What is the 21st Century?: The Modern Director, Pt. 1

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

What is the 21st Century? is the column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.


Above: Michael Bay on the set of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

"Who is the director?" That's a question without a clear answer—or, at least, it's a much harder question to answer in the 21st century than it was in the 20th. We could say that at the beginning of cinema, the person making the movie was the cameraman. Then it became the person telling the cameraman what to do, and then the person who told the cameraman and the people he was filming what to do. Things go complicated quickly. Pretty soon, there were a lot of people giving a lot of orders: people who wrote scenarios, people who had to watch the budget, people who had to sell the film as a product and wanted it to fit some trend or some idea. So we looked around and came to the conclusion that the person who made the movie was the one who directed its production. We knew, maybe for a few years, who "the director" was. Of course we were wrong even then, because directing can be defined in any way. Only bad directors work alike, and even then, they never get the same results. We could say that all good gaffers work the same way—that is, they are professionals—but every director is an amateur and every one of them leads a production differently (if they lead at all). Anyone who's spent time on the set of a large production knows that there's a certain enmity that can develop between the crew and the director: the crew, who've been hired to do their job well, know exactly what they're supposed to do, and they get offended because it seems like the director isn't sure what his or her job entails.

There is no right or wrong way to direct a movie. No right lens that should be picked, no correct framing, no right way to instruct an actor. In fact, it isn't even right or wrong to do any of those things. A great director can be indifferent to the actors, or leave matters of the image entirely in the hands of a cinematographer—they're as right in doing that as in rehearsing every line or to shooting the film themselves. So maybe the reason we've come to the conclusion that the director is the author of a film is because while a producer's, a screenwriter's, a sound recordist's work is clearly defined, a director's isn't. The director is free to be anyone, to do anything. Their choices are the ones that are most frequently personal. And, in the 21st century, there are a lot of choices.

Michael Bay
Like in Keaton and Sedwick’s The Cameraman, the camera is a barrier, a link, a hindrance, a force of destruction. It’s something to hide behind and a way to reach out. It’s a pair of binoculars and a glass wall. So we often end up thinking of directors in terms of their relationships to the camera. In the digital age, we can make images without a lens, but that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten rid of “the instrument:” the computer simply replaces the camera, taking on the same qualities.

For Michael Bay, the instrument is a cannon. After all, who is responsible for the most potent images American cinema has produced in the last decade? The Hummer ripping through a shanty town in Bad Boys II, the robot pissing on a man's head in his burlesque Transformers: who can compete with images that explode on the world in this way? Bay is something like the master of a studio, a man who leads a team, each person devoted to a certain detail, to create an image. It doesn't matter what the image is of: Bay is a director without intentions. He is an artillerist.

Leos Carax
Leos Carax: the man from the 20th century. The last director who could be called post-war or post-Nouvelle Vague. A stranger in a strange land. But maybe it takes a man from the 20th century to understand what the 21st century is really all about. He has worked on only one major movie in the last decade—his episode of the anthology Tokyo!, "Merde." But what an episode! It's like one of Michel Gondry’s short films, the one where David Cross plays the director’s talking feces, remade as a horror film. Sometimes shooting in grainy digital video, sometimes in crisp 35mm, alternating the heavily staged with the seemingly improvised and, during a courtroom scene, switching to split-screen, he is here a poet who looks for the right language to express every word or sentiment. In half an hour, he becomes the 21st century's T.S. Eliot: rhymer, joker, dead serious in his search for the human. When he is cold, it's only because he has so much warmth within him.

Dennis Dortch
Dennis Dortch has directed only one movie so far, and it's hardly a movie in the traditional sense, though he's still the most modern filmmaker in this post. A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy is a beginning, made as thought the traditions of production had never existed. Dortch's approach born out of digital filmmaking; it's naturalism re-defined: not something feigning the "natural," but something that develops naturally, that is free to be convoluted when it wants to, that can switch languages and aspect ratios without a sense of conceit, that can linger for minutes on a moment or cover an afternoon in a few cuts without a change of key. From the tactile to the bawdy in a second.

