HARRY M. GEDULD
THIS BOOK is a collection of statements by film directors. With few exceptions most of the directors represented here are not widely known as writers on their métier. Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim are familiar to us as actors, but what they have to say about their craft is little known. The films of the other film-makers represented here are shown and admired universally, but before the general public their names suggest, for the most part, nebulous and inarticulate figures working obscurely beside cameramen and various technicians. Nevertheless, experienced filmgoers know that in the hands of a master the film is anything but an impersonal medium. Such films as Cocteau’s Orpheus and Fellini’s 8½ are as intensely personal as The Cantos of Ezra Pound or the Duino Elegies of Rilke.
In what follows I wish to comment briefly on some of the ways in which the film director may express himself through his chosen medium. I shall then discuss some of the unique characteristics of this medium, considering in turn first what Gilbert Seides has called the “physical essentials” of the motion picture, then the major directions in which the methods of the film-maker differ from those of the dramatist and play producer, and finally some of the problems of adaptation, especially with respect to the adaptation of novel into film, a recurrent problem that the majority of professional film-makers have to face.
Because great directors individualize their work, to those who are sensitive enough to be able to discern all the characteristics of a particular director’s style or technique, every shot or sequence will be recognizable as part of the personal expression of the filmmaker. However, such powers of discernment are not given to the majority, not even of intelligent filmgoers. In a whole film or in particularly striking sequences or in characteristic choices of subject or theme, the intelligent film audience may be aware of certain stylistic qualities—the “Hitchcock touch,” unusual camera angles, or reminiscences of silent film values in a movie by Orson Welles—but often the impact of the film story and the performances of the actors will obscure the individual “voice” of the director. For many film-makers such self-effacement is actually desirable. And for the majority who work on the Hollywood conveyor-belt it is unavoidable—for strictly commercial reasons the package has to be tied with all the usual clichés. There remain the comparatively few for whom the film is indeed a direct means of self-expression and for whom, triumphing over economic pressures, self-effacement is neither desirable nor unavoidable.
It may be objected here that insofar as the making of films is a group activity, individual self-expression is virtually impossible to the film-maker. By contrast with the intricate and highly technical collaborative effort that goes into the making of a motion picture, the novelist and painter work alone, potentially, if not actually, in control of their creative material. How then can the director, surrounded by technicians and actors, achieve any comparable control over his material? How can he mold the skills, arts, and sciences of so many other persons into a tool for his self-expression? Mainly by force of personality, by the ability to impose his vision, and his alone, on the others working with him. “Surrounded,” writes Grierson,” by a thousand technicians and a thousand interests which conflict with his job of pure creation, a director has to have something of a Lenin in him to come through.” More specifically, the director is able to achieve self-expression through his choice of subject, story, or theme (or his characteristic handling of these even when the choice is not his) through his focus on details that characteristically interest him, and sometimes, as in the instances of Chaplin and Orson Welles, through his personal presence in the film.
Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), and Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1965) may serve as examples. Aficionados will recognize each of these films as highly characteristic of its director. How?
Well, even if one could overlook the presence of Chaplin (admittedly a pretty tall order!), City Lights would distinguish itself as his work because of its story, its slapstick devices, its unabashed sentimentality and pathos, and its elaboration of wellworn silent film themes and plot material from Victorian melodrama. Technically the film is fairly primitive. (Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, made six years earlier, is a more sophisticated film in every way.) But this very lack of sophistication, this comparative indifference to elaborate stylistic devices (the very antithesis of Welles’s methods) is also characteristic of Chaplin as a film director. It expresses, as do his choice and treatment of story, an elemental simplicity and innocence, heart reaching out to heart, unobstructed by intellectual pretensions.
Orson Welles, like Chaplin, plays the major role in his film; but Citizen Kane is not “individualized” so much by his performance as by the extraordinary technical devices he uses in telling his story: the exceptional lighting effects, the faked newsreels, shots taken from unusual angles, bizarre mirror effects, low shots revealing elaborate ceilings (features rarely seen in studio sets), and the long traveling dolly shot at the end of the film, when the camera ranges across the débris of Kane’s life before coming to rest on “Rosebud.” Welles’s technique provides a rich array of devices for ironically contrasting Kane as he sees himself with the frustrated child who lives on inside him. Over and above this, they provide him with a means of suggesting with remarkable insight some of the profound driving forces behind megalomania.
