Sunday, November 27, 2011

DREAMSCAPES...


"Everything we see hides another thing.  We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." --Rene Magritte

"Like all revolutions, the surrealist revolution was a reversion, a restitution, an expression of vital and indispensable spiritual needs." --Eugene Ionesco


Walter Murch wrote about film editing:  “When you put two shots together, it's the viewer who makes the connection. The result of this connection may be a completely new idea that wasn't in either of the two shots to begin with. When you multiply this by dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of edits, you get a fantastic interaction between what's happening on screen and what's in the minds of the audience.  The mind seems predisposed to do this. My hunch is that it comes from the language of dreams. If you're lucky enough to wake up in the morning and really remember a dream in some detail, and go over it, you'll find it has a cinematic quality. For instance, "I was in a supermarket, and then suddenly I was in an orange grove picking oranges." Those sudden transitions are cuts. If we assume people's dreams were cinematic before the invention of the motion picture, then what cinema has done is to take the language of dreams and bring it under our control.


These stills from THE TREE OF LIFE remind me of surrealist paintings.


In fact, it occurs to me that Ionesco’s quote about surrealism also applies to films.  Cinema is an attempt to make the spiritual experience concrete—it is “a restitution, an expression of vital and indispensable spiritual needs.

I recently visited the Vancouver Art Gallery, looking at a remarkable exhibit called “The Color of My Dreams:  The Surrealist Revolution in Art”.   It included, among others, the work of Joan Miró, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Man Ray (Joan Miró’s work has particular resonance as a print of one of his paintings hangs in my bedroom at home—it’s often the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see when I wake up).  When we were in Madrid two years ago, a highlight of the trip was the time we spent at the Reina Sofia Museum, where we saw the work of many of these artists.  Many of the paintings of the surrealists offer a sense of recognition, something stirring from the collective unconscious.  It’s as though I’ve seen these things before, in my own dreams, my own unconscious. Among the works at the Reina Sofia, many of them were collage, similar to editing, in that they’re about making associations.

The Whole Dali in a Face by Salvador Dali

Landscape with a Girl Skipping by Salvador Dali


Surrealism is defined as a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind by the irrational juxtaposition of images. Rene Magritte said, “To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been.  Andre Breton wrote, “Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.  It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principle problems of life.

A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano by Salvador Dali


I read that statement and it occurs to me that the editing process in cinema can be described, at its best, as a similar experience, or at least there are certain things that can only be discovered by allowing oneself to have “the disinterested play of thought.” For me, great editors are those who encourage the director to get out of the intellect, to discover what it is in the material that wants to come out, separate from conscious intent.  There are those directors and editors who dig deeper, that intuit the unexpected, and it is those films that have the most resonance for me, and who separate themselves from the mundane.

Landscape with Butterflies by Salvador Dali



I believe in the “omnipotence of dreams”—it explains why I think cinema and television have such great power on our psyches.  The movies that linger in the collective imagination--the films that I’ve written about on this blog, the ones that tend to show up over and over in film books, on websites, in retrospectives, in conversations—capture something of the essence of dreams.  The narratives are oftentimes of little or no consequence, except inasmuch as they direct the emotions (that is why exposition scenes are almost always so deadly).  But the design elements, the colors or lack thereof, the emotional contexts, the graphic elements—these all stir up the unconscious, and therefore these are the aspects one looks for in repeated viewings.

From THE THIN RED LINE.


I started thinking about the films that I’ve responded to, on a visceral level, and about how they often capture the nature of dreams for me.  The films of Terrence Malick affect me, not because of their narratives, but because of the way in which they discover “previously neglected associations.”  When I first saw THE THIN RED LINE, one of the things that moved me most was the shifting focus, from the brutality of the fighting to the indifference of the natural environment around the soldiers.  All of Malick’s films are filled with allusions to the aspect of consciousness that is beyond the duality of good and bad.  His movies are often about violence, and then the movement away from violence towards some greater understanding of the world around us.  The movements sometimes seem arbitrary and yet they’re not.  They’re intuitive, a thought leading to another thought, both illuminated by their juxtaposition.

