challenged the mainstream, and Tarantino ate them up with pride.  Whether they were Spaghetti Westerns, Blaxploitation, or just the average raunchy comedy, these movies spoke to the still developing mind of Tarantino during these formative years.  Before embarking on a filmmaking career, Tarantino worked in a video store, where his deep knowledge of cinema made him a natural source of recommendations to customers.  Through the encouragement of some industry friends, Quentin began working on screenplays that he hoped to one day sell and help him break into the film industry that he had such an affinity for.  In those early days, he would craft the stories that eventually formed the foundations of True Romance (1993) and From Dusk ’til Dawn (1994).  In the meantime, he earned a little extra money as a part time actor, including playing an Elvis impersonator on an episode of The Golden Girls.  The residuals for that gig alone help him secure enough money to start development on his first feature as a director, Reservoir Dogs (1991).  Though modest in budget and scope, Dogs nevertheless revealed Tarantino’s unique voice and it immediately put him in the spotlight.  The meteoric rise continued with his second feature, Pulp Fiction, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and helped Tarantino earn his first Oscar for the Screenplay.  Since then, he has remained a Hollywood fixture, and without a doubt the most influential filmmaker of his generation.  In this article, I’m going to examine all the noteworthy things about his movies that stand out and define him as a filmmaker.  And no, feet will not be one of the filmmaker trademarks I’m going to spotlight.  So, let’s put Quentin Tarantino in the Director’s chair and see what makes his movies both noteworthy and entirely unique.



Even in his earliest movies, it’s readily apparent that Tarantino is not one to sugarcoat onscreen violence.  Throughout the entirety of Reservoir Dogs, actor Tim Roth’s character is bleeding out from a gunshot to his gut, the result of a botched robbery he played a part of.  And that’s one of the least gruesome acts committed in the movie.  Another character, Mr. Blonde (played memorably by Michael Madsen) cuts the ear off of a hostage he has taken.  Tarantino drifts the camera away when the gruesome act is committed, but you do see the aftermath, grotesque ear cavity and all.  This unflinching look at violent acts extends all the way through his filmography.  Even the movies he wrote and didn’t direct (True Detective, From Dusk ’til Dawn and 1994’s Natural Born Killers) have the same focus on violence.  But at the same time, it isn’t violence without reason or purpose.  Tarantino purposely wants you to feel something viscerally when you see it on screen.  A lot of the reason he puts it in is movies is due to the influence he took from the grindhouse movies of the past.  Just like how those movies pushed the envelope with their depictions of on screen violence, making liberal use of blood packs and gory make-up to drive home the fact that these movies were outside of the mainstream and proud of it.  Some would see it as exploitive and there have been complaints from some that Tarantino glorifies violence.  But he has pushed back on that claim many times, stating how essential the violence is in his movies.  One of the things that you commonly see in his movies is how the violence usually erupts when you least expect it.  The ending of Once Upon a Time ..in Hollywood (2019) for instance is a particularly shocking outburst of violence, that’s both uneasy and hilariously abrupt.  The montage of a gory car wreck in Death Proof (2007) also showcases how Tarantino pushes the envelope to get a reaction out of his audience.  Other films that aren’t quite as gory, like Inglorious Basterds  (2009) or Django Unchained (2012) still have a fair share of their movie centered around acts of violence, so it’s something that is present throughout his work.  He’ll agree, these movies aren’t for everybody, but at the same time, he holds true to the fact that violence in his movies should never be done as a compromise.



Tarantino by trade is a film director, but he will probably tell you that his foremost talent is in screenwriting.  There is no doubt that the thing that most people take away from his movies is just how fresh and memorable the dialogue in it is.  Quentin’s voice really is what distinguishes him the most, and it’s what has set him apart from most of his contemporaries.  There have been many independent filmmakers in his wake that have tried to imitate the Tarantino style, but almost all of them have failed.  No one writes like Tarantino, and I think that it’s because he puts so much of his own mind into the things he writes.  Quentin’s special talent is his use of non-sequiturs in his dialogue, which is the characters talking about stuff that means nothing to the overall plot, but at the same time, reveals so much about the characters themselves.  The back and forth discussion about McDonald’s menu items in France between Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules and John Travolta’s Vincent in Pulp Fiction is a perfect example.  Talking about the “Royale with Cheese” ultimately is just two old colleagues wasting time on a way to a job, but from that discussion, we learn so much about who these two are.  Tarantino loves his character building monologues, and it’s especially fulfilling for him when he can base so much of his character interactions on film nerd discussions that he’s probably had with his own friends over the years.  The opening of Reservoir Dogs I almost guarnatee is based on a real discussion he’s had at parties over the meaning of Madonna’s discography, and it makes it all the more interesting that this is how Tarantino chooses to introduce these characters to us.  It’s not all pop culture though.  Quentin has often said one of his most favorite things he has ever written is the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, which introduces the fearsome Colonel Hans Landa (played spectacularly by Christoph Waltz), and it’s easy to see why.  It’s one of the most unnerving introductions of a villain in cinema history, and Quentin brilliantly conveys the true menace of the character not through actions but through words alone.  Even the way Tarantino structures his movies, often in a non-linear way, is done only in the way that makes sense when he does it.  There have been so many copycats, but Tarantino the writer is still an unmatched original.



