Sunday, July 9, 2017

How many directors do you recognize?

I was invited to participate in a Facebook event through my Flickcharters group that involved voting on the films of Frank Capra, and it included a picture of Capra as its artwork. This picture, in fact.

It made me realize how few directors I tend to actually recognize, even the important ones.

It's understandable why I might not recognize Capra, as he died in 1991 and looked much older than this in my 18 years of being alive to that point. A bit more shamefully, I have not sought out any old interviews with him or any documentaries that might look into his earlier years (something like Five Came Back, for example).

But it's not just older directors like Capra. Something came up the day before I saw this that prompted me to look up Tom Tykwer, a favorite of mine for having directed two of my top 50 films of all time: Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Tom Tykwer looks like this, but I wouldn't have known it:

Seeing the picture of Tykwer made me realize it was not the first time I'd seen a picture of him. But I clearly had not retained an image of him in my mind, as I couldn't produce this appearance when thinking about him. (And may not be able to the next time I try, either.)

But that's a rather fringe example as well, as Tykwer is not exactly a major director despite working regularly and having prominent examples of good films to his name. A more compelling example is that I have a hard time telling you exactly what Joel and Ethan Coen look like. They directed two films in my top ten (Raising Arizona and Fargo) and are some of the most celebrated directors working today. As you probably know, this is what they look like:

I knew they looked sort of like that -- like, I had the rough outlines of their appearance in my mind. But I guarantee you that if I ran into either of them on the street, I would not know it was them. If they were both together, maybe. If they were being followed by a group of people talking to each other in hushed tones and taking pictures, probably. But one by himself and without any fanfare? Highly doubtful.

It extends to others. Just thinking randomly of some of my favorite films by directors actively working, could I conjure a mental image of Alfonso Cuaron? No, no I could not. (I had a vague one, which I checked just now and was off a bit.) Guillermo del Toro? Closer, but not exact. Then again, I've got a perfect image of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (they are kind of the holy triumvirate of contemporary Mexican directors), but that may just be because he's won two directing Oscars in the past three years.

The point is, there's a strange disconnect for me, and for some other cinephiles I'm sure, between the extent that we revere the artistic exploits of these people and the extent that we'd be able to pick them out of a police lineup.

On some level it makes sense. We are not seeing them in front of the camera. And in the instances where we are, it helps tremendously. No one anywhere who knows anything about film could fail to recognize Orson Welles, for example. Or an example from my own recent viewing experience, Roman Polanski. He has that cameo in Chinatown, but he's the star of the Polanski film I just saw last weekend, The Tenant. Or an even more recent mention on this blog, Kevin Smith.

But if you're only behind the camera, you need to court media attention in some way to be recognizable, and I would say that the Coens do not particularly care for that. Someone like Christopher Nolan, however, is a lot more recognizable because you see him showing up to talk about his work pretty regularity.

I guess I'm not saying anything particularly profound here.

But I do wonder if it points to some kind of deficit in myself as a cinephile. It has occurred to me that although I continue to consume films at a ravenous rate, I may not be rounding out my knowledge of film history the way other cinephiles in my position -- or even more importantly, other critics -- would be. I almost never read about cinema in long form, for example. I read articles that I see posted on Facebook and the like, but I don't choose books on cinema for my next book the next time I'm looking for one. I think of this as a conscious form of counter-programming to my busy viewing schedule, but it means I'm not going in depth on the behind the scenes of these films, which I think is also essential to a well-rounded film education. I mean, most books aren't going to give you a better idea of what a director looks like, but they will create the greater all-around awareness of a person that is symbolized by the superficial element of knowing what they look like.

I won't think too deeply on it.

But I do wish that I had looked at that picture of Frank Capra and said "That's a picture of Frank Capra" and not "Who is that guy? Oh, it must be Frank Capra."

And it was interesting to me how Frank Capra did not look like Frank Capra -- or not how I thought Frank Capra would look, anyway. I think of Capra as a kind of reckless optimist, and this man looks too severe to conform to my preconception of him. Then again, Capra also directly The Lost Weekend so he can be just as dour as this photo implies to me.

What's perhaps worst is that I did not even know he was of Italian descent, another thing I discovered in just briefly looking up something about him now. Not that his descent is even particularly noteworthy, just that it challenges another wrong preconception I had about him, which was that he was born in America. A preconception I wouldn't have had if I had read up on this guy at all.

So, this just strengthens my resolve to do something I should have done a while ago: Make every other book I read be a book on film. Or I should say, at least a book that somehow deepens my understanding and appreciation of film. I guess if you are speaking cosmically you might say that every book does that, but in this case I'm clarifying because it will allow me to keep my planned next book on the docket, which is Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock (after I finish Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native). That'll be a worthwhile cinema-related reading experience as it will give me insight on how a film I love was adapted from its source material.

I'll become a better cinephile, dammit, one book and one director's face at a time.

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