Thoughts on contemporary directing 

23 June 2023

Exhibition poster for "Passage to Marseille" (1944)

Exhibition poster for “Passage to Marseille” (1944)

One of the more controversial techniques of the middle years of cinema was the use of the flashback. Commentators fretted that jumping out of continuity would confuse audiences, and indeed there were times when the order in which scenes were edited together set something of a challenge to those watching. Michael Curtiz’ 1944 drama Passage to Marseille, for instance, presented a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. “Where are we now?” the audience was apt to enquire.

Nobody talks of flashbacks now, because nothing is so simple. Since the general collapse of chronology as the narrative norm in movies and teledrama, there is rarely a fixed “now” on which the traffic of the story is based, rarely anything as specific and narrow as a flashback. Audiences are usually taken on a switchback of timescales, locations and sensibility points-of-view that take no hostages. Directors and scriptwriters no longer present any kind of diligent analysis of the events of the story; rather, they splash a generalised impression across the screen, from which different members of the audience will derive different elements depending on their attention span and the speed of their reactions as well as their own sensibilities.

The irony is that in the first half-century of cinema, when movies were readily comprehended stories largely told chronologically, audiences saw them in cinemas or, as they’re called in the States, theaters. They watched the stories projected onto progressively larger screens initially with live music and later with amplified dialogue and sound as well as music. They sat in the dark and their entire focus was on the screen; talking through or over-reacting to the action was roundly frowned upon. But then movies began to be shown on television, at around the same time that drama made for television swelled in ambition. And the much smaller television image, though it too grew larger as the years passed, was surrounded by distractions. Few watched in the dark. There was no one to complain if they talked save other (often less influential) members of the family. Their eyes were caught by other things: their children, their food, their pets, latterly their phones. Nearly seventy years ago (earlier in the States and elsewhere), transmission of movies and teledrama as well as everything else began to be interrupted by advertising – well named as “commercial breaks” because they broke the viewer’s concentration. As channels proliferated, so ad breaks grew longer and more and more screen furniture was added to the image to keep the channel ID in view and to promote that channel’s output. Balefully, many channels added a promotion of the next programme to the screen as the movie or drama drew to a close, often damaging the emotional impact of a climactic scene.

And so the audience grew less concentrated on the director’s and writer’s art at the same time that the work that those artists produced became more testing to follow. Even when some guidance about leaving the timeframe or location of the present part of the story is provided on screen – “six years before”, “eleven weeks later”, “meanwhile in Istanbul” – large portions of the audience will be looking intently at their pizza or scrolling through their texts and will miss the crucial information. That dissolve from a child actress to a grown-up that is the only indication that time has passed but this is the same character slipped by while the audience was busy pouring out a beer or pushing the dog off the sofa. And the broadcast has been on pause so long while the viewer went to the loo or made a round of teas that the name of the character just introduced is lost in the mists of time by the time the pause button is released, and the viewer then has no idea who is being referred to when the name comes up five minutes later in the dialogue, half an hour later in the viewing.

The second-by-second cutting that is the standard mode in contemporary cinema and that at least informs teledrama is testing on the concentration in the picture house, let alone in the domestic setting. Along with the development of sound recording so as to present a supposedly “realistic” impression of ambient noise, voice and atmos, contemporary drama on screen demands a high level of engagement. Older viewers are more apt to be affected by post-Method uninterest in enunciation, but you don’t need to be old to find the pressure to keep up can be wearing and can start to turn one away from movies and dramas that look likely to be more assault course than diversion.


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Liverpool, Thursday 18 July 2024