On top of Tarantino’s cinema influences, it’s also easy to see what kinds of music left a deep impression on him as he grew up.  No doubt, listening to the top 40 radio stations in the Los Angeles area stuck with him as throughout all of his movies, he likes to underscore his scenes with a carefully chosen selection of classic hits.  Sometimes he’ll include a universally known song, or he may use a deep cut.  Part of the fun of watching his movies is not knowing what you’ll hear next, and being surprised by the ingenious selection.  Even more interesting is when he subverts a scene by setting the mood with an unexpected track.  The already mentioned ear slicing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays through it all; with Michael Madsen dancing unnervingly to the beat.  Even when working in a bygone time period, Quentin will throw in an anachronistic choice like David Bowie’s “Cat People” into Inglorious Basterds or Jim Croce’s ” I Got a Name” into Django Unchained, and it will still make complete sense to the story he’s telling.  The man just has an ear for music, and knowing which popular songs work best in the stories that he’s telling.  Some music that otherwise had fallen into obscurity over the years sometimes have been revived thanks to it’s placement in one of his movies.  The now iconic use of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” for the opening credits of Pulp Fiction cemented that guitar heavy instrumental in pop culture, and is often used whenever anyone does a parody of Pulp Fiction in any other medium.  He doesn’t just use any kind of pop music; it’s music from a specific period in time that was influential to Tarantino in his formative years.  It’s another part of his own character that he injects into his movies and helps to make them uniquely his own.  We are listening to the soundtrack that he himself would hear if he were living in the world of these characters.



There is definitely one thing to say about the characters in Tarantino movies and that’s for the most part nearly all of them should be judged on a morally relevant scale.  Because his movies often deal with characters living in a violent, crime ridden world, it’s often hard to say if there truly is a pure soul in any of his movies.  This is definitely true with movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Because of Pulp Fiction’s non-linear, anthology style plot, you’ll actually find instances where characters that are heroes in one plot thread turn out to be villains in another.  Another example of judging characters based with moral ambiguity is with the Basterds brigade in Inglorious Basterds.  In normal circumstances, we would be looking at these characters, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), as war criminals, but their atrocities are painted in a favorable light because they are committing them against the Nazis.  It’s probably the only movie in history where we are actually rooting for suicide bombers.  Even still, Tarantino makes sure that there are characters with righteous intentions behind their acts of violence.  This includes the Bride (Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill duology, or Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) in Inglorious Basterds, or Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) in Jackie Brown (1997).  Just as violence is a part of the fabric within all of Tarantino’s movies, so is the impact it has on the characters, and it asks us the audience to consider the moral implications along the way.  Yes, in many cases, these are bad people doing bad things, but in the context of these stories, it asks us to question if there is a morally justified reason to use violence in order to seek justice.  It could be that, or sometimes it’s just Tarantino showing how messed up a world we live in, like putting a sympathetic spin on a character named Cliff Booth (Pitt again) in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood who probably, almost certainly killed his own wife.



