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A Tribute to Sidney Lumet

Posted on April 13, 2011 at 12:41 AM



A Tribute to Sidney Lumet


As I debated in the first few years of college of what career path I would be taking, I, perhaps out of boredom or even just to be sporadic and throw my parents off, decided to take a course on film. Early, entry-level courses were pretty basic, so I took a second one alongside it - film narrative.


"Film Narrative" was a course where, in a smaller setting of only about 30 or so students, we would look at the elements of how a film can tell a story. From early silent film and the completely use of visuals, to how audio would come into play (I remember looking at the classic Lang picture, M, and paralleling the use of audio in that film with the use of shadows in Reed's The Third Man). The course wasn't just about that, though. It was also about the how directors approach filmmaking. One of the course required-readings was a little book by Sydney Lumet: Making Movies.


A simple title, but a very in depth and candid memoir by a legendary director - a director that, if you mention his name to a regular moviegoer, probably will say "Never heard of him." No, he doesn't have the notoriety of a Kubrick of the flash of a Spielberg, but if you look at the history of his career, he's rarely missed in the film's he's provided us.


Making Movies was the second book about film I ever read (the first being just a history of film) and the first memoir/biography/autobiography I read. I was 20 years old: the perfect age to have absolutely no idea what to do in life and be open to just about anything and everything that you come in contact with. Here, I had no idea...and was open to one little book about making movies that showed the passion, love and frustration in simply making a film and telling a story. Through this book, I realized how passionate, in love and sometimes frustrated I was in my own approach to art and my own love of film.




"All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen."


But this is not a Tribute to a book. If you haven't read it, do so. There's only a handful I would consider on par with it. No, this is about the writer of said book, Sidney Lumet, who passed away over the weekend. As I mentioned, amongst lover of film, Lumet was a staple. Amongst the lay-person, and there's nothing wrong with being a lay-person of course, you'd have to list off some films before they say "Oh...he did that movie?"


Yes, he did the crime classic, Serpico and another Pacino starrer, Dog Day Afternoon (still considered one of the greatest bank robbery films ever made). He made some classics with Henry Fonda as well: 12 Angry Men, Stage Struck and Fail-Safe. With Murder on the Orient Express, he brought to life one of the greatest detectives in literature and made a difficult story to film leap with life. A few of his more under-rated films, The Hill and The Pawnbroker are personal favorites, are set up against classics such as Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Fugitive Kind. Most, though, look at Network as his master-work. It's hard to argue that. The film is decades old yet every bit as relevant today...hell, it's probably more relevant than ever as it single-handedly showed how network news would be; more about opinion, showmanship and entertainment than delivering "fair and balanced" news.


His films, often, shared a common theme. Usually it was a conflict against establishment, something Lumet always found appealing to portray on screen. His films were often about challenging a system, such as Serpico's crooked cops or Robert's brutal guards. Some of his films were daring dealing with pain and torment, such as Nazerman's past with Nazi's in The Pawnbroker (the first American film to really tackle the subject of The Holocaust) and how if impacts his life now in today's society. Visually, he took a very neo-realist approach. In fact, much of his career could be paralleled to that Italian style: real locations, real places over sets, natural light, amateur and/or non-actors surrounding the stars.




"There`s no such thing as a small part. There are just small actors"


Despite my praise for the director, it comes at a bit of irony. The reason why Lumet never got as much attention is because he himself never bought completely into the whole "auteur" theory. He completely viewed filmmaking as a group project, with one hand washing the other, and never set out to bring attention to himself in the first place both off screen and on it. He didn't quietly, grabbed up those Oscars, and managed to get some amazing (often career-defining) performances from his actors. That's because Lumet himself started out as an actor, and if there's anything the likes of an Eastwood or Redford have shown us, it's that actors-turned-directors consistently have reputations of being great to work with and get the best out of their cast in the process.


He was an artist, but didn't take the spotlight. To him, the work spoke for itself. The scenes he would create and set up are given the most attention one could ask. Me describing it doesn't do much, so let's take a look at a scene from The Hill, a great prison-drama starring Sean Connery (beginning around the six minute mark).


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The construction of this scene is one of beauty, from foreground to deep-focus, every angle and every shot is thought out. Notably, the 360 degree shot as our resident villainous Staff Seargent Williams, almost gleefully, strolls around in a circle and looks at all the prisoners around him. Take not of this short. It’s low angle (actually in the floor) and pointing up to Williams. Williams is a man of authority. He’s the guy in charge. A low angle shot upward towards him is often used to show power or prominence on screen. Yet, look at all those around him; all looking down on him at the same time. There’s a lot that is said in the world of film than simply dialgoue, and more thought put into scenes than merely how to light it or where to stand. Lumet was a master at this.


