A Dreamer Walking

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Pupil

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 26, 2014
Kurosawa#4

Kurosawa (left) Yama-san (right)

After his pupil, Akira Kurosawa, had made several global hits to put Japanese Cinema on the map, Kajirô Yamamoto was asked about his contribution to his once young assistant director’s career. His reply, “All I ever taught Kurosawa was how to drink”.

Kajirô Yamamoto has been described as one of the most humble men a man could meet. Kurosawa claimed he never got angry. While the other directors at P.C.L. (the production company Yamamoto worked for) had a reputation for dictating to their cast and crew what they wanted, Yamamoto chose to go the way of the teacher. His mission was to help his pupils learn to embrace who they were. Kurosawa maintained in his book Something Like and Autobiography, written after Yamamoto’s death, that Yamamoto’s films suffered because of his willingness to allow his Assistant directors to take the reigns.

Akira Kurosawa was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Kajirô Yamamoto. From the very beginning of his life Kurosawa possessed a will of iron. This did not help him in terms of being a teachable student. He was a problem child in school often playing pranks on his peers and instructors. He hated the majority of his teachers. In the mid 1930’s after just a few months of working for P.C.L. Kurosawa had it in his mind to quite. His career almost ended before it even began. The directors he worked for before Yama-san, as Akira called him, were control freaks and made Kurosawa do things he was completely uninterested in continuing. Yet Kurosawa’s friends convinced him to take another assignment assisting Kajirô Yamamoto. It’s because of Yama-san’s mentorship the young filmmaker flourished.

With Yama-san Kurosawa quickly climbed the ladder from third assistant director to chief assistant director. He was even put in charge of second-unit directing, editing, and dubbing many of Yama-san’ movies. Unlike most of his peers, Yama-san had a desire to involve his assistant directors creatively in how they wrote, shot, and edited his films. Yama-san and Kurosawa’s personalities could not be farther apart. Where Kurosawa directed with purpose and precise vision, Yama-san was completely reliant on others to give him inspiration and try new things. Where Kurosawa had a persona of great authority Yama-san had a persona of a humble professor who was more interested in his students then himself or even his films. Kurosawa maintained Yama-san would let his assistant directors do things he could do better in order for them to learn.  He would even use second-unit footage he didn’t like so he could bring his assistant directors to the theaters and point out how the audience reacted to the shots and suggest ways it might be shot better the next time.

Like any good teacher Yama-san was great at seeing his pupils strengths. He quickly realized one of Kurosawa’s strengths was in understanding story. It was not too long before he began to encourage his young pupil to write. He would play a game with his assistants while traveling to a location shoot where they would create a short story on a specific theme. Yama-san taught his young disciples how to read literature critically and think about what the author was trying to say and how he or she was saying it. Filmmaking is a visual medium and Yama-san taught Kurosawa how to paint a picture with words. Kurosawa said he learned a tremendous amount from Yama-san over alcohol. Yama-san had a vast range of interests and would go into detail about them. This allowed Kurosawa to understand the key part in creating great stories was through experiencing life and finding a way to translate one’s personal perspective onto the screen.

Kurosawa realized even before Yama-san that the edit was “the process of breathing life into the work”. However, like many beginning filmmakers Kurosawa had the tendency to put too much value on the shots he labored over to create. In the cutting room Yama-san’s greatest lesson about editing  was how to look at ones work objectively. Yama-san cut film so there was no excess. There are curtain scenes and shots directors feel they must have and they spend a tedious amount of time creating those scenes.  In the editing room you begin to see a film in a completely different light. After shooting a film there is usually hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. Yet in the end these hundreds of hours need to be cut down to one or two hours of a final film. Yama-san would go into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and completely change the structure of a scene or sequence after a night of thinking about it. In order to find and keep the best footage for the story being told you need to be fearless in how you choose to cut. Kurosawa described Yama-san as a “bona-fide mass murderer” in the cutting room. By embracing this mindset Kurosawa became one of the greatest editors the world has ever seen.

The place Yama-san helped Kurosawa the most was in how to work with actors. Kurosawa described himself as “short-tempered and obstinate”. This kind of mindset does not work well with insecure actors. Yama-san made Kurosawa realize one can not demand a specific performance from his actors. He claimed, “If you as director try to drag an actor by force to where you want him, he can only get halfway there. Push him in the direction he wants to go, and make him do twice as much as he was thinking of doing.” It’s obvious Kurosawa embraced this philosophy. There is no better example then his collaboration with Toshirô Mifune who played some of the most iconic roles in Kurosawa’s films and was allowed enough freedom to redefine Japanese acting.

In his book Kurosawa said the best proof of Yama-san’s skill as a teacher was none of the work of his “disciples” resembled his. Kurosawa wrote, “He made sure to do nothing to restrict his assistant directors, but rather encouraged their individual qualities to grow”. This I believe is the definition to what it means to teach. Kurosawa would not have made the movies he has been so acclaimed for if it weren’t for a selfless man who was willing to take him under his wing. In many ways Yama-san was capable of doing something far greater then Kurosawa. Kurosawa had vision and he had a complete confidence in himself to make his vision become a reality. However, Yama-san had a heart of a teacher. He saw a young artist and had enough confidence in him to devote his time and sacrifice his own work in order to help the student become the master.

