Perfectionism or gloss?

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A recent article on the BBC website treads the old, familiar territory of film directors as tyrants. In particular, the piece talks about the habit of some directors – such as Stanley Kubrick, Charlie Chaplin, David Fincher and Ridley Scott – of demanding dozens of takes to get the shot ‘just right’.

The article gently nudges you towards the conclusion that these directors are (or were) perfectionists, dedicated to the purity of their art.

There’s a question that the BBC article doesn’t properly ask, though, and that’s what purpose this obsessive behaviour serves. There’s an assumption that obsession = perfection (at least in the director’s mind). But what do we mean by perfection?

There’s a huge difference between getting the perfect shot in order to add intellectual depth to a scene and getting a flawless take just to add a kind of formal gloss.

My prejudices are going to show now, but in the case of Kubrick – a director I admire very much – I can believe that he was driven by a compulsion to ensure that every detail, every movement and every line of every shot was exactly right in order to convey the full meaning and emotion of the scene.

I’m not at all convinced of this with, say, Fincher. Of his films that I’ve seen, Alien 3, Se7en and Panic Room I enjoyed, and thought them well-crafted, commercial fare. I mean, you wouldn’t call them deep, even though they are sometimes clever. The Social Network offered a little more engagement with character than the others allowed. But Fight Club was, to me, puerile drivel.

So discovering that Fincher is such a ‘perfectionist’ is surprising, because I can’t see that this extra effort adds anything more than a kind of shiny but pointless veneer. Hollywood movies are nothing if not slick – but does that superficial ‘perfection’ mean anything? Does it really add that much (or anything) to the value of the film, other than its marketability as a product?

James Cameron is also quoted as an obsessive, and in his case it seems to me to be more about ego and, again, marketing. I remember reading that, on Titanic, he insisted that the crockery was manufactured by the same firm that supplied it for the original ship. What could that possibly add to the film? Nothing. It’s a gimmick of benefit only to the marketing department, and maybe a nice little story for the DVD extras. In other words, meaningless, Hollywood BS. (Some might consider that last phrase tautological.)

I’m not arguing for sloppiness. Directors should be demanding. The shot must be right. But everything rests on your definite of ‘right’.

And another thing occurs to me – something hinted at but not properly developed in the BBC piece. Maybe those directors who are not doing 50 or 90 takes aren’t being lackadaisical. Maybe they can get away with just a few takes because they are good. So much depends on preparation – with the DP, grips and other technical trades, but mostly with the actors. Perhaps the directors who are the true perfectionists are those who can get the shot on the first take.

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