Good Directing? I Hadn’t Noticed.
I am, by no means, an authority on what makes a good film. I know that I’ve seen more movies than I care to admit, but my knowledge is still fairly limited. For example, I’m the polar opposite of a horror expert, I haven’t seen as many foreign films as I’d like, and the number of Oscars I’ve seen is a single digit. But I know what I like and I’m always open to suggestions, and that works for me (as does the absurd number of movies I’ve seen, as well as my preference for discussing them after I’ve seen them).
But one thing that I can’t seem to wrap my head around is how to separate the facets of movie-making. I hear other movie critics and bloggers comment about how the directing in a film is fabulous, or how the cinematographer did a great job. Comments like these always leave me confused. How can they tell? Did they see something I didn’t?
Let’s take the movie Mystic River (one of my favourites). You’ve got a great cast with names like Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Kevin Bacon, and Lawrence Fishburne. You’ve got a great script, based on a great book by Dennis Lehane. You’ve got a great director in Clint Eastwood. Everything is great and, as luck would have it, a great movie was made.
The problem is that I can’t tell who is responsible for what. If someone says “That was a well-directed scene”, what do they actually mean? How do you know it was Clint Eastwood who told Tim Robbins to break down crying in that scene? What if it was in the original script? In one of the beginning scenes where Sean Penn is breaking down crying, how much of that was the director, the actor or the cinematographer making it look good?
It doesn’t help that the status of what once was ‘the director’ has now changed. Directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder came from a time where the director was in charge. They were the primary vehicle by which the movie was being made. They were responsible, not only for managing their own film set staff, but the producers and investors in the picture. As far as my research tells me, the director was the captain of the ship. Even though he had people to manage, he was still the man in charge.
Now, things are different. While the director has a vision of what he wants the picture to look like, actors now have their own ideas of what they want to contribute to the film. Robin Williams ad-libbed almost all of his lines in Aladdin. Bill Murray did the same in Tootsie. Does the director still get the credit for monitoring the controlled chaos that results from going off-script? I don’t know. It’s my major area of weakness when it comes to commenting on movies — who gets the credit for what?
The safest bet that I always use is to give credit to the focus of the scene. Emotional moment with a character? Give it to the actor. Pacing? Screenwriter. Any other moments, visual or otherwise? Director. Whether or not that’s the right way to do it, I don’t know. But it hasn’t failed me at dinner party conversations or blog post discussions yet. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll figure out the difference.