By contrast with City Lights and Citizen Kane, Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid is based not on an original idea, but on a work by Octave Mirbeau, first filmed by Jean Renoir in 1945. Buñuel himself does not appear in the film. Nevertheless, anyone who has not already seen it, but knows other pictures by Buñuel, could with very little difficulty distinguish his version from Renoir’s. How? Certainly not by choice of theme or story, nor by any unusual technical devices, but by characteristic details singled out for special attention: the old man’s shoe fetishism, shots of snails crawling over the body of a dead girl. Buñuel “interprets” Mirbeau’s story not only by directing the actors, but also by directing our attention to details that characteristically interest him.
Like all great motion pictures, each of these films testifies to its director’s creative vision and singleness of purpose. Less obviously, but no less fundamental to the making of a great film, each of them testifies to its director’s firm control over his actors and technicians. Thus, inspiration and the ability to control and give meaningful form to creative material—terms one usually associates with the novelist and painter—are equally applicable to the film director. In their recent book, The Cinema as Art, Ralph Stephenson and Jean R. Debrix comment on the director’s role in the group activity that is basic to film-making. “Artistic creation in a group has certain difficulties, but also certain advantages, and it by no means rules out the possibility of great art... for the best results the artistic intuition has to be shared; other people have to be won over and infused with something of the original inspiration ... an idea may catch fire from the contact of other minds, and an enthusiasm be generated in a group which an individual working alone would lack.”
But for most of us who see rather than make motion pictures, Roger Manvell’s comment on the director’s role has more immediacy. In his book Film Manvell observes that “the film can be used to its full potentialities only by men who have the imagination to do so. The average director is satisfied with average results. So is the average public. But the average public is pleasantly surprised when the more-than-average artist arrives and shows the possibilities of the medium in a new light. Shakespeare and Shaw did this for the average public of the theatre. Griffith, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Chaplin, Disney, von Stroheim, Lubitsch, Pabst, Hitchcock, Capra, Ford, Welles and some others have done this for the average cinema public.”
Gilbert Seides in his book The Public Arts lists as follows the physical essentials of the motion picture :
(1) A series of photographs so taken and so projected as to give the illusion of motion;
(2) the ability to control the attention of the spectator by showing as much or as little of any given scene as suits the purpose;
(3) a variety of ways to go from one scene to another (the fade, the dissolve, the direct cut are the familiar ones) ;
(4) control of the time-sense by breaking any action into many parts, showing the audience some of it, skipping other portions;
(5) creation of various feelings of movement by riding the camera or panning;
(6) creation of a sense of beat or rhythm by the system of cutting.
Seides maintains that these have been the physical essentials of the motion picture from the outset. They were, more accurately, the physical potentials of primitive film. In fact, the last five belong to the techniques of motion picture editing, those methods of organizing film material which did not begin to dawn upon the consciousness of film-makers for more than a decade after the motion picture was invented. The earliest films were simply “actualities”—moving pictures of real objects or scenes taken from one unchanging vantage point, invariably at medium shot distance, and without any editing. The “actualities” of the Lumière brothers, for example, consisted of single-shot films and nothing more. The Lumières’ Train Entering a Station, the movie sensation of 1895, consisted of one uncut, unspliced film strip about fifty feet long, showing a locomotive entering a station—as photographed by a stationary camera placed at a vantage point behind the terminal buffers. Early film drama was simply the photographing of plays, with insert titles to take the place of spoken dialogue—as sound was not in general use in the cinema until after 1927. Such films, prior to Griffith, were shot from a vantage point equivalent to that of a spectator in the best seat in the orchestra. Each shot was uncut and its footage was limited only by the capacity of the camera. If the camera capacity had been unlimited, the whole film would have been taken in one uncut shot. However, the limitation on shot footage determined the need for a primitive kind of editing: the splicing of one uncut shot to the next in the temporal sequence of the acted play. But the camera was not moved during the shooting of each scene and the shots were almost invariably medium shots. As Pudovkin has said, the early film-maker merely photographed the art of the actor; his continuity was confined to the linkage of separate shots and he did nothing to rearrange the order of his material, to indicate that it could be viewed from many vantage points, or to cut and splice his film footage into rhythmic arrangements. In brief, he had not discovered the special nature and potentialities of the film medium.