Joe Wright – An Observation – Dyslexia

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 8, 2013

Joe Wright 2I first started to research director Joe Wright when I found out he was dyslexic. He has said in interviews his dyslexia made him feel stupid and is one of the big reasons he didn’t finish school. The man just didn’t read as fast as other students and he wasn’t a linguistic thinker. I am sure the school system was, like it is to so many other dyslexics, not kind to Mr. Wright. It is interesting however that Wright says his dyslexia is also the reason he has been so successful in the film profession. In a interview on The Telegraph Wright stated, “I think my dyslexia was a vital part of my development because my inability to read and write meant that I had to find knowledge elsewhere so I looked to the cinema”.

A fair question to ask is “why did Wright fail in school but find substance through the cinema?”.  In order to understand you must learn a little more about dyslexia. Dyslexia is usually labeled as a learning disability. Those diagnosed with dyslexia usually have a hard time with organization, reading, writing, and spelling. The majority of school systems rely heavily on verbal and linguistic teaching creating a huge disadvantage for dyslexics.  Knowing this it is easy to understand why Wright failed in the school system. However the cinema can also be a learning tool. The cinema teaches through the use of images. Through the cinema’s stories we learn lessons on politics, geography, evolution, religion, humanity, and so on.

I don’t believe Dyslexia is a learning disability. It is a different way of thinking. Dyslexics think through images. Some of the strengths associated with dyslexia are the ability to think spatially, being able to look at a problem from multiple angles, advancements in the imagination, and being able to see the big picture of any given problem or project. If you watch Joe Wright’s movies you can see how he has a firm grasp in all these areas.

When listening to Wright talk about his films it seems he relies more on instinct then any literal reasoning. He has done the research for his project but he wants to let the locations and visuals dictate the way he films. Because of this we find every frame in his movies stimulating. His main mission is to provoke emotion through his visuals. Wright never lets the details of the plot get in the way of his characters’ emotional growth. As a dyslexic myself I remember taking tests and always doing badly because I didn’t remember names and dates. What fascinated me and the things I constantly talked to my parents about were the emotions of the events I had learned about, how those impacted the people during that time period, and how they related to me in the present. I understood the material but didn’t have the ability to express my understanding through writing or the the tests I took. I can imagine Wright had a similar problems.

For Wright the literal facts seem to be the farthest from his mind. In Wright’s first feature film Pride & Prejudice he doesn’t care about the fact that Elizabeth Bennett is at a much lower class then Mr. Darcy as much as he cares about the emotional effect that fact has on their relationship. In Hanna the whole plot point of the title character Hanna being genetically altered in order to be a better killer was described by Wright as no more then a “macguffin” (a plot device with little to no explanation, used to propel the story). What mattered is this plot point propelled us into an emotional story.  We see a child grow up and emotionally go to battle with what she was made to do verses what is morally right.

One of the most important things a director must be able to do is have the big picture of the film in his mind while shooting individual scenes. It has been clinically proven that dyslexics use their right brain to a much higher extant than most non-dyslexics. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for seeing connections that tie things together and seeing how parts relate to wholes. The beach scene in Atonement and the exploration of Skid Row in The Soloist are examples of Wright leaving the main characters entirely in order to observe the bigger picture. He is able to ground his individual stories by showing us the world around the stories.

Wright creates connections in his films in many ways, including the use of mirror imagery, musical themes, and repeating pieces of dialogue. In Hanna we see the title character use the same line of dialogue to start off the story and to end it; making us reflect on how or if the events she went on had created any change. Two of the key scenes in Atonement are when the main character Briony tells the great lie to the investigators towards the beginning of the story and the truth to the reporter at the end of the story. The lie is what sends us into the conflict the rest of the story revolves around and the truth is what resolves the story and brings the audience closure. Wright binds the two scenes by using the same framing, background, and has the main character Briony looking straight into frame both times. We instantly see how these scenes are connected and how important they are to the narrative of the story.  At the beginning of Pride & Prejudice we hear the musical theme we come to associate with Elizabeth and the Bennett Family. However the same music is played by Mr. Darcy’s younger sister when Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s house. Though Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s worlds look quite different the music unites them emotionally. Wright’s ability to understand the complete story gives him more insight on how to direct these individual scenes and connect them to the greater narrative.

No matter how much a dyslexic has worked to overcome his or her natural weaknesses the struggles are never completely resolved. Wright still says it takes him much longer to read a script or a book then most people. However he has found ways to change these perceived  weaknesses into strengths. Wright has said, “Because I think visually, not being able to read meant that other parts of my brain were pushed further, and so when I read a book, I have to see it”. It is not a accident that three of the five movies Wright has directed have been based on literary classics. It’s not that Wright is against reading, very few dyslexics are. It’s just the words come to Wright’s mind as pictures. Wright’s ability to see what he is reading allows him to translate the written word to film in a much more visually expressive way.

There are many others who have struggled in the classroom to become some of the greatest filmmakers in history. It is suspected that the great filmmaker David Lean struggled with dyslexia as a child. He hardly got by in the school system and was constantly made fun of by peers and his father for being a slow learner. Steven Spielberg is another diagnosed dyslexic who also severely struggled in the school system. These filmmakers did not just overcome their dyslexia they have used it do miraculous things in the cinema.  I feel Joe Wright is on his way. Many would call movies like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement some of the best films of this new century. It is hard not to call his five minute shot of the Dunkirk evacuation one of the most awe inspiring shots in all of cinema. Wright continues to explore his art form and he is going in an ambitious direction. His last two films have been criticized for being over the top and against the grain of established cinema. However “against the grain” is a perfect description of dyslexia. We think in a different way and are often called failures in the established system because of it. Still, many of these school system failures, such as Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison, have the greatest success stories in our history.