There were quite a few famous filmmakers visiting Dublin in October, and I had the opportunity to encounter four of them: David Lynch, John Landis, Stephen Frears and Christopher Doyle.
The first, most essential, undeniable attraction of meeting a well-known filmmaker is to say that you have; to acquire the absurd (but in this absurd culture, palpable) validation of oneself that association with anyone of public recognition provides. Their quality as an artist doesn’t always matter, nor does the quality of the encounter; what matters is the symbolic value of a direct association with those who are, for most of us most of the time, impenetrably mediated and distant. The second is the perceived educational aspect; that someone of talent will be able to impart some wisdom that will enable you to approach that level of talent in your own work. The third is the opportunity to look at the person—their personality, behaviour, thoughts, sense of humour—in relation to their work, and see how their nature does or doesn’t correspond to the nature of their work.
The first is the most consistent motivation and benefit of the guest lectures, Q&As and other public appearances of famous filmmakers common within Irish film culture, and no doubt most others. It’s also complete bullshit. The second is very, very rare. The third, though often an unwitting side effect, is usually the most interesting from a critical (ie not unthinking) perspective. Lynch, Landis, Frears and Doyle lived up to these attractions to varying degrees.
Trinity College presented Lynch as part of a double bill event with (don’t get me started on) Donovan, promoting Transcendental Meditation®. Lynch wasn’t invited by the science or religion (or marketing) departments, however—he was a guest of film studies; their assumption presumably being that having a famous filmmaker at your college is an unequivocally good thing: even if all he talks about is diving into the deep inner blissful peace of which we are all made, you still get press with his name and the department in the same sentence. As it turned out, however, the David Lynch Foundation (Lynch’s organisation for promoting TM® and on whose behalf he does these talks), seemed to be aware of the corollary of that: even if all Lynch talks about is his movies, they still get press with Lynch and Transcendental Meditation® in the same sentence.
So we got somewhere inbetween: rather than a structured talk, Lynch’s entire presentation was an open Q&A in which, the president of the DLF (an almost stereotypically Lynchian-looking oddball) made clear in his introduction, he would answer anything. Really, the questions and answers are barely worth going into—a mixture of basic film and TM® matters that you’ll get in any online interview with the man—but what was fascinating was observing Lynch live in action. Two things are usually apparent from interviews with Lynch: a tacit reluctance and/or inability to make explicit or articulate any particular meaning, intent or philosophy behind his work, and a really engaging and charming style of avoiding doing so. But the thing that becomes clear seeing Lynch as a public speaker is how able he actually is. One might imagine that someone who’s unable or unable or unwilling to discuss his art would not be much of a public speaker, but Lynch knows how to hold a crowd masterfully, garnering laughter, applause or hushed silence when needed. Even his obfuscations have an elegance that make them totally forgivable (refusing to answer a question of which was his favourite of his own films, he said his films are like his children and simply implored: “look at their little faces!”)
It’s all a performance, of course, whether instinctive or carefully calculated, and though his oratorial style may give the impression of someone spacey, intuitive and impractical, anyone who’s seen anything of the recent Lynch documentary has seen Lynch the director knowing exactly what he wants and how to get it. Which is, in a veiled way, exactly what Lynch the public speaker shows us: for all his vagueness, Lynch’s charm and presence and the measured way in which he uses it leaves you with no doubt that this is someone capable of inspiring, leading, and getting people to do whatever he wants, however crazy it might seem. In fact, if it wasn’t for Donovan’s cringeworthy, lecherous performance that followed Lynch’s talk, I probably would have considered checking out TM®. This doesn’t really tell us much about his work, but it does give us some indication of how he makes it; how he has managed to make films of such a radical and transgressive nature on such scales, with such collaborators and such acclaim. If David Lynch told you to jump off a bridge, you’d do it.
John Landis knows how to put on a show too. Giving a morning lecture to students at the National Film School, and looking uncannily like a math teacher in his cheap suit and tie, Landis gushed with an unabashedly geeky enthusiasm for all things movies. His thoughts on cinema were wide-ranging, entertaining and funny—unfortunately, they were also really really stupid. The director of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) asserted again and again that originality is an impossibility in cinema, that everything’s already been done. It’s typical American strawman thinking and it’s almost not worth debunking if only it wasn’t so widespread and so dangerous. So here goes: If one equates cinema with conventional narrative storytelling and nothing else, then, given that there are a limited number of archetypal variants in conventional narrative, everything has been done. Likewise, if one equates American filmmakers with American filmmakers who dress like math teachers, American filmmakers are really really stupid.
Stephen Frears does not know how to put on a show. Stephen Frears isn’t even able to sit comfortably in a chair in front of other people. Taking part in another National Film School event, this time in the form of an evening public interview, Frears was, despite his awkwardness, humble, unassuming and invariably as interesting as the questions he was asked (that is to say, sometimes, sometimes not). Let’s not mince words: Frears is a gun-for-hire, and makes no claims for auteur-ship or anything else. He says he never pursues a project, preferring instead to pick from whatever scripts come in the door, and considers his role in the process as more of an intermediary or overseer than a creative agent in any kind of central way. I don’t usually have any time for Frears or his “kind”, but I couldn’t help but respect his understanding of his own position and the apparently genuine modesty with which he approached it. His approach to directing actors in particular sounded skillfully laissez-faire in such a way that had me wondering for a second whether Frears wasn’t so much a gun-for-hire as a deceptively wise, Zen-style director who just let things happen—had me wondering, that is, until I remembered the movies he’s made.
With a mike in one hand and a beer in the other, Christopher Doyle’s talk in Kimchi bar in Dublin’s burgeoning Chinatown area, as part of the excellent Dublin Electronics Arts Festival, was by far the best filmmaker-performance of the year. Doyle is a charming raconteur, with a style of performance that one can’t imagine seeming appropriate anywhere but a bar: erratic and tangential, funny, serious, bragging, self-deprecating, personal, philosophical…the guy goes all over the place. While a little tiresomely willing to reinforce his reputation as a womanising wildman who, as Tony Keily once put it, sweats “pure Heineken”, Doyle had lots of fascinating things to say about the collaborative dynamics of filmmaking, about the development of a visual style and his journey as a cinematographer and director. Although an interviewer was on hand and occasionally got a word in, this was essentially a one-man show, interspersed with video montages of Doyle’s work (edited by Doyle himself) and a few of his short experimental films (interestingly, mostly shot on camera phones).
The strangest thing about Doyle, however, is one gets the feeling that this is what he’s like all the time. Unlike the carefully (self-)controlled image of Lynch (who lives in LA, remember), Doyle (who travels the world more or less endlessly) seems to trade on his image of recklessness and rugged Ozzie individualism; on basically doing and saying whatever the fuck he wants. Yes, this makes him an asshole at times (Lynch, on the other hand, is a very nice man), but given his role as a cinematographer (like Frears, essentially a hired gun), it’s a remarkably strong position to be in, and goes someway towards explaining his status as probably the most famous cinematographer working today. It also propels him to come out with gems like these:
One doesn’t go out to make art. One goes out to become an artist. Some cooks are not fat.
To say it takes years to develop a film is bullshit. Just do it.
How do you get to where I am? Your journey is your journey. If you want to be like everyone else stay in regional television.