Greg Oguss on Pop Culture
ON FILM CRITICS AND OTHER USELESS THINGS
What I like about the vast majority of film critics is how little they know about making movies. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about. There are actually two scripts that every film crew works off of during production. One is the shooting script, which contains the dialogue, the settings, and the characters’ actions and reactions. There is another script that the public at large does not know about typically. I’m fairly certain most film professors have heard of the “working script.” But they can’t talk about it in a jargon-free way.
The working script is a collaborative effort created by the director and the director of photography (DP) once the shooting script is complete. It’s a blow-by-blow account of every shot and camera set-up in the film. It’s called the working script because it is the worksheet for the DP, the director, the camera crew, the lighting crew, and the line producer. The line producer is typically the hardest working person on-set. If you’ve worked on a Hollywood production, you’ve probably seen evidence of this. I have never seen any mention of the line producer’s contributions in any academic film text or article on a movie. So I can’t really apologize for my dismissive attitude toward critics and film professors. But I can tell you what a line producer does for fifteen or sixteen hours a day while on the job. They bust their asses to make sure that there are no union problems over chosen locations. They verify the crew has the legal right or the murky “neighborhood rights” to be in every location the director has chosen to stick the camera and the actors. Once the location has been locked down, the line producer is hustling off to confer with the location team about future locations. The assistant directors are crucial, too. But here’s a simple fact. Without a good line producer, you have no film.
All films are collaborative efforts. Anyone who is familiar with the work of the late Robert Altman has perhaps heard of the freedom the director gave his entire crew to contribute their own ideas about how to shoot scenes which parallels the freedom he gave his actors to improvise. Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park (1969) was shot by the late Lazlo Kovacs while his classic early 70s flix The Long Goodbye, Images and McCabe and Mrs. Miller were shot by the famed Vilmos Zsigmond, with whom Altman had a very close working relationship. But it was Altman’s idea to “flash the film” in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, producing that film’s distinctive look, which Altman’s longtime assistant Tommy Thompson revealed to his biographer Patrick McGilligan. “Flashing” is a process which produced the yellow-tinged atmosphere that magically evoked life in a frontier town circa 1890 for McCabe. Thompson says Altman was taking Polaroid shots of his own yellow sweater and flashing the pictures. He went to Zsigmond and said “That’s the look I want. I want that color.” The response from the cinematographer was “You’re flashing the film. That’s too dangerous. You can’t do that…if you’re overexposed and overflashed, you will have lost the day’s work.” According to Patrick McGilligan, the director told Zsigmond, “I don’t care about that. That’s my responsibility.” Zsigmond and Altman’s symbiotic relationship and their combined talents allowed them to capture the distinctive look of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which everyone who’s seen the film remembers.
When The Long Goodbye was released in 1973, virtually every mainstream critic in the U.S. trashed it with the notable exception of Pauline Kael of The New Yorker. Rather than obsessing over the fun that Altman, his star Elliot Gould, and veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett had in mocking Raymond Chandler’s “noble knight” Philip Marlowe, Kael spent the bulk of her review contextualizing The Long Goodbye as a worthy addition to the venerable genre of “Hollywood on Hollywood” films. In 1992, Altman would make another outstanding contribution to the genre with The Player. Partially as a result of Kael’s rave, United Artists re-released The Long Goodbye several months later with a re-tooled ad campaign designed to play up its appeal to the counterculture as a satire of the private eye genre. Once the film was re-released, many critics took a second look at it. It ended up on several “year-end best” lists, but it was too late to help the movie’s fortunes at the box-office. After the re-release, in the pages of Film Comment, critic Richard Jameson took the unusual step of offering a mea culpa for a scathing review of the film he wrote for a Seattle newspaper. He suggested that his earlier review was overly harsh. Reconsidering the film, Jameson stood by his claim that it was in bad taste for Altman and Brackett to attack a sacred cow like Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. Jameson decided that what he’d slighted the first time around were the film’s beauty shots, which he found quite extraordinary. The Long Goodbye does make superb use of the wide-screen lens in shooting sequences through windows and glass doors, utilizing a myriad of reflective surfaces to create a strikingly voyeuristic mise en scene. On second look, Jameson praised these attributes and singled out Vilmos Zsigmond’s brilliant camera-work. This sort of voyeuristic, wide-screen style and evocative use of reflected light were techniques Altman had been tinkering with for several years, however. The former can be seen in 1969’s That Cold Day in the Park. But Altman’s use of widescreen began in films like M*A*S*H and McCabe, only culminating with those beauty shots Jameson enjoyed in The Long Goodbye. Of course, these shots are only interesting if you’re absorbed in the narrative. While the film is ostensibly about a private eye named Phillip Marlowe, it also follows the messy dissolution of a Chandleresque writer, memorably played by Hollywood veteran and HUAC informer Sterling Hayden. If that plot is uninteresting to you because of a misguided sense of loyalty to Raymond Chandler, I’m not sure why you’d bother to write an essay praising the film’s expressive imagery.
