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Great Director Profile – Spike Lee

By D.G. McCabe

Spike Lee, the director of Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) along with dozens of other movies ranging for traditional Hollywood thrillers (Summer of Sam (1999), Inside Man (2006)) to Fellini-esque independent films (Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have it (1986)) would probably be famous in some respect if he wasn’t one of America’s finest living directors.  After all, his confrontations with Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller from his courtside Knicks seats are the stuff of legend.  He is also not a man to keep his opinions or ideas to himself, which of course could be said about most talented artists.

I don’t make the above comparison to Federico Fellini lightly.  After all, Lee’s “double dolly” floating technique could have fit in Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 (1963).  Like Fellini, Lee’s films are grounded in realism but use fantastic techniques to emphasize theme and important, over-story concepts. For example, Radio Rahim’s (Bill Nunn) cutaway scene in Do the Right Thing and the endings of Malcolm X and Bamboozled (2000) stand as examples of Lee breaking conventional storytelling realism to address the audience directly.

Sometimes Lee gets a bit heavy handed in his conveying of themes to his audience, and I once thought that this was a weakness in his films.  After getting to know his work a bit better, I have come to realize that this “heavy handedness” is by design.  Lee wants to be provocative in the literal sense, and if he has to sacrifice traditional elements of film storytelling to initiate a dialogue among his audience, so be it.

It is in Do the Right Thing where Lee best achieves a balance between his desire to tell a compelling story and his desire to make the audience think about and discuss issues in modern society. Much criticism has been written about whether Mookie (played by Lee) “does the right thing” at the end of the movie when he trashes Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria. Lee himself has pointed out that this is immaterial – the destruction of the pizzeria is a spontaneous reaction to the outrage felt by the community towards the death of Radio Rahim at the hands of the police.  If anything, Mookie’s actions re-direct the focal point of the angry mob away from Sal and towards a piece of property (which, as Mookie points out at the end of the film, Sal has insurance on).

The ending of Do the Right Thing is not, therefore, about an individual choice that Mookie makes in the heat of the moment, but rather the difficulty of rational reactions in the face of communal outrage (as once again emphasized by the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X quotes at the very end of the film).  Still, the characters and story are so well developed that the audience can’t help but discuss the motivations and decisions of the individual characters.

Spike Lee’s next film is going to be a horror movie/thriller about “people who aren’t vampires but are addicted to blood.”  To fund his new project, Lee has asked for help from the public on his Kickstarter page.  Since film, nearly alone among art-forms, takes a boatload of money to properly produce, this is a good concept in my opinion – raising funds for a movie without having to listen to the concept critiqued to death by a hundred studio executives.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Great Director Profile: Akira Kurosawa

“For me, film-making combines everything. That’s the reason I’ve made cinema my life’s work. In films painting and literature, theatre and music come together. But a film is still a film.”

– Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

By D.G. McCabe

One day, you look at your blog and realize that you haven’t written a “monthly” great director profile in three months.  To make up for lost time, I thought I would discuss the man whom I consider to be the most important of all filmmakers – Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.  Why Kurosawa and not Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, or other directors more familiar to the modern filmgoer? Allow me to demonstrate.

Multiple Cameras

While Kurosawa wasn’t the first filmmaker to use multiple cameras in his films, he was the first to really take full advantage of the technique.  The final battle scene in 1954’s Seven Samurai involves shots from hundreds of different angles and directions, previewing techniques that modern, special effects laden films such as The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) would use to capture busy action sequences.

Nature

In 195o’s Rashomon, Kurosawa pointed his camera at the sun, which until that point, had not been done.  This wasn’t a gimmick, however, as Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, used mirrors and sunlight to enhance the natural light of their set instead of using lighting equipment on a controlled backlot or soundstage.  Kurosawa also successfully used rain (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), fog (Throne of Blood, 1957), snow (Ikiru, 1952), cloud formations (Ran, 1985), and other natural elements to establish mood and contrast in his films.