However, Edwin S. Porter discovered and D. W. Griffith developed and enlarged these potentialities. And in the twenties the Russians, notably Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovzhenko, analyzed the work of Griffith and constructed theories of film from which the techniques employed in their own motion pictures were derived.1 The techniques of the Russians, of Porter, and of Griffith were those of constructive editing or montage, to which Seides was referring in the last five essentials mentioned on his list. Without going into the ramifications of the leading theories of montage, I shall outline briefly some of the most important editing devices usually employed in film-making. For a fuller discussion, to which I am indebted as the basis of the following summary, the reader is referred to Rudolf Arnheim’s The Film as Art.2
1. Sequential montage: the arrangement of film material in a succession of sequences—usually in simple temporal order. The familiar story film relies heavily on sequential montage. Two notable variations are (a) the insertion of a sequence, such as a flashback episode, into an arrangement of material in simple temporal order, and (b) the cutting up of two or more sequences and the interweaving of the pieces, thereby producing a cross-cutting effect, as at the end of many of Griffith’s full-length movies.
2. Rhythmic montage: a kind of editing involving the arrangement of shots or film strips of equivalent length. A succession of long strips gives a slow rhythm; a succession of short strips gives a hectic effect, as in Keystone comedies. Another kind of rhythmic montage is produced by alternating long and short strips to achieve a balanced effect.
3. Editing in terms of the kind of shot rather than the length of shot or the arrangement of sequences. By this method a long shot might be followed by a close-up focusing on a detail of the scene indicated or “established” in the long shot. Conversely, cutting from close-up to long shot could be used to reveal the whole of which the detail in close-up is a significant part. A variation on this method of editing is to give a succession of detail shots that built up a whole event or scene from a succession of small pieces.
4. Synchronic editing: the arrangement of shots or sequences in terms of parallel events or occurrences in different places. Among variations on this method are (a) the building up of details or shots occurring in the same place at the same time, and (b) shots showing the “before” and “after’’ of the same place or person.
5. Symbolic or commentative editing. Arnheim vividly exemplifies this by referring to the film Strike, in which Eisenstein cuts from a shot of soldiers shooting down strikers to a shot of an ox being slaughtered in a stockyard.
6. Editing in terms of content or subject-matter relationships. This kind of editing involves the arrangement of shots that are related (a) through similarity of shape or movement, (b) through contrast of shape or movement, or (c) through a combination of similarity and contrast.
It should be added that many or all of these methods may be used in the same film.
Now, having briefly surveyed the film-maker’s methods of organizing the material that he shoots, it is possible to point out the major directions in which the methods of the film-maker differ from those of the dramatist and play producer. Unique to the film-maker is the advantage of using the potentialities of his medium to achieve freedom of vantage point, manipulation of space and time, and the selection of and focus on expressive detail.
In the theatre it is usually difficult or impossible to isolate expressive or significant details from the mass of material presented in a stage setting. The film-maker can, however, move into extreme close-up from a long shot or medium shot position and exclude all the details of lesser significance which would remain visible throughout the scene in a stage presentation. The close-up disclosure of hidden or generally unobserved but significant detail is something that the film can do par excellence. The film-maker’s selection of detail serves not only to eliminate insignificant material from the focus of attention but also to retain only dramatic or climactic points. In brief, the selection of and focus on expressive detail serves as the film-maker’s method for focusing the spectator’s attention exclusively on what he is expected to see, and in this respect the film may be said to do the selection for the audienee that they would have to do for themselves if they were in a theatre.
The audience in the theatre—and also the camera in the period of primitive cinema—function as motionless spectators. From Porter and Griffith onward, however, the camera was transformed from a motionless spectator to an active observer. The cameramen would henceforth change the viewpoints or vantage points of their cameras in order to get the best or most intimate view. The whole range of shots was developed out of the discovery of the possibilities of shifting viewpoints offered by the camera. Hence we have close-up, medium shot, long shot, and all the intermediate shots between these main divisions—as well as pan, track, zoom, high, and low shots, etc.
Through editing emerges the method of temporal concentration, which Pudovkin called the basis of film representation. The producer of a play is working with actual material and in general the material he uses is subject to the laws of space and time as we familiarly experience them. However, the film-maker is working not with actual material but with photographs of it on strips of celluloid that can be rearranged at will. The celluloid strips of, say, a man falling out of an airplane can be arranged or cut so that the time interval of the fall is reduced or eliminated. In the theatre, time intervals cannot be easily eliminated, except between the acts or scenes. Cutting and editing of the film, however, creates a new kind of time, filmic time, subject only to the will of the director, or film-maker. Slow-motion and fast-motion photography can also be used to distort time at the will of the film-maker.
