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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Reviewing Spielberg

Not so long ago I thought about doing a post about the film director Steven Spielberg. I’d already done a couple of ‘favourite director‘ posts but the thing with Spielberg is that he’s not exactly one of my favourite directors so any post would be not really be complimentary so I didn’t want to get into writing something negative.

Anyway, I just happened to pick up a book about Spielberg in the second hand bookshop so it seems to me I can just combine my criticisms of the book and Spielberg’s works all in one post. I’ll try not to be too negative.

Steven Spielberg the Unauthorised Biography by John Baxter.

Spielberg was born in 1946 and the book glosses over his early life. His parents were divorced when Steven was at school and though staying initially with his mother and sisters he later went to stay in California with his dad. He was making amateur 8mm films as a youngster and according to the book, went on the Universal film studios tour and just stayed on wandering about the studio. At the time one of the only ways to get a job at Universal was through a relative who worked there and the book says that security guards let Spielberg through the gates on subsequent occasions, assuming he was the brother or son of one of the employees.

Spielberg apparently did quite a bit of networking at the studios showing his amateur movies around and after being rejected from the University of Southern California’s film school he managed to get an unpaid job at Universal. Later he took the opportunity to make a short film called Amblin which impressed the studio vice president so much that they offered Spielberg a seven year directing contract.

His first professional job was the shooting of an episode of the US TV show Night Gallery which starred Joan Crawford. It was apparently a difficult job for Steven, dealing with his temperamental star which gave him an aversion to working with so called ‘stars’. Looking through Wikipedia though, the website claims he and Crawford were friends until her death.

The first work of Spielberg’s that I saw was the feature length episode of Columbo ‘Murder by the Book’. At the time Universal was looking for something new to challenge the usual 60 minute episode format and the feature length episodes of their many crime shows seemed to be the answer. Spileberg’s episode is probably one of the very best of the Columbo series.

Spielberg‘s first cinema project was ‘The Sugarland Express’, a movie about a married couple chased by Police as they try to regain custody of their baby. The film received critical success but fared poorly at the box office. Producers however were impressed enough to ask Spielberg to direct the movie version of the book ‘Jaws’ about a man eating shark.

The shoot was a difficult one as the director rejected the idea of shooting in the studio and opted for a location shoot. Steven initially thought of using real sharks and midgets to make the sharks look even bigger but finally had to accept that a mechanical shark had to be made. Difficulties with the shark added delays to the shoot and some parts eventually had to be made in the studio. It was also interesting to read how the script was constantly under review with various writers adding to it and rewriting. Author Peter Benchley had added various subplots to make the book more entertaining and many of these were taken out by Spielberg who concentrated on the fundamentals of the shark chase.

At the time the movie industry was suffering because of competition from TV and Spielberg realised that a film needed to be an event, a major event in order to bring viewers out of their homes and into cinemas. The movie blockbuster was born with Jaws which was a huge hit which made Spielberg’s reputation overnight. I have to say it is probably my favourite of Steven Spielberg’s films. I’ve always enjoyed it and the performances are excellent especially those of Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider.

Spielberg went on to make a series of blockbuster films, all different in subject matter but all designed as major events in the world of cinema. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Indiana Jones films and ET were all highly successful. I can’t say they are on my list of all time great films, ET I thought was uninspired and Close Encounters was a film I couldn’t see the point of, a little like Hitchcock’s Birds. I didn’t get it at all.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great Saturday afternoon film based of course, on the film serials of the 1940’s. My big problem with most of Spielberg’s films is that they always leave me unsatisfied. Saving Private Ryan is another case in point. What was the point of all that invasion stuff with people being blown up on the beach? Empire of the Sun was a slow moving drudge of a film lacking any sort of pace. It was a project Spielberg took over from one of his personal directing heroes David Lean and I sort of get the feeling Steven was trying to make the film as Lean might have done. Sorry but it didn’t work for me.

This isn’t a great book and concentrates mostly on Steven Spielberg’s professional rather than personal life and doesn’t really offer too many insights into Spielberg himself although interestingly it says that Steven dismisses the auteur school of directing and thinks of a film as a collaborative effort. I remember once watching an interview with David Lean in which he said that a director’s job was to ‘tickle the talents’ of his crew and cast and get the best possible effort from each person to show in the finished film. After reading this book I’d guess that is something Spielberg would go along with.

The early part of the book I found particularly interesting especially when it explains how Spielberg put his movie projects together, often filming one while beginning preliminary work on another. The author also links Spielberg to the other directors of ‘New Hollywood’, people like Coppola, Lucas, and Scorsese who were great fans of classic Hollywood and built new films and productions while recognising the contributions of classic directors like Hitchcock and John Ford who had gone before.

This is not a great book and certainly not one that really gets to the core of its subject but still a good read all the same.


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

The Remainder of the day: Three Movie books

Perhaps you won’t see straight away what I did there in that title. If I go on to say I’m going to talk about remainder books then you might start to get the picture. I’ve spoken before in this blog about my passion for books, especially second hand books. I also have quite a few books that should have been very expensive but were greatly reduced in price. Why? Because they were remainder books. So what exactly are remainder books?

Well, they are copies of a book left over after a print run which are then sold off quickly at a cheap price. Many stores like the Works specialise in these types of books. There is a Works store in the Arndale Centre in Manchester where you will find me flipping through numerous books when I have any free time, looking to nail myself a bargain. Here are three ‘remaindered’ books in my collection, all about movie directors.

Woody Allen.

