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October 2009
Cinematography for Directors  Online
by Jacqueline B. Frost
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Jacqueline B. Frost’s Cinematography for Directors aims to explore and explain one of the most important partnerships on any set; for the most part, it accomplishes that goal with clarity and intelligence.
Psycho in the Shower  Online
by Philip J. Skerry
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In film professor Philip J. Skerry, the shower scene has found such a writer, a scholar with passion and erudition who somehow manages to find nearly 300 pages worth of new things to say about Psycho. Profoundly intelligent, yet accessible even to non-academic film buffs, Psycho in the Shower is as good a book on Hitchcock as has ever been written — no small achievement given more than 100 such tomes have seen publication since Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol’s Hitchcock’s Films was released in 1957.  
The Cinema of John Sayles  Online
by Mark Bould
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

…there has been little serious attention given to the range of Sayles’ work and the methods by which he communicates his complex ideas about race, gender and class in American society. This makes Mark Bould’s demanding and rewarding book The Cinema of John Sayles an essential volume for anyone interested in the director’s work.

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Cinematography for Directors
by Jacqueline B. Frost
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Jacqueline B. Frost’s Cinematography for Directors aims to explore and explain one of the most important partnerships on any set; for the most part, it accomplishes that goal with clarity and intelligence. Drawn largely from a course Frost teaches at UCLA Extension, the book is a thorough introduction to cinematography that would be of use not only to the directors addressed in the title, but also to beginning camera operators, directors of photography and practitioners in other areas of film production who are interested in the basics of lighting, composition, color and technology. The book is seriously marred by its poor use of illustrations (more on that later), but its flaws are vastly outweighed by its insights, particularly those that come from professional cinematographers Frost interviewed for the book.

Frost begins with an introduction to the relationship between the director and the cinematographer, laying out the basics of a successful collaboration. From there, she divides her book into chapters covering each component of the director of photography’s job, from analyzing the screenplay and lens choice to palette and lighting. There are also sections on cameras, formats and postproduction, with an emphasis on digital technology. Throughout the book, Frost presents her information in clear, concise language that makes this an ideal textbook for introductory courses on both directing and cinematography. Yet Cinematography for Directors offers something more in the form of its interviews and quotations from various sources (including back issues of American Cinematographer); these supplements to Frost’s own text make her book of interest to the advanced professional as well as the student.

Frost interviewed seven top cinematographers for her volume: Richard P. Crudo, ASC; Roger Deakins, ASC; Matthew Libatique, ASC; Daniel Pearl, ASC; Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC; Nancy Schreiber, ASC, and John Seale, ASC. She also interviewed director Donald Petrie. The comments of the interviewees are interspersed throughout the book, providing a running commentary on the topics Frost introduces. The cinematographers’ stories and philosophies are consistently fascinating and provide valuable tips on the collaborative process as well as different approaches to the art of cinematography itself. There are many differences in the interviewees’ methods, especially when it comes to lens choice (some preferring primes to zooms and vice versa) and the pros and cons of digital image capture and postproduction. Frost allows the cinematographers to expound at length on the components of their craft so the reader can understand exactly why they make their choices and how they implement them. She also uses excerpts from other interviews and articles to include even more perspectives, from cinematographers including Wally Pfister, ASC; Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Michael Ballhaus, ASC. The upshot is any director or director of photography using this book can study a wide variety of approaches and choose what makes the most sense for his or her own work.   

Unfortunately, one area in which the book falls short — very short — is in its inclusion of frames taken from the movies under discussion. Hundreds of photos, most of which are images from specific films designed to illustrate the concepts described in the text, could have been a terrific complement to the cinematographers’ words except that, for some reason, a large percentage of the stills are inexplicably distorted. Films shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, like Citizen Kane or Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, are presented in a rectangular format that appears stretched on the page, and stills from wider-gauge movies such as The Graduate are also oddly stretched and/or cropped. It is as though the photos are frame grabs taken from a television that is stuck on the wrong aspect ratio setting — everything is oddly warped, which completely undermines the purpose behind including the illustrations in the first place. How is a reader supposed to study composition and depth of field in images that do not accurately reflect the cinematographer’s original framing? To add insult to injury, often the book uses black-and-white stills to accompany passages about cinematographers’ approaches to color, as in sections on Prieto’s work on 21 Grams or the collaboration between Douglas Sirk and Russell Metty, ASC.

