Friday, 28 September 2007

Lessons on Filmmaking - Book Review by Emma J. Lennox

With hundreds of new students embarking on film and media studies courses across this country this time of year, Montage writer Emma J. Lennox takes a look at an influential title that belongs on their reading list...

Author: Alexander Mackendrick
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Price: £24.99
Out Now

With media courses on the increase, book shops are a mine field of unqualified guides to film-making. It seems like anyone with a bit part on Hollyoaks knows how to 'make it' in the media industry and are impatient to let everybody know about it. For the serious film student, however, a book which should adorn every lecturers list of recommended readings is Alexander Mackendrick's Lessons on Film-making. The book is a commemorative collection of Mackendrick's lesson hand outs from his time teaching at the Cal Arts film department in Los Angeles. It's £25 price tag is just a snip of the $22,000 per year university tuition fee and Mackendrick's teachings will make it seem like you're receiving the education you've always expected.

Mackendrick's personable style of writing is enjoyable to read and his will to engage with students is sincere. For instance, he will not hesitate to reference his own experiences, even bad ones, if it will help clarify matters to his students. More than lessons on film making, the book imparts a sense of the man and his work, as a film maker and a tutor. Known as a craftsman rather than an auteur, Mackendrick developed his career in the British studio system of the 40s and 50s. He first attracted attention at Ealing studios for his economic script doctoring skills, (reducing twenty-five pages of dialogue to one page of “Mmm-mm” inflections.) Mackendrick soon worked his way up to director and is best known for the original (and best) The Ladykillers (1955). Mackendrick is interested in the collaborative process of film making, as taught him by the studio, and his interest in all aspects of the process including script writing, editing and working with actors, are adeptly exposed, sometimes with neat hand drawn diagrams. As one of Mackendrick's traits is skillful exposition, it is not surprising he is just as precise to his students.
Technology may have progressed since his film making days, but the art of storytelling has retained the same principles for centuries. It is Mackendrick's belief that a thorough understanding of these can only contribute to a film maker's mind. Mackendrick stresses the point that to subvert and develop art, there should be an understanding of the structures which formed it. References from all parts of culture abound in the footnotes; Henrik Ibsen, Samuel Beckett and Sophocles represent theatre. Far from being obsolete, the lessons drawn from these sources create neat phrases which Mackendrick encourages his students to stick on their 'screen writers wall' for a permanent reminder. So remember: 'passivity is a capital crime in drama,' 'actions speaks louder than words,' and 'student films come in three sizes: too long, much too long and very much too long.'

The collection of his lesson notes are testimony to Mackendrick's passion for film making and for teaching. But as Martin Scorcese mentions in the foreword all these lessons are 'worth nothing without practice.' After reading these lessons you'll need no more encouragement than that.

No comments: