December 2005 - January 2006

Arts & Letters

Show me the horror

By Clive James
Directors, producers and the importance of unsubtlety

There are more bad director’s movies
than bad producer’s movies


A standard piece of Hollywood wisdom would have us believe there are more bad director’s movies than bad producer’s movies. I first heard this maxim from Marty Elfand, the producer of King David, directed by my friend Bruce Beresford. Later on, Beresford became celebrated throughout the film industry because of the Oscar he did not receive for Driving Miss Daisy, which set a strange precedent by being honoured as Best Film while its director had to content himself with having been invited to the ceremony. The host, Billy Crystal, did something to restore sanity by sardonically referring to Driving Miss Daisy as “the film that directed itself”.

Beresford had been through madder moments than that: King David, for example, which was reviewed as if its director had set out with the intention of destroying Richard Gere’s career. Thus launched into a river of acid, the movie sank immediately. I was there in 1985 while it was still being built. The movie was in the last stages of its studio schedule at Pinewood. Later, on location in southern Italy, which was deputising for the Holy Land, the project was to be fatally compromised by acts of God. In that part of southern Italy, for the first time since the last Ice Age, it snowed in April for weeks on end. The snow formed deep drifts on the pitiless deserts of Palestine, thus restricting complicated action sequences beyond credibility. Taking into consideration that God was practically the hero of the picture, it seems reasonable to conclude that He had visited his wrath on the project for a sound Old Testament reason: human presumption would be conspicuously punished, so that nobody could miss the message.

On the sound stage at Pinewood Studios, however, all seemed workmanlike and under control. So does most of the movie, for those who care to look. King David still shows up occasionally on TV, giving the newspaper preview writers a chance to flex their tiny wits. They know not of what they speak. Apart from the action scenes – you can see the same army going in opposite directions to do battle with itself – the feeling for the far past is unusually subtle. Beresford when young admired Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew, and some of that admiration rubbed off on King David. Unlike almost every Hollywood biblical epic ever made, King David feels like a transposition to another time and somewhere else. At Pinewood a visitor could already sense that something unusual was in the works. The sets, for example, had proper low ceilings, carefully violating the usual Hollywood assumption that in ancient times the ruling classes met to break bread in dining rooms the size of aeroplane hangars.

There was no sense that everybody concerned was participating in a salvage operation with all hands to the bilge pumps. Richard Gere was relaxed and charming. Out of his hearing, I made my standard joke to Beresford: if he wanted a film star with small eyes, why didn’t he use me? At lunch, perhaps tactlessly, I offered my favourite aria about movies that had been ruined by the producer’s heavy, uncomprehending hand. Beresford, whose knowledge of his medium is encyclopaedic, was hilarious on the subject. Marty Elfand seemed to enjoy the ribbing but decisively countered with the aforementioned piece of folk wisdom: there are more bad director’s movies than bad producer’s movies.

I had to admit he was right. The list of movies ruined by directors being given a free hand begins with D.W. Griffith, moves on through Erich von Stroheim, and can be entertainingly extended far beyond Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. The implication, not often enough noted, is that the producer’s interference is frequently an important factor in keeping a project within reasonable bounds. Stories about a producer’s stupidity or philistinism should always be given a second look from that angle. Orson Welles was appalled when the producer added crass explanatory shots to Touch Of Evil, but the explanatory shots really do explain things, and perhaps Welles should not have left them out in the first place. A key case is producer David O. Selznick’s much-derided interference at the scripting stage of The Third Man. Graham Greene later made comic capital out of Selznick’s suggestion that it looked “faggy” for Holly Martins to hang around in Vienna after he had been told that Harry Lime was dead. But if we read Nicholas Wapshott’s hard-headed biography of Carol Reed, The Man Between, we find that another piece of Selznick interference was crucial to the movie’s coherence. Neither Reed nor Greene wanted any scenes dealing with the effects of Lime’s penicillin on the children who were treated with it. Selznick insisted, and got his way.

To avoid the obvious, Reed assembled the required scenes entirely out of reaction shots. All we see is Trevor Howard and Joseph Cotten looking at us out of the screen, as if we were the children in the hospital beds. The movie’s whole moral structure pivots on that one point. Unless we are convinced that the two men are seeing horrors, there would be no justification for Holly Martins’ delivering the coup de grace to his erstwhile friend. No doubt Selznick was a vulgarian compared with Graham Greene, but Selznick was the one who put his unsubtle finger on the point that simply had to be dramatised. It was Reed’s job, which he cleverly fulfilled, to find a way of doing it that did not look crass.

If Reed had been a greater man, a true auteur, he might have written his own scripts and brought out such key points every time. But a working director was all he was, albeit an inventive one. (Trapeze was one of the few early Cinemascope movies to fill its format satisfactorily, because Reed spotted that the rehearsing circus acts could fill the yawning background behind the main actors.) Reed was a stylist working within an industry, in conformity with its traditional division of labour. That the division of labour also entailed a division of creative labour was the point missed even by a later generation of critics who knew quite a lot about the technical aspects of film-making but not enough about cash-flow.

Because the money talks. When film criticism first came into its own as a recognised genre, in the 1930s, the critics were still coping with the miracle that the pictures could talk. There was not much that they knew. They could tell a good movie was different from a bad one but they didn’t know yet quite why; C.A. Lejeune, a distinguished post-war critic, thought the tilted pictures of Reed’s characteristic manner were obtained in the printing, rather than by tilting the camera. Nowadays the critics know about everything, down to and including the money. But unless they have been involved in a collaborative venture themselves, they still tend to heap all the praise, or all the blame, on the head that shows most prominently.

Hence the usefulness of the director’s movie that turns out to be a mess. When produced by himself, as it often is, it is a powerful hint that in his successful earlier creations somebody else was behind the scenes, performing the unsung function of the slave in the Roman general’s triumphal chariot. The Roman slave whispered: “Remember you are mortal.” The producer, or the money man, or sometimes even the studio boss, whispers something else. He whispers: “Remember the audience is mortal.” You can be as subtle as you like, but one way or another you have to spell it out. Why does Harry Lime have to die? Because he is evil. What is the evidence that he is evil? His penicillin. What does the penicillin do? Show us.

None of this means that the money is always right. From the first stage of scripting, Beresford wanted to tie King David together with a voice-over of David reading the psalms. The studio vetoed the idea: not because the language was biblical, but because it was poetry. (The King as a poet? Too faggy.) From that moment, the film was on the road to ruin. It just took many millions of dollars to get there.

If you find, as I do, that the ruin has life in it, it is too late. The issue has been decided. Apart from the occasional, very rare exception like Blade Runner, lost big movies don’t come back, and most of the lost small ones don’t come back either. How many people ever saw John Sayles’s Lone Star? I saw it, and thought it the best movie about racial prejudice I had seen for a long time. But I find it hard to name, from memory, any of the leading players apart from Chris Cooper. They almost all missed the wave, which is the wave of publicity.

Movies are not like poems. They cost too much to be anything except a popular art. If the digital revolution changes all that, it might well be a good thing, but there is always the chance that Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie will be made a thousand times; and there will never be a cheap way of filming the lost battle scenes in King David – the scenes that were never shot because it snowed in Palestine.

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

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