Of course, most of the films Frost references are readily available on DVD, and she includes a list of movies cited at the end of her book so one can easily track them down for further study. She also provides an appendix with the credits of the directors of photography who were interviewed for the book, giving the reader a ready-made home-study course in the art of cinematography. Although some sections of Cinematography for Directors, such as the chapter on high-definition cameras, will date fairly quickly, for the most this is a book that will endure, thanks to its multitude of lessons from the best in the business. A concluding chapter on key partnerships, from Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith to Robert Richardson, ASC, and Oliver Stone, leaves the reader inspired, energized and, it is to be hoped, on the path to finding his or her own creatively fruitful collaboration.

Michael Wiese Productions
$29.95 paperback         

Online Online Exclusive
Psycho in the Shower
by Philip J. Skerry
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Is there anything left to say about the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Possibly the most discussed and contemplated bit of montage in film history (Try Googling “Psycho shower scene” and see how many thousands of links come up.), the scene in which Marion Crane is stabbed to death by “Mrs. Bates” would seem to have revealed all of its secrets over the last 50 years. Yet if there is one thing Hitchcock fans know about the master’s work, it is it always has new rewards to offer. All it takes is additional viewings and writers with new perspectives. In film professor Philip J. Skerry, the shower scene has found such a writer, a scholar with passion and erudition who somehow manages to find nearly 300 pages worth of new things to say about Psycho. Profoundly intelligent, yet accessible even to non-academic film buffs, Psycho in the Shower is as good a book on Hitchcock as has ever been written — no small achievement given more than 100 such tomes have seen publication since Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol’s Hitchcock’s Films was released in 1957.  

Skerry’s contention his book focuses specifically on the shower scene is a bit inaccurate, given the fact he devotes a good number of pages to an analysis of Hitchcock’s technique in the scenes leading up to and following the infamous set piece. Yet that analysis is so thorough and precise no one will care; the author has done the nearly impossible here in finding fresh ways of looking at Psycho’s direction, subtext, and influence. He is especially adept at extracting meanings from the film’s many subtleties of production design and set decoration, and he also devotes a lot of time to the work of cinematographer John L. Russell Jr., ASC. Skerry’s detailed assessment of Russell’s lighting and the ways it suggests both romance and entrapment is thoughtful and accurate and of use to both Hitchcock scholars and filmmakers wishing to emulate Russell’s effects. Skerry’s treatment of Russell’s photography is indicative of his approach as a whole: without denying Hitchcock’s role as the grand conductor of Psycho’s horrific cinematic symphony, he consistently gives credit where credit is due, acknowledging the contributions of Russell, editor George Tomasini and other crew members (many of whom were not credited on the movie’s release prints).

Skerry begins with some background on both his own evolving relationship with Psycho and Hitchcock’s career at the time of its production. His personal anecdotes about encountering the film and other Hitchcock pictures are genuinely illuminating and inform the more objective analysis that follows. That analysis is simply superb, beginning with “Constructing Suspense,” a chapter in which Skerry describes the scenes leading up to the shower scene (often on a shot-by-shot basis) to reveal the ways Hitchcock and his colleagues generated tension through composition and lighting. The author then goes on to a chapter on montage in which he lays out the principles of Hitchcock’s editorial technique, focusing not only on Psycho, but also on classics like Rear Window and Strangers on a Train; he then presents two chapters, “The Evolution of the Shower Scene” and “The Culmination of Suspense and Terror,” which dissect the shower scene specifically (along with similar sequences in earlier Hitchcock movies) and demonstrate how the scene represents the pinnacle of Hitchcock’s art. In all of these chapters, Skerry builds on the critical work that has preceded him, yet takes nothing for granted; he disputes some aspects of the mythology surrounding the shower scene and confirms others, always expanding upon the work of prior scholars with his own conclusions.     

Throughout the book, Skerry intersperses interviews with his commentary: the tome includes conversations with screenwriter Joseph Stefano, actress Janet Leigh, assistant director Hilton Green, sound editor Danny Green and assistant picture editor Terry Williams. All of these interviews are terrific, but the discussions with Danny Green and Williams are particularly valuable; neither man received screen credit on Psycho, and Skerry’s book gives them the respect they have long deserved. More important for the reader, Skerry’s interviews with them provide a wealth of new information regarding the technical aspects of Psycho’s shower scene, particularly the sound design. While Stefano, Leigh and Hilton Green have given extensive interviews elsewhere on the subjects of both Hitchcock in general and Psycho in particular, the chapters devoted to them are fascinating nevertheless, thanks to Skerry’s comprehensive knowledge of Psycho lore and his ability to go beyond the standard questions. Skerry draws new insights out of all of his subjects, no small achievement when dealing with a film as heavily analyzed as Psycho.

