Thursday, November 17, 2005

Book: On Film-Making, by Alexander Mackendrick (2004)

I’ve never put any stock in the adage “Those who can’t do, teach.” (As for Woody Allen’s addendum – “Those who can’t teach, teach gym” – that, I believe whole-heartedly.) Still, it always pays to get advice from those who have done the job and done it well.

Most books on filmmaking are by people whose qualifications are suspect. There are exceptions; William Goldman has written instructively about screenwriting, as have Sidney Lumet and David Mamet on directing, and Art Linson and Christine Vachon on the function of producers.

Alexander Mackendrick has a résumé every bit as impressive. He directed some of the great Ealing comedies, then came to America and made SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, one of the high points of 1950s cinema as well as the New Yorkiest movie ever. After Bill Murray’s Quick Change, of course.

Mackendrick didn’t take to working in Hollywood, however, and accepted a position at the California Institute of the Arts. His teachings, collected in this Faber & Faber volume, make up one of the finest books on filmmaking ever published.

The first section on the mechanics of storytelling contains information useful to writers in any medium. Mackendrick’s crisp prose is a pleasure to read, as you might expect from a teacher who assigned George Orwell’s “Politics and English Language” to screenwriting students. He draws on a wealth of examples, holding up Georges Simenon, for instance, as a master of exposition. Some come from his own work; his dissection of the same scene from SUCCESS as written by original scenarist Ernest Lehman and then revised by Clifford Odets is the most illuminating analysis of screenwriting I’ve ever encountered. This in spite of the fact that Mackendrick dismisses the film as “corny” and “melodramatic.” What did he know?

The film grammar section uses Mackendrick’s striking hand-drawn storyboards to illustrate his points on directing and editing. For lovers of the movies, ON FILM-MAKING will deepen your appreciation and understanding of the art form. No book can teach you all you need to know to make your own movies. But Mackendrick’s lessons are guaranteed to improve the result.

Miscellaneous: Links

GreenCine offers this interview with “word slinger and cultural archeologist” Eddie Muller. I make a cameo appearance in Lee Goldberg’s Mystery*File piece on FLETCH novelist Gregory McDonald – and then weigh in with my own opinion of the movies. And Slate lists signs that will indicate when baby boomers have lost control of the media. Worst. Trend. Ever.