It’s an almost unmistakable fact in watching Tarantino’s movies that he is a man who is in love with the art of cinema.  Whether it’s referencing movies throughout his different films, or actually incorporating them as an element of the plot, the movies are always a fixture of his filmography.  You can see the Tarantino’s cinephile side come out strong in moments like the Jackrabbit’s Diner scene in Pulp Fiction, where the waiters and waitresses are all dressed like 50’s pop culture icons, and John Travolta’s Vincent Vega knows the difference between Jane Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.  Cinema also plays a key role in the plot of Inglorious Basterds, as the big climatic finale is set within a movie premiere.  More recently, Quentin devoted an entire movie as an ode to a bygone era in the dream factory itself with Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, even going so far as to actually recreate the look of Hollywood Boulevard in the 1960 by redressing the facades of the real place to make them exactly as they word decades before.  Even apart from that, Tarantino loves to honor past generations who were a major influence on him by including them in his movies.  He helped to bring back long overlooked actors like Laurence Tierney, Robert Forester, and Pam Grier and gave them important roles that helped to revitalize their long dormant careers.  And even outside of his films, Tarantino has been a passionate champion for traditional cinema.  He refuses to work with digital cameras, working exclusively with good old fashioned film stock, and he even has experimented with using long out of use film formats, like the ultra wide Panavision 70 on his movie The Hateful Eight (2015), a format that hadn’t been used in over 50 years.  He only is so adamant about the kinds of equipment he uses on set because it’s his way of honoring the history of filmmaking that means so much to him, and he wants to preserve it as much as he can.  His passion for physical film media even extends to presentation, as he became the owner of the New Beverly Cinema, a single screen venue south of Hollywood, where movies are shown solely with actual film stock.  Just this year, Tarantino added the legendary Vista Theater in the Los Feliz neighborhood to his collection, which shows that his commitment to preserving the theatrical experience, with a strong emphasis on real, physical film, remains strong to this day.

There is little doubt that years from now the name Quentin Tarantino will remain a prominent one in the annals of film history.  Carving out his own, uncompromised niche in the Hollywood community, he has become one of the rare, unvarnished talents in the whole of the industry.  Very few filmmakers have the kind of creative freedom that he has managed to secure for himself, and that’s mainly because Tarantino has been especially effective in endearing audiences to his unique style and consistently managing to bring people back to the cinemas solely based on his own brand alone.  Everyone now knows what they are getting with each new Tarantino movie, and he hasn’t failed to deliver yet.  In fact the only thing that may get in his way is his own self.  For years, Tarantino has stated that he is quitting directing after his 10th film, which should be the one that comes next.  It seems like a premature time to hang things up, but Quentin insists that he’s rather go out at ten films, than continue on and lose his edge like he’s seen happen to so many other directors that he loves.  I personally don’t buy that, and I think he’s being a tad too hard on himself thinking that mediocrity is his ultimate destiny if he continues to make movies into his twilight years.  It’s where his obsession with movie history ultimately becomes a hinderance on his own self worth.  I hope that Tarantino sees it a different way in his later years, and I believe that a premature retirement are not in the cards for him.  He’s too talented, and I for one don’t believe that talented people just stop cold turkey.  The creative bug will catch him again and he’ll make more than 10 movies in his career.  As for now, we have a pretty eclectic body of work to appreciate from the last 30 years, and most of them have stood the test of time and can still be viewed just as well today.  What will be interesting is if another Tarantino like individual will rise up in the years ahead whose style owes itself in part to that of Quentin Tarantino.  Like how Quentin has used his movies to honor the ones who came before him, I’m sure that some future filmmaker will do the same, and Quentin will see that as it’s own reward.  He knows he stands on the shoulders of giants of the past, and I’m sure that the greatest joy in his life is knowing that the next generation that will redefine cinema will be the ones that stand upon his.

The Director’s Chair – David Fincher

Some film directors launch right out of film school and become major players almost immediately, while some take years and even decades to just make that one movie that will define them.  And then there are the journeyman filmmakers; the ones who don’t immediately make their mark, but instead mature within the system until they rise to the top and become established artists.  These kinds of filmmakers develop from simple means, but they often are the ones who in the end have the most consistently successful bodies of work.  Spielberg, for example, started out this way, beginning as an intern on the Universal Studio lot until he was given a contract to direct television episodes at the studio.  Eventually that led to feature films and of course a legendary directorial career followed.  There are other paths that rising filmmakers have take to establish themselves as an artist before Hollywood came calling.  A lot of the most prolific filmmakers of our time began their journeys directing projects like commercials and music videos.  Though these kinds of projects may seem small in comparison to what Hollywood rolls out, they are nevertheless great incubators for future filmmaking talent, because they allow for wannabe directors to develop a style and technique that they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to try within the studio run machine.  One such film director who managed to climb his way into the industry through music video and commercial production was David Fincher, whose style of filmmaking has made him a standout over the last 30 years.  Known for his fluid camera work and often shadowy atmosphere, Fincher has become one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood, and he has managed to get to this point while still maintaining an uncompromised vision as a director.