In addition, the film-maker can bring together places that are remote from one another by joining strips of film showing these places. In this way he can create a filmic space that is different from real space. Thus a movie could show its hero going into the White House and a moment later emerging from the Kremlin. The film-maker manipulates space and time by (a) eliminating time intervals, and (b) selecting and juxtaposing key scenes which are not juxtaposed in reality. In short, unlike the dramatist and play producer, the film-maker does not adapt reality; he fixes certain elements of reality on celluloid film, cuts the film as he desires into numerous strips, and rearranges these strips and the elements of reality fixed on them, into a new filmic reality.
Professionally, the scenario-writer, particularly in Hollywood, has a threefold function. He prepares original screenplays, writes additional dialogue, or turns out scenarios based on literary work in various genres. About 60 percent of the annual Hollywood output consists of the filming of original screen material. Perhaps 10 out of the remaining 40 percent consists of the filming of literary work of some distinction.
During the past decade, money from movie companies has begun funneling into the publishing business in a big way—and particularly into the paperback book business. Increasingly, novels that are extensively promoted by modern advertising techniques or that are expected to hit the best-seller lists are published according to schedules that coincide with the release of movie adaptations. The promotion of the paperbacks of The Prize, The Group, Ship of Fools, Lord Jim, Exodus, Tom Jones, Lolita, and the James Bond novels will serve as well-known examples, selected at random. It is evident that the film is increasingly directing public reading habits, especially in the area of prose fiction, and that for many the film adaptation takes the place of the novel, which they have not read and will not read. With the aid of television we are approaching the time when, for the majority of people, an experience of literature will be primarily an experience of filmed adaptations of literature; we may already have reached this period! From this viewpoint alone, what the film-maker does with works of literature is not a negligible matter. And thus it should be unnecessary to emphasize the need for the inclusion of the study of film “grammar” and techniques in the basic high school and college syllabus.
There is, of course, an intrinsic interest in exploring the problems of adaptation. But whatever our motives for such an inquiry, some understanding of the problems of adaptation will obviate the kind of so-called criticism that condemns a film adaptation out of hand because it is not 100 percent faithful to the letter and spirit of the novel. This is the kind of criticism that complains because so much was left out of the movie, because the ending of the story was changed, because Gregory Peck wasn’t the incarnation of Captain Ahab, etc. We tend to tolerate this in film criticism. In criticism of literature or art we should find it objectionable, superficial, irrelevant, or ridiculous—as ridiculous, for example, as this excerpt from a review of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by the Grove Press, and this pictorial account of the day-by-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers. . . . Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor those sidelights on the management of a midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.
(Field and Stream magazine.)
All too frequently the film critic persists in telling us what we know already: that the film of a novel is not the same as the novel. He seldom tries to tell us why such differences exist, even when there are very sound reasons for them. He seldom explains how some of the differences, at least, might have something to do with the nature of the film medium, or with constricting censorship codes, or with the fact that the film-maker may be attempting a creative interpretation and not a slavish imitation. In fact, it is only to the film-maker himself that a film adaptation of a novel is likely to seem 100 percent faithful to the letter and spirit of the book. This is because each reader’s conception of a novel is based on his unique, subjective experience in reading it. Oliver Twist is not the same book to you as it is to me, or as it was to David Lean, who made a film based on it. And our dissatisfaction with this film—as with any other adaptation—is likely to be grounded on the fact that the film-maker has not achieved the impossible and realized our unique conception of the book, when, in actuality, he may have succeeded quite admirably in giving expression to his own vision of the novel. The moral for critics is that they are treading safely only when they deal with adaptations as films per se, and forget about the novels on which they are based.
Many problems of adaptation do not become apparent until one examines the scenario in conjunction with the novel on which it is based—or, better still, unless one tries to write a scenario-adaptation for oneself. Unfortunately, the number of available published scenarios is pitifully small, and many of those in print are “doctored” play versions and not shooting scripts—although it is the shooting script that the student of adaptation really requires.
One of the most important of all scenarios is not at present available to us. This is Erich von Stroheim’s adaptation of Frank Norris’s McTeague, which Stroheim filmed in 1924 under the title of Greed. The importance of Stroheim’s film as an adaptation is that it is the only attempt ever made to film a novel with utter fidelity to the book. The completed film ran for ten hours; but only a handful of people saw it in its entirety because MGM, the producers of the film, took it out of Stroheim’s hands and cut the forty-two reels down to a marketable ten. Rumor has, however, persisted to the effect that an uncut print of Greed survives in the vaults of MGM. However, it was assumed by MGM in 1924 that the film-going public would not endure a ten-hour movie or even a serialization of it no matter how brilliant the film’s conception nor how faithful the adaptation is to the novel. The acceptable length of a feature film is thus a primary factor in determining the nature of an adaptation. Even a four-hour film like Gone with the Wind is limited by this factor, and it is worth mentioning here that not more than 10 percent of the plot material of Dumas’ Monte-Cristo has been used in making any of the film versions of that novel.
