- Paperback: 128 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 1, 1992)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140127224
- ISBN-13: 978-0140127225
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.3 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #19,601 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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On Directing Film Paperback – January 1, 1992
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According to David Mamet, a film director must, above all things, think visually. Most of this instructive and funny book is written in dialogue form and based on film classes Mamet taught at Columbia University. He encourages his students to tell their stories not with words, but through the juxtaposition of uninflected images. The best films, Mamet argues, are composed of simple shots. The great filmmaker understands that the burden of cinematic storytelling lies less in the individual shot than in the collective meaning that shots convey when they are edited together. Mamet borrows many of his ideas about directing, writing, and acting from Russian masters such as Konstantin Stanislavsky, Sergei M. Eisenstein, and Vsevelod Pudovkin, but he presents his material in so delightful and lively a fashion that he revitalizes it for the contemporary reader.
From Library Journal
Noted playwright, screenwriter, and director Mamet offers his views on film directing taken, some in transcript form, from lectures and classes at Columbia. With only two films under his belt, Mamet is an odd choice to publish his opinions here, and his ideas are unsurprising. Although presumably being paid by Columbia, Mamet "suspects" film schools are "useless." Citing his heroes Eisenstein (story via cuts) and Hitchcock (pre-planning), he advises shooting scenes simply in the "least interesting way" possible and cutting everything extraneous to the story. He suggests reading in myth and psychology and watching a lot of animated cartoons. Refreshingly untheoretical, particularly regarding acting technique, this is fitfully interesting stuff, but a bit of an ego trip, too.
- David Bartholomew, NYPL
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
This is precisely what happens with Mamet's "On Directing Film."
Somehow, in this book, Mamet thinks that his skill as a dramatic writer makes him a de facto authority on film, directing, and acting--three disciplines of which he is, to varying degrees, shamefully ignorant.
The book is not only unaware of its own ignorance, it is pompous and often cursorily written, as if Mamet had just vomited and was half-passed out in the toilet stall of some dingy New York club as he was scribbling down the words.
"Perhaps your task as a designer of shots is, after a point, that of a decorator, quite frankly," says our sage of cinema (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," says our esteemed lecturer (80).
This book not only makes Mamet look bad, it makes the Columbia Film School look foolish for propping Mamet up as an expert and allowing him to teach classes in something he knows next to nothing about. I felt sorry for the poor students in the book's dialogues. They had paid tens of thousands in tuition to attend a prestigious university and gain pearls of wisdom into the cinematic art only to have this novice hack trot around and infect their naive minds with wildly distorted half-truths.
I was fully ready to give this book a one star and leave it at that, but, as foul as parts of the book are, Mamet is still a skilled dramatist and there are parts that do shine. Mamet's always trying to simplify and get to the essence of things and, in spite of his pomposity and ignorance, he does manage to say some really important things about directing film that help put things into perspective and make the practical work of directing clear and manageable. In fact, if all the tripe were gutted from the book, I might say this is one of the most helpful manuals on directing I've ever read.
That pretty much sums up the book for you. A little bit of explanation is warranted for what all those quotes mean. This first thesis is that good story telling is a juxtaposition of shots (like a guy running down the hall, a hand turning a knob and not budging, a look behind him, then back to the knob). But it's important that each shot is uninflected, meaning no additional emotion is added to it. You can be a horrible actor or the best actor and the edit of those shots would convey the beat of fear. Adding emotion to the shot only detracts from the overall story that is trying to be told through the series of edits. Basically, a story is told in the edit, not the directing. His example was: a shot of bird eating, an animal's paw cracks a twig, the bird raises its head. That convey's a predator prey relationship even if the animals were recorded on different continents.
And based on that thesis is his argument on how to direct, which is basically: get the shots and give it to the editor.
I guess this thesis is helpful to be wary of actors who aren't genuine in the actions they're performing, but to make it his thesis for what it means to direct is completely illogical and a waste of my time and yours.
Also covered is his exploration of WRITING a scene. Incidentally a well-written scene only requires the director to simply show up on set and get the shots that the script calls for. In fact, most of the book is spent writing this one scene with the help of his students in a fake student-professor conversation transcribed with all of the intrigue of your most boring annoying professor! You know, the one who likes to ask you questions so you can answer incorrectly and he can correct you, but doesn't help to change how you think or why you were wrong?
He goes over writing a scene to the BEATS. For example, he’s writing a scene where the super-objective is for a student to win the respect of the instructor. Inside the scene are several beats that start of with: earliness, to prepare (which is better than waiting, grooming, and studying), homage (which is better than greeting and any other beat we’ve done already), and so forth. Notice the switching between noun and verb? Yeah, he doesn't care. He never ends up defining what makes a beat worthy of writing for or even what a beat is. But he spends half the book writing this scene with his students in the most annoying way possible. With each beat chosen, he goes into choosing the shots to convey the beat. And strangely, he seems to never use dialogue. Wasn't Glenngary Glenn Ross just a huge block of dialogue?! At least the movie conveyed that. And the fact that it started as a play also suggested that it was mostly dialogue and not much action.
I gave the book a rating of 1 as opposed to 0 not because there is no zero stars but because there are a few quotes in the book that remind you what's required in a good story. Namely that the protagonist wants something and does whatever he can to get it. Once he gets it, the scene or movie is over. Furthermore, the protagonist must want some THING. The moment he tries to influence people, the audience falls asleep.
And now that I've given you those words of wisdom (you decide if they should be heeded), you don't need to read this book. Yes it's only 100 pages, but it's not an easy read because of his writing style which gives you no direct answers. It's mostly that annoying professor schtick. There is a lot of fluff even for the slim tiny book that it is. Is it worth only $15? No because there's also the hidden cost of the time to read the book and the danger that you are turned into a director that actors hate and whose films are so visually unappealing that audiences are bored watching it. Even the film version of his best writing had some inflection on the visuals! If he wrote a book on writing, I'd say read it, but this is not helping for learning how to direct film.