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From The Short Stack (#110 of 4)

From the Short Stack: "Durgnat on Film"

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From the Short Stack: “Durgnat on Film”
From the Short Stack: “Durgnat on Film”

This month’s “From the Short Stack” collection is Durgnat on Film by Raymond Durgnat (1939-2002), the Swiss-born English critic who also wrote Luis Buñuel (1967), Jean Renoir (1975), and Films and Feelings (1967). I first read Durgnat on Film as an undergraduate and still revisit that dog-eared copy. I liked him right off because he was as stimulating as any other theorist on the reading list but much more fun. He described the interplay of form and content with pizzazz. His eye was so sharp and his prose so lucid whatever the subject, he could be counted on to deliver the last word.

Analyzing Orson Welles’s The Trial he wrote, “Using in some sequences an incessantly roaming camera, in others a flurry of quick cuts, Welles makes all space fidget.” Fritz Lang’s American films “...have an American appearance, but are just as ’visual’ as his German. He is a master of so arranging his characters in space that a kind of nameless, fatalistic suspense palpitates between them.” In the work of Sergei Eisenstein and Carl Theodor Dreyer, “...we feel not that the actor dominates the image, but that the actor is a part of a visual composition—that he has practically been hammered and planed into shape.” Durgnat was also a master of the comic 180. He backloaded academic sentences with quotable one-liners, a neat trick that made the reader more likely to remember the fact preceding the joke. (“Neorealism died, briefly, around 1953, killed partly by audiences’ dislike of its drabness, partly by government dislike for its picture of an Italy where people were poor and it rained all the time.”)

From the Short Stack: Ray Carney on John Cassavetes and The Method

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From the Short Stack: Ray Carney on John Cassavetes and The Method
From the Short Stack: Ray Carney on John Cassavetes and The Method

Apropos of nothing but affection, here are some snippets from Cassavetes on Cassavetes, a book about actor-filmmaker John Cassavetes by Boston University professor, graduate studies director and film historian Ray Carney. Despite the straightforward title, it’s not a collection of transcripts and articles, but sort of a mosaic biography that fuses interviews from various sources (including Carney) with a candid assessment of Cassavetes the actor, writer, director, small businessman, theater impresario and barroom philosopher. Cassavetes’ first feature, 1959’s Shadows is generally thought of as the first modern American underground indie, a stateside cousin of such pioneering French New Wave features as Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Breathless. His filmography would grow to include Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Gloria.

From the Short Stack: Mark Crispin Miller on TV

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From the Short Stack: Mark Crispin Miller on TV
From the Short Stack: Mark Crispin Miller on TV

Critic and professor Mark Crispin Miller, one of the voices I hear in my head, had this to say about TV in his essay, “Deride and Conquer,” part of a 1986 anthology titled Watching Television.

On first reading this piece about how TV blurs the lines between different sorts of programming (and ads), I remember thinking Miller overstated his case. Twenty years on, we live in a 1000-channel, product-placement-heavy universe. Top-dollar ads and prime time dramas strive to look like Hollywood studio pictures. The news often resembles a weepy TV movie, a combative syndicated talk show or a home shopping channel. And TV Guide Channel and E! treat the comings and goings of celebs and pseudo-celebs as an “event” or a “story.” “Deride and Conquer” now seems prophetic.

From the Short Stack David Mamet on the Steadicam

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From the Short Stack: David Mamet on the Steadicam
From the Short Stack: David Mamet on the Steadicam

Today we launch another semi-regular feature: “From the Short Stack,” which consists of offerings from the three dozen or so film and TV-related books that I never tire of reading.

Today’s short stack selection is David Mamet’s On Directing Film. Originally published in 1991, when Mamet had only three credits as a movie director, it’s a concise, forceful but not totally closed-off work, at once philosophical and technical. Essentially, it’s kind of a notebook by a filmmaker who’s still struggling with a new medium, and who wishes to construct a set of general principles that will help him get out of his own way and make reasonably intelligent, watchable films—films that honor Mamet the screenwriter without necessarily being a slave to him.