For the next few months I’m going to be knee-deep in my dissertation. However to try and get over a few moments of writers block I’m going to try and keep this blog going, essentially the idea is that by changing tracks a little I’ll clear the dust on my dissertation. These blogs are going to be short and possibly kind of off-the-wall but I hope they’re entertaining.
Watching TETRO I was struck by a specific kind of film where a director can lift a weak script or story and turn it into something great. TETRO has the unfortunate luck to have been both written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, but the direction is Coppola at his best for decades and it elevates a story which feels kind of underdeveloped and turns it into an engaging, lyrical, moving film. Now sometimes a director’s style taking over a production can lead to something disastrous. BATMAN AND ROBIN is essentially a Day-Glo Third Reich. However it’s a film with a distinctive directorial style, it’s just a HORRIBLE directorial style. But generally I appreciate an interesting directorial style more than I appreciate sure handed, anonymous, direction.
A great example of how I appreciate directorial style is last year’s SHUTTER ISLAND. I love the film, just adore it, it’s probably in my top 5 films of 2010. However I totally understand issues with the story and plot. Despite it revealing a tonal through line on second viewing, the film is still hinged on a plot twist that dominates the story and is easily decipherable. What I love about SHUTTER ISLAND is Scorsese’s direction which takes a story that could be insipid and turns it into something amazing and evocative. Everything from the use of music (gotta love that Mahler in the soundtrack) to the crisp and inventive direction of certain key dream sequences the film positively buzzes with energy from start to finish and helps pave over the fact the movie is predicated on a mystery that isn’t much of a mystery.
Another example from 2010 is THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO which has the exact opposite problem than SHUTTER ISLAND. There’s a fascinating, engrossing, detective story at the heart of the film, but it feels stifled by direction which never really pops. Its focus on scenery and occasional moments of transgression make it feel like a travelogue directed by Takashi Miike. Speaking of which, Miike is perhaps the champion of directorial style helping weaker scripts.
His film DEAD OR ALIVE is vicious, and thrilling, and daring and it’s because of how it’s directed rather than the story of the piece. In fact one of the best realised sequences in the film (a dizzying five minute music video/assassination sequence) is the result of Miike compressing the entire opening act of the screenplay into five minutes. Miike isn’t perhaps the most consistent director (watching a Miike film is kind of like Russian roulette, you might get a great piece of energising, transgressive cinema, or you might get a horrible, almost amateurish, misfire). Selective imports of his films in the early Aughts skewed the quality roulette more towards transgressive genius than amateurish hate crime, but as more of his films got released the quality ratio dropped.
That’s not to say that directorial vision can save a bad script (Coppola’s take on DRACULA looks incredible but is harpooned by its Immortal Romance story and essentially becomes a misfire at a foundation level). However great direction can make a script which isn’t bad, but isn’t particularly strong, shine.