Thursday, September 18, 2008

Temperature Taxonomy for Directors

Today I’m going to propose a loose way of categorizing directors using a temperature metaphor that has already been around in an incomplete form. You might ask if we really need another way of classifying, pigeon-holing and dissecting films especially in an era where ideas like auteurism, genre and nationality have been widely attacked and even language and mode of production are not as clear-cut as they used to be. The answer is no. I’m only doing this because I enjoy lists and taxonomies and find it useful for describing the type of films I love.

So here are the categories: cold, cool, warm and hot. Simple enough. Directors can fall under one or more temperature and they can change throughout their career. The designations consider the directors style, content and goals. Here is a basic outline of what I intend each to mean:

A cold director is concerned with aesthetic and formal possibilities. He is often focused on the superficial exteriors of things and how they directly affect our senses rather than the symbolic or interpretative meanings. Characters are usually unimportant; treated with detachment and little concern for psychological depth or realism. Technical qualities such as color, composition, framing, lighting, staging, set design, movement and editing are more important than story or characters. The primary goal is to achieve beauty, often through experimental methods and non-narrative imagery.

Cool directors are interested, first and foremost, in entertaining. The central preoccupation is story and ample use of action, romance, comedy and suspended disbelief are employed to draw viewers into enjoying themselves. Genre devices and clichés are to be used as hooks to familiarize and accommodate the audience. The main artistic drive is to create the impression of high production values, with most technical aspects treated as distracting nonessentials. Material unrelated to understanding the story or encouraging character identification is removed or made inconspicuous so that the viewing experience is clear and concise. Ambiguity, controversy and challenges (such as difficult moral dilemmas) should be avoided.

A warm director is typically, though not necessarily, a humanist who seeks truth and understanding through the medium of film. Richly realized characters are the most important factor, with stories that may be very simple, personal and/or realistic. Deep themes that encourage further thought and argument after the movie are frequent. Films will often have a message or a specific agenda, though they might also be meditations on difficult multisided topics or unassuming character studies. The pacing is usually slow, with plenty of room for dialogue and contemplation.

Hot filmmakers are keyed to emotions and the visceral experience of watching a film. They want to affect the viewer, drawing them into the heightened emotional states through melodrama and expressionism. The films are often unrealistic and intense with wild originality, creative surrealism and unexplained strangeness used to transcend expectations and conventions. Hot directors may also employ shock, controversy, extremism, fast pacing, chaotic styles and sudden changes in technique to ensure an audience reaction. They want to challenge viewers and shake them out of complacency.

From these description it might be easily seen that in general experimental works fall under cold, studio films for wide release (especially genre films like action and comedy) are cool, critical darlings and prestige pictures tends towards warm and cult films and melodramas are typically hot.

The ancient Greeks and Romans practiced humorism, a medical theory that the body was made up of four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These were thought to control both diseases and personalities. My taxonomy is similar in that each director may have a combination of the four principles and in that such theoretical systems are almost entirely bunk.

While many great films are made under each of these categories, people will no doubt tend towards some and away from others. I like this taxonomy because it reveals my somewhat contradictory love for opposite poles: the hot and the cold. I think of the poles as the cinematic frontier, where the new exploration is being done: cold directors by pursuing formal and technical ambitions and hot directors by plumbing the depths of the human heart and psyche. The well-established middle territory of cool and warm is loved by audiences and critics respectively, but I find it less exciting.

With any system such as this there are necessarily limitations. Certainly there are some fuzzy borders between the categories and a lot of subtleties that are being missed. For instance, my love of hot directors doesn’t mesh with my dislike for some extreme cinemas: I’ve never been a fan of shock for its own sake, though I value transgression. My allegiance to cold directors is sometimes tested by minimalist avant-garde directors whose work is hard to engage with. Oh well.

Anyway, let’s get to the fun! I’m now going to start classifying directors by temperature. Feel free to comment with your additions and objections!

Cold: Bernardo Bertolucci, Stan Brakhage, Peter Greenaway, Wojciech Has, Aki Kaurismaki, David Lynch, Guy Madden, Tsai Ming-Liang, Nicholas Roeg, Raoul Ruiz, Lars von Trier, Bela Tarr, Orson Welles

Cool: Michael Bay, Jackie Chan, George Cukor, Cameron Crowe, Walt Disney, Hal Hartley, Howard Hawks, John Hughes, Peter Jackson, John Landis, George Lucas, Sidney Lumet, Brett Ratner, Ridley Scott, Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise

Warm: Kenneth Branagh, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Vittorio de Sica, Milos Forman, James Ivory, Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Eric Rohmer, Roberto Rossellini, Francois Traffaut, Agnes Varda

Hot: Abel Ferrara, David Cronenberg, Lucio Fulci, Crispin Glover, Yasuzo Masumura, Takashi Miike, Glauber Rocha, Ken Russell, Andrei Zulawski

Cold/Cool: Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Takashi Kitano, Stanley Kubrick, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Patrice Leconte, Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan, Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Tykwer

Cold/Warm: Theo Angelopoulus, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Atom Egoyan, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, Sergei Parajanov, Frantisek Vlacil, Wim Wenders

Cold/Hot: Dario Argento, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean-Luc Godard, Kim Ki-Duk, Alaine Robbe-Grillet, Shinya Tsukamoto

Cool/Warm: Robert Altman, Charlie Chaplin, Ron Howard, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Stanley Kramer, Akira Kurosawa, Ernst Lubitsch, Mira Nair, Nicholas Ray, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, Zhang Yimou

Cool/Hot: Tex Avery, Stephen Chow, Roger Corman, Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Richard Lester, Baz Luhrmann, Sam Raimi, Douglas Sirk, Johnny To, Paul Verhoeven

Warm/Hot: Luis Bunuel, Werner Herzog, Nagisa Oshima, Pier Paulo Pasolini, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Peter Watkins

1 comment:

paynith said...

Intriguing system, fun to mull over. At first glance, I would add Jodorowsky to the hot/cold category, and Mike Leigh to the warm, if it were me.

Hmm maybe also John Cassavetes, warm/hot. And now I'm thinking about whether Chris Marker should be hot/cold or warm/cold... addictive.