From THE TREE OF LIFE.


Months after seeing it, I’m still thinking about THE TREE OF LIFE, his latest exploration of the nature of being.  It’s the kind of film that speaks to the deepest part of me, because it reminds me so much of my own childhood, and my own yearning for a return to the way I felt then—curious, open, hopeful.   The much-debated final sequence has much in common with some of the paintings I saw at the Reina Sofia—e.g. the play on perspective and the radical dislocations of a Dali painting, or the mystery of Magritte.


From DAYS OF HEAVEN


And years after seeing Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, I still think of that film too and its doomed love story in a vast, flat landscape.  The horizon line itself makes me feel something—the suggestion of other places that one might escape to, both unnerving and hopeful. Malick’s movies are compelling experiences for me because they speak to my feeling, more than to my intellect—the story in DAYS OF HEAVEN is simple and direct.  But the images turn me inside out.  They remind me of how small a part we play in the flow of nature, and of how little consequence human love affairs actually count. 



In her essay about DAYS OF HEAVEN, Adrian Martin writes about the stream of consciousness narration: “In this voice we hear language itself in the process of struggling toward sense, meaning, insight—just as, elsewhere, we see the diverse elements of nature swirling together to perpetually make and unmake what we think of as a landscape, and human figures finding and losing themselves, over and over, as they desperately try to cement their individual identities or ‘characters’.” 



There is a sense in these films that nothing endures, that we are simply at the effect of nature’s constant process of destruction and regeneration.  There is a repeating motif in most of Malick’s films of old photographs, suggesting people and relationships that no longer exist, and yet there is this concrete image from the past. 

Similarly we paint, we write, we make films, in order to create something we might hold onto, making solid our dreams and fantasies.  Many of the actors and directors of films I truly loved, from other generations, no longer exist and yet we continue to see what they saw. Their films “hide another thing” and we continue to hope to see beyond the veil.

Recently I found a short student film I made over Christmas in 1978.  I was unhappy with the film at the time but, looking back on it, it seems my unconscious was trying to work out something about the nature of dreams.  I look at the film now and it makes sense to me in a way that it didn’t then.  I was experimenting with the ideas of time and dislocation, and I was trying to see something beyond what was there.

It’s been 33 years since I made this film.  There’s something dreamlike about the experience of trying to remember what I felt then.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

CONSIDERING THE IDEAL...




On our recent trip to Rome we went to the Trevi Fountain.  Unlike the evocative scene in Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA, the fountain was not deserted and mysterious.  It was instead surrounded by hundreds of tourists, as well as kiosks hawking plastic, miniature versions of Bernini’s sculptures.  There was something disorienting about it, and I barely remember taking in the experience of the fountain itself.  But it was nevertheless its own kind of wonderful: a crowd of people, teeming with life, energy, and happiness.


And anyway, there’s always the movie—the dreamlike image of Anita Ekberg walking in the fountain wearing a black dress, with the water cascading over her.


In the film, the protagonist Marcello follows the character of Sylvia into the fountain, desiring her.  But they never even kiss—they come close, but they don’t connect, the water stops and they venture out into the dawn without understanding what their experience has been about--the same way we often wake up from a dream that feels unfinished.  We’re left wondering what it was which seemed so potent even moments before. 


LA DOLCE VITA is broken up into seven episodes which take place over seven nights:  each episode ends in the early morning, with an unsuccessful attempt to make sense of the night before.  One could say that the film is essentially seven dreams that are to be interpreted by the viewer.
 Jaded aristocrats return to a villa in the early morning after a night of debauchery in LA DOLCE VITA.  What seemed exciting to the characters a few hours before suddenly feels wearisome.

Fellini’s films often evoke the unconscious—dreamlike images that resonate with the power of archetypes.  (He himself spent years in Jungian analysis, and his dream journals are remarkable—you can check them out at this link.)
 The opening dream from 8 1/2 symbolizes the protagonist's sense of being stuck in his creative process.
 Giulietta Masina in JULIET OF THE SPIRITS experiences visions that help her process her unhappiness.

