Once, while having my ticket inspected on a train, the guard looked at the book I was reading and said, “Oh, you’re reading that. My brother read that once – hated it”.
The book in question was “How to read a film” by James Monaco, a book which talks about not just what makes up the shot you are looking at, but also where it’s come from, how they did it, and most importantly what they were thinking when they did it. I don’t mean, “what they were thinking” like this – “ooh, after we get Cleese and Cruise to climb this cliff, I’m definately going to eat that cheese sandwich I saw on the craft cart. I hope Cruz hasn’t snaffled it.” No, not thoughts like that, although I would certainly read a book like that [Note to self: write book like that.]
No. Instead it’s things that you don’t notice in films until they go wrong. Watch a bad movie, a movie that just somehow nebulously feels bad. Why is it bad? Part of it is bad writing, part of it is bad acting, bad music, bad lighting. But often if you can’t put your finger on it – it’s bad direction. Directors don’t just tell actors their motivation and tell somebody to point a camera in their general direction – they frame the movie for you. And there is a language to it.
Think of a novel, sometimes you can hear the author’s voice really loudly, they might have a distinctive style of their own. Sometimes the author gets the hell out of the way, something that’s really hard to do but very effective. Sometimes you can hear the gears grinding as they struggle to…
The same thing happens with direction. It’s the combination of the director of photography’s choices, the editors choices, and the director giving them enough options to work with. There’s a language that’s been built up. Two characters (mid two person shot, waist up, push camera towards), one speaks (cut to close up face, push towards) “We can do this.”, other responds (same shot on the other), “It’s a deal.” (slam cut to hands shaking, slam cut to legs walking away, slam cut to long shot with the two full body). You’ve seen it so many times before. It’s surprising now when you don’t see it. It’s the language. Or it is? They didn’t use slam cuts before Kubrick and this book was about how this language emerged. Yeah, remember that book, the one the ticket inspector recognised.
“Your brother didn’t like it? It’s great.”
“Oh he liked the book, he just found he couldn’t watch films properly any more. He couldn’t enjoy them once he kept seeing how it all worked.”
“Ah, shouldn’t be a problem for me, I’ve always seen the joins, I just felt I couldn’t admire them until I understood them.”