Monthly Archives: June 2015

Director Bingo

In a simpler time, a great white shark was enough for a summer movie.
In a simpler time, a great white shark was enough for a summer movie.

On the occasion of the record-breaking opening of Jurassic Park, er, World, let’s have some summertime fun playing director bingo. As I mentioned in an earlier post exploring why women directors aren’t hired for multimillion dollar comic book extravaganzas, this latest sequel/reboot of the Jurassic franchise was given to Colin Trevverow, a relatively unknown with one previous feature (the charming Safety Not Guaranteed) to his credit, although under the watchful eyes (and emails) of executive producer Steven Spielberg. Why Treverrow? Did gender play a role? Or is this more in keeping with Spielberg’s reputation for pay-it-forward generosity towards new filmmakers? Maybe it was his experience directing cast members from Parks and Recreation (Aubrey Plaza in his first, Chris Pratt with the CGI-osauruses). Whatever the case, let’s think about what other directors we might choose to direct, say, Jurassic Planet, or Universe, or whatever the next installment might be, and how those choices reflect the assumptions we make, consciously or unconsciously, about directorial style, genres, and what makes a good movie.

The game I’m calling director bingo has become quite popular on YouTube, taking the form of “What if ___ directed ____?” Here’s an example: “What if Tim Burton directed Frozen?”

Suddenly Frozen seems much more like the dark fairy tale of Edward Scissorhands than the continuation of the Disney princess tradition.

Not surprisingly, the most popular directors in this game tend to be those like Burton who combine a distinctive visual and narrative style with a strong connection to certain genres and story types: Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Michael Bay, and maybe the most popular of all, Wes Anderson. The rules of director bingo are pretty simple. Identify a few key signifiers of a director’s style/brand; in Anderson’s case, the use of on-screen titles, a penchant for archaic and campy technology, ironic and self-aware dialogue, and the use of artisanal pop music on the soundtrack. Here’s a version of Wes Anderson director bingo featured on Conan O’Brien:

The thing is, the assumption governing most examples of director bingo online is that the resulting movies would obviously be a mistake. One clever team of video makers even calls their YouTube channel “Wrong Director” <>, as in this example of Lena Dunham, director of Tiny Furniture and creator of HBO’s Girls, directing Star Trek:

Why would Dunham be a poor choice for a Star Trek movie? Ultimately, the logic behind this parody really boils down to gender: Star Trek is a “boys” movie, and Dunham makes movies about “girls.” (Or Michael Bay makes “boy” movies, so he can’t make a romantic comedy. Well, maybe he can’t, but not because he’s a boy). In fact, a similar logic operates behind many of the Wes Anderson parodies. There’s the suggestion that Anderson is too, well, “feminine,” too talky, and not action-oriented enough. Of course, these videos are meant to be two minutes of viral video fun, and there’s no need to spoil the joke. At the same time, these videos also contain the kernel of an even more interesting idea; namely, why not have Wes Anderson direct the next Jurassic movie? How about having Lena Dunham take a crack at one of the Star Wars movies?

Like many actors, directors also complain about being typecast. It’s an argument Spike Lee has made repeatedly; a good director knows how to direct, and those skills can be applied to a wide variety of movies and genres. In many ways, the “wrong director” approach to director bingo turns the auteur theory on its head. Within the studio system screen age, directors under contract to the studio would regularly be assigned to a wide variety of movies. As David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson documented in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, the studio system developed just that—a system—for the construction of movie narratives, one that incorporated technology, style, and editing, that was applied across the board to all movies, whether a tender love story, a tense war movie, or a glitzy musical. The whole idea of the system was in a sense to be director-proof.

For the developers of the “auteur” theory in the 1950s, the challenge was to identify distinctive personal styles of the directors who worked within such a “director-proof” system. A director like Howard Hawks was a perfect case study for early auteur theory. Over the course of his legendary career, he directed westerns, films noir, war movies, screwball comedies, and musicals. Even across such a diverse filmography, auteur critics still managed to tease out certain characteristics they felt defined “Hawksian” cinema: strong, independent women; a focus on teamwork; naturalistic, jokey dialogue, whether he was directing John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe.

If anything, the digital age and the rise of indie cinema have made the dream of the auteur a reality. The accessibility and creative potential of digital technology eliminate the need for an entire industrial “system.” As a result, it’s never been more possible for directors to come up with distinctive or even eccentric markers of their own personal style. Sean Baker’s new movie Tangerine, for example, which is attracting wide critical attention, was shot completely on iPhones, no studio system needed. The fact that director bingo works as a form of viral video means that many movie fans have a clear sense of a wide range of directorial styles, of what makes a Tarantino movie a Tarantino movie.

Yet part of the logic of director bingo parodies suggests that these new possibilities for experimentation and stylistic innovation should be resisted, that contemporary filmmakers should stick to their narrow genres. But why not a Wes Anderson action movie? In fact, you can argue that he’s made lots of action movies already. He’s directed chase scenes, hairbreadth escapes, a massive flood, and crime stories. The main character of his breakout movie Rushmore is a teenager who specializes in spectacular highs school stage versions of Hollywood action movies, culminating in an impressive Vietnam war story complete with explosions and a helicopter evacuation.

Why not bring his famous attention to detail, production design, and character development to a tentpole franchise like The Avengers? Joss Whedon, after all, is also known for his ironic sensibility. And a character like Hawkeye—a superhero whose super power is “really good at archery”–already seems like he’s from a Wes Anderson movie. And Lena Dunham directing Star Wars? Isn’t part of what we like about the original Star Wars built on the relationship stories? The triangle among Han, Luke, and Leia? The robromance between C-3PO and R2D2? And I doubt she would have included Jar-Jar Binks. Maybe it’s time for director bingo to move from viral videos to the big screen.