I have always loved Fellini, who said about his films:  “My work can’t be anything other than a testimony of what I am looking for in life.  It is a mirror of my searching…. In this respect, I think, there is no cleavage or difference of content or style in all my films.  From first to last, I have struggled to free myself—always from the past, from the education laid upon me as a child.  That is what I’m seeking, though through different characters and with changing tempo and images.”
 The manner in which Giulietta is framed against the red wall expresses her emotion in a visual way.

His films offer a real sense of this search, and the heart behind it.  His images evoke the emotions of longing and introspection and his movies draw no distinction between high and low culture.  His characters often are those that we judge, ignore or discard.  He examines the pursuit of love, and also the search for meaning.  Watching his films provides a sense of catharsis--I feel more human and more attuned to the world around me after one of his movies.
If one watches LA DOLCE VITA, 8 ½, and JULIET OF THE SPIRITS in succession, one can see his “searching” very clearly—characters look for an answer, and the answer is finally to accept the variety of life without resisting its difficulty.  Instead they move forward, embracing the totality of experience.
Fellini said, “We must cease projecting ourselves into the future as though it were plannable, foreseeable, tangible, controllable—it’s not; or as though it were a dimension existing outside and beyond ourselves.  We must learn to deal with matters as they are, not as we hope or fear they may eventuate.  We must cope with them as they exist now, today, at this moment.  We must awaken to the fact that the future is already HERE, to be lived in the present.  In short, wake up and live!”
 The final shot in JULIET OF THE SPIRITS is a visual example of Fellini's idea of creating a "virginal availability, an innocence from childhood".  It is a very hopeful shot and has stayed in my memory since I first saw the film in college.

But his films are also about looking back; the puzzling through of the factors that have led to our present conditioning, our inability to take in the present.  Elsewhere he said,  “In three or four of my films, what is constantly repeated is the attempt to suggest to man the process of individual liberation—that is, to trace one’s steps to see where certain dents, certain illnesses started, where the psychological cancers were formed.  In going back personally, individually, as a most private artist reflecting on my walk of life, I seem to recognize a certain conditioning of a pedagogical nature of an education that made me suffer, which obstructed me, made me stop.  My presumptuous nature leads me to think that it would be worthwhile and just to try to do in my films—as an artist does in his books or another artist in the form of expression more congenial to him—to try to identify what this educational conditioning was, in order to attempt to conquer it, to make it harmless so that the error may not be repeated.  I want to suggest to modern man a road of inner liberation, to accept and love life the way it is without idealizing it, without creating concepts about it, without projecting oneself into idealized images on a moral or ethical plane.  I want to try to give back to man a virginal availability, his innocence as he had in childhood….
Here then—8 ½, JULIET OF THE SPIRITS, and even LA DOLCE VITA tried to propose this backward walk, tried to identify the pathologic conditioning.  What are the myths that must be destroyed?  Well, the ideals, the ideals in general.  I think that “the ideal”, the idealized life, the idealized concepts can be extremely dangerous for our mental health, and it is what I try to express in my films.”
In other words, our major obstacle to living in the present is some “ideal” that has been suggested to us as to where we should be as opposed to where we are.  It is an insidious enemy—this thought that where we are presently is not good enough. 
Robert Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl write in their book CONTENTMENT:  “Our society teaches us that the only reality is the one we can hold onto.  It values outer experiences and material possessions.  Accordingly, we look for contentment ‘out there’ and live with a ‘just as soon as’ mentality.  ‘Just as soon as I get my work done, I can relax.’ ‘Just as soon as I get married, I will be content’ or conversely, ‘Just as soon as my divorce comes through, I will be content.’ (etc.) …And so our contentment slips through our fingers like quicksilver—another time, a different place, a better circumstance.”
 The Trevi Fountain scene from LA DOLCE VITA has frequently been the inspiration for advertising campaigns.  Like the character of Marcello, we're encouraged to want to climb in to the fountain with the model.

They go on to write:  “Madison Avenue understands our hunger for contentment and uses it as the basis for modern advertising.  Soup, automobiles, life insurance—any and all things are sold with a promise either of the satisfaction they will bring or the discomfort they will help us avoid.   Advertising infiltrates nearly every corner of modern life, from television and radio commercials to newspapers, magazines, bumper stickers, billboards, park benches, T-shirts, the Internet—even our telephones.  All these messages are designed to manipulate us into craving some product or service.  We are pulled by desires and pushed by fears.  Madison Avenue and the mass media are powerful purveyors of discontent.”
But it need not be this way.  In any moment, we have the choice to embrace what is happening to us right now as an avenue to a deeper self-awareness.  
 The many dreamlike images from Fellini's films have inspired me in my own work.  His movies create no distinction between reality and dreams, between high and low, between the beautiful and the ugly, the pious and profane.

Fellini’s films appeal to me partly because of the way they turn the mundane into poetry.  They capture the fine line between joy and despair.  He never judges his characters for the decisions they make, nor does he try to suggest that their problems are resolved.  Instead his movies portray the inner images that are inspired by their conflicts and the dilemmas of the external world.  He looks at reality, even its ugly parts, but then creates beauty in fantasy and imagination.  His characters are presented with a choice of how to view their circumstances and a choice of how to continue. As one character says to Guido in 8 1/2:  "…You're free but you must learn to choose.   You don't have much time.  And you have to hurry."
 The final sequence of LA DOLCE VITA presents Marcello in a state of ennui, but in 8 1/2 (below) the character Guido celebrates his life by dancing.  Ultimately we each decide the response to our fate.

The end of 8½ is appropriately a dance—in the face of life’s contradictions, what else is there to do?  Every time I see it I also want to dance.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, MY ADVICE...


A friend used to say to me--free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it, which is nothing.  However, that doesn't seem to stop people from asking and I find that I say the same things over and over.  So here goes: my advice here on my blog, where I can direct people to read it when they come knocking...

These are some random thoughts--some specific, some more general--but hopefully some of you will find it some of it helpful.  

I think the most important advice I can give is this:  be clear about what you want to achieve, ask yourself who has achieved THAT, then look for opportunities to politely approach that person or persons (in the proper context-- AND IT'S NOT TWITTER), tell them your goal, and ask him or her to point you in a direction.  I always tell my students--people are busy, so you want to make your request brief and something the person can accomplish for you immediately and with little effort.  Therefore, in my mind, the best request is to ask for the name of one or two other people who you might talk to--most everybody can deliver on that request (and if they can't or won't, then you don't want to be talking to them anyway). Next, follow up with the two people suggested to you and ask the same thing--before you know it you will have a large network of people.  Somewhere along the way there will be someone who will know somebody who is looking for a person just like you, or they'll be interested in you themselves.  (This assumes, of course, that you have the proper training for whatever job you're pursuing.  Don't waste someone's time if you are not prepared for the job you're looking for.  Use the internet to look for educational opportunities.  Any good university these days offers extension classes for any number of types of training.) 

I cannot answer all requests on Twitter and Facebook--but I'm a big believer in the social media and I like the way it democratizes access.  But don't abuse the access and have respect for the context.  If you are asking for information from people you don't know, then ask for information that is appropriate, and in such a way that might benefit others in the social network.  For instance, this would be a good question:  "Can you recommend a good website for someone who wants to get into acting?"  But this question is not:  "Can you get me a part on your show?"  (By the way, my typical response to this latter request is to gently point out that casting directors are listed each week in Daily Variety.  There is a process in the business--learn the process and respect it.  Stop looking for shortcuts.  Also, a good website to check out for those interested in learning about acting, both actors and directors: http://judithweston.com.  She's a wonderful acting teacher and writer of books that are helpful.  Start there.)

