MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Craftsmanship Versus Art in Filmmaking: Why Can’t We Have Both?

Are today’s filmmakers so caught up in trying to craft “artistic” films that they’ve lost the soul and spirit of what makes art “art” in the process? And how exactly do you define art versus craftsmanship?

A good starting point for this discussion started up last week over on the blog Bright Lights After Dark. In a post titled “Deliver Us from Craftsmanship,” the author, Erich Kuersten, posits that the drive to craft films with attention to technical details is stifling cinematic art. Oddly enough, Kuersten kicks off his piece talking about Revolutionary Road, which he’d not yet seen at the time he wrote this piece, and the abundance of reviews referring to the film’s precise craftsmanship and production values. While I’m not sure I see the value in any writer delving into this issue by talking about a film they’ve not yet seen, the issues Kuersten raises overall do merit more careful consideration.

I would agree that Revolutionary Road focuses on craft to the detriment of art; I found it to be much like a gorgeously constructed cake designed for a bakery display window — all precisely piped icing and carefully constructed rosebuds built on empty cardboard boxes that only vaguely resemble real cake. There’s nothing delicious under the surface of all that prettiness. It’s a ruse, a sham. But I would question the thesis that this is the result of director Sam Mendes deliberately setting out to focus on craftsmanship; rather, I would posit that the focus on craft over art is the end result of Revolutionary Road lacking the heart of the novel from which it was adapted. Excise that heart and the understanding of what Richard Yates was saying in his novel, and there’s not much left aside from meticulous production design and scenery-chewing acting absent the soul that gave the book its context.

I would find the overall argument more interesting if, rather than simply asserting that films like Doubt and In the Valley of Elah belong in the realm of craftsmanship versus art without detailing why, Kuenster had addressed The Reader or Frost/Nixon falling into the category of “craftsmanship” while more artistic films not in the running for best picture (i.e. The WrestlerFrozen RiverHappy-Go-Lucky) do not. I would argue that of the films actually in the running for Best Picture, only Slumdog Millionaire and Milk fall more on the side of art than craft — although I would also argue that both are excellently crafted as well, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. A young filmmmaker could learn a hell of a lot paying attention to the cinematography, editing, and use of color in Slumdog, or the subtle, but very effective production design and handling of ensemble scenes in Milk.

Kuenster argues that “It has to do with film schools churning out competent gear-heads eager to show off their expensive educations with key lighting and tracking shots instead of dropping acid and going off to Vietnam or whatever heart of darkness is in vogue this year.” Having spent a great deal of time on the fest circuit watching an awful lot of independent films, I disagree quite strongly with this assertion; there’s some interesting work coming out of the North Carolina School of the Arts filmmakers, for instance (see: Jeff Nichols‘ Shotgun Stories) — filmmakers who both have interesting stories to tell, and tell them in visually artistic ways while also understanding the technical aspects of what makes a film look good.

I’d far rather see a first or second feature from an independent filmmaker who’s taken the time to learn a little about the “craft” of filmmaking — how to frame a shot, how the color palette of the film affects its overall mood, how to light a set properly, how editing drives the flow of a story — than some guy who’s just grabbed a handheld digital camera and shot a group of his friends sitting around talking about nothing particularly interesting. Having an understanding of how to technically make a film that looks good doesn’t in and of itself make one a bad filmmaker; the best independent films are a marriage of good filmmaking techniques with an original, intriguing story, and I would argue that there is still plenty of that going on, especially among the films one is likely to find on the fest circuit or even in the local arthouse cinema.

For instance, let’s look at three of my favorite films from this year’s Sundance, each of them very different stylistically, each of them aspiring to be more than the mundane: HumpdayAn Education and Peter and Vandy. In Humpday, director Lynn Shelton almost completely eschews aesthetics in favor of focusing on the relationships among the three lead characters, Ben (Mark Duplass), his wife Anna (Alycia Delmore) and his old buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard), who shows up unexpectedly in the middle of the night. Shelton uses her lens not to show off her technical skills with lighting and cool tracking shots, but to show us these characters, where they are at this moment in their lives, and how their actions and interactions affect each of them.

Shelton has been lumped in (somewhat unfairly, I think) with the “mumblecore” filmmakers, who I sometimes think go so far in casting aside craft for the sake of characters whose lives or situations are a bit too ordinary to be truly interesting. In Humpday, Shelton ostensibly explores the surface conceit of Ben and Andrew, two straight guys deciding to film themselves having sex for the sake of art; beneath that idea, though, I think she’s also saying some interesting things about art for the sake of art, and how pretentious that in and of itself can be.

The character of Andrew is completely absorbed in this lofty idea of himself as an “artist.” He’s traveled around the world, working on various “projects,” and he blends right in with the artsy hipster crowd he falls into when he comes to visit Ben in Seattle, immediately buying into their idea that The Stranger’s Humpday amateur porn competition might somehow aspire to be high art rather than just an excuse for closet exhibitionists to display homemade videos of themselves having sex on screen before an audience of strangers. It’s the ultimate in ridiculous artistic conceit, really … this idea Andrew has that he might be able to achieve a level of artistry with amateur porn (and perhaps say something greater about sex in general) simply by putting two straight men on video as they attempt to have sex with each other.

