A few questions for the filmmakers in the audience. How many films by Jean Luc Godard have you seen? What about Charlie Chaplin? D.W. Griffith? Have you watched Fritz Lang’s “M?” What about Alfred Hitchcock, quick name me 20 of his films right off the top of your head. (That’s right, twenty.) What about Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, how many of their films have you seen? What’s your favorite Ingmar Bergman film? Do you prefer Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” or Buster Keaton’s “The General?” What films were most influenced by Kurosawa’s “Seven Samauri.” Which is your favorite Ozu film? Your favorite Truffaut? Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, and why? How many times have you watched each Luis Bunuel film, and which is your favorite? Which is your favorite film about filmmaking: “8 1/2,” “Day For Night,” “Contempt,” “Man With The Movie Camera,” or something else?
I could easily go on and on. But the problem with most young filmmakers today, they’d have no way to answer any of those questions. They wouldn’t have a clue. Sure, ask them about Tarantino, or Scorsese, or David Lynch, or Wes Anderson, and they could recite you passages from their film. (Sorry to break it to you, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is not the greatest film of all time.) But unfortunately films did not begin in the 70s. If anything, the 70s are one of the most overrated period in the history of film, with the lone exception being the films of Woody Allen.
Cinematographers should be paying attention as well. On “You Are Alone” I worked with a DP who didn’t even know Bergman’s “Persona,” one of the most influential films of all time, especially in terms of the way it was shot. And even when I lent him the DVD, he still didn’t watch it, which is why I ended up using about 40% B-camera in the final edit. As least the B-cameramen (there were three in all) had a clue as to what I was talking about. One of the things I love about Adrian Correia, who shot my film “Friends (with benefits),” is that when I reference: “you know that scene in in ‘The Third Man’ when Orson Wells is standing in the doorway and the cat rubs against his shoe…?” and yes, he knows exactly what scene I’m talking about, and he can replicate the lighting exactly, or at least incorporate elements into the scene we’re shooting. That’s what you want in a DP. Someone who knows every beautifully shot scene that came before them.
How anyone can make a film, or even want to make a film, without knowing as much as possible about what came before is a mystery to me? Just as how anyone can make a comedy without studying Chaplin? How anyone can make a horror film without knowing every frame of “Psycho?” (It sure seems as if people are repeating the schlocky horror formula of the 80s over and over again, ad nauseam, without a clue as to what is truly frightening, or compelling, or even entertaining…and yes, I’m talking to you CT filmmakers and people who seem to think “found footage” is a genius idea.) How in God’s name can anyone film a character with swagger without having marveled at Belmondo in “Breathless?” How can you film sexy without knowing Bardot? How can you film a battle scene without having studied Kurosawa? How can you film heartbreak without studying De Sica? How can you break the rules without having seen “Citizen Kane?”
(Don’t try to argue, otherwise your answer to the above set of questions becomes, “It’s easy because I’m an idiot.”)
It’s why the majority of films today are so freaking bad. And why the few filmmakers who are worth anything are such film geeks at heart. Tarrantino and Lynch are great because their knowledge of film history is vast. They know what works and what doesn’t because they’ve seen it before. They know how to break the rules, because they’ve studied the rules. Even Woody Allen understands that 90% of his humor comes from Chaplin and Groucho Marx, and his technique from Bergman. He’s admitted as much countless times. Knowing and understanding film is what makes their films classic.
You don’t even have to like them. But you need to have seen them. Not all, but at least a respectable amount, and as you get older you need to keep watching and learning. I personally detest the films of Stanley Kubrick. I think he’s made three watchable films. Two starred Peter Sellers, so I give Sellers all the credit. The other, “Paths of Glory,” was based upon a story that was so strong, even Kubrick couldn’t fuck it up. (Yes, I know he’s listed as co-writer, but again, so was Jim Thompson. So, who really wrote the script?) But y’know what, I’ve seen all of his films. I still give him the benefit of the doubt because so many filmmakers I respect in turn respect him. I’m missing the Kubrick gene. For me watching “2001” might be like watching paint dry, just as Godard is for a number of my filmmaking friends. But we all understand the importance. We all understand the history. We understand they wrote the rules, broke the rules, crossing dangerous seas in the name of creating a new world of art.
And perhaps you don’t want to make art. Perhaps you don’t want to make stories that resonate. Perhaps you don’t want to shoot frames that take your breath away, endings that leave the viewer speechless. Perhaps you’re content making “movies” (they certainly aren’t films) with your friends that only you and your friends will ever enjoy, or see for that matter. (Putting your “masterpiece” up on YouTube does not count as distribution.) If that’s the case, please stop reading my blog. I’m not writing it for you.
I see so many films that held promise. A great story. A great cast. But it’s wasted by mediocre filmmaking. It’s ruined by people who have never studied great storytelling, so they haven’t a clue as to what to do with the full-of-potential tale in their proverbial lap. How many times have I watched a documentary and thought, damn if only this story had been told by Errol Morris, if would have been brilliant. The story was certainly there, but the filmmaking talent needed to tell it, was no where to be found. Perhaps if the filmmakers had studied Morris, or Maysles, or Pennebaker, or even Alex Gibney, and took apart their technique to see how a story can and should be told (and there are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories), the film would not have had me scratching my head, wondering how such a captivating tale could end up so damn dull.
We all learn from history. In politics, sports, hell, in our everyday family life. Film is no different. We learn from the successes and mistakes of others. And for anyone to pick up a camera and try to make a film…for anyone to call themselves a filmmaker…without having studied the classics, what came first, is nothing short of stupid. (It’s not brave, it’s not taking a risk, unless you consider walking right into the line of enemy fire naked and unarmed brave.) If you haven’t studied some of the filmmakers mentioned in here (and or course there are so many others who made a difference that I have not the time nor space to list), you’re not a filmmaker. Not even close. You’re a sad wannabe hack who wouldn’t know a story if it bit you on the ass. And while that may sound harsh, I’m a bit cranky from watching too many miserable films from people who think they can direct (mumblecore, I’m talking to you). Go back to square one. Learn your history. Understand what made Fellini or Hitchcock or Sturges great. Only then will you perhaps be able to apply such knowledge to your own work. Only then will you be able to make a film that is actually worth watching. Only then will you be deserving of the title “filmmaker.”