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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

THE DIRECTORS; Edited by Robert J. Emery; TV Books; "Take One": 368 pp., $20 paper; "Take Two": 256 pp., $20 paper

PROJECTIONS 10; Film-makers on Film-making; Edited by Mike Figgis; Faber & Faber: 306 pp., $20 paper

WRITERS ON DIRECTORS; Edited by Susan Gray; Foreword by Leonard Maltin; Watson-Guptill Publications: 176 pp., $21.95

March 26, 2000|NICHOLAS MEYER | Nicholas Meyer is a writer-director whose movie credits include "The Seven-Percent Solution," "Time After Time," movies in the "Star Trek" series (II, IV and VI), "Sommersby," ABC's "The Day After" and, most recently, the HBO movie "Vendetta," starring Christopher Walken

"What I really want to do is direct." The late Snoopy's t-shirt is not inexplicable. His ubiquitous mantra certifies that movie directing is still the occupation du jour. Along with sea captains and symphony orchestra conductors, movie directors are the last civilian dictators and by the middle of the last century their status had been upped by the "auteurists" until the practitioners themselves subscribed to their own mythos.

If movies were the 20th century art form, then movie directors are the premier artists of that form, writers, cinematographers and editors notwithstanding. "Movies are magic and the directors who make them are magical," avers Robert J. Emery, editor of two collections of interviews with directors, "The Directors: Take One" and "The Directors: Take Two," just part of the recent flood of books on directors and directing.

What do we learn from these books? At the very least, we hunger for dish surrounding the making of a favorite film or the life of a larger-than-life filmmaker; at the most, we long for the secrets of creativity. The books that seek to answer both categories of questions are bound to be uneven, with nuggets of gold interspersed among pages of deadwood. Directors, like most artists, are usually best doing what they do, rather than commenting on it. It is difficult to answer questions with the eloquence that Dame Margot Fonteyn displayed when an enthusiastic backstage visitor gushed, "Oh, Dame Margot, I so enjoyed your dancing; tell me what were you doing up there." "I'm sorry," she replied, "I explained what I was doing while I was doing it; if you didn't understand me, then I failed."

Undeterred by such cautionary insights, we long, like Jeff Young in his interviews with Elia Kazan, to learn the secrets, the "rules" for directing. Kazan's answer, if understandably frustrating, is choice: ". . . [T]here are no rigid laws. Rules, before they were rules, were the experience of one artist who found that in a particular set of circumstances, certain techniques were of value in helping him achieve what he wanted. Then some academic came along and turned these observations into doctrine. . . . That's nonsense. You have to always leave yourself free to experiment. There simply aren't any absolutes. Not even that is an absolute."

You can teach technique, but you can't teach talent. It is true, to be sure, that as filmmaking grows increasingly sophisticated, there's a lot of technique to master: film stocks, special effects equipment and methodology, blue screen, green screen, digital possibilities, to say nothing of the older stuff, how to work with actors, how to parse a screenplay. . . . Comparisons with orchestra conductors are apt: A conductor must not only be able to read and understand the dynamics of a musical score, he must also have a working knowledge of each instrument in his ensemble and how their sounds interact.

But you can know every instrument and every lens and still not succeed as well as the inspired amateur, who blunders forward on intuition and guts and makes something memorable with no access to or knowledge of the high-tech stuff. Such recipes are not to be found in books or, if they are, they usually prove inimitable. There is a difference between a technician and an artist. A technician is someone who has mastered his craft; an artist is someone with a world vision. The former may know all the "rules"; the latter cheerfully flings them down and dances on them. It may be argued that within the rigid economic strictures of the film business, it is fatuous to speak of a world vision, but art has always been uneasily yoked to commerce--Michelangelo was an artist, notwithstanding he was painting a ceiling for the pope. How can you teach world vision? There are no rules for falling asleep; each sleeper finds his own way to unconsciousness. To paraphrase Tolstoy: Each great director is great in his own way.

In addition, directors, like other artists, may not be particularly revealing, hard as they try, about their creative processes. They tend to fall back on anecdotal detail, which may or may not be either true or relevant. They can tell you what the weather was like or the temperaments of their stars (rightly or wrongly recalled), what lens they chose, et cetera, but they cannot say for certain why something "worked" or didn't. In the final analysis, the Artist may no more be able to evaluate his work than the Critic--and Time is usually more accurate than either at understanding and appreciating what was achieved. (It is beguiling to learn that W.S. Gilbert was inspired to write "The Mikado" after a visit to the Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge, following which a sword fell off the wall in his study and crystallized the idea for him--but it doesn't really explain how Gilbert wrote "The Mikado." It is anecdotal but fails to immerse us--can anything?--in the actual creative process.)

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