Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Middle Way

Mainly, we're all McLuhans now. We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the web, television, film, photography, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its contents.

It seems to me the web has, up to now, functioned mainly as a mass distribution medium. The content of the web, a photograph for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it is available to so many people so fast and collides with so much other information, but it is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic." On the way to becoming a film, a book is broken down, then put together again as a screenplay and a film.

There are several ways to use a book to produce a screenplay. The easiest way, probably, is to ignore the book's characters and plot and recreate the "essence" of the book in film. Warhol's Vinyl, for example, captures the essence of A Clockwork Orange, without burdening the film with Burgess's characters and plot. That's probably not the most commercially successful way to turn a book into a film.

The commercially successful way, the Hollywood way, is to respect the narrative and characters of the novel and to recreate those elements with acting, cinematography, sound and editing in a way that "brings the novel to life." The quality of the novel, of its characters and plot, matter. If necessary, the film may deviate from the novel, but changes to the original are made in the spirit of improvement. Kubrick was faithful to Burgess's plot in his film version of A Clockwork Orange. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, probably intended Blade Runner to be an improved version of Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. His departures from Dick's narrative and characters were intended to produce a better, more successful story.

The third way, the auteur way, is to use the novel's characters and plot simply as a place to start. French New Wave directors bought the rights to dime store novels for their plots. Almost any plot would do, because the films they made weren't about the narrative. The story was beside the point. Just something to hang the film on. Art is synthesized experience. For film makers like Goddard, the story was just an occasion for that synthesis.

7 comments:

Tom Manoff said...

Great first line, Billy. Looks like some real fun as soon as I take a nap. Several good things about movies --one of them is that it's fun to talk about them.

Your first line again.

GirlfromtheBronx said...

Billy, I've been so swamped lately, but I've been thinking about this. I hope to come back to this later.

Tom Manoff said...

I'm still at the internet as the ultimate triumph of the medium is the message. With so many images and facts, the act of clicking on a link may be more important than what's there. The impact of what's seen in the first second on that click, just it's style in fact will either keep the viewer or not. I'd bet that for every 10 links a person clicks, only one is really read of that. And without pictures or video, less.

GirlfromtheBronx said...

Okay let me see if I can say what's on my mind.

" For film makers like Goddard, the story was just an occasion for that synthesis."

I've just latched on to the idea of one thing becoming another and the choices along the way and where they land.

It's not the same thing but it reminds me of the age old text/music relationship that every composer of songs or opera has to address:

Is the text the handmaiden to the music as in Mozart's operas? Wagner, of course, went with the word first being his own librettist and all, writing the words first before the music and being big on the synthesis. Schumann set primarily great poetry in his songs, but wasn't shy about messing around with the words to "improve" upon the poem. But Brahms made a distinction between "poetic music" (self-sufficient poetry) and "musical poetry" (music that invites musical elaboration). He rarely set great poetry. So I guess some might say that the text was an “excuse” for him to write great music.

But whether it's film or music, there's always the “final player” in the whole thing--the director and or the performer who acts as some kind of arbiter between the need for clarity of language, the musical expression, or the narrative, when or if that relationship is strained in some way by a lack of sensitivity, too much style or just poor technique that interferes with the comprehension of the story.

On the recital stage, it's always the individual performer who is the auteur (not sure if you would agree.) Opera and film have in common the fact that there's a director who has a vision, which may or may not be at odds with individual actors or performers. But as I understand it, in film, the editor also can have a singular role in shaping the ultimate message of the film.

Okay, that's enough. I'm sounding a bit strained myself here.

Billy Glad said...

I think I agree with all of that. And what's most interesting to me here:

"On the recital stage, it's always the individual performer who is the auteur (not sure if you would agree.) Opera and film have in common the fact that there's a director who has a vision, which may or may not be at odds with individual actors or performers. But as I understand it, in film, the editor also can have a singular role in shaping the ultimate message of the film."

is that I don't know. You've done recitals; I haven't. There's no way I can get a feel for how much of it is created by the singer. Only someone who has done it would know.

