Archive for On Film-Making

Play

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 17, 2013 by dcairns

morgans-creek

I finally decided to get myself a copy of Play-Making, a Manual of Craftsmanship by William Archer — the book Preston Sturges read when he was laid up with appendicitis and which turned him into a creator of Broadway hits the moment he’d devoured the last page. Maybe it’ll do the same for me! (I think he also read Brander Matthews’ guide to writing plays too — and this book is dedicated to BM.)

It’s not hard to see why Sturges would respond to this text — it has a high-flown style which occasionally plunges into comedy to make a point, so that it not only expresses the dramatic principles which the great filmmaker would exploit, but it also occasionally touches on the tone he would use. You can see this in the following passage, I think. Like today’s better screenwriting manuals. Archer begins by establishing the pitfalls of any guide to the craft ~

“There is thus a fine opening for pedantry on the one side and quackery on the other, to rush in. The pedant, in this context, is he who constructs a set of rules from metaphysical or psychological first principles, and professes to bring down a dramatic decalogue from the Sinai of some lecture-room in the University of Weissnichtwo. The quack, on the other hand, is he who generalizes from the worst practices of the most vulgar theatrical journeymen, and has no higher ambition than to interpret the oracles of the box-office. If he succeeded in so doing, his function would not be wholly despicable; but as he is generally devoid of insight, and as, moreover, the oracles of the box-office vary from season to season, if not from month to month, his lucubrations are about as valuable as those of Zadkiel and Old Moore.”

Lucubrations!

One could be mean and say that Robert McKee has in some ways gone beyond anything Archer dreamt of by combining pedantry with quackery (do you prefer the term pedackery or quackantry to describe this hybrid approach?).

I was startled by how familiar was Archer’s definition of drama (“Any representation of imaginary personages which is capable of interesting an average audience in a theater”) — and then I realized that all the insights of Chapter III of Playmaking had been condensed into Chapter 12 of Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film-Making. At least he gives credit, though — the chapter is called William Archer Revisited.

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Match Cut

Posted in FILM with tags , on February 21, 2011 by dcairns

Here’s a clip of Alexander Mackendrick talking about his film teaching work, culled from a BBC Scotland arts show called Scope. Since Mackendrick was raised in Glasgow (and has the genteel accent to prove it), Scottish broadcasters showed quite a bit of interest in him over the years. I must have a dozen interviews.

Thanks to the Shadowplay secret agent who liberated this from the BBC archives and copied it, before sneaking it back in.

Paul Cronin, editor of On Film-making, the insuperable study put together from Mackendrick’s CalArts lectures, had to whittle down a substantial set of notes to make a single coherent volume, and one of the things he mentioned removing was a section looking at TV coverage of the Watergate Hearings — so it’s great to find part of that material covered in the above clip.

Always On Sunday

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2009 by dcairns

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY — the title was almost literally true in those days, since the factory smoke seeded the clouds during the week, and on the one day when the factories didn’t belch their fumes skywards, the clouds would take the opportunity to drop their watery payload.

Rain predominates in Robert Hamer’s post-war British noir, a genuinely oppressive and glum film, typifying the Ealing fondness for “network narratives” (David Bordwell’s useful phrase) branching out from families or neighbourhoods or institutions. Here, a group of honest and dishonest citizens in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, go about their business, breaking hearts and by-laws, while housewife Googie Withers shelters her ex-lover, John McCallum who’s just escaped from Dartmoor Prison.

When we learn that McCallum’s been given “the cat” — his back is a lattice of scares from the prison whipping — I believed it, having learned that this appalling punishment was still being practiced in postwar Britain after raising doubts about Burt Lancaster’s flogging in KISS THE BLOOD OF MY HANDS. But I think I would have believed it anyway — Hamer’s movie reeks with authenticity, unlike Norman Foster’s slick comic-book thriller. Despite a reliance on studio work, the movie convincingly evokes East End life, with a surprising emphasis on Jewishness and a reasonable authenticity of dialect all round. Of course, the cockney’s have all had V-chips installed so they can’t swear, but I always get a kick out of characters saying “Sweet Fanny Adams” in Ealing movies. The expression may need some explaining for non-Brits. The etymology of the phrase is pretty convoluted, but my favourite reading of it sees it as word substitution code for “sweet fuck-all.” So its frequent use represents a triumph over the British Board of Film Censors.

Here’s Hamer’s fellow Ealing director Alexander Mackendrick, quoted from On Film-Making ~

“Though common in television, group stories seem to have died as a form of cinema these days.” (Well, they’re back now.) “They used to be much more common, and if I have a prejudice against them, it is probably because the English studio at which I got some early training was addicted to the kind of stories that had multiple protagonists (the Ealing comedies PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and WHISKY GALORE! for example).

“I have never been sure why writers and directors of that era were so happy with this formula. I think they believed it provided the opportunity for not only more variety of characters but also a lively pacing that could be achieved by intercutting the progression of the subplots. After one film of this kind I began to dislike the structure because I felt it weakened the drive of the narrative rather than strengthened it. All of the characters essentially became cameo roles that couldn’t be developed in any depth, and the multiplicity of minor tensions was apt to reduce the tension of the main theme.”

Now, it seems to me, we have enough successful, artistically interesting examples of the network narrative to see Mackendrick’s objection as signposting a potential pitfall rather than a necessary weakness of the form. And IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY stands as perhaps Ealing’s finest achievement with this manner of storytelling, centered upon the Withers storyline but spreading out to take in the adventures of her different family members, various east End characters, and the detective trailing McCallum (Jack Warner, Ealing’s favourite copper).

Flashback to a blonde Googie, echoing her early screen appearances (see THE LADY VANISHES).

When I looked at the movie years ago, I found its persistent gloom oppressive, stifling and itchy, which it is, but that’s the brilliance of the filmmaking. Hamer manages to make his widespread narratives all as claustrophobic as the adventure of the escaped convict in the tiny two-up-two-down house. I was also struck by the mysterious resemblance the film bears to Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER: in both films, the mother secretes her fugitive lover within the marital home, betraying her husband and clashing with her (step)daughter. The main difference is the substitution of Doug Bradley’s Pinhead for Jack Warner’s detective, and the fact that the lover in HELLRAISER has no skin. I wonder if Hamer’s film was an influence on Barker. It’s a powerful storyline, which seems capable of shifting through yet more genres: it has one foot in bedroom farce (“Quick, in here!”) already.

Hamer, who two years later would triumph with that greatest of black comedies, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, largely shuns humour here, defying Ealing’s usual chirpy manner and sinking us in meanness and corruption. There is a persistent strain of pessimism in British film of this period, perhaps stemming from our disappointment with the “land fit for heroes” we’d been promised in the war. This acerbic strain was gradually extirpated by the bureaucrats running the film business in the fifties, but would make a savage return with greater realism in the sixties.

The movie’s climax, a chase at the railway yard, magnificently lit by Douglas Slocombe, is marred by a couple of rather inexplicable model shots, but is nevertheless tense and expressionistic and dynamic — the crime story really does seem like the best way to make realism palatable to a wide audience as entertainment.

IAROS is based on a novel by Arthur LaBern, whose Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square was filmed much later, by Alfred Hitchcock, as FRENZY. In that movie, realism is no longer the keynote…

Ealing Studios DVD Collection – Champagne Charlie/The Maggie/It Always Rains On Sunday/Whisky Galore