Magazine article The Spectator

To Hell with Technology, It's Words That Matter

Magazine article The Spectator

To Hell with Technology, It's Words That Matter

Article excerpt

AND ANOTHER THING

The world of the arts is a battle between creators and parasites. Often it is the latter who make off with the publicity, fame and money. I despise an opera director who thinks he knows better than the composer and librettist, and draws attention to himself by subjecting a work of art to shocking updatings and incongruities, usually making a crude sexual or political point unworthy of an intelligent teenager. The latest example here is the nudity and simulated sex which opens Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House and mars a superb musical performance of one of the finest operas. There was, I hear, an even worse case at Salzburg this season, where a disgusting production of Figaro forced a lady I know, a mild person whose devotion to opera is celebrated, to boo for the first time in her life.

When did the director, once a humble or non-existent functionary, begin to take over and assume airs? I date it from the second decade of the 20th century, when the early cinema - where special effects and crowd scenes were everything and story and dialogue nothing - made heroes of men like D.W. Griffith. In the operatic and theatre worlds, ambitious ears pricked up and the way was open for Don Giovanni in a coal mine and Hamlet as a democratic left-wing hero at a fascist court. In fact, the coming of talkies made the director much less important and the screenplay absolutely central to the success of the movie. In the golden age of Hollywood, 1935-55, indeed for some time after, few successful films were made without a first-class script, usually based upon a brilliant novel, like Gone with the Wind. To take an instructive example, The Maltese Falcon, often rated one of the finest movies and a prime feather in John Huston's overloaded bonnet, owed its success almost entirely to Dashiell Hammett's superb thriller and the screenplay which followed it exactly. The dialogue in book and play is virtually identical. All Huston had to do was to shoot it, and he had the sense to follow the script.

Gore Vidal, who is wrong about most things but knows about writing and movies, once told me, `The key to a really good movie is the writer. Any mediocre director can make a success out of a first-class script, but the greatest director on earth can't make a bad script work.' A case in point is Billy Wilder. I have seen movies of his where the script was no good, and they stink. In Some Like it Hot he had the advantage of a good book and a superb script constructed from it by a genius. He shot it with great professional skill, but I think he had a nerve putting on the credits `Screenplay by Billy Wilder and LA.L. Diamond' so that most people have now forgotten that Diamond was the inspiration of the most enjoyable movie of all. I suspect Wilder's most important contribution was not to lose patience with Marilyn Monroe, extracting from her the performance of a lifetime, which makes the film so endearing.

A gifted director can provide style and even wit by cunning cutting, but the wit that stays in the mind is always vocal, as in Casablanca: `The usual suspects' has become among the most quoted lines from movies in the language. And it is usually the writer or writers who determine the degree of pleasure and the memorability. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.