Censorship codes account for another restrictive influence on the film-maker; censorship often forces a film-maker to suggest where a novel may be explicit or to omit altogether what the novel may elaborate upon at great length. Public taste as assessed by consumer research branches of the film industry often exerts considerable influence on the kind of story-line and cast acceptable to the film producer or backer. This kind of influence is discussed at length by Leo Handel in his book, Hollywood Looks at Its Audiences. Public taste may persuade the film-maker to let Professor Higgins marry Eliza Doolittle or to cast Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. However, there are other, more subtle problems of adaptation.
In one shot, a film can present what may take pages of description in a story. Scott’s long account of Waverley Castle could be dealt with in about a dozen shots, occupying less than two minutes of screen time. “In an instant,” writes Marshall McLuhan, the film “presents a scene of landscape with figures that would require several pages of prose to describe. In the next instant it repeats, and can go on repeating, this detailed information. The writer, on the other hand, has no means of holding a mass of detail before his reader in a large bloc or gestalt. . . .” But though the screen may present in one shot what may take many pages of descriptive writing, it cannot simultaneously convey the allusive depths of verbal description. T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is an almost ready-made scenario: all of its images could be embodied in a film, but the rich and complex associations of the imagery, the allusive interrelationships of the poem’s verbal patterns would be entirely lost. The same loss is discernible in most film adaptations of prose fiction. As John Howard Lawson puts it: “An accurate film adaptation of a novel cannot avoid being prosaic in the literal sense: having the quality of prose without its magic.”
In general, the film has excelled from the outset at presenting external detail. In the silent period, the film-maker had to rely primarily on visual images even when presenting nonvisual experience. I say “primarily” because even the silent film could often rely on musical counterpoint to supplement the visual image. Yet even where it attempted to be most faithful to the novel, the silent film adaptation seldom got beyond the stage of being a moving cartoon-strip version of the original, like a comic book treatment of Hamlet. Significantly, few of the great films of the silent period are adaptations of novels, and the outstanding adaptations—such as Pudovkin’s film based on Gorki’s Mother, Griffith’s treatment of Dixon’s The Clansman in The Birth of a Nation, or Fritz Lang’s films of the Nibelung legend—are important as exploitations of the resources of the film medium and not for their fidelity or otherwise to their literary sources.
The coming of sound brought hope, to Eisenstein at least, that the divergence of novel and film would diminish. He wrote in his essay, “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” of the “formal possibility of a kind of filmic reasoning ... a purely intellectual film, freed from traditional limitations, achieving direct forms for ideas, systems, and concepts, without any need for transitions and paraphrases.” This is evidently the direction in which the French New Wave film-makers are or have been moving with such films as Last Year in Marienbad and Muriel. Lawson notes that “A new school of French novelists who reject a plot structure in favor of moods and sensuous impressions is closely connected with similar tendencies in cinema. There has been fruitful collaboration between fiction writers and film-makers, notably in the work of Alain Resnais with Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet.” Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad approaches closer to Eisenstein ideal of the film freed from traditional limitations than any work of the Russian film director. But it is clear that Eisenstein himself would have proceeded in a similar direction. He prepared a scenario for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a project that he was never permitted to realize as a motion picture. With the completion of such a film the esthetic possibilities of adaptation and a true interrelationship of film and novel might have been achieved. This much seems implicit in the “Anna Livia” section of the screenplay, the only fragment that has been published.
In his well-known essay on Dickens and D. W. Griffith, Eisenstein revealed many of the ways in which the film is indebted to the techniques of prose fiction; but in one major direction the film has influenced the techniques of the modern novelist. As Marshall McLuhan observes: “In modern literature there is probably no more celebrated technique than that of the stream of consciousness or interior monologue. . . . The stream of consciousness is really managed by the transfer of film technique to the printed page.”
1 See further Karel Reisz, The Technique of Film Editing (London: Focal Press, 1966). Section One of this book, concerned with the history of editing, provides a lengthy analysis of the techniques of Porter, Griffith, Pudovkin, and Eisenstein.
2 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.