I receive a lot of calls and requests from people who are very vague about their goal.  Specificity is the most important thing.  And secondarily, brevity.  I think it is very important to be clear about what you want to achieve--for instance, if you were to say you want to work in TV or movies--that's great, but doing what?  Are you saying you're willing to assist someone or do you only want to be a star? Do you want to start at the bottom, or do you expect to begin at the top?  It's an important distinction, because if you're not willing to start at the bottom, then don't bother calling people.  You should just wait for lightning to strike.  Certainly, there are situations where people move up quickly, but I'm a big believer in the tortoise approach (it worked for me).  Proceed step by step, without discouragement or judgement of your current position.  Play full-out where you are.  

Also, I have never appreciated when someone pursues one type of job, actually hoping for a stepping-stone to another type of job.  If you want to be an actor, then pursue that, and jobs that support that, and will allow you off for auditions and such.  For instance, there is no shame in waiting tables--it's a good, honorable job that allows a would-be actor the time he needs to effectively pursue that goal. Or a part-time job with flexible hours would be good as well.

But there are other jobs that are perhaps not as conducive to that pursuit. I remember hiring an intern when I was an editor (and we quickly put him on full-time payroll), only to find that his goal had nothing to do with learning editorial and everything to do with pursuing an acting career.  While I do believe there is much to learn about acting from studying editing, that did not seem to be what he had in mind--he wanted access that the job didn't appropriately provide.  The job would have been better offered to someone who had a desire to pursue an editing career.

As far as how I built my own career, I moved slowly and I always did the best job I could, wherever I was.  I was, and am, forthright about my own talents.  I make it a point to never be self-deprecating, but I also avoid over-selling myself.  I remain confident as to my ability to do the work as well as anyone else, if i'm indeed prepared, and I don't apologize for what I DON'T know--I just admit to it, without self-judgement.  I never try to bluff people or act like i know more than I do (though that's not entirely true--I did tell a post supervisor, back in the day, that I'd done a film on the AVID in order to get my first AVID job as an editor.  But you'd better be able to back up the lie or you'll be shooting yourself in the foot--I had TRAINED on the AVID, so at least I was ready.)

Elsewhere on this blog, I have suggested several books that are excellent resources about directing, and some of them are also about developing an aesthetic.  As a director, I have a strong aesthetic point of view, and I make clear to my collaborators what I believe, but I'm also willing to change my mind if someone has a better idea.  I WANT and DESIRE that my collaborators tell me honestly what they think.  But the worst kind of feedback is when someone says, "it's not working for me," without being able to articulate why.   So I encourage everyone to hone their own personal aesthetic and be able to explain it--if something is not working for you and you don't know why, then best keep it to yourself.  I think it is very important to have a point of view, whatever your job.  Sometimes that point of view will be welcomed, and sometimes it won't--it's important to learn to read a room, and know when to speak and when not to.  When asked, be honest as to your opinions--but also be kind.  Everyone is doing the best they can with the material they have.  Never dismiss another's point of view in a rude manner, in order to prove yourself.  (In my younger days I wasn't always kind. Those moments, when I wasn't, haunt me.)

Never condescend or be dismissive of anything that you are working on.  I always tell my assistants to find what they love about a job and focus on that.  Being dismissive of the material, or the talent, is unacceptable.  Negativity breeds inferior work.  Every endeavor has its value.  

I think it's important to always look for opportunities to learn more.  Read a variety of books, go to museums, watch foreign films, see theatre, listen to music, watch everything and most of all, watch people.  Be more interested in being the thing that watches and not that which is watched.  Ask people what they do and what they love about their job. Be willing to learn more about that thing that doesn't interest you--just a little more anyway.  If it's interesting to somebody, it's worth learning about.

I try to keep my focus always on the work, the task at hand, and never on my own position or ego.  I take all criticism as constructive--but if the criticism doesn't resonate within my own soul, then I ignore it--within myself, if not in the actual workplace. Sometimes, in this business, EVERYONE has to do what they're told. When I am working for others, and they make a demand, I gracefully (hopefully) give way to their demand, in as much as it's necessary.  But it's important to hold to one's own ideas of what's right, to continue to develop one's own artistic point of view.  If you're asked to do something you think is completely unacceptable, then you should be willing to leave the job.

