Gross Misconceptions about Film

image: pinoytechnologies.com

I believe it is more important to create than to learn, and yet the two are intertwined. The most knowledgeable, learned person on the planet, if he or she never creates anything, will be lost in the annals of time, never to be even heard of by future generations, having contributed nothing lasting to society. And yet, even a cretin who creates something can become an infamous part of history. (No offense, Kevin Smith. I still think your films are cool.)

Learning is an integral part of the creation process. That’s why, at any given time, I’m always reading a book or two that has something to do with the filmmaking process. Most of the time, this is an extremely edifying and empowering experience. Lately, however, I’ve been appalled at some blatant errors I’ve read from authors who are seen as experts on the subject of film directing. I’ve always found it easy to come across well-written, intriguing books on the subject of writing, but on directing it’s always been a struggle to find as well-written material. I guess that makes perfect sense, since who better to write books than people who specialize in writing? People who specialize in directing may or may not be the best writers, which I guess accounts for the dearth of well-written books on directing.

While these books on directing contain a lot of good information, some passages that I recently read stood out to me as admitting downright ignorance about the filmmaking process. It seems to me that it can’t just be these writers alone who hold these misconceptions. I believe these are common misconceptions that abound in our culture. Otherwise, how could these people be upheld as experts?

First a passage from The Director Prepares by Myrl Schreibman:

“The director’s job is to interpret the screenplay and take the material on the written page and heighten it to its glory on screen. The director’s creativity and contribution to the project begins where the writer’s creativity ends; the actors’ creativity and contribution begins where the director’s task ends; and of course, the audience’s contribution, their involvement with the story, and hopefully their money at the box office, begins where the actors’ creativity ends, completing the entire cycle of the creative process which begins with the text!” (emph. added)

According to Schreibman, the creative process of filmmaking goes directly from the actor’s performance to the audience. This is true in theatre, but in film, nothing could be farther from the truth. (Which is part of what makes film and theatre such different creatures.) Those even remotely aware of how the filmmaking process works realize that it is in the editing where the film is really made.

“The humbling truth is that a film is made in the editing room.”

– David Mamet

Of course without excellent acting and directing, a film can never be the best it can be. But what the director and actors are doing in production is giving the editor something to work with. In an average Hollywood feature film, something like 40 hours of footage may be shot, to then be edited down to a 2 hour film. Which performances by the actors, or more correctly which combination of performances by the actors are seen by the audience is solely determined in the editing room. And there are infinite possibilities when it comes to creatively combining the footage, so the audience’s involvement in the story really begins where the editor’s contribution ends.

But the really atrocious statement made by Schreibman that made it impossible for me stomach the rest of the book was this one:

“Actors are basically like children. They like to dress up and be other people. They want and crave attention…”

Yes, there are actors like that, unfortunately. They are called bad actors. I say anyone who craves attention, fame, and fortune shouldn’t be an actor. Those type of people immeasurably cheapen the art of film. They aren’t in love with film as an art form. They don’t care about honing their craft or becoming better. They aren’t passionate about what they do, because what they do is just a means to an end. If you don’t love something for its own sake, you shouldn’t do it. Film is an important art form and means of cultural transformation, not a way for some brat to get attention.

“Belittling actors? I hope you’re feeling lucky, punk.”
image: cinemaknifefight.files.wordpress.com

Schreibman obviously assumes that his readers only want to direct, not to act. Otherwise he wouldn’t speak so patronizingly about actors. What about those of us who aspire to both? Some of the finest directors we’ve ever had were also actors. Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, which is recognized by the American Film Institute as the #1 best American film ever made. Warren Beatty won the Academy Award for Best Director for Reds, which he directed and starred in. Clint Eastwood (pictured to the right in Dirty Harry) also directed and starred in many of his films. He won an Oscar for Best Director for Unforgiven, which he both directed and starred in.

Judith Weston’s book Directing Actors isn’t as nauseous as Schreibman’s , but contains an error which also shows a basic misunderstanding of film as an art form.

“Where to put the camera is not dealt with in this book at all; I am going to assume that you already have some knowledge of the technical side of filmmaking.”

The decision of where to place the camera—in other words, what to show the audience—is called composition (just as it is in painting and other art forms), and no part of composition is technical. Composition is a purely artistic choice. Otherwise there would be a “right” or “wrong” place to put the camera. For example, if an actor is speaking a line of dialogue, the camera doesn’t even need to be pointed at that actor. There are some considerations which are both technical and artistic, such as which F-stop to shoot at. However, what to include in your composition or what to show the audience is 100% artistic. It would be ridiculous to tell a painter that composition is “technical.” They why in the film industry do we find experts making such basic errors as to think an artistic choice like that is technical?

I’ll venture to answer my own question by saying that Hollywood has become extremely commercial and moved away in many ways from film as an art. When there is a “right” place to place the camera, you can be sure that the process of making films has been reduced to a formulaic way to make money. The commercialization of Hollywood has in part helped to propagate these misconceptions about film as an art. But perhaps even more, people have focused on learning individual crafts without having a basic understanding of the art of film as a whole. It is important to hone our craft, but if we truly love film as an art form, not a way to get attention or make money, it is also important to learn as much as we can about all the aspects of this unique art form.

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