Was it that he didn't have the resources a movie normally requires, or that he didn't need them? Either way, he took a year, shooting the project as six short films -- casting, scripting, shooting, editing each before moving on to the next, unchaining the narrative from its traditional link to the novel or the three-act play (works that are conceived as a whole, even if they are produced piecemeal) and moving it in a direction entirely its own. Its complexities are natural to the point that it makes simpler movies seem rigid. Dortch has called the film a "mix tape." He's underestimating himself: the tracks are all his own. He is after some idea of truth, not originality, but in trying for that truth he expresses himself more originally than a hundred others that consider themselves unique. He's essential in his newness.

Jonathan Glazer
The phenomenon of Birth is so singular that I have trouble describing it. It may be the only American film in recent years to recognize that the US does have a bourgeoisie and that The New Yorker may be what's been destroying American culture. A world that, confronted with simple human loneliness (simple, but still more complicated than any fiction), is able to treat it only as something mystical. A movie planned with a scalpel, sharper than anything Preminger ever dared to make (though his The Human Factor comes close). Its director, Jonathan Glazer, is a photographer. Not a literal cinematographer, but a photographer on the most basic level: someone who captures images and then presents them. Glazer gave us a hideous photospread in Sexy Beast, and in Birth he gives us a gallery, unnerving in its lack of explanatory plaques. Just pictures hung for us to see, no curator's notes and no guards to direct us.

Katsuhito Ishii
Katsuhito Ishii is indifferent. This is not a bad thing. His indifference is the kind you find comforting. It's not an abrasive indifference, like Werner Herzog's: it's loving, tender, calm. Herzog throws his hands up like a man surrounded by idiots while Ishii's are open, ready to embrace anything that comes along his way. He has recreated the camera in the image of the Ouija board or the karaoke microphone.

Cinema has, in the last century, developed a myth of production as a struggle—the auteur against something, if only him or her self. Ishii denies that myth. Anyone who's seen The Taste of Tea knows that he's a man with interests and intentions, but anyone who's also seen Funky Forest: First Contact knows that he never lets his interests get in the way. Here is production as a gathering, the director as the host.

Above: David Mackenzie at work on Hallam Foe.

David Mackenzie
Young Adam: Glasgow, (g)looming in lacquered Caspar David Friedrich blues like Marnie's Baltimore across the Cinemascope frame. Are the colors of the image romantic or realistic? Why aren't we writing about David Mackenzie? Here's a great director who has made four features (with a fifth completed), working in English, and you'd be hard pressed to find anything longer than a review about any of them. Is it the uncertainity of every image he creates that drives us away? I can't figure out whether the opening image of that film is a medium shot or a close-up—either way, distinctions like that aren't important for him. He directs as is from within himself. The purpose of a type of image or a type of edit is not rigidly defined; David Mackenzie is a director who refuses to treat the constituent parts of a movie as tools. A century of definition and theory, and Mackenzie negates it all.

He isn't a phantom out of nowhere. He has clear ancestors: late Hitchcock, the Truffaut of Two English Girls and The Green Room, and, above all, Douglas Sirk—not the ironic, fondly mocked Sirk, but the secret, true Sirk we hold dear in our hearts but fear over-praising lest we seem earnest or (worst of all) romantic. Mackenzie has an interest in sexuality, which is further complicated by his desire to explore it in artificial (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe) and period (Young Adam and Asylum, which are set on the cusp of the introduction of feminism in mainstream Western culture but are not interested in presenting feminist critiques of their time periods) settings. While many filmmakers who like to talk about their "interest in sex" tend to be interested more in the social dynamics / repercussions of sexual activity, Mackenzie (like David Cronenberg) isn't interested in stigma or social code. This is Sex the Metaphor and Sex the Activity.

Tony Scott
"I often shoot with scissors in my eyes," said Allan Dwan. And then there's the old story about John Ford—about how he'd put his hand in front of the lens during the shooting of The Informer so that there'd be only one way to cut the scenes together. This is all our past, and the past is a guide. So much film opinion is built on film history. We say something is great because it resembles an great film from decades ago. We say that the director who knows what he or she wants is the one who works with a single camera and a clear plan for the editing. We've invented a formula: the intensity of someone's intentions is the inverse of the complexity of their découpage. But who'd dare say that Tony Scott, with his dozen cameras, doesn't know what he wants (or that Von Trier's "hundred cameras" wasn't a strategy)?