My partner Davyd likes to say--everything is a yes/no proposition.  Ask the question and don't be disappointed if the answer isn't always yes, just go to the next thing. But participate in life by asking the questions.  

The final most important thing to say is this:  don't get discouraged and don't give up.  People admire persistence and courage--they can't help but pick up on energy that is positive.  And if a dream is worth having, it's worth pursuing in the face of rejection and opposition.  There are many great people who are willing to encourage you along the way.  Look for those people and surround yourself with them.

I sincerely hope this helps those of you who are looking for it.  And remember this quote:



Unless you have prepared yourself to profit by your chance, the opportunity will only make you ridiculous. A great occasion is valuable to you just in proportion as you have educated yourself to make use of it. -- Orison Swett Marden

I welcome comments from others who might have advice to share on looking for work, or websites and educational opportunities that might be useful for people to check out.

  

Friday, November 12, 2010

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PLACE

"And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything." --Shakespeare

There’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for some time, ever since my last post about the Edward Hopper paintings. It’s hard to articulate, but it’s about the importance of place in our psychology, and the degree to which it defines us and gives context to our actions.

My father Ernest Buckley has been gone for over twenty years. I still dream about him though, and I often dream of the house where I grew up—a house he designed. My dad liked to build things—he was an architect and engineer (he worked in the Civilian Conservation Corp out of high school—there’s a terrific documentary about the CCCs at this link).  Our backyard had a series of rock walls that my dad built. Trellises ran along the top of the walls, covered with ivy. On many summer days and evenings, throughout my childhood, I’d lie in a hammock strung between two of these large rock walls, or I’d play in a large stone sandbox that he built for me. Our backyard was the place I felt most myself—the arena of my playing and dreaming.
Now many years later, I frequently find my thoughts going back to my house and my backyard—it lingers in my memory with more specific definition than places I saw just last week. My childhood home defines an ineffable aspect of me that gives meaning to much of my present work (though the house, as we knew it, burned after we moved away. Someone rebuilt it, but it’s no longer the same house—the last time I drove by it I didn’t even recognize it. That thing that defines me no longer exists except in my memory. I have no idea if the rock walls in the backyard are even still standing.)
In his book THE ARCHITECTURE OF HAPPINESS, Alain de Botton writes “There is nothing preternaturally sweet or homespun about the moods embodied in domestic spaces. These spaces can speak to us of the somber as readily as they can of the gentle. There is no necessary connection between the concepts of home and of prettiness; what we call a home is merely any place that succeeds in making more consistently available to us the important truths which the wider world ignores, or which our distracted and irresolute selves have trouble holding on to. As we write, so we build: to keep a record of what matters to us.

Likewise we create films, to keep a record of what matters to us. And films often create psychological states through the use of place. When I think about any specific film that’s had meaning for me, it’s almost always an image that comes to mind--no matter how clever the dialogue, it is the images that linger, that shape my feelings--and oftentimes it’s the place that the characters inhabit that shape that image, and my psychological response to it.
When Michael Powell’s BLACK NARCISSUS crosses my mind, it’s the image of a nun--dressed in white, standing on the edge of a cliff--that emerges from my memory. It’s an image both pleasing and vertiginous. It evokes for me the themes of the movie—commitment to spiritual principles as a balancing act—the hard rock of principle against the green valley of desire, the struggle of spirit and the flesh, the high and the low. The movie is full of images that make me feel that struggle—tracking shots of a nun moving through a room against a mural of lovers and nude women; the small figures of human beings against the enormity of the mountains around them; dissolves and cuts that capture the nature of memory and loss—a woman, thinking of her youth, in a place she loved, then fighting the memory and the loss it represents. 
This is one of the great dissolves in film, concluding Sister Clodagh's memory of her youth.

The film is a remarkable achievement and it’s the architecture of the film that defines the experience for me. There is symmetry to the compositions, and a density of detail, that reinforce the ideas on a visceral level.
David Kehr wrote beautifully about the film: “Powell builds BLACK NARCISSUS as a series of moods created through space and color. He contrasts the boxy interiors and blank walls of the British colonial offices with the curved, multi-leveled, spatially indefinite chambers of the old palace. British certainty and sterility cedes more and more to Eastern mysticism and sensuality; the sister in charge of the vegetable garden can’t help but plant a crop of flowers instead, their exploding primary colors providing a dizzying contrast with the black and white habits of the nuns. Gentle, green hillsides—reminiscent of the Scottish landscapes we see in Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks—suddenly turn into vertiginous canyons when viewed from another angle. The ground literally opens beneath the feet of the characters, inviting them to take the plunge—to abandon their twin faiths, in God and the British Empire, and turn themselves over to more ancient and dangerous powers.”

Likewise REAR WINDOW, probably my favorite Hitchcock film, presents me with a visual template that illustrates its themes: a man peers into his neighbors’ apartments, but what he’s really looking at are components of his own consciousness. The hero’s journey is one of introspection: by studying his neighbors, he learns more about himself—his fear of commitment and his frustration with stasis. The suspense story is almost beside the point—it is just the vehicle to present the character’s psychological development. 
 Each apartment in REAR WINDOW represents some type of relationship, or the lack thereof:  newlyweds; an unhappy couple; a woman hotly pursued by many men; a lonely woman who fantasizes about meeting anyone at all; and assorted others.  The film is only a murder mystery on the surface.  It is actually about the fear of commitment. 

The movie has long been a favorite because it captures my own desire to understand what is going on in the external world, and how that reflects back upon my own experience. The courtyard in REAR WINDOW becomes the container for that exploration, the compartmentalizing of my own thoughts about relationships.

Ingmar Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER similarly affects me by its visual style: Alexander, hiding under a table, imagines that statues move. This reminds me of my own childhood and evokes those feelings—the mystery of hiding in the backyard, or a closet, waiting for the world to reveal itself. 
The film explores Alexander’s consciousness with many dreamlike images that show his shifting frame of mind—his and his sister’s sense of desolation in a white room; the feeling of richness, complication, and mystery in a red one. The production design itself creates the meaning, more than the performances, more than the plot.
The images in FANNY AND ALEXANDER alternate between stark monotones and vibrant color.  Through large sections of the film, Alexander and his sister Fanny are imprisoned in a bleak room, terrorized by their pastor step-father, but there is finally relief in the warm embrace of his grandmother and her extended family.

In Irving Singer’s book INGMAR BERGMAN, CINEMATIC PHILOSOPHER, Bergman is quoted as saying he wanted the film “to move in complete freedom between magic and oatmeal porridge, between boundless terror and a joy that threatens to burst within you.” Singer writes about the film: “The entire plot of FANNY AND ALEXANDER is enclosed within the two ebullient occasions at the outset and the end: one being the Christmas party with its long conga dance of life in which everyone participates, holding on to whoever happens to be in front; the other being the celebration of the birth of two children that includes a dinner served at a huge circular table that looks from above like an enormous halo or festive wreath.” 
This image encapsulates FANNY AND ALEXANDER's theme—life as a banquet of experience, both good and bad.

As I grow older, the films by Yasujiro Ozu have particular resonance for me (there’s too many to name that are among my favorites but here’s a start for the novice: TOKYO STORY, LATE SPRING, EARLY SUMMER, EQUINOX FLOWER). 
 The eloquent final image of AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON--a parent alone, resigned to the inevitable progression of life.

His analysis of family dynamics is unparalleled—he makes the ordinary extraordinary. And he uses places to indicate states of mind: a series of establishing shots will indicate a specific mood; a train shot will indicate transition; a bar will indicate collegiality or loneliness; the home represents comfort and intimacy, and then perhaps isolation.
Bars frequently appear in Ozu's films, as a place where people commiserate or contemplate.  At the end of AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON, a widower stops by for a drink after his daughter's wedding.  The barmaid observes that he's glum and asks if he's been to a funeral.  He answers, "Something like that."