Born in Colorado, Fincher spent most of his developing years living in between California and Oregon.  His father Jack, a successful writer for publications such as Life Magazine, helped to give David a privilaged upbringing, including sharing a neighborhood with a future all star filmmaker like George Lucas.  That early connection would prove to be fortuitous, as right out of school, Fincher would begin work as a camera operator for his local Medford, Oregon news studio.  That job eventually led him back to Marin County, where he became an effects camera assistant at the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a company owned by former neighbor Lucas.  After his time at ILM, Fincher co-founded his own production outfit called Propaganda Films, which specialized in commercial and music videos.  Along with Fincher, Propaganda became a successful launching ground for a variety of future filmmakers, like Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Gore Verbinski, Antoine Fuqua, and Zach Snyder to name a few.  For Fincher, he managed to carve out a successful run of music videos for artists as varied as Michael Jackson, George Michaels, Aerosmith, and Billy Idol.  It was his work with Madonna on videos for the songs “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” that particularly caught the eye of the executives at 20th Century Fox.  There, they offered Fincher his first chance at directing a feature; the third film in the Alien franchise, Alien3 (1992).  However, the experience proved to be a disaster for the first time feature director, with the studio constantly interfering, to the point where Fincher once demanded to have his name taken off the movie.  But,  Alien3 led to his next project, Seven (1995) which satisfied his filmmaking interests much better, and it continued into a prosperous and influential body of work ever since.  The following is an examination of all the traits within Fincher’s filmography that has made him a standout in Hollywood, and one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation.



If there’s anything about a David Fincher movie that immediately stands out, it’s the way that he uses he uses the camera to basically go anywhere.  It’s that kind of shot in a movie where the camera appears to move freely, through impossible places with movement that can’t be accomplished practically without the aid of CGI.  It’s like in a movie where you see the point of view of the camera move through a tiny space like a keyhole, or up and down through different floors of a building.  This has been commonly termed within the industry as the “Fincher Shot.”  And though David Fincher has popularized this kind of technique, it’s actually something that only marks a small period in his career.  What is consistent about David Fincher’s style of shot composition is that he does rely on a steady, locked down camera.  Only in his early films like Seven and The Game (1997) do you see use of handheld photography, and even then it’s kept to a minimum.  But starting with his next film, Fight Club (1999), we finally see him begin to play around with what can be done with Computer Animation.  In Fight Club, we see some amazing photography, accomplished with the aid of frequent collaborator DP Jeff Cronenweth, where the camera just flat out defies the laws of physics.  This includes a journey through the microscopic space of Edward Norton’s sweat glands during the opening credits as well as a death defying plunge off a skyscraper and down through the street level into the underground parking garage, all in one shot.  Fight Club’s  Impossible Shot style would become highly influential in the years ahead, and Fincher would continue using it in his follow-up films Panic Room (2004) and Zodiac (2007).  But, surprisingly, in the last decade, Fincher has abandoned this style in favor of more steady shots in The Social Network (2010) and Gone Girl (2014).  Even still, anytime a movie attempts a similar style of shot, it’ll still bear his name, even if he has abandoned it himself.



Another aspect to the style of David Fincher films is the way he portrays the atmosphere.  In many ways, this was something that really carried over from his days in commercials and music videos.  Fincher loves to light his movies dark, and make extra use of shadow and high contrast to influence the atmosphere of his scene.  You can see that clearly in many of his movies, which seem to constantly be taking place mostly at night for some reason.  But not only does he like using shadows and darkness to create atmosphere in his story, he also drenches his movies in a cold, chilling effect as well.  The color timing of his movies always seem to favor a grading that evokes cool temperature.  This is especially ironic for a movie like Zodiac, which takes place in sunny California, but features an atmosphere as chilling as the subject matter of the story itself.  It’s a trait that you can find in almost all of his movies, where everything, including warm interiors take on this weathered, almost haunted quality.  It’s especially amplified when his movies are set in specifically cold places.  You can just feel the damp coldness of the snow covered Harvard campus in The Social Network, or the sub zero emptiness of the Swedish countryside in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).  He hasn’t always evoked this in all his movies though.  The fairy tale like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) featured a decidedly warmer atmosphere, reflective of it’s deep south setting and it’s more romanticized story.  But it’s a rare stand out for a filmmaker with an eye more for the shadowy side of the world.  And indeed, if the fluid, unbound camera movement defined most of Fincher’s earlier work, it’s the dark and cold atmosphere that clearly defines him as a filmmaker in his more recent films.