Character Sketches

Kurosawa was once quoted as saying that even a great director could not make a good film from a bad script, and he practiced what he preached.  He not only either wrote or co-wrote the scripts for all of his films, but also drafted long, detailed character sketches in the same way that a novelist might.  This allowed Kurosawa to portray fully realized characters on screen even if they only had a few moments of screen time.  One example is the character of Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) in Ran, who is one of the most terrifying villains in all of cinema, but is only on screen for a half dozen scenes at most.

Artistic Vision

While Kurosawa’s greatest masterpieces exist as films, his first love was painting.  His black and white films contain hundreds of unforgettable images.  With very few shots, Kurosawa could establish mood, theme, and emotion.  The ending to Ikiru, for example, is only a few seconds but captures the theme of that film arguably as well as the rest of the film combined.

Sound

Instead of using sound simply to convey emotion, as was the style in studio-era Hollywood for the most part, Kurosawa used sound to highlight contrast and thereby heighten emotion.  Arguably, his films mark the end a style of film soundtrack that relied heavily on 19th century, Romanticist style instrumental music to force an emotion on the audience (think 1939’s Gone with the Wind).

Editing

Kurosawa edited all of the films that he directed, and his editing has been praised as some of the finest in film history.  Generally speaking, his editing style stops to create juxtaposition and theme without disrupting the overall flow of the narrative.  Indeed, the reason why Kurosawa started using multiple cameras was so that he would have more options for putting all of the pieces together in the editing room.

Conclusion

Kurosawa wrote, directed, and edited thirty films.  He was able to create completely realized visions of storytelling and theme that are more akin to novels than many other films, and inspired hundreds of his successors to do the same.  While he is credited with dozens of filmmaking innovations, it is his success as the creator of completely unified and consistent films that make him the most important filmmaker in the history of the artform.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Director Profile – David Lean

Sir David Lean (1908-1991)  is often considered Britain’s greatest director.  Alfred Hitchcock was also British of course, but while Hitchcock started his career in Britain, he made the majority of his films in Hollywood.  Of his British films, only “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) and “The 39 Steps” (1935) could be listed among his top pictures.  Lean on the other hand worked almost exclusively in the British film industry, and even his big budget Hollywood films were joint UK/US productions.

David Lean isn’t a familiar name to the general movie-going public these days as his last film “A Passage to India” came out in 1984.  His career isn’t fodder for biopics and he isn’t the most talked about director among film critics and historians by a long shot.  However, his career has had a profound influence on two opposite genres of film – historical epics and intimate character pieces.

The beauty and influence of Lean’s epics is often the first thing associated with him, and rightly so.  The screen transition at the start of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) that begins with Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) blowing out a match and ends with the sun rising over the desert should be in chapter one of the book of cinematography.  The climax of the Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)  is equally mesmerizing, as is the barren Russian winter landscapes of Dr. Zhivago (1965).

Another important, although often overlooked, aspect of Lean’s epics is his use of music.  The visuals are so awe-inspiring that we often forget that part of what makes the visuals so memorable are Lean’s musical choices.  There is a reason, after all, why people who have never seen Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai can recognize the theme music of those films.

Lean’s epics have had a profound impact on the films of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Baz Luhrmann, and even Mel Brooks, but what sets him apart from many epic filmmakers was his early mastery of intimate, character driven works.  For example, his first great film, Brief Encounter (1945) is based on a one act Noel Coward play about the hidden tensions of 1930’s British suburbia.  His adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1945) and Oliver Twist (1948) are often considered the definitive film versions of these classics.  Most of us  have seen the famous “Please sir, I want some more” scene from Oliver Twist even if we haven’t seen the entire film.

David Lean’s progression from the intimate and theatrical, to the intimate and literary, to the sweeping and epic, is one of the most important such progressions in film history.  Still, to those who are unfamiliar with his work, I would start with Lawrence of Arabia (although I’m a bit biased – it’s one of my favorite movies) and Bridge on the River Kwai, jump back to his Noel Coward/Charles Dickens works, and finish with Dr. Zhivago.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe