Another manifesto-length combox answer
(Title explains this post, I think … I was asked a question about film direction by my friend Mark.)
I wrote about some of what I consider makes a great director in this post here in the specific context of what I describing what I mean by calling Michael Haneke the world’s greatest pure director — an opinion I hold quite devoutly.
For those who don’t want to hit the link — what makes a director great in my view is his style (after all, as the cliche goes — there are only seven stories anyway). Or to be more exact, a great director uses his formal control over the medium in precise and specific ways. He resists cliche by creatively using all or as many as possible of the tools at his disposal. For example, I praised Steve McQueen’s direction of a scene of someone eating breakfast because I’ve never seen anyone eat breakfast this way. The director’s task is to get you to respond in the ways the film wants or needs you to. Or in Hitchcock’s phrase — direction is “playing the audience like a piano.”
(The embedding isn’t gonna work, so, you’ll have to go here for the example.)
If you go to the comparison early on in this Siskel & Ebert special of the two versions of THE LADY VANISHES, I think Ebert is overstating the importance of black-and-white specifically, though he’s right that in the Cybill Shepard remake, the scene does look more like a travelogue. But that’s why the color scene is badly directed although much more realistic and “beautiful” in a picture-postcard sense. This is the moment (I should speak only of Hitchcock’s version) where the film turns from a comedy into a thriller, when a character falls asleep and wakes up to notice the English lady has vanished. You want something at that moment slightly surreal, something transitional, something forceful. Shepard is more glamorous than Margaret Lockwood and the color-film’s old woman is a far more naturalistically believable actor than the black-and-white one, and that’s why they’re both inferior. You want an everyman (or everywoman in this case) in the first instance and someone more coldly villainous in the second. THE LADY VANISHES is the kind of nightmare that it is because Hitch’s cutting and framing, and the choice of performers, make it that.
In sum, direction is style, and preferably a style that you’re just barely conscious of, i.e., aware of without its being too intrusive, like good style in writing, or making your style seem like not a style. Like other forms of tact, this is a matter of judgment. For example, I gave the examples of Spielmann’s direction in my REVANCHE capsule that I did to emphasize that his direction, while not that of a showy virtuoso like Haneke, is no less effective.
I should add that not all critics, even those in my friends’ circle, agree with me on this, primary because it tends to privilege manipulation, mannerism, and tightness. For example, Chris Stults says his interests incline him almost in the perfectly opposite way, at least when asked in the abstract — that he wants films that he has “room to walk around in.” Thus borehounds like Terrence Mallick are among his favorite directors (and not mine). Though, and this is part of what makes TIFF fun, Chris and I watched HUNGER together and we both thought it among the festival’s best, and berated poor Theo over alcohol for (relatively) missing the boat. Ryan Wu, to take another example, has written reams of anti-Von Trier and pro-Desplechin manifestos to the effect that he wants films to be at least somewhat open-ended, to be as complex and variegated as human experience itself, and opposes the sort of manipulation and control that I like as undemocratic. I compared THE CHILD to being caught in an expert wrestler’s choke hold: a metaphor that, regardless of what either man thought of THE CHILD, I don’t think would occur to Ryan or Chris to use as a term of praise. (I’m being a little more facetious with Ryan, but if I’m being unfair to either man, he’ll no doubt let me know.)
As for the other elements of the art of the films of the cinema and how they work absolutely or merely as the products of direction — I am not blind to them, and obviously they can be enjoyable in themselves. At Slapsticon, the audience was primed for a Harry Langdon talking movie, SEE AMERICA THIRST, by being told by programmer Richard Roberts to “ignore everything else, just watch Langdon.” That was good advice, because Langdon is great in a movie that has quite literally nothing else going for it. Still while it was an enjoyable experience (Richard said he could hear my laughing), I don’t think even Richard would say that it’s either a masterpiece or compares favorably with Langdon’s best work. In fact, I think very few movies are completely worthless because these other elements — particularly acting and scoring — can work relatively independently of whether the film as a whole works.
But the director is the man responsible for orchestrating the elements into a whole. In fact, “orchestrate” is the perfect word — a conductor who picks his own orchestra is perhaps the closest analogy to a film director in the best case. Now sometimes, a director will get stuck with an orchestra he doesn’t like or is alien to his talents. For example, I watched last night the Hitchcock silent EASY VIRTUE. And there’s no denying Hitch’s formal mastery is there to be enjoyed even in 1928, either in irrelevant asides (a shot where the background is in focus when viewed through a character’s monocle as it hangs from his hand, but is out of focus otherwise) or in expressions of narrative economy (his use of inanimate objects to anchor edits in time and place). But, like with the Langdon feature I mentioned, the effect was rather like the proverbial actor who could knock you dead reading the phone book. Even if it were the case, this would hardly constitute an argument for using phone books as scripts nor would it prove that the actor in question, I am generalizing, couldn’t do more than knock you dead by reading Shakespeare or Sophocles. Yes, part of what makes Hitchcock a great director is that he could do this: that the greatest director of all time can in fact make an entertaining movie out of a Noel Coward plot (i.e., a play minus the epigrammatic dialog, since this is a silent movie) simply from his own style. But if that and similar was all he ever did, Hitchcock would be considered quite minor. REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO, VERTIGO, THE LADY VANISHES and others are far better, simply because a great director needs to be in control of his collaborators, his script, and all the elements (even actors and editing).