Now, let's look at Network where we have a very pivotal scene:


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Literally...a spotlight turns on. Here you have a long table separating two very, very different ideologies, portrayed by Ned Beatty and Peter Finch. Beatty is shot surrounded by sharp angles and perfect lines, from low angles as well to showcase his authority. Finch, though, has just his little screen, and a higher angle (perhaps more eye-level) to show how alone he feels at that particular moment. Beatty has an office where all the lights are perfectly aligned, the table nice and glossy and one signle light shining on him. Finch...is alone. Other than the opening shot, they never share the same screen as Beatty begins to rant. As Beatty brings his brilliant monologue to a close, he steps out of the light and into the darkness, delivering the most poignant and darkest part of his speech. He comes to Finch’s side of the table, lowers his voice to almost hypnotic and believable sincerity...but it’s more malice hidden by comfort.


That, folks, isn’t somehow happenstance. A director, usually, doesn’t just stick a camera out there. They decide, with the help of the Director of Photography of course, how the image can tell the story as well. Some do this better than others and Lumet was a master at it, a master that, perhaps, didn’t give himself enough credit in the process.




"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing."


Maybe that's why I've always found Lumet so appealing. He's an artist. He knows he is. However, his humbleness in a career that certainly didn't need him to be humble or notorious is such a rare thing that I found myself drawn to his work and his book. He tackled dramas, almost exclusively. His subject matter ranged from the very personal individual to tell a story, a larger socio-economic scope. He could make a scene of pure dialogue flow and engage without needing to become overly melodramatic...and even if it did you rarely noticed because by that point you were so invested in the story and characters. He kept things level, real and appealing to a wide audience and never turned preachy unless it called for it (such as Finch's outburts in Network).


Lumet was an artist, yes, but I've always viewed him as more an architect. He could build and structure a great film from the ground up that was an absolute solid piece of work. It wasn't covered in marble and chrome, but was a sturdy and solid work...and that in itself was what made him an artist. He seemingly did it with ease, but was obsessive of getting it just right (noted for extensive rehearsals) and knew exactly how to play out every scene to film. He didn't hide himself in a room to do this, though. He was involved with every facet and would befriend many of the people he worked with, which is why so many people wanted to work with him. He wasn't merely a great director, but a damn good man who just loved his job. Despite that, he never earned an individual Oscar, but some of the greatest directors never did. Their names will last far longer than a gold statue.


I still have my original copy of Making Movies, sitting on my shelf next to various other film books from Cinema Nation to Journalism AP stylebooks. It's worn, dogtagged and the cover is faded from when I'd sit outside around campus and read some of my favorite chapters. Flipping through it now, I'm noting some various underlines and highlights I did, such as:


"The mutual trust is the most important element between the actor and me."


"...the theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie). ....I work from the inside out."


"When sitting at rushes, watching yesterday's work, the greatest compliment we can give each other is, "good work. We're all making the same movie." That's style."


Various others remind me of one last thing: style. Sometimes people put too much stake in that and forget that the real style should just be to create a great film. We can call out a Kubrick style or a Coen style, but Lumet wasn't a showman and didn't look at it that way. His style was more internal, the meat of the picture, than various camera usages and lighting.


Sometimes, we film fans can put too much stake in a style and forget the basic craft of it all.


Sidney Lumet was entirely about the craft, creating some of the finest dramatic films ever made. No, the average person may not know his name as well as others, but they probably know his films...and that's a lasting legacy that any filmmaker asks for.


That, and perhaps a damn good book making impressions on generations to come.



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2 Comments

Reply Mikal 5
11:31 PM on April 13, 2011 
Very nice tribute to an excellent director. I've only seen his three (probably) most popular movies in "Serpico" "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network" and all three fit exactly what he said in that book about theme creating style, at least form what an amateur like me could notice.

Basically, the style of each film fit with the story that was being told. "Dog Day Afternoon" felt very direct in it's story-telling approach, "Serpico" was focused in on the title character and felt very much like a singularly focused film (though my memory may be hazy. I saw it at 2 am a year ago) and "Network" felt appropriately over-the-top and ridiculous, which is fitting for a quasi-parody.

Very well done JC. I look forward to more of your work.
Reply J. Conrady
12:58 AM on April 14, 2011 
Mikal 5 says...
Very nice tribute to an excellent director. I've only seen his three (probably) most popular movies in "Serpico" "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network" and all three fit exactly what he said in that book about theme creating style, at least form what an amateur like me could notice.

Basically, the style of each film fit with the story that was being told. "Dog Day Afternoon" felt very direct in it's story-telling approach, "Serpico" was focused in on the title character and felt very much like a singularly focused film (though my memory may be hazy. I saw it at 2 am a year ago) and "Network" felt appropriately over-the-top and ridiculous, which is fitting for a quasi-parody.

Very well done JC. I look forward to more of your work.


Thanks for the comment, Mikal. I always appreciate it. Lumet really did change his style so well. In some postmodern sense, I suppose not having one direct style is a style all its own.

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