Panic attack on the big day

My First Movie
November 3, 2000

In 1964 Andy Warhol put a camera in front of the Empire State building and filmed for over eight hours. Asked why he thought anyone would want see Empire , Warhol said that as most Hollywood films are essentially made up of the same ingredients, American audiences were used to the formulaic. Empire simply highlighted this point.

Reading My First Movie , I was reminded of Warhol's theory. The book is essentially a template of Q&As between the editor, a fledgling film director, and a number of well-established but, with a few exceptions, by no means household names. The paucity of big hitters may be because Faber has already published interviews with some of the best-known directors and the result is that My First Movie sometimes feels like a collection of first chapters that did not quite make the grade.

Each chapter begins with questions about early experiences, influences, and the travails of making that cherished first project. Most of the contributors dance the triptych of: Where do I put the camera? What do I tell the actors? And what is this scene about? But the homogeneity of questioning means that much of what is said is either repetitive or requires a detailed knowledge of the films in question.

Thus director after director doffs his hat to Fellini, Godard and Bergman, while admitting to extremes of nausea, vomiting and panic attacks before their big day.

Tellingly - and this may reflect the post- Star Wars generation of film-makers who dominate the book - very little discussion takes place around Eisenstein's assertion that a director should not just follow the protagonists around but compose a "succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images moves the story forward in the mind of the audience".

Instead we learn that American film-makers grew up on a diet of TV, while British ones looked to the theatre for early influences. While most of the UK directors featured here - Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Anthony Minghella - were happy to cut their teeth in BBC drama, their American counterparts could not wait to escape the small screen. An interesting footnote to the British contributions is the influence of cinematographer Chris Menges on the early efforts of a generation of late 1960s and early 1970s directors. Without him the topography of British cinema would have been very different.

The most interesting ephemera comes from those film-makers who drift away from formulaic responses. My interest perked up when Loach talked, not about the French New Wave, but the Czech directors. For Loach, Czech cinema had "an interest and a space for people" that clearly showed up in his own work. Similarly, P. J. Hogan, director of Muriel's Wedding , grew up in an Australian backwater town (improbably named Tweed Heads) with one cinema that never showed Australian films. So Hogan missed the 1970s renaissance heralded by the likes of Peter Weir ( Picnic at Hanging Rock ; The Last Wave ) and Philip Noyce ( Newsfron t ) because Towering Inferno played for over a year in Tweed Heads in the mid-1970s.

Ang Lee ( Eat, Drink, Man, Woman ; The Ice Storm ) grew up in a Taiwanese culture in which "the essence of morality is 'filial piety' and says this has held back Chinese society for years". Ironically, being aware of the conundrum did not stop Lee being so deferential to the two veterans of the Taiwanese movie industry appearing in his first film ( Pushing Hands ) that on the second day of filming, his "biggest star", Wang Lai, became extremely distressed about the lack of Lee's direction; his own programmed respect for the elderly was having "a negative impact".

Lowenstein could also have been more trenchant in dealing with his subjects. But you get the sense that he is in awe of them because they speak from a platform he is desperate to reach himself. Occasionally the book comes to life and shows us what might have been - for example, when James Mangold, an American director who has forlornly been waiting for Tarantino influences to wear off, discusses Alexander Mackendrick's severe teaching methods at CalArts. Mackendrick was born in the US, grew up in Britain and made some of the best Ealing studios pictures, including The Ladykillers and Whisky Galore . He then went back to Hollywood and made one masterpiece, Sweet Smell of Success, and one near masterpiece, an adaptation of A High Wind in Jamaica ; both bombed with the public and he ended his days in academia.

As told by Mangold, Mackendrick's sense of film grammar matched the requirements of Eisenstein and were summed up on numbered cards stuck to his ceiling. Whenever his students strayed in terms of creativity he would simply ask them to look at cards 11, three and 22 to see where they had gone wrong. The language of cinema has always been very simple but remains a difficult one to translate.

Farrah Anwar is a consultant psychiatrist who contributes to Sight and Sound .

My First Movie

Author - Stephen Lowenstein
ISBN - 0 571 19669 1
Publisher - Faber
Price - £14.99
Pages - 384

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