The Human Eye and A Handful of Film Directors

I wrote a blog post a while ago about the 60s TV show the Time Tunnel. I used to love that show when I was about 12 years old but watching it these days it isn’t quite as good as I remember. If the time tunnel was real and I could sneak inside and send myself back in time the place I’d like to go would probably be the early days on cinema in Hollywood.

Back then when the cinema was new and the job of film director was something that didn’t require a degree, I reckon I might have been in with a chance of getting to direct a film. These days I have to content myself with being an amateur video maker. Anyway, I may not be a director but I can certainly write about film directors if nothing else.

Charlie Chaplin

I’m going to start off with Chaplin because he was one of the very first to give actual direction to a motion picture. Charlie came to Hollywood after a career in Fred Karno’s musical halls in England. Karno was a successful impresario and producer and when his productions became successful, he decided to export them and sent various troupes on tours of the USA. On one of those tours Chaplin was spotted by slapstick film maker Mack Sennet and Chaplin began to appear in early Hollywood comedy shows. In those days there were no scripts. The actors and directors threw a few ideas about and then the cameras began to roll. The short films were made quickly and then sent off for distribution across the USA and even the world.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films, he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essanay because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever thought of Chaplin as a genius but he was clearly one of the first to realise a film needed a structure and that comedy films didn’t need to be gag after gag after gag. They needed a story, the audience needed to sympathise with the characters and so on. Whatever you think of Charlie Chaplin, his contribution to the film world was immense.

Billy Wilder

My favourite Billy Wilder story goes like this: In his later years he wanted, as usual, to make a movie. He approached a studio and was invited in to make his pitch, as they call it in the movie world. The executive who met with Billy was a young man. He said to Billy, “I’m not familiar with your work could you tell me about it?”

Wilder replied, “of course, after you!”

Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria. He became a screenwriter while living in Berlin but left when the Nazi party began their rise to power. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood where many artists and film makers fled to escape the Nazis. Wilder wrote numerous screenplays with his co-writer Charles Brackett and in 1942 made his directing debut with The Major and the Minor.

A big hit for wilder was the film Double Indemnity. Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler and the film was nominated for 7 academy awards as well as becoming a classic of film noir.

By far my favourite Wilder film though was Sunset Boulevard. The film follows William Holden as screenwriter Joe Gillis who is down on his luck and is about to have his car repossessed. To escape the repo men, Holden drives into what he thinks is a deserted house on Sunset Boulevard. To his surprise he finds reclusive film star Gloria Swanson living there. Swanson plays Norma Desmond, once a star of the silent era who is planning her return to the screen.

Norma engages Joe to edit a script she has written herself and Joe soon finds himself seduced by the affection and money she lavishes on him. Some of Swanson’s own silent films are used within the production and one of her old directors, Erich Von Stroheim plays the part of her butler and former husband. The final scene of Joe floating dead in Norma’s pool took was a difficult shot to film. Wilder eventually did it by putting a mirror in the bottom of the pool.

Wilder died in 2002. He is buried in Los Angeles and on his grave is inscribed. ‘Billy Wilder. I’m a writer but then, nobody’s perfect’, a reference to the final line in Some Like It Hot.

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone enlisted in the US Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry and later the 1st Cavalry.
Back in the USA he enrolled at university in New York and studied filmmaking. Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. Vietnam was among the first subjects of his student films.

Stone graduated in 1971 and took on various jobs while he wrote screenplays. His breakthrough success was in 1978 with the screenplay for the film Midnight Express for which he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

The first Oliver Stone movie I ever saw was the 1986 movie ‘Platoon.’ Stone wrote and directed the movie set during the Vietnam War and based on some of his own experiences.

He followed up with another Vietnam film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’ about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. A third film completed Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth released in 1993.

Wall Street was a hit movie for Oliver Stone in the eighties and the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas became an eighties screen icon. In Wall Street Stone first developed a mesmerising visual style almost akin to a music video and it is a style that many film-makers seem to have picked up.