Aside from his stylistic vision on film, Fincher also has consistent themes that have defined many of his films overall.  Chief among them is the exploration of masculinity within his movies.  In particular, he takes a look at the psychology of men in his movies; what makes them tick, what drives them to accomplish certain feats, and of course what ultimately make many men succumb to their own demons.  This is a thread that weaves pretty much through all of his movies, but certainly in some more than others.  This is particularly true with Fight Club, which is absolutely a deconstruction of the absolute limits of unchecked masculinity.  The film’s narrator, played by Edward Norton, is so emasculated by his life trying to be a functional citizen in society, that eventually he begins to crack and (spoilers) forms an entirely new persona in the form of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  Durden, the manifestation of all of the narrator’s subconscious id, becomes that idealized male role model that the narrator wishes he was, not realizing that Tyler is still him.  Fight Club is the most obvious exploration of masculinity in Fincher’s filmography, but it’s likewise explored in his other movies too.  We see it in the clash between egos in The Social Network, or in the forensic exploration of what drives a serial killer in Zodiac.  And in each of his movies, with one notable exception, there is an idealized feminine presence that either resists the toxic masculinity of the male characters, or forces a reckoning that drives them to reexamine their ways.  This includes Marla from Fight Club, Daisy from Benjamin Button, Erica Albright from Social Network, or Lisebeth Salander from Dragon Tattoo.  Benjamin Button in fact takes the interesting turn of examining male development in reverse, which offers an entirely different angle to the theme in Fincher’s movies.  From Seven and up to the recent Mank (2020), David Fincher’s movies has always been fascinated by the effect of Masculinity, good and bad, on his character’s development, and how the conflicts that develop from it provide the fuel for most of his movies.



One other theme that David Fincher likes to include in his movies is the denial of a conventional ending.  Fincher’s movies often leave us on either a tragic note, or an open-ended one, and rarely does it leave the viewer with the riding off into the sunset kind of resolution.  Fincher’s not against happy endings per say, but he seems to find it more satisfactory to leave the audience on a note that in real life, there are no easy answers that a pat ending could resolve.  No movie better exemplifies this than Seven, which completely subverts expectations on it’s way to one tragic finale.  We believe that the two detectives investigating the string of Seven Deadly Sin murders, played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, are going to catch up to the killer and bring him to justice.  But then the killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) suddenly turns himself in and your expectations are completely flipped.  What happens next is a complete reversal of the murder mystery trope; Pitt kills John Doe and both he and Freeman’s characters live to the end.  But, there is no victory, because John Doe got what he wanted and the Detective’s life is forever ruined.  That’s the kind of sour note that Fincher can perfectly orchestrate into a satisfactory ending.  We are denied the expected ending and are instead treated to something that while subversive still feels naturally earned within each particular story.  And that’s something that carries through his other films.  In Zodiac, the mystery remains unsolved to the end, despite some promising leads.  In Social Network, Zuckerberg is left alone and isolated, despite being the founder of a website meant to bring people together.  And Gone Girl brings it’s story right back to where it began, only with a chilling new context.  Never once does it feel like Fincher is cheating his audience out of a resolution, because he perfectly balances it out with compelling narratives that naturally should leave it’s audience jolted and asking many more questions.



One other common trait of Fincher’s movies is the way that he explores the darker side of humanity that lies just under the surface.  This is quite literally the case in Fight Club, as Tyler Durden becomes the living embodiment of the protagonist’s worst subconscious impulses.  But Fincher also explores how even ordinary every day people around us can be capable of committing evil acts.  No one in The Social Network is inherently evil, but greed has motivated the characters in the film to backstab and destroy the lives of each other.  Fincher also likes exploring the idea of truly monstrous characters that on the surface appear to be completely normal.  In Seven, John Doe comes out of nowhere and is the least likely of suspects.  His name literally is the moniker given by crime scene investigators for individuals who remain “unknown.”  The Zodiac Killer haunts the collective imagination of suburbia, and yet despite some likely suspects, we never know for sure who he really is, and David Fincher makes sure that mystery remains to the very end.  But perhaps the most profound exploration of this kind of character can be found in the persona of Amy Dunne from Gone Girl.  Played to perfection by Rosamund Pike, Amy appears on the surface to be an everyday suburban housewife who has fallen victim to her suspicious philandering husband (played by Ben Affleck).  But, as we learn through the course of the movie, she has a diabolical side to her that has enabled her to fake her own death and blame it on her husband.  Not only that, she’s willing to commit murder and self harm just to maintain further control over her “narrative.”  I think what interests Fincher the most with these characters is just exploring the depths people will go to achieve their goals, as sinister as they may be.  More than anything, there seems to be a rebellious nature to exploring the underbelly of society in his films, because it allows him to pull the curtain back on what are ultimately false assertions about how human beings are supposed to act within society, and how life is never like what we often see in the movies.

