I think I was maybe 12 when I first saw Citizen Kane. Here’s what I knew going in: Orson Welles had been the voice of the Shadow in my brother’s beloved collection of old radio shows, and a lot of people thought Citizen Kane was the greatest movie ever made. (Oh, and thanks to Peanuts, I knew what “Rosebud” referred to.) By the end, I was baffled: it was good, sure, but why “greatest”? It was years before I learned that “greatest movie ever made” was not simply synonymous with “greatest story ever put on film.” The greatness, I gathered, had to do with the telling as well as the tale.
I thought of that distinction when I read this exchange between my co-critic, Mr. Marks, and a regular Reader commenter in the comments following our dueling reviews of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. I glommed on to a story that showed Jane Austen with her claws out while Scott complained not once but twice about the poor lighting. Here’s what followed, slightly abridged:
Joaquin de La Mesa: Good story and good acting trump bad lighting, do they not, Mr. Marks?
Scott Marks: Bad lighting = bad storytelling as far as I’m concerned.
JDLM: Oh, come now, Marks. There is a hierarchy among the aspects of moviemaking. You may argue with this, but I would offer this as a working list: (1) story, (2) writing/adaptation of that story, (3) acting, (4) direction, (5) photography, (6) lighting, (7) costumes/sets, (8) music, (9) effects. Story is the sine qua non. Without it, no amount of the other items on the list can redeem the film. But good story can make up for a lot of deficiencies in the items lower on the list. All of those items serve the story, not the other way around.
SM: (1) Directing, (2) cinematography/lighting, (3) production design, (4) writing, (5) editing, (6) acting, (7) story.
There have been masterpieces made without a story (Un Chien Andalou, The Limits of Control, Yolanda and the Thief), actors (Walt Disney, Looney Tunes, etc.), good acting (Written on the Wind, John Gavin in Psycho), spoken dialogue (anything made prior to 1927), music (The Birds, His Girl Friday), and cinematography (Pink Flamingos). Every one of the films I mentioned have one thing in common: a vision. It’s usually the director’s, but I can think of examples where the cinematographer is the auteur (Divine Madness, the original version of The In-Laws). Same for the screenwriter (The Best of Times), the editor (High Noon), and the production designer (anything by William Cameron Menzies). Other than comedies, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a great film that’s badly directed.
Acting and story are the least of my worries. I know exactly what Mr. Hitchcock meant when he famously referred to all actors as “cattle.” Sure, a great performance will always add to the overall power of a film, but it’s how the director moves them around the screen that excites me. And aren’t there only seven basic plots? Story be damned! I’m in it for storytelling, not taking pictures of people talking, something Whit Stillman excels at.
JDLM: “Story be damned! I’m in it for storytelling.” That’s like looking at Michelangelo’s Pietà only to admire the chisel work and polishing, which would be to grossly miss the point of the sculpture, specifically to capture the poignant moment of a mother holding the body of her dead son.
Storytelling is the craft, the point of which — as the compound word suggests — is the story. House-building is a noble craft, but the completed house is the point, right? A lot of masterful skill could go into the carpentry, plastering, tiling, etc, but if it’s a poorly designed house, it’s all for naught. I’ve got more analogies, if necessary.
SM: Mel Brooks’s To Be or Not to Be is a virtual shot-by-shot, word-for-word remake of the Lubitsch original. One is a masterpiece, the other a snooze. Why? Because one was the work of a master storyteller, the other a Mel Brooks comedy. It’s all about the storytelling. And as Jean-Luc Godard said, “If you want craft, make a chair.”