Mamet on Comics

Somewhere I read about (playwright, screenwriter, director) David Mamet’s book On Directing Film (Viking, 1991) in relation to comics: a brief quote that intrigued me. I no longer remember where I read this, but I did get the book from the library. It’s a slim collection based on lectures Mamet gave at Columbia in 1987. I’m just going to offer a few excerpts with some (probably obvious) comments on how I see the relation to comics.

Most American directors approach it [what’s the scene about, where do I put the camera] by saying, “let’s follow the actors around,” as if the film were a record of what the protagonist did.

Now if the film is a record of what the protagonist does, it had better be interesting. That is to say, this approach puts the director in a position of shooting the film in a novel way, an interesting way, and he or she is constantly wondering, “what’s the most interesting place to put the camera to film this love scene? what’s the most interesting way I can shoot it plainly?…

That’s the way most American films are made, as a supposed record of what real people really did. There’s another way to make a movie, which is the way that Eisenstein suggested a movie be made. This method has nothing to do with following the protagonist around but rather is a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience. This is a fairly succinct rendition of Eisenstein’s theory of montage; it is also the first thing I know about film directing, virtually the only thing I know about film directing.

You always want to tell the story in cuts. Which is to say, through the juxtaposition of images that are basically uninflected. Mr. Eisenstein tells us that the best image is an uninflected image. A shot of a teacup. A shot of a spoon. A shot of a fork. A shot of a door. Let the cut tell the story. Because otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you have narration. If you slip into narration, you are saying, “you’ll never guess why what I just told you is important to the story.” It’s unimportant that the audience should guess why it’s important to the story. It’s important simply to tell the story. Let the audience be surprised. (1-2)

*

The job of the film director is to tell the story through the juxtaposition of uninflected images–because that is the essential nature of the medium. It operates best through the juxtaposition, because that’s the nature of human perception: to perceive two events, determine a progression, and want to know what happens next. (60)

*

Where do you put the camera? We did our first movie and we had a bunch of shots with a hall here and a door there and a staircase there.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one might say, “if we could get this hall here, really around the corner from that door there; or to get that door here to really be the door that opens on the staircase to that door there?” So we could just move the camera from one to the next?

It took me a great deal of effort and still takes me a great deal and will continue to take me a great deal of effort to answer the question thusly: no, not only is it not important to have those object literally contiguous; it is important to fight against this desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shorts, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera “there” and photograph, as simply as possible, that object. It we don’t understand that we both can and must cut the shots together, we are sneakily falling victim to the mistaken theory of the Steadicam. (74)

*

In the old cartoons, the artists realized the essence of the theory of montage, which is that they could do whatever the heck they wanted. It wasn’t any more expensive to draw it from a high angle or a long angle. They didn’t have to keep the actors late to draw a hundred people rather than one person, or send out for that very expensive Chinese vase. Everything was based on the imagination. The shot we see in the film is the shot the artist saw in his imagination. So if you watch cartoons, you can learn a great deal about how to choose shots, how to tell the story in pictures, how to cut. (80)

Reading these passages (and the more in-depth discussion that follows), I found it hard to not think about comics. Juxtaposition of images? That’s comics, too. What’s interesting here is Mamet’s use of Eisenstein’s theory of montage. “Uninflected cuts” makes me think of the aspect-to-aspect transitions that is popular in some manga. The sense of forming a whole from parts.

For some reason Mamet’s words exhilarated me with the possibilities for more indirect comics narrative. Not “following the protagonist” but telling a story with more objects and people and parts and… cuts. Why try to set up an “establishing shot” of a scene when you can show the important parts without concern for fitting it all together. I’m not talking here about leaving narrative behind, but rather making narrative in some different way.

This all came as a kind of antidote to much of the advice in McCloud’s Making Comics. His concern for human stories and facial expressions and immersing the reader in an environment and the realist mode is here shattered by Mamet into a million cuts/panels (the facial expression thing comics up when Mamet talks about actors, which I am not excerpting). The one quote about perception also reminds me of McCloud’s closure.

It’s a happy coincidence that the book I read after this was Dash Shaw’s Mother’s Mouth. Shaw uses of juxtaposed image in a skillful way that adds meaning over the course of the reading and rereading of the book. More on that when I review it next week.

(Odd note: Mamet wrote a screenplay with Shel Silverstein called Things Change. I just noticed it in the “other works by” at the front of this book.)