“The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
Between the World and Me
Spiegel & Grau, New York
David Lean was known to say this about the film making process: “I love making motion pictures . . . I love getting behind a camera and trying to get images on the screen. I love cutting and editing. I love putting all the parts together at the end: The sounds, the music, the dialogue. Making a movie is the greatest excitement of my life . . . I love life and I don’t want to die. I want to go on making movies.”
I’m no filmmaker myself, but Mr. Lean’s words give me a sense of what it must feel like to be one. A good quotation can do that. Here are several more small gems of wisdom from famous filmmakers, beginning with that genius Ingmar Bergman, who tells us what he thinks film isn’t: “Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and form of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings.”
Meanwhile, movie director Robert Penn put’s his attraction to film this way: “In the theater, the reliance is on the verbal. Film is how one looks, as against what one says. On the stage, you can’t document that. You’re too far back. So what one says is what one is . . . You don’t have to say it in a film. A look, a simple look, will do it.”
Milos Forman, points out the difference, in terms of reality and unreality, between theater and film: “ . . . you know, in the theater you don’t pretend that what you see on the stage is reality. But in films. . . . automatically the photography enables you to pretend what you see on the screen is reality. So I am disturbed when in that reality I see theater.”
Bernardo Bertolucci seconds that: “My primary choice is one against the theater. I believe it is easier and better for me to shoot from reality, to take a position in the geography and environment of real space.”
Director and former standup comic, Elaine May, also compared film to life, and found life wanting: “Yes, there is truth in movies. No, movies are not like life. They are constructed in advance. They have a beginning that has probably been rewritten several times, a middle that has been cut and reshaped, and an end that often has music over it. Most movies . . . have a confrontation scene that provides some kind of insight that affects the characters or the audience, or both. In life we have hundreds of such scenes, scenes in which we say the worst thing we can say, in which each person tells what he thinks is the whole truth. Two hours later we have the same scene again. Nothing has really changed. You can’t get any insights. You usually just get mad. Movies or plays can sound natural, or seem real, or have truth, but they can never be like life. After all, they’re not supposed to run over two hours. “
For some, film offers a unique opportunity to explore the unconscious mind. “I think that the nature of movies is images that are more concerned with our desires than any other part of reality. The nature of movies is to connect with our unreal selves. Freud said that every unexplained dream is a letter from the unconscious which is not opened. Dreams can put us in touch with deep realities, and films are very good nightmares.” Dusan Makavejev, Yugoslav director, offered that pithy opinion in Ciné-tracts, the Spring, 1977 issue.
That master of cinema surrealism and automatism, Luis Buñuel, agrees: “The screen is the superior way of expressing the world of dreams . . . . The cinema seems to have been invented for the expression of the subconscious.” But he thinks films often fail to do this: “My aspiration as a film viewer is to have the movie uncover something for me and this happens rarely.”
Director Arthur Penn, says: “Film offers the opportunity for constant contradiction between what is said and what is done. It’s closer to how we really experience life. I’m saying that, but I’m really feeling this. And these two things are going on at once. Ambivalence is closer to the human feeling than the simple Eugene O’Neil statement: ‘My father was a bastard.’ That sort of statement that says everything and nothing. Well, film is the exquisite medium for expressing ambivalence. A man says one thing, but his eyes are saying another thing.”
The great film director and former cartoonist—and therefore, beginning with the walls of caves, one of the original image makers—Frederico Fellini, adds this: “Indeed, what is it to make a film? It is naturally, a question of trying to bring order to certain fantasies and of narrating them with a certain exactness.”
Up to this point, our film directors have been dealing, mostly, with abstraction. Now giving his view on the story—the creative “spine” of the film as some might call it—here is actor-director Dennis Hopper: “I believe that you start a movie very slow, very slowly drag people in up to a certain point. Then, just as they get a little restless, you start socking it to them. This makes me favor the episodic structure, like music—something that moves along with short breaks in it: you keep giving people something new, keep building pressure. The you cut off, relax, go for a ride.”
Robert Bresson claims he drags people into his movies: “As Dostoevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea, because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you want to find out the reason.”
And finally, directly addressing our original question, former standup comic (with Elaine May) and award-winning film director, Mike Nichols, defined film most simply and perhaps best: “Movies are mood . . . . The thing about something that’s made right—whether it’s a novel, or an opera, or a film—has to do with being hung on a spine . . . The more solid it is, maybe the truer it is.”
Excerpts from a letter by Adam Smith, LL.D., to William Strahan, Esq., about the death of David Hume.
November 9, 1776
It is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behaviour or our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness . . . . His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying . . . . But, though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require: it was a subject indeed which occurred pretty frequently, in consequence of the inquires which these friends, who came to see him, naturally made concerning the state of his health . . . .
Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.
This headed the menu at Richard’s Restaurant in Baltimore, 1983.
Our mission is a simple one. To Please your palate and to sooth you aesthetically. To make the drinking and dining experience singularly pleasurable to you and your friends as well as those you send to us. If we do not, you must let us know and know why. Remember, it is you, our client, whom it is felt by us, one and all, that on account of you, pay the bill, hence, therefore, you are only the most primary important and very gorgeous person with whom we do business.
“Elaine May has a wonderful motto: ‘The only safe thing is to take a chance.’ “I think she means that if you stay safe, and don’t take a chance — don’t do something that’s different from the last thing, something that makes you nervous and holds dangers — if you keep trying to do the thing that worked last time, the encrustations of mannerisms begin to take you over. And pretty soon you’re no good at all — and therefore not safe at all. The longer you play it safe, the less interesting is what you do.”
Mike Nichols, the Director’s Art, by Barbara Gelb
NYT Magazine, May 27, 1984