Magazine article Artforum International

Great Scot: Geoffrey O'Brien on Alexander Mackendrick

Magazine article Artforum International

Great Scot: Geoffrey O'Brien on Alexander Mackendrick

Article excerpt

IN THE AUTEURIST heyday of the early '60s, when you could still rush out to see the new John Ford or the new Raoul Walsh alongside the new Godard or the new Antonioni, the American-born, Scottish-bred director Alexander Mackendrick was a singularly elusive sort of auteur. Between the whimsical joys of his Ealing comedies from the '50s--like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers (but how whimsical or joyful were they, finally?)--and the corrosive New York noir of Sweet Smell of Success (underseen and underrated long after its 1957 release), it was hard to find blatant stylistic or thematic connections. When the director resurfaced in the '60s with two seeming adventure movies that subverted most genre expectations--the surprising, commercially illfated Sammy Going South and his haunting, long-meditated adaptation of A High Wind in Jamaica--the question of what Mackendrick was really about, and where he might be going next, became even more fascinating. Then, in 1967, came the more than slightly rancid beach comedy Don't Make Waves--a hopeless project redeemed by the intransigent seriousness with which Mackendrick treated his jerry-built material, right down to the oceanfront bungalow capsizing in a mudslide with most of the cast inside--and after that, silence.

As it turned out the oeuvre would stop there, with the nine features he completed between 1948 and 1967. Mackendrick accepted the job of dean of the film school at the newly opened California Institute of the Arts in 1969; he would stay on for nearly a quarter of a century, until his death in 1993, a revered and evidently sometimes confrontational presence. Now, unexpectedly, we hear from Mackendrick again, with On Film-making (Faber & Faber): not the book he might have chosen to write about the craft of directing, but something perhaps more exciting--an assemblage of his classroom handouts that recreates vividly the atmosphere of his teaching. The students are very much in the room, and you can sense the tensions that must have resulted when their yearning for free-form self-expression came up against Mackendrick's devotion to imparting the fundamentals of technical knowledge and discipline.

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It must indeed have been difficult--if you saw yourself as the next Godard or Dennis Hopper--to be asked to "put aside your hunger for instant gratification and creativity, at least for long enough to understand some basic ideas and practical pieces of advice that you are perfectly entitled to discard later." Or to be told: "Be sure to write in sentences with subjects, verbs and objects.... From the very grammar of the sentence structure in which an outline is written, I can sense whether or not the student has got the hang of cinematic narrative progression." The oldest lesson in the world--that one must first know the rules in order to break them--was to be reiterated many times over: "The truth is I cannot help you explore what is often called Modernism in cinema. This is one reason why I keep referring to 'movies' rather than 'cinema.' The craft of storytelling is rather un-Modernist. It's old. Ancient, in fact." Self-expression must be tempered to the needs of others: "You should assume your audience is always bored." He covered the walls of his classroom with mottoes such as this: "Student films come in three sizes: Too Long, Much Too Long and Very Much Too Long."

As teacher, Mackendrick does not expound a personal vision; he rarely talks about his own films, and when he does so it is in the most modest terms. If he gained a reputation early on at Ealing Studios for being gifted at conveying ideas through visual means, it was because "I wasn't very good at writing dialogue." When he brings up Sweet Smell of Success, it is to focus--at fascinating length--on the screen-writing genius of Clifford Odets as, by a tortuous process, he shapes a rudimentary episode into the classic 21 Club sequence, that most Shakespearean of movie scenes. …

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