Monday, April 11, 2011

A Literary Interlude in Honor of Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)


...Over the years, critics and others have remarked that I'm interested in the judicial system. Of course I am. Some have said my theater roots show because of the number of plays I've done as movies. Of course they do. There have been a bunch of movies involving parents and children. There have been comedies, some done badly, some better, as well as melodramas and a musical. I've also been accused of being all over the place, of lacking an overwhelming theme that applies to all my work. I don't know if that's true or not. The reason I don't know is that when I open to the first page of a script, I'm a willing captive. I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea. No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life. I don't have one. Sometimes I'll look back on the work over some years and say to myself, "Oh, that's what I was interested in then."

Whatever I am, whatever the work will amount to, has to come out of my subconscious. I can't approach it cerebrally. Obviously, this is right and correct for me. Each person must approach the problem in whatever way works best for him.

I don't know how to choose work that illuminates what my life is about. I don't know what my life is about and don't examine it. My life will define itself as I live it. The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at that moment, it's enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about.

And don't get me wrong: The body of work Lumet, the legendary Hollywood director who died at the ripe old age of 86 on Saturday, amassed over the course of his long and fruitful career is certainly a considerable one, in many ways. Me, though, I treasure Lumet not so much for his films (though, of the handful I've seen, I'm wholeheartedly on board with the consensus anointing 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon masterpieces; Network not so much), but for his great book Making Movies, from which the above quote is taken, from its first chapter, titled "The Director: The Best Job in the World."

In Making Movies, the veteran filmmaker not only goes into the nooks and crannies of the filmmaking process in a warm, wise and accessible fashion, but also articulates his own philosophies on filmmaking in ways that usefully illuminate his own art. In the book's third chapter, Lumet offers these valuable and somewhat provocative thoughts on "style" in a film:

Making a movie has always been about telling a story. Some movies tell a story and leave you with a feeling. Some tell a story and leave you with a feeling and give you an idea. Some tell a story, leave you with a feeling, give you an idea, and reveal something about yourself and others. And surely the way you tell that story should relate somehow to what that story is.

Because that's what style is: the way you tell a particular story. After the first critical decision ("What's this story about?") comes the second most important decision: "Now that I know what it's about, how shall I tell it?" And this decision will affect every department involved in the movie that is about to be made.

...Critics talk about style as something apart from the movie because they need the style to be obvious. The reason they need it to be obvious is that they don't really see. If the movie looks like a Ford or Coca-Cola commercial, they think that's style. And it is. It's trying to sell you something you don't need and is stylistically geared to that goal....From the huzzahs that greeted [Claude] Lelouch's A Man and a Woman, one would've thought that another Jean Renoir had arrived. A perfectly pleasant bit of romantic fluff was proclaimed "art," because it was so easy to identify as something other than realism. it's not so hard to see the style in Murder on the Orient Express. But almost no critic spotted the stylization in Prince of the City. It's one of the most stylized movies I've ever made. Kurosawa spotted it, though. In one of the most thrilling moments in my professional life, he talked to me about the "beauty" of the camera work as well as of the picture. But he meant beauty in the sense of its organic connection to the material. And this is the connection that, for me, separates true stylists from decorators. The decorators are easy to recognize. That's why critics love them so.

As the quote above suggests, Lumet as a director was all about serving the script as much as possible, adapting one's style to fit the material. Often, he aimed for as invisible a style as possible, as he was always more interested in allowing storytelling and acting, rather than show-offy directorial fireworks, to make the biggest impression. There's a reason why his films are often acclaimed for the high-quality acting and expert storytelling more than for any consistent signatures on Lumet's part. That is not to say he was lacking in vision—though what that vision is, Lumet, as the passage from Making Movies that opened this post suggests, seemed happy to leave to critics to elucidate.

Whether such conscientious craftsmanship is enough for a filmmaker to be considered a great artist is open for debate, and I won't pretend that I value Lumet's work quite the same way I do other filmmakers—I'm thinking of directors like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and many others—who managed to carve out arguably more memorable visions within the classical-Hollywood-cinema tradition. Nevertheless, especially these days, with many mainstream Hollywood releases openly flaunting visual incoherence and pandering to the lowest common denominator, Lumet's humble classicism and respect for an audience's intelligence is worth treasuring, especially now that he's gone.

So rest in peace, Mr. Lumet. And if you haven't read his book yet...well, it's a quick and breezy read, but it's also genuinely enlightening, not only about the filmmaking process, but about Lumet himself and where he was coming from as a director. Other than watching some of his films, I can't think of a better way to commemorate his passing.

At least I can say to myself that I did get to see the man in public once before he died, at an event hosted by The Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2009 featuring him, his daughter Jenny (fresh off of having her script for Rachel Getting Married filmed by Jonathan Demme) and the Journal's film critic, Joe Morgenstern. In fact, I wrote about the event for the organization's Speakeasy blog here!

Enjoy some videos from the event:

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