Woody Allen
Now I’ve kept the price on this book so you can see what a big saving I’ve made: A hefty fifteen pounds and a penny and in return for my £9.99 I get a big full colour hard back book which itemises all Woody’s movies all the way from ‘What’s New Pussycat’ to his 2015 offering ‘Irrational Man’. Now, I have to say  that the aforementioned ‘What’s New Pussycat’ is one of my favourites of Woody’s movies although in the book it doesn’t get such a great review. Pity because it’s a great sixties classic. You can read more about Woody Allen in one of my previous posts.

David Lean
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Illustrated with over 400 pictures this is a lovely book to have, detailing the life and work of director Sir David Lean and written by his widow Lady Sandra Lean. David Lean is probably best remembered for his big screen epics like Laurence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and Bridge on the River Kwai. He started out as a teaboy with Gaumont Studios in London, later became a film editor and then moved on to become a director. He co-directed ‘In Which We Serve’ with Noel Coward although he later said Coward soon became bored with directing and left the whole thing to Lean. He would never share the directing credit again although his next three movies were adaptations of work by Noel Coward. Surprisingly, he only directed seventeen movies; I always thought his list of credits would be a lot longer. He won two best director Oscars and as a filmaker he inspired many directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese. He died in 1991 from throat cancer.

Billy Wilder
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All three of the books here are big picture books with many behind the scenes photographs. If you are like me and love to hear about how movies are made then you will love all these books. Billy Wilder was an Austrian born filmmaker who fled from Berlin and the Nazis in the early 1930s, moving first to Paris and then later to Hollywood. Wilder made some classic films like ‘Sunset Boulevard’, ‘Double Indemnity’ and ‘Sabrina.’ The cover picture you can see above shows Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in ‘Some Like it Hot’ made by Wilder in 1959. It’s a great movie but mostly famous for the multiple retakes required by Marilyn. It took 47 takes for Wilder to get a shot in the can where all Marilyn had to say, ‘It’s me, Sugar!’

Billy Wilder died in 2002 at the age of 95.

Just to finish off, here’s my favourite Billy Wilder story and it 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 some of your films?”

Wilder replied, “Of course; but you first!”


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My Favourite Movie Director (Part 1)

I’ll come straight to the point; my favourite movie director? Well, it’s complicated because I’ve got more than one; hence the part 1 in the title, but anyway, Woody Allen is probably my very favourite. Now why a working class guy like me brought up in a suburban council estate in Manchester would relate to the Jewish intellectual New York humour of Woody, well, I don’t know but I just love this guy’s films.

My very favourite moment from one of Woody’s film is probably the one from take the Money and Run when he goes into the bank to rob it and hands a note through the window. The note says “Give me the money, I have a gub!”

“Does that say gub?” asks the bank teller.

picture courtesy wikipedia

picture courtesy wikipedia

“No that’s gun! I have a gun!” replies Woody and soon all the staff are discussing the spelling and the robbery is forgotten.  That movie was right at the very start of Woody’s career when he was a stand up funny man turned movie maker and as his movies got gradually more serious and more thoughtful, well, I probably loved them even more.

I love the opening of Manhattan where Woody narrates over the opening sequence;

“Chapter One. He adored New York City. To him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of individual integrity that caused so many people to take the easy way out was rapidly turning the town of his dreams in… no, it’s gonna be too preachy, I mean, you know, let’s face it, I wanna sell some books here. Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.”

Another Allen movie that opens with a monologue is Annie Hall. His character, Alvy Singer, says: “There’s an old joke. Two elderly women are at a Catskill restaurant. One of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is just terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah I know. And such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of misery, loneliness and suffering and unhappiness – and it’s all over much too quickly.”

Apart from Woody himself and his casual comedy chatter I’ve always like the look of Woody’s films from the black and white of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose to the full colour Hannah and her Sisters and the jump cuts of Deconstructing Harry. I like the way the camera moves, or really doesn’t move. In Hannah and her Sisters Woody doesn’t follow Michael Caine when he goes into the bedroom and continues a conversation. Why should we? We all carry on long distance conversations with our partners in the bathroom or dining room when we are in the kitchen. We don’t need to see the other person, just hear them.

Woody’s films have a natural unobtrusive style which enables you to sit back and enjoy his humour and his observations. Another great Allen movie is Crimes and Misdemeanours. It’s a movie with a dark side but with the same flashes of Allen humour to keep you smiling. Martin Landau stars in the film and gives a wonderful performance. No longer the rather wooden actor from the TV series Mission Impossible or that Hitchcock movie North By Northwest. Here, Landau delivers a thoughtful and human performance and there are lots of the usual Woody Allen touches like returning to old homes and discussing morality then flipping to the next scene where Allen and Mia deliver some more comedy as a counterpoint.

I can’t write a blog about Woody Allen without mentioning Bananas. If I need to cheer myself up, this movie works every time, especially the bit at the end where Woody and Louise Lasser’s wedding night becomes a TV sports event with commentators and interviewers.

It’s almost an ‘in’ joke with Woody about how his older movies are funny and the later ones are not but all his movies have a certain something; not always laugh out loud humour, but some well observed human element. I love Woody himself in his movies which is why it’s a little odd that one movie I can watch over and over again is Radio Days. Like it says in the title, the movie is set in those days before TV when people had their ears glued to the great shows and performers of the time. Woody narrates the movie and we see him as a little boy entranced by a crime show, so much so that his parents take him to see the Rabbi. ‘You speak the truth, my faithful Indian companion’ quotes the young Woody much to the dismay of his parents, not to mention the Rabbi. In some ways I can see myself as a young lad, obsessed with the TV shows of my day and this is the crux of Woody’s films because in many ways he is turning the camera round, and the camera is pointing at us, the viewer.

My love affair with the movies encompasses many genres but when I want to smile it’s usually the Woody Allen DVD I pull down from the shelf.


Hope you enjoyed this post. Click the links at the top of the page to find out more about my novel ‘Floating In Space.’