I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from Ozu’s work and particularly his use of negative space. 
 These two images are from the beginning and the end of LATE SPRING.  In the first, the man's daughter greets him as he arrives home.  In the second he returns to an empty house after she has married.

There are scenes which are incredibly moving simply by what is not there—a widowed father returns to his home, after he has married off his only daughter, and the house is empty; an empty kitchen door exists where once two sisters-in-law laughed and talked; a man sits at an empty bar where previously he sat with his friends; a man sits at a concert, the seat beside him empty, while the woman he had hoped would join him walks home on an empty street, deep in thought about their missed connection. 
In this sequence of shots, a man sits alone at a concert after he has been refused by a young woman.  He is juxtaposed with shots of her walking home, wondering perhaps if she's made the right decision.  The fact that the street is empty is significant—it makes the viewer feel something specific about her isolation. Had there been other pedestrians, the character’s inner life would not have come into such stark relief. 

Ozu is famous for his establishing shots--shots which capture a mood and suggest an idea.  The first of these three is but one of a number of train shots in his many films--it suggests transition, inexorable movement into an uncertain future.  The second suggests sadness--a dark, empty house after a daughter has married.  The third prominently displays a Coca-Cola sign, suggesting the westernization of the Japanese way of life.

Michael Atkinson wrote about Ozu: “…Ozu’s methodology in LATE SPRING, which became an almost ritualized discipline in his subsequent films, expresses so much more than mere character and narrative: the famous still-life cutaways (themselves a codex of Zen commentaries and signifiers) and tatami-mat-high point of view; the compressed depth of the family’s rooms (Noriko and company pass in and out of sight through doorways we cannot see, suggesting haunting layers of quotidian complexity); the fastidious commemoration of the uniquely careful Japanese living spaces (that no culture has thought as much about the composition and physical meaning of their own homes is not a point lost on Ozu); the vivid manner in which the architectural precision expresses the controlled tone of relationships. There’s an acute sense of home here, happily inhabited, that is unaccented and yet fuels Noriko’s tragedy.”

As I continue to work as a director I find that my focus has shifted more and more to the spaces that the characters inhabit. One could say that it is the actor’s job to exist in the character, and it is the writer’s job to create the story and to give the actors the words to speak, and it is primarily the director’s job to position the characters and story in a space that creates the emotional effect. How does one determine the audience’s point of view and where? Does one use a medium or wide shot, a tracking shot, or a close shot; a horizon line, the sky, a simple room, color or not, or a high-angle looking down upon a character standing on a ledge ringing a bell, like the nun in BLACK NARCISSUS? What story is being told and what are the different effects that the story allows one to find in its environment? As the director Robert M. Young, one of my mentors, used to say to me—“Where’s the story? Put the camera there.”  This is my maxim when I direct.
On PRETTY LITTLE LIARS I look for the opportunities to capture the mystery of adolescence.

On GOSSIP GIRL I look for opportunities to emphasize the architecture and romance of New York City.

As much as possible, every image should tell a story. If there are people in the frame, their relative positioning tells a story—are they facing each other or away from one another, separated by distance or touching each other? If there are no people, their absence tells another story. 
This is a picture I took of the backyard of my childhood home in 1981, the weekend before we moved, after living there for 23 years.  The yard was overgrown and the walls were completely covered with ivy.  The house itself was falling apart--the balcony had rotten boards and the roof sagged.  But it was such a wonderful place and I still miss it.

If I were to make a film of my own life, the story would start with me sitting next to the rock walls of my backyard—they represent the foundations of my imagination, ideas one upon the next, similar to the construction of the wall, stone by stone.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my dad, standing before the walls he built, next to rose bushes he planted, with one of our dogs and one of our cats. The picture tells a story—the story of a guy who loved to build, who loved to plant, who loved animals. He built spaces that inspired the imagination of his family, particularly this son, and those spaces still exist in my inner world, as vital as many of the films that I love.