Lights, Camera, Conversation… That Maker of Movies

Posted on April 15, 2011


Sidney Lumet was a great moviemaker, but he also wrote one of the great books about making movies, with a title as unfussy as his cinema: Making Movies.

There are filmmakers who mystify the process of filmmaking into a solitary Arthurian quest, a quasi-religious adventure swathed in swirling mists and soul-searching and Faustian tradeoffs with the forces of evil (otherwise known as the moneymen of the marketplace). Then there are those like Sidney Lumet who got up, dusted off the seat of their sturdy workpants and walked into the studio the way an executive with a briefcase would stride into his cubicle-crusted office, filled not so much with a sense of wonder and the scent of holy incense as the drone of the fax machine, the smell of yesterday’s sandwiches in the lunchroom and co-worker chatter about ailments and achievements of children. Lumet understood that filmmaking was, above all, a collaborative craft, and nothing – not even his movies, many of them effortlessly warranting that problematic qualifier, “classic” – illustrates this more than Making Movies, his book of filmmaking wisdom that was as slender as his illusions about the profession.

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But the book’s light weight (a mere 200-something pages in paperback) did not mean it was lightweight. In one of my favourite passages, the great director writes, “I’ve read that a certain picture was ‘beautifully edited.’ There’s no way [a critic] could know how well or poorly it was edited. It might look badly edited, but because of how poorly it was shot, it may in fact be a miracle of editing that the story even makes sense. Conversely, the movie may look well edited, but who knows what was left on the cutting room floor. In my view, only three people know how good or bad the editing was: the editor, the director, and the cameraman. They’re the only ones who know everything that was shot in the first place.” This sounds, at first, like a caustic rebuke to the critic prone to evaluating films on a piecemeal basis, with ghastly observations like “the editor has wielded the scissors with great care,” or “the cutting could have been tighter in the second half.”

But it’s much more than that. What Lumet is saying, really, is that the only people who know how movies were made are the people who made them – and as a corollary, the only way to truly watch movies (as critics, as general audiences) is by completely ignoring the question of authorial intent (i.e. what is the filmmaker trying to say?) and focusing only on our responses (i.e. what are we taking away from this line reading, this performance, this scene, this movie?). Here, then, is a directive from the director himself – not unlike a commandment from God Himself, though He left us in little doubt about His intents – to forget about objectivity and embrace subjectivity: Thou shalt submerge thyself in what’s on screen and reflect only on thine experience. (This is not the exact context Lumet was making his statement in, but it’s very much a valid extrapolation).

It’s tempting to apply Lumet’s wisdom to Lumet himself. Without his insider knowledge from having made his movies, how would he have seen them from the other side, as a critic or as a simple and very subjective moviegoer? I’d wager that he would have loved and regarded a whole bunch of them, been mildly amused by some, and faintly puzzled by the consistent overvaluing (subjective overvaluing, of course) of the remainder. But more than anything – and despite all the undeniably great acting in his films, from an astonishing assortment of big-name performers – he might have winced at how often he let his talented actors get away with displays of a little too much of their talent. Would the difference between Al Pacino in The Godfather and The Godfather Part III have been so drastic had Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico not intervened? How instrumental was Lumet in Pacino’s transformation from a servant of the part to a swallower of the scenery around it? Lumet, of course, would have said that only he – the maker of his movies – knows the answer.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan, The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.