From the way he shoots his movies to the different themes that he likes to explore within his narratives, David Fincher has carved out a very respectable place within cinema history.  What is particularly interesting about him as an artist is that he is not one to rest on his laurels.  Even when we believe we’ve figured his style out, he begins to reinvent himself and creates a whole different technique to his filmmaking.  That’s certainly the case with his newest film releasing on Netflix this weekend, Mank, which tells the story of famed Citizen Kane (1941) screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.  Mank is completely different visually from anything else Fincher has made up to now, deliberately aping a throwback style reminiscent of movies of the 1940’s in which the movie is set, and yet at the same time it feels like a natural move for the prolific filmmaker to undertake.  One thing that also has defined his career is the variety of movies he has made.  He rarely uses the same screenwriters on each of his movies, allowing for each film to have it’s own voice, and that’s allowed him to work with some amazing writers like Aaron Sorkin (Social Network), Eric Roth (Benjamin Button), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and now even his own late father Jack Fincher (Mank).  And even though he has largely abandoned it in recent years, the “Fincher Shot” is still widely used on various films and it still bears his name.  There’s no doubt that David Fincher will continue to be a productive and inspirational filmmaker for years to come, and his versatility and inventiveness almost certainly reflects what he learned the most in his early years in commercials and music videos; the constant drive to keep experimenting.  With every new movie, we see him try something new, and that’s what has kept his movies remain fresh and exciting all these years later.  And if Mank is any indication, we are going to be treated to a whole new batch of interesting and new things from the director.

The Director’s Chair – Christopher Nolan

There are many film directors out there that have, in one form of another, a following.  Whether it’s a full on fandom or just a casual ongoing interest, many film directors benefit from these followings as a way of generating interest for whatever project they have coming up in the pipeline.  Sometimes a filmmaker struggles to live up to those expectations, while others are able to build upon every success, eventually leading to a filmography that not only stands well alone in it’s parts, but also begins to be appreciated and studied as a complete body of work.  Often times, the most unique directorial careers exist outside the Hollywood system, working within more modest budgetary constraints which may limit their ambitions but will in turn retain their artistic integrity.  These usually are your auteurs like Terrence Malick or David Lynch, whose artistic expression is very much outside of the mainstream.  Though their movies have ambition and are true to their artistic senses, you can also see in many of their movies a very outsider imprint that’s telling of their limited budgets.  But, on the rare occasion, you’ll see a filmmaker with ambition and artistic integrity not only hit the mainstream, but somehow thrive within delivering movies that both succeed financially and are able to challenge their audiences.  It’s in that rarefied air that you find directors who not only have a following, but whose every new project carries an air of importance that instantly makes them an event in the eyes of audiences.  And one of those who has managed to get to that place recently is a director whose goal is to constantly push the limits of film-making with every new movie he undertakes.

British-American director Christopher Nolan has built up a reputation in Hollywood for making colossal, mind-bending epics.  His rise within the industry is nothing out of the ordinary.   Raised in the shadow of Hollywood while his father was a professor at UCLA, Nolan was well positioned to learn the tricks of the trade from an early age.  After attending film school back in his native London, he immediately went to work on his first feature, Following, a micro-budget thriller that would reveal much of the style and themes that he would further explore in future films; mainly those of obsession and overcoming demons, both internal and external.  Collaborating with his younger brother Jonathan, himself a burgeoning writer and filmmaker, his follow-up film, Memento (2000) would immediately gain him notoriety from the film industry, earning both him and Jonathan their first Oscar nominations.  That’s not bad for a second feature.  The non-linear story-telling of Memento itself would become one of the most influential inspirations to a whole new crop of filmmakers coming up in the early 2000’s, many of whom have held Nolan up as one of their icons.  But, to Christopher’s credit, he never got complacent based on that early success and it helped him to recognize great opportunities once they came his way.  Once Warner Brothers handed him the reigns of their Batman franchise, he proved to the world that it was not him selling out, but instead an opportunity to rewrite the superhero genre forever.  With every new movie, Nolan has wowed us making each film grander than the last, and has achieved a rarefied air of ambition mixed with artistic integrity that we haven’t seen the likes of since possibly that of Stanley Kubrick.  Like other profiles in this series, I’ll be looking at the different themes and continuing features that have made Christopher Nolan’s directorial career so distinct, and how they have manifested so impact-fully in his most noteworthy movies.



