Thursday, 21 January 2010

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The 10 Best Directors in Hollywood (This is a guest post by Ben Shapiro, the esteemed author of, among other things, "The Top 5 Conservative Characters on the First Episode of The Wire.") This is for all those people who read my list of the most overrated directors and demanded to know who my ten favorite directors were. Here they are: 8. David Zucker wrote and directed An American Carol, which made fun of Michael Moore. 7. The movie United 93, because the truth is that the story itself is conservative. Americans didn’t apologize for foreign entanglements or the American way of life on Flight 93—they just rolled. The movie is almost a documentary, so it might as well have directed itself. 6. Michael Bay is hated by snobs who hate fun, but The Island hated on stem cell research and that makes him a great director. 5. Ramón Menéndez, whose direction of Stand and Deliver proves the same thing the film does: not all Mexicans are worthless. 4. The guy who directed Taken, the film that proves that the French approach is never the correct approach because the French always suck. 3. Despite later directing a film about rap, which is crap, Curtis Hanson also directed L.A. Confidential, which teaches us not to worry about Miranda because the ends always justify the means. 2. George P. Cosmatos pretended to direct films like Tombstone and Rambo: First Blood Part II, both of which brilliantly depict morally unambiguous worlds in which the good guys always were white and the enemy is always appropriately caricatured. 1. John Milius, the genius behind Red Dawn, is a cinematic genius because his work appeals to my ideological preconceptions and is genius. Just look at that picture? How could he not be a genius?
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A first stab at the visual rhetoric of Mad Men Does it strike you as odd that someone writing a book on visual rhetoric has produced two long posts about a television show noted for the sophistication of its formal and compositional elements without addressing them? Me too. Time to rectify that. No contemporary television show employs a quieter camera than Mad Men. Its disdain for the Law & Order version of cinematic realism that reached its apogee (or nadir) in Cloverfield is palpable: the camera frames scenes from multiple fixed positions and the shots are spliced together at a pace designed to have a soporific effect on anyone born after 1980. The framing and the pacing are a deliberate homage to the films of the period represented on the show. Though it may seem natural to direct a series set in the early 1960s in the same mode Douglas Sirk shot films in the 1960s, it is anything but. Most films that aim to be realist depict the past in the dominant contemporary realist mode: Saving Private Ryan looks realistic to us because it panders to what we think looks realistic. Had Spielberg directed it in accordance with the realism regnant in 1942 the film would have looked dated. I point out the obvious here only to highlight the deliberateness of the decision to shoot Mad Men like a Sirk film (from the staid framing to the odd lighting and colors so saturated that even the most mundane act acquires the air of a particularly vivid dream). Mad Men is a show that depicts the seedy underbelly of the early 1960s in the style used in the early 1960s to hide its seedy underbelly. (It's not for nothing that it took two decades for critics to get that Sirk was being ironic.) The effect is unsettling: the visuals create the expectation that none of the unseemly stuff will appear on screen and then it does. Repeatedly. Peggy hits on men in bars. Peter forces himself on his neighbor's au pair. Sal accepts the advances of a randy bellboy. Joan is raped by her husband. The consequences of these events are seemingly contained by their framing: as if nothing truly terrible can come of something truly terrible because the shot is so tidily composed. One quick example from the last episode I watched. Peter and Trudy sit on the couch trying to decide whether to attend the wedding of his boss's daughter the day after President Kennedy has been shot and Peter learned of his humiliating demotion: Here is Peter petulantly declaring his intention not to attend the wedding in a medium long shot. The lighting is three-point but naturalistic: the large window behind him picks him out of the background, but the fill light to his left results in deep shadows on his face because a dim black-and-white television set is functioning as the key light. Given that the fill light is supposed to diminish the shadows created by the key light, the fact that it is responsible for...

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