Figuring out why you like or dislike something is often difficult at best. Presentations, whether on film, TV, or stage are collaborations. You hear about stars and Pulitzer prize winning writers, and Oscar winning directors, not to mention costumes, make-up, editing, sound, etc. but without all of these bits and pieces, you only have part of the whole. And when all the pieces come together well, it all becomes invisible. Outside of stylistic pieces, how often do you really notice make-up or costumes (other than in period dramas)? If you’re thinking about the script while an actor is talking, something is definitely wrong somewhere.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t stand-outs in any collaboration. Often in my reviews you’ll find me calling out specific aspects. I base my comments on experience in the field, but let’s be honest, they’re personal comments and guesses about actions and decisions that I have no way to easily prove. However, many people have asked me how I even manage to tease the parts from the whole, so I thought I’d try to capture some of the process and clues I use.
Acting performances are typically the easiest to spot as stellar or… well… not. The actor is the one up in front of everyone’s eyes and ears. All things being equal, it is the performance that takes a script and makes it sing. Dialog becomes seamless and natural–lines, no matter how poorly written or cliche, seem absolutely right. Assuming the story is relatively straight-forward and it is told in chronological order, most anyone can spot good and bad performances. Once editors get involved and the time-line is inter-cut, it becomes more difficult, but I’ll discuss this aspect when talking about directing. Generally speaking, if the character (not the actor) becomes real and you invest in them emotionally, the actor has succeeded. If you don’t, they didn’t. If all you are thinking about is the actor (male or female), somewhere it has all failed. However, as it has been said often, great actors can make the phone book sound interesting, so at the extremes a good performance is almost always easy to spot even if the story is a bust.
Writing affects viewing experience primarily in two ways: dialogue and plot. Good dialogue is utterly invisible. Seriously. If the words are so natural to the situation that you can’t imagine a better way to put it or a more natural reaction, that is good writing… someone who gets the character and the situation. David Mamet is one of the modern masters on this point. I’m sure you can figure out bad dialogue on your own. This doesn’t address excellent writing that is just simply thrilling to listen to, and while not quite natural, so incredibly smart, you wish it were and so go with it. Aron Sorkin is one of the modern masters of this. Tom Stoppard is somewhere between, oscillating between completely natural and believably florid–and is one of my personal favorites.
Good and bad plot is similarly spottable. We all know a good story when we hear it… it is in our genetic make-up. Since we were kids, we were horribly disappointed at a weak ending or silly twists in bedtime stories or bad TV. Either you believe how a story unfolds or you don’t. Either the story kept you engaged or it didn’t. Either you got way ahead of the story/mystery/reveals (my personal bugaboo) or you didn’t. I think most folks respond to plot even more strongly than they do to actors or dialogue though they may place the blame elsewhere without realizing it.
Directing is probably the least understood and most ephemeral aspect of influence on a production. Most directors will tell you that casting is 90% of solving your problems. Sometimes this will mean finding a visually or energy appropriate person or it can simply mean someone they can work with. Every director is different. Some prefer puppets on strings, others prefer to set them free (Woody Allen is squarely in this last camp–barely speaking between filming scenes). Most are somewhere in between providing guidance and shade to what the actor brings after some discussion of the overall piece… I’m speaking, of course, of main roles. Minor and bit parts are lucky to be called by their proper names on some sets (I kid)! The best Directors also bring “vision.” Vision is that complete whole that often helps you spot by look and/or feel a particular Director’s work. Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton come immediately to mind. You know one of their films almost from the first frame. Others take longer, but the sensibility of their approach to story has a feel and cadence that are as good as fingerprints. This is why we love artists. Even action films have their champions, see Michael Bay for an example. Directorial stamp isn’t an art thing, it is how they express themselves. We sit down in the theater or in front of our TVs with these “friends” and enjoy their conversation with us.
And finally, the Director brings their thinking to bear in how the production is edited and put together, which is their most difficult responsibility. Different edits or inclusions or order of scenes can utterly change the feeling or even the meaning of a production. Recently, I reviewed Salt where this aspect of influence was shockingly clear. The order in which things occur can utterly change your impression of the characters or the film. Imagine Memento in chronological order; then again, why would you?<g> See All That Jazz and the sweat poured into the editing of the comic routine. There are many examples, but it is what story-telling comes down to–where is the beginning and how do you tell the tale?
As a short side-note in an otherwise massive post, I should touch on the role of the Studios in all this. Studios have a varying amount of influence on the productions they fund depending on their contracts. They sink in 100s of millions of dollars and, quite understandably if not with expertise, insist on changes from run-time length to content. I’m not even going to try and untangle that mess today. It is sufficient to say that when you see something so cliché or out of kilter in an otherwise well-done and thought-out piece, it was usually the Studio sticking in their hands. That isn’t to say they can make some things better, but when it works, you really don’t notice and the director gets the credit.
I think that is sufficiently long to annoy most of you. I considered doing this in multiple posts, but I’ve many movies to get to this week and will have enough to write about on that front. And tomorrow, the Oscar noms come out!