Fidelity to Chandler aside, some of what Jameson was struggling with was simply the difficulty of whom to compliment given the highly collaborative nature of film as a medium. It’s just as problematic when panning a movie since a director might produce a solid product only to find a studio has butchered it thanks to a batch of negative comments at a series of test screenings. A writer-director I know often complains to me that the critics in the LA Weekly and The Village Voice always offer the director too much praise when a film is good and too much blame when it’s bad. On this subject, I could cite a host of examples of superstar script-doctors who were responsible for Joke X or Plot Twist Y in some of your favorite films.
One of the more celebrated examples of this phenomenon is Warren Beatty bringing in “story consultant” Robert Towne to polish Bonnie and Clyde, which began as a sophomoric homage to the French New Wave by two hipster writers from Esquire, David Newman and Robert Benton. Under the influence of too many screenings of New Wave flix in dingy East Village movie-houses, first-time writers Newman and Benton rewrote Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, complete with a ménage a trois and bisexual Clyde Barrow. They sent it to Truffaut hoping their idol would agree to direct. Truffaut was intrigued but he eventually passed on it as did Jean-Luc Godard. In Paris in 1965, Truffaut had lunch with the down-on-his-luck Beatty, who saw an opportunity even if he wasn’t sure the part of the “scruffy” outlaw Clyde Barrow was for him. As the producer of the film, Beatty initially saw Bob Dylan in the part. He eventually came around to seeing himself in the role. But he wasn’t “gonna play no fag,” as he told Penn, who was chosen to direct. So the script was rewritten by Towne with the ménage a trois and Clyde’s bisexuality dropped. Towne also added a necessary quotient of realism that was absent from the Newman-Benton draft. In interviews, Towne may be characteristically modest about his contribution to the script. But it was Beatty and Towne who turned an amateurish script into the canonical film it is. And it was Beatty who got it into theatres, kicking off the American New Wave in the process.
Film critics see credits like “directed by Arthur Penn” or “written by David Newman and Robert Benton” and tend to waste a lot of ink suggesting these guys are the ones responsible for the flaws and virtues you see on-screen. Ironically, the principal problem with Bonnie and Clyde is that the glamorous Beatty and Faye Dunaway are both miscast as the outlaw couple. So Beatty’s initial misgivings about playing the part were on point. But he had a tough enough time getting Warner Brothers to let him make the film his way. The box-office insurance of Beatty and Dunaway’s star power was required to allow the shot which inaugurated the Hollywood New Wave to be fired.
I’m not trying to slight the contributions of a solid professional like Arthur Penn or the artistry of a Vilmos Zsigmond. An award like “Best Cinematography” justly rewards the contribution of the DP, whether given by New York and Los Angeles-based film critics or the Academy on Oscar night. There’s nothing revolutionary about suggesting a visionary director like Bob Altman has something to do with the look of a film, either. Perhaps I’m just suggesting the Academy might want to consider adding “Best Script Polish” next year to keep it real.