As far as editors go, I'm just as ignorant. Obviously, if the director does the editing herself, there's no distinction. I edited the little films I did myself. If you look at something simple like this, you see that all that's going on is an attempt to make the time and space reasonably continuous and to convey the feeling of the event. Easy for one person to do. But about a project that requires an editor or team of editors and a director to collaborate, I haven't a clue. I've never been there. My best guess is it would depend on the editor and the director. I can imagine a project, though, with scenes that most editors couldn't put together in a way that makes any sense at all. So, I think that on that kind of project, if anything worthwhile emerges, you would say the editor was the auteur. I remember Roger Spottiswoode getting a credit for an opening montage or something like additional editing that implied he'd saved something. I was struck by that because I'd thought of him as a theoretical guy. I do think the general direction though, is for editors to move to directing to get more control rather than vice versa.

GirlfromtheBronx said...

The thing I find most interesting about the creative process is that the ultimate product presented to the audience is very often the result of several or more creators. For the moment, I’ll just speak about the recital stage.

Poet writes poem==>composer sets poem ==>performers interpret the composition (a synthesis of two.)

The composer’s view of the poem will either agree with the poet’s original intent or it won’t. The composition-- now a synthesis of the two-- may amplify the original intent or it may be at odds and produce something new, or at the very least, a new way of looking at the original material. This is most obvious when you have multiple settings of the same poem. Composer X may choose to emphasis the “longing” aspect of a poem, while composer B may focus on the “despair.”

Then come the performers. That’s where things can get risky.

I suppose that’s what I meant by “final player.” I’m not sure I consider myself a creator, maybe a co-creator of sorts. And only in the sense that if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a good enough interpretation that has the potential to reveal that work to someone else in a way that is satisfying and illuminating. If I’m not up to the job, it will not be as satisfying or enlightening. That’s also what I mean about the editor’s role in shaping a film. The role of the editor or performer can be singular in bringing the work across, especially if the work is deficient in some way. And in that case, they assume auteur-ship as I seem to understand it.

In the case of the director of a film or opera, they too, would bring their vision of the “original work” to the final product making them auteurs in many cases. In opera, I say in "many", not all cases, because I imagine there are opera directors, who work primarily as choreographers of movement and don’t bring anything more to the primary material. And I imagine there are those kinds of film directors out there too.

But auteur-ship can cut both ways, sometimes improving on an accepted great work or not.
Here’s a possible recent case in the opera world. I’ve worked with this director and think he would most certainly fit into the auteur type of opera director, as all of his operatic treatments contain his unique and distinct style.

Luckily, most of my career, I’ve had the good fortune to perform great primary material/music. If I do a good enough job with one of those works, can I consider myself an auteur? As I write this, I’m having second thoughts. It would depend. If it’s a masterpiece I’m performing, then that would be too arrogant of me. I'd need a new term. But if I save a shitty piece of music and it gets rave reviews because I made it sound like something much better than it is, maybe I'll call myself the auteur.

Every single time I’ve ever sung a masterpiece by Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Verdi, it never ceases to give me a thrill that the act of singing the music of a great composer and the words of a great poet is the closest I’ll ever get to real genius. In some cases the distance between the first creator and the ultimate transmitter can be centuries. Talk about content being transformed and reaching across millenia to be presented over and over again and reaching new generations! And somehow we can magically travel though time to enter the same space with a genius. I’m sure one of you could capture this thought in a less clich├ęd way, but it’s miraculous.

The web is a baby and I don’t have a clue where it’s going to end up, but I think I’m now convinced that the potential is extraordinary.

Tom Manoff said...

Technology points to directors editing their own material. Look at news. Reporters can shoot and edit their reports on a computer and upload to their networks. I produce audio for the radio. The technology is widely used. I could add video to the sound mix just with a drag and drop.

The documentary film makers I've talked to are concerned not with the technology but other production values. Lighting and sound, depending on the nature of the material.

We're right at an era of a great wave of small independent genius outpouring of video/film.
Has to happen.

This doesn't mean that editing is easy. But with the tools around, the small part of a population destined for it will have an easier way into their art than others in the past.