Monday, April 11, 2011

SIDNEY LUMET AND GEORGE STEVENS: ODD COUPLE INDEED...




A few weeks ago I was privileged to spend some time on the phone with George Stevens Jr., the distinguished producer, director, playwright and arts entrepreneur--and son of legendary filmmaker George Stevens. The purpose? A re-investigation into the working methods of his father and the way in which, to my mind, his sense of time and space within an individual scene became increasingly abstract and--paradoxically--more emotional as his work went on after the Second World War. I've been working on Stevens for my own reasons as a filmmkaer--and because Stevens (who made three of my favorite films) is a largely misunderstood figure in film circles these days, his reputation a good deal less sterling than when he was alive.

Now that I've finally gotten around to writing this longish post, however, Sidney Lumet ups and dies this weekend. So I feel it necessary to first record my two encounters with Lumet before delving into Stevens. There is also the sly satisfaction of including two director's who couldn't resemble each other less in the same post. In fact, lets draw a few parallels just to see how little the two men shared in work, output, technique etc.

Words we associate with Stevens: laconic, careful, thoughtful, meticulous.

Words we associate with Lumet: feisty, sloppy, energetic, careless.

Shooting schedules for Stevens: Endless, stretching over months and, in the case of "Greatest Story Ever Told", years.
Shooting schedules for Lumet: Brutally fast, often finishing ahead of schedule. "Network", which is filled with locations, long complicated scenes and carefully modulated performances was shot in thirty days.

Locations for Stevens: he was a Californian through and through, born in San Francisco, residing in Los Angeles his entire adult life. He seemed most at home in the American West, out of doors. His interior studio sets, though, are artfully constructed and feature much foreground bric-a-brac, shooing through false windows, elaborate interior staging etc.

Locations for Lumet: New York, New York. And almost always New York. In his macarbrely titled New York Times obit video, "The Last Word", Lumet recounts how after being nominated for an Academy Award for his very first movie ("Twelve Angry Men") he simply informed movie studios that he wished to shoot in New York and they would readily agree. Lumet loved location shooting in New York and his studio interiors rarely are convincing--sets seem to make Lumet revert to his television origins and the staging usually becomes flatter than when he is wrestling with a practical space.

Shooting methods for Stevens: complete coverage from every conceivable angle, the scene not fully worked out until in the editing room.

Shooting methods for Lumet: cut in the camera (practically), everything having been worked out in rehearsals prior to the shoot.

Okay? So what, if anything, do these two men--this veritable cinematic "odd couple" share? Almost nothing--except for one curious thing that may, indeed, be more pertinent than we might at first think. Both Lumet and Stevens were the sons of actors-- in each case a married theatrical couple--and were, quite literally, "born in a trunk". Stevens earliest memories are of his parents playing melodrama's in San Francisco theaters in the early part of the twentieth century. Lumet's parents were Yiddish theater stars in 1920's New York. Both, in other words, began their life in the arts seeing the craft of story telling from the actors point of view--and, to me, this shows in both of their work: though Stevens films grew increasingly elaborate, his concentration on the individual actor grew correspondingly intense. Lumet, for his part, always invests deeply in the central performances and oftentimes allows for accidents to happen (much of "Dog Day Afternoon" was, apparently, improvised).

And that's about all the similarity between them that I detect. Strangely, though, they are two of my five favorite filmmakers (I won't tell you the others but they aren't hard to figure out--I'm proudly pedestrian in most of my cultural leanings) and I seem to remember Lumet expressing enormous reverence (as has Woody Allen) for "Shane".

I had two experiences--both brief but memorable in their own ways--with Sidney Lumet. Alas, none with George Stevens. Tomorrow I'll do the Lumet stories. Then onto Stevens.







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