Andrew spends more time creating and maintaining the facade of himself as “artist” than he ever has on the creation of actual art, and it takes the contrast of his life with Ben’s to make him realize that all the surface accoutrements of an “artist” — the bohemian lifestyle, the wild parties, the sexual freedom — are not enough to make him a real artist. He’s a grown man who’s really an inner adolescent playing at a young person’s ideas of what being an artist means; he has the right hairstyle, even the right lifestyle, but none of that is enough if the art isn’t in his soul, and Shelton’s exploration of those ideas is rather interesting.

An Education is a very different film, and to an extent one could argue that its period production values edge it dangerously close to craftsmanship territory, but director Lone Scherfig, a student of the Dogme95 school of filmmaking, brings some of the sparseness of that filmmaking style to An Education, which is perhaps what allows her to rein in the tendency to overt craftsmanship that other directors might have brought to the film.  What particularly elevates An Education closer to the realm of art, though, is Carey Mulligan‘s excellent performance as Jenny, the book-smart 17-year-old who falls prey to dashing older man David (Peter Sarsgaard ), who is himself a carefully crafted construct of who he says he is.

There are period details in An Education, and some excellent filmmaking technique as well, but they aren’t the story. Scherfig crafts the visual look of her film in a way that very much reflects what the film is about under the surface, and if you can get past the “ick” factor of a man in his thirties pursuing a sexual relationship with a teenager, the story has a lot to say about the ways in which we naively judge by what we see on the surface without delving deeper into what lies beneath, often to our own detriment.

With Peter and Vandy, writer/director Jay DiPietro uses a story conceit that tends to be overdone by indie filmmakers — the nonlinear story structure — but fortunately, the way in which he constructs his tale ultimately makes the characters more important than the conceit itself. Too often when an indie film uses a nonlinear structure, the end result feels like the filmmaker took a story that was once told in linear fashion, decided that was boring, and then mixed things up by moving things around in time to make it more “interesting.”

The non-linear structure feels relevant to the tale DiPietro tells and the way in which he wants to tell it, as he takes the audience back and forth in time through the history of Peter and Vandy’s relationship and the ways in which the love that ignites a relationship can devolve into the blame and hatred that undo it. In one of the film’s best moments, DiPietro juxtaposes two scenes of Peter (Jason Ritter) and Vandy (Jess Weixler) walking home from the store, using nothing more than body language to show where in their relationship these two characters are. There’s no awkward exposition here, just what an observant passerby might notice about two people walking down the street together, and how the subtleties of the physical distance between two people and the little things about how they interact with each other say everything about what’s going on between them.

Looking at some of the other fest-circuit fodder over the past year, there are abundant examples of filmmakers focusing more on art than craft: Cannes this year had, among many interesting entries, A Christmas TaleTokyo SonataLinha de PasseThe Headless Woman, and Two Lovers, all of which were excellently done films. Steven Soderbergh‘s Che, regardless of which side of the subject’s political line one falls on, was a filmmaking achievement focusing more on art than craft, and even at smaller fests there was artistic filmmaking to be found in the likes of the fascinating Suspect X from Japan (Santa Barbara) and original, edgy films like Make Out with Violence, Rattle Basket and solid documentaries like Neshoba (Oxford).

Ramin Bahrani, who’s nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Director for Chop Shop (he won the Someone to Watch award for the same film last year) is a great example of an independent filmmaker who marries art and craft with reliably solid results. Bahrani carefully crafts his films, working with his DP, Michael Simmonds, sometimes for weeks in advance of a shoot, planning out lighting, framing of shots, and even thinking ahead to how he wants the edited cut to look. His stories focus so strongly on character that the artistry of the storytelling takes the forefront, but it’s the combination of dedication to art and awareness of the importance of craft that makes Bahrani’s films stand out so consistently.

What constitutes the perfect balance of art and craft in filmmaking? Aren’t both aspects important to the whole? The presence of well-done tracking shots, solid lighting and editing, and attention to production design in do not, in and of themselves, indicate to me that a film should be dismissed; quite the contrary — if I see a film by a new filmmaker where those details are paid attention to, I’m that much more likely to take their work seriously and give it my attention.

Do we really want to see filmmakers tossing out craftsmanship entirely for the sake of creating some high-browed idea of “art?” Good filmmakers know how to balance both the art and craft of filmmaking; they learn from what they’ve created before and grow from it, they take their technical skills and apply them to their film without losing focus on story for the sake of tracking shots. And I’d argue that there are plenty of filmmakers making films that exemplify both the art and craft of filmmaking, if one looks beyond the mainstream box office to find them.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon