Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Book Review: Making Movies Work.

Jon Boorstin's Making Movies Work: Thinking Like A Filmmaker brings to mind Justice Antonin Scalia's lament about the tyranny of the experts. Although in a different context, Justice Scalia’s critique is that often too much reliance is placed on experts.

Here, Boorstin’s book has characterized an art-form as an academic exercise, where rules are formed and applied. Further, this emphasis suggests that those that can know the rules can master their activity. With films, I don’t think that’s true. Notably, Boorstin’s book raves about Hitchcock’s technical expertise. There's no denying that. However, I don’t think that the best directors are necessarily those that have the highest knowledge of their craft. Sometimes it is instinctual. This fact is borne out by the reality that many are tapped to direct films with little or no prior movie-directing experience, and the best directors are not necessarily those that have formally studied the craft in film-school or are the most technically proficient.

Nevertheless, Boorstin’s book fulfils the promise of the subtitle. The book enables the reader to “think[ ] like a filmmaker” by drawing back the curtain on the complex process behind films. As a basic summary, Boorstin posits that films operate on three (3) levels: voyeuristically, viscerally, and vicariously. By voyeuristically, the author means that the viewer is judging the movie for credibility. Regarding the visceral dimension, this aspect pertains to how the movie impacts the “gut”. However, the vicarious aspect has been suggested to be the most crucial for a film—it is the film’s ability to cause the viewer’s identification with the film. When successful, this identification is achieved through the actor and the plot.

Boorstin (who associate produced All the President's Men) explains how each craft supports the voyeuristic, visceral, and vicarious dimensions, such as editing, acting, sound and cinematography. If nothing else, the reader will be impressed as to the complexity and intentionality of filmmaking.

However, taken to an extreme the book may fall into the danger of over-intellectualizing movies. It (unduly) emphasizes the technical aspects of movie-making, but even Boorstin inconsistently concedes the bottom line—does it work, i.e. was it enjoyable? A movie can be technically proficient (or even genius), but this does not necessarily carry over to a movie that works. Coming at it differently, some films work precisely because they break the conventions of the trade. For example, I just watched (for the second time) Elephant by Gus Van Sant. This film does not follow Hitchcockian conventions or rules (especially as to editing), but still works on its own, as an innovative film.