One of the most consistent tropes of Christopher Nolan’s filmography is that of stories centered around men who in some way or another are damaged or lost.  Sometimes it’s out of a dilemma of their own making, or it’s because of some deficiency that makes living a struggle.  But no matter what that obstacle is, it becomes the central driving force within the protagonist’s story in one of Nolan’s films.  His breakthrough feature, Memento, features one of the clearest examples of one of these broken characters.  Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who suffers from short term memory loss who literally has to mark up his own body in order to remember key information in order to solve a mystery.  In one of Nolan’s most ingenious narrative devices, he tells Leonard’s story in reverse, starting at the end and finishing at the beginning, putting us the audience in the same disoriented mindscape that the character is in.  Over the course of the film, we identify with that struggle, and how infuriating it is to come to terms with not only one’s place in the world, but also with ones self.  It’s a similar trope that Nolan would also explore through Bruce Wayne’s entire arc in the Dark Knight trilogy.  Through the three films, Christian Bale’s Wayne believes that by becoming the symbol of justice through Batman that he can inspire a reawakening in his beloved city of Gotham.  But, once he is morally tested by the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) and physically beaten down by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) we see a further internal awakening in the character to confront the demons that he’s been trying to run away from his whole life.   In Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb from Inception (2010), we see his literal inner demons manifest as a murderous nightmare in the form of his departed wife.  It’s a theme that Nolan constantly mines to lesser and greater extents in all his movies and it’s probably the thing that sticks out the most as his defining signature trait as a storyteller.



The other common trope of Christopher Nolan’s filmography apart from his troubled main characters is the way that he likes to play around with the concept of time.  Certainly the formatting of Memento showed Nolan’s interest in telling a story out of order, but even in his more linear films do we see the idea of time holding a special significance in his character’s stories.  The movie Inception introduced a very novel concept of how different levels of dreaming can stretch out the perception of time on the dreamer.  The deeper you go, the more time stretches out.  So for his characters, who are infiltrating a shared dreamscape, each new layer takes on a different timescale, and special measures are undertaken to ensure that everything can still line up on time at the different levels.  Creating these rules for his fictional world of dream heists in Inception are all fascinating enough, but Nolan has also shown interest in the way time works on a truly infinite, scientific scale as well.   With Interstellar (2014), Nolan explores the way that relative time acceleration can cause Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut to pass by decades worth of time on Earth after coming too close to the orbit of a black hole.  By the end, what ended up being a couple days for him was 75 years back on Earth, and he reunites with his daughter who has gone from a child to an old woman in the blink of an eye.  Nolan even explores the very limits of time, by having McConaughey’s Cooper enter a tesseract found in the singularity of a black hole, where time is irrelevant.  It’s in those two features where Nolan makes time an important factor as a part of the story, but even in some of his more grounded movies he uses time as an important story-telling tool.  Whether it’s the inter-cutting found in Dunkirk (2017) or the flashbacks in Batman Begins (2005), Nolan always seems to find interesting ways to use the passage of time as an element of his story.  It’s something that he’s also not through with exploring, as his next feature Tenet (2020) looks to put the concept front and center.



One does have to wonder if Christopher Nolan hadn’t applied his intelligence to a career in film-making, he might have become an architect instead.  What you’ll notice very commonly in many of his movies is that Nolan loves to photograph buildings in his movies.  You can pull up so many stills of just the flyover shots of cityscapes in his movies, and those alone could fill up a spread in Architectural Digest.   But his interest in architecture doesn’t just stop at exteriors.  He puts just as much work into crafting unique looking interiors for his films as well.  There is something about his use of eye-catching architecture in his movies that relates to Nolan’s desire to ground his movies in a certain reality.  He’s always concerned about the authenticity of his worlds, and making the audience feel like they are a part of the scene, paying as close attention to the smallest details as possible.  And this can range from anything as spectacular as the Bat Cave in The Dark Knight, to something as intimate as Mark Rylance’s fishing boat in Dunkirk, to something as otherworldly as the spaceships of Interstellar.  At the same time, Nolan is also just as interested in manipulating architecture in unexpected ways.  Inception in particular shows Nolan pushing the limits of exterior and interior spaces to places that can never exist in the real world.  One of the most spectacular scenes in the movie involves just a simple hotel hallway, but through the manipulation of the dream world, it is literally flipped upside down.  And of course in true Nolan fashion, no CGI enhancement was used.  Taking a cue from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) rigged a fully furnished hallway to a gimble cylinder and spun the whole thing around with a camera locked into place.  Nolan did use CG to create a different spectacular moment of a city folding in on itself, but even this was done with an eye towards retaining an architectural integrity.  No matter how grounded or beyond the realm of physics Christopher Nolan’s architectural sights may be, they nevertheless make an impact in defining his visual style.