Psycho in the Shower ends with an entertaining collection of reminiscences by filmmakers, teachers and non-industry folks talking about their first impressions of the infamous shower scene. It is an amusing epilogue but a bit superficial compared to the rest of the book. The preceding chapters — both Skerry’s critical writing and his interviews — are intellectually rigorous yet extremely enjoyable and involving…much like Psycho itself.

Continuum
$19.95 paperback         

Online Online Exclusive
The Cinema of John Sayles
by Mark Bould
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Writer, director and editor John Sayles is, paradoxically, an independent film icon and one of the movement’s most underrated artists. Although his fierce individuality and integrity have made him a hero to many, the fact his films often deal with social or political issues has led some critics to dismiss him as a mere transmitter of messages rather than a storyteller. The relatively understated nature of his visual style has exacerbated this notion although a close examination of even his earliest, low-budgeted films reveals a sophisticated attention to editing and composition; in any case, the fact he has collaborated with world-class cinematographers including Haskell Wexler, ASC, and Robert Richardson, ASC, ought to dispel the idea he is unconcerned with aesthetics.  

Nevertheless, there has been little serious attention given to the range of Sayles’ work and the methods by which he communicates his complex ideas about race, gender and class in American society. This makes Mark Bould’s demanding and rewarding book The Cinema of John Sayles an essential volume for anyone interested in the director’s work. Bould refuses to rest on the conventional wisdom regarding Sayles (even when said wisdom is coming from the filmmaker’s own interviews), choosing instead to look at the work from a multitude of fresh, always illuminating perspectives. His treatment of Sayles’ oeuvre is different from the typical auteurist study; although he addresses each of the director’s features to date, he approaches all of them in different ways. Just as Sayles has used forms ranging from creature features to period melodrama to express his ideas, Bould employs a wide array of critical approaches when explicating those ideas.

After an introduction in which he establishes the theoretical underpinnings of the text to follow, Bould begins with a consideration of four key films Sayles wrote but did not direct: two Roger Corman genre pictures (Piranha and The Lady in Red), and two subsequent horror movies for the respective directors of those films (The Howling and Alligator). Although Sayles would never deal with such overtly pulpy material as a director (the closest he ever came was with the superficially sci-fi trappings of The Brother From Another Planet), his personal signature is all over these early exploitation movies. Bould’s dissection of the films’ themes reveals an astonishing number of Sayles’ obsessions already fully formed in this apprentice work: Piranha and Alligator deal with instances of environmental crime and corporate malfeasance of the type that would be explored more realistically in Limbo and Silver City, whereas The Lady in Red explores the complex effects of capitalism on individual lives in a manner similar to Matewan, Eight Men Out and other later films.

Given Sayles had found his voice so quickly even under the economic and generic constraints of exploitation filmmaking, perhaps it should not be surprising his debut film as director, Return of the Secaucus Seven, reveals a fully realized artistic sensibility. Bould devotes some of his most intelligent critical thinking to this ensemble character study, which he convincingly argues is proof positive of Sayles’ skill as a visual artist. Breaking key scenes down shot by shot, the author demonstrates how the blocking and cutting convey meaning about the characters’ relationships and either reinforce or complicate what is being expressed in the dialogue. From there, Bould addresses each of Sayles’ movies in chronological order, focusing on different facets of Sayles’ career and style, depending on the film: the lesbian drama Lianna, for example, is discussed in terms of its reception by the gay community; Baby, It’s You is considered as a meditation on the American dream, with particular emphasis given to its pop cultural references, and Passion Fish is analyzed in terms of philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s master/slave dialectic.

This latter example is indicative of the scholarly slant Bould gives to his material, which is also packed with references to Marxist theory, linguistics and naturalist fiction, among other weighty subjects. The connections Bould draws between these concepts and Sayles’ films may prove difficult for less academically inclined readers, but they are appropriately chosen, and readers willing to put in the work Bould asks will see a great deal more in Sayles’ work than they did before picking up the book. This is as true of the director’s role in film history as it is of his persona as a political artist, for as heavy as Bould’s analysis is on cultural and academic traditions, he is also quite adept at placing Sayles’ individual works in context amongst other films. Whether it is examining Silver City (2004) as an offshoot of 1970s paranoid political thrillers like The Conversation and The Parallax View or describing the immigration-themed sci-fi movie The Brother From Another Planet as the precursor to Independence Day and Men In Black, the author consistently finds unique but completely accurate ways of categorizing Sayles’ work within the broader framework of cinema history. The fact each of the 19 works Bould covers can stand up to scrutiny from a completely different perspective is a testament to Sayles’ breadth as an artist; it is also indicative of the intellectual rigor of Bould himself, a critic who proves worthy of his impressive subject.

Wallflower Press
$25.00 paperback         

Online Online Exclusive