The thing about Scott is that he isn't working towards an image; he's discovered something beyond it: the screen. It's offensive to many of us, because it violates the traditional distinction between the "cinematic" and the "televisual:" cinema is a frame while television is a screen. A movie projects us images to see in some sort of order, while a TV is a surface, images rising and crashing like waves. And, like waves, they are all part of an ocean, the same water returning again and again, as amorphous as the movie image is supposed to be rigid. Scott is uninterested in the distinctions created by edits, uninterested in the images individually: he is only interested in the movie as a surface, bubbling, boiling, sometimes dead calm, sometimes a hurricane. We've come to think of the image as a single unit that can be contextualized and subdivided; Scott thinks of the film itself as the unit to which elements are added or subtracted the way a cameraman might adjust a framing or a technician might adjust a light. Scott began as a cinematographer; he's remained one, except now he applies a cinematographer's logic to a movie instead of a shot.

M. Night Shyamalan
We'd call M. Night Shyamalan "old-fashioned" if a director like him had ever actually existed. The truth is that he's an original, which makes him much harder to grasp than if he was an imitator.

Shyamalan, like a leaf-reader with his tea, deciphers from the classic American cinema very particular ideas about what an image, a sound, a piece of dialogue, an edit, a camera movement should be. He looks into a mess and finds clear instructions. We can construct a clear opposition between Shyamalan and Tony Scott: his camera is intensely concrete, sometimes harsh as sandpaper. His edits are as physical as the pages of a book. He has absolute faith in them, the way a Christian should believe their interpretation of the Bible. Cinema, which in the West seemed to model itself after Christianity, always positioned the director as a priest. Shyamalan is a layman, the parishioner who changes the candles, believing in his heart in his deeply personal faith. And he knows that while every priest believes what the next priest does, every parishioner has his own faith.

Abderrahmane Sissako
Abderrahmane Sissako is an organizer. He can be a labor rabble-rouser in the old tradition or just a host inviting people to his table; a man who puts together events from which a movie might be derived. In practice as in the dictionary, idea comes before image.

If the event, the action, is strong, then it can only produce a strong picture. The idea behind Bamako's mock trial is potent enough that it doesn't matter where the camera is placed. He thinks the way Hitchcock often did: in terms of images greater than a simple movie image, images that become insidious ideas, images that burrow in. Even on a smaller scale, in a movie like Waiting for Happiness, you get the feeling that for Sissako, capturing a shot of a man changing a lightbulb is less a question of composition than some idea of a lightbulb dangling above a man's head, an arm stretching out to reach it, a wrinkled hand holding the replacement bulb carefully. One of those little moments of suspense that occur a hundred times a day, like when you cross a busy street or sip something hot.

André Téchiné
We’re no longer afraid that society will end; what we’re afraid of is that it’ll continue, that there’s no chance of destroying it. We tried so hard to, but we couldn’t do it—we sighed in relief, but we also realized that the sigh was a sigh of powerlessness. A person born on June 4th, 1989 would now be 20 years old. Two decades after Tiananmen Square, and we’ve come to accept the fact that it wasn’t a martyrdom but a murder. Martyrdom is radical, but murder reinforces the traditional relationship between the killer and the victim: the killer is the one in power.

The horror of society isn’t that it will make us into outsiders, but that it eventually finds a place for everybody. Even the pariah serves a social role. But there are phenomena for which society has failed to define strict rules. This is what Howard Hawks was interested in. Tradition had established a way for emotions to play out in a romance or in a family, but the intense emotions that could occur in a friendship, outside of any sexual or familial influence, ran wild. That’s why they interested him, especially in the Western, where society was at its mostly loosely defined.

André Téchiné has created now what Hawks created in the mid-20th century: the image of the director as someone who sets him or her self up in a wilderness. A production and a script provide the general necessities and a compass, but it’s the director alone who has to lead the cast and crew into the woods. Or, as in the case of Hawks’ Red Line 7000 or Téchiné’s Hôtel des Amériques, the desert.  But Téchiné had to fight himself to do it. He is the armchair geographer, the agoraphobe who has forced himself to go and see the places he’d previously only seen on maps.

Have you seen Barocco? He was a hell of an academic—nearly a poet. Have you seen The Witnesses? He’s become a hell of an explorer. He might be braver than Hawks, because to Hawks bravery came naturally and Téchiné has spent a lifetime overcoming cowardice.


What is the 21st Century?Michael BayLéos CaraxDennis DortchTony ScottM. Night ShyamalanAbderrahmane SissakoAndre TéchinéDavid MackenzieJonathan GlazerKatsuhito IshiiLong ReadsColumns
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