One thing that has certainly defined Christopher Nolan within the industry beyond the films that he makes is his passionate advocacy for both the theatrical experience and for the use of physical media in the film-making process.  Deeply opposed to even the thought of shooting with digital cameras, Nolan has committed himself to shooting all his movies on film stock.  For him it’s not just holding onto a sense of tradition in film-making; he genuinely believes that shooting on film brings out the best fidelity within the image, and there is plenty of evidence for that.  The kind of cinematography found in Nolan’s films would certainly not carry the same kind of atmosphere if they were shot digitally.  It also helps that Nolan always uses larger formats for his films.  One of the main reasons Christopher Nolan’s movies have become big events upon release is because his film stock of choice is 70 mm IMAX, the largest format in the whole market.  And he constructs every one of his movies around the use of this massive and expensive film stock.  It’s really remarkable how Nolan is able to construct his movies using IMAX cameras, because they are not easy to move around.  Collaborating with the greatest IMAX photographers in the business, Wally Pfister and Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan has managed to put the no-room-for-error IMAX lens in some of the most remarkable places.  And what he’s managed to shoot in the format has been some of cinema’s most spectacular moments ever; the flipping of Joker’s truck in The Dark Knight, the flyby of a black hole in Interstellar, Bane’s midair hijacking in The Dark Knight Rises‘ prologue, and the sinking ships of Dunkirk.  None of those scenes would have had the same impact on anything less than the IMAX frame.  And a brand new Nolan film demands to be seen on a big screen.  One hopes that the director’s reputation for showmanship on this level will be enough to bring audiences back to the theaters this summer with Tenet.  Regardless, I don’t think you’ll see Nolan abandon the IMAX format anytime soon.



One last thing you’ll easily notice about Nolan’s movies is that he does like to use actors more than once in his projects.  He’s managed to work with actors like Tom Hardy three times, Cillian Murphy five times, and Sir Michael Caine has been in everything he’s made since 2005’s Batman Begins (those wondering where the noticeably absent on screen actor was in Dunkirk need to listen for that familiar cockney accent coming from the comm-link radios directing the fighter pilots in the movie).  It’s not uncommon for a director to have a stable of go to actors for his movies, like Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock, but what I think makes Nolan’s use of his actors so unique is the versatility in which he uses them.  Just look at the different roles that Tom Hardy has played in his movies; from a suave dream forger in Inception, to the formidable supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, to a RAF fighter pilot in Dunkirk.  The only thing those performances have in common is that in two of them, Hardy is required to wear a breather mask for most of the movie.  It is interesting that for the roles of his film’s protagonists, Nolan usually just works with that actor once; apart from Christian Bale’s three-peat as Batman.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Guy Pearce, Hugh Jackman and Al Pacino all delivered some of the best work of their career in a Nolan film, but they were also one and done with the director.  And it wasn’t because of any friction between Nolan and the actors; they all have nothing but great things to say about their experience.  It’s just that this is the way Nolan likes to work; he likes to return to familiar faces to fill out his supporting roles, but he prefers to have a clean slate when it comes to his main characters.  And I think that this has helped to make every new film of his feel so refreshing each time.  A new face among all the familiar ones means a chance for a bold new adventure.

There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan has earned his spot near the top of the best working directors today.  The fact that he has made it his goal in life to push the medium of film further with every movie he makes has endeared him to cinephiles all over the world, including myself.  It’s so rare to see a filmmaker these days deliver such uncompromising vision on the big screen with the full backing of a major studio.  You can definitely see the influence of Kubrick on Christopher Nolan, himself being a unique voice who managed to maintain his artistic integrity within the studio system.  So many auteurs try to work on the outside the same way, but Nolan has managed to bend the studios towards his way of thinking, which is unheard of today in Hollywood.  Who else could’ve gotten a studio to invest in something as out-of-this-world as Inception and still see that movie not only click with audiences, but also generate a huge profit in the end.  One of the reasons why Nolan has gotten to the position that he’s in is because he recognized opportunities when they came his way and made the most of them.  When a studio offers you the reigns to a franchise, it may seem like a compromise that could threaten your artistic integrity in return for a bigger pay day.  But Christopher Nolan did not see it as a compromise, but rather an opportunity to make his own kind of super hero movie, and in turn he set the bar higher for the genre as a whole.  Had he said no to Batman, who knows if he would’ve ever gained the trust of any other studio and been able to create the spectacular films that he’s excelled at ever since.  Nolan’s career can be summed up by his good instincts and his drive to always keep moving forward with what the medium can do.  And the fact that his movies are absolute must sees in a movie theater could also make him the possible savior for a struggling industry in this current crisis that we are in right now. For me personally, I will never see a Nolan film on anything but the biggest screen possible for the first time, and my hope is that theaters will survive long enough to make that possible; for as long as Christopher Nolan continues to make more movies.

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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.