In JFK, Stone takes this visual style to another level and combines various film formats to produce a stylish visual montage. The subject is a controversial one, the shooting of President John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Stone decides to use the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as a vehicle to explore the various theories about the shooting although ultimately an amorphous military industrial complex is blamed for the conspiracy. Criticism rained down on Oliver Stone from anti conspiracy theorists but I personally felt that the movie was a fair one and everything that was conjecture was shown as conjecture. The great treat for me was the combining of the different visuals and the inter weaving of documentary film with new footage. Stone went on to make two more films about American presidents, Nixon and W, the latter film about George W Bush.

George Stevens

George Stevens made many memorable films and I’ve including him in this handful of directors because if I was a director, I reckon I’d make my films the way George did. George directed the classic western Shane starring Alan Ladd. Shane is one of the great film westerns and one that tried to show the west as it really was. Stevens also directed Giant, James Dean’s last film. Giant is about Bick Benedict, a Texas rancher played by Rock Hudson and Dean plays Jett Rink, a surly ranch hand who is fired by Benedict. Benedict’s sister however, has a soft spot for Jett and when she is unexpectedly killed in a fall from a horse, we find that she has gifted a small piece of land to Jett. Bick wants to keep the ranch together and offers Jett a large sum of money for the property but he declines and goes on to strike oil on the land. Stevens filmed his actors with many cameras and liked to shoot everything he could then sit back and work his way through the resulting footage and slowly figure out how to edit it together, which is pretty much what I do with my short amateur YouTube videos.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was a British director who began in the days of silent films and came to be known as the master of suspense. Blackmail made in 1929 was the first British Talkie and 10 years later producer David O Selznick lured him to Hollywood where he made many films that are now regarded as classics, films like North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Birds and Pyscho. Hitchcock might also be seen as one of the first celebrity directors. He became popular because of his habit of appearing, however briefly in all of his films, sitting on a bus for instance, just missing the bus in another. He also became well known by introducing his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Alfred Hitchcock (Picture courtesy Wikipedia)

There are some directors who have tried to make films that show events the way the human eye sees things. Roberto Rossellini was one. Another surprisingly was Hitchcock himself.

In 1948 he made the film The Rope. It was an unusual film in many ways, especially for Hitchcock. The length of a film magazine back then was ten minutes so Hitchcock decided to shoot the film in a series of 10 minute takes each take morphing smoothly into the next one. The set was built with moveable walls which were able to be moved swiftly out of the way by the prop men to accommodate the very large film camera of the time as it moved about the set.

Making a film without the usual cuts and edits would create a viewer experience more akin to the way a human being sees things, or so Hitchcock thought. My personal view is that we see things with our mind more than the eye. The human eye is constantly scanning the scene before us and these scans are used by the mind to put together an image for us. Some of that image will be up to date, especially whatever it is we are concentrating on. Other elements, things in our peripheral vision for instance may be seconds out of date because that element of the image we are seeing was scanned seconds or even minutes ago. That’s my theory anyway. For me the director who films in the way the human eye sees things is Woody Allen.

Woody Allen

I’ve written plenty about Woody before so I won’t go on about him here too long. The great thing about Woody’s films is that they don’t follow the usual film school format of close up, medium shot and wide shot. Woody usually makes a one or two camera set up with few if any close ups and that’s it. In one shot in Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine is talking to someone, it might have been Mia Farrow but I can’t remember off the top of my head and the Mia character goes into the bedroom but continues to talk with Caine. Michael expected there to be a second set up filming Mia in the bedroom but there wasn’t. He asked Woody why not and Woody answered why do we need to see the other person in the bedroom? We can hear their voice that’s all we need. If the character was hiding a gun in their purse or pocket or something pursuant to the plot then we need to see that but otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what I like about Woody’s films, their economical use of film and the lack of multiple set ups.

Those then are my handful of film directors. Who are your favourites?


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4 responses to “The Human Eye and A Handful of Film Directors

  1. You’ve listed so many movies I love. Sunset Boulevard was brilliant. Shane, too. My husband and I both enjoyed Giant, and we’d be hard pressed to name a Hitchcock film we don’t like. My fave director, though, is Tarantino. I think Kill Bill Vol 1 is a masterpiece, and Pulp Fiction was visionary.

    Liked by 2 people

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