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Article on director Sam Mendes in Sunday Times

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The excellent piece linked to below, entitled "Just-High-Enough-Art," by Lynn Hirschberg appeared in last Sunday's NY Times magazine. It's a profile of theatre and movie director Sam Mendes, and has an interesting take on its subject. Some sample quotes:

"Having run a theater for the last decade, Mendes, who is only 36, thinks like a studio head even when he's directing. Which means that he tries to win for both teams: commerce and art. "

"Mendes happily tests his films with preview audiences. 'With many directors, fear masquerades as confidence,'' he says. ''You have to have the courage to listen to the audience. If 200 out of 250 people say something didn't make sense, you have to consider their thoughts.'"


Is it possible to combine commerce and art, especially as consciously as Mendes proposes to do it? (In the case of "American Beauty," Mendes dumped the original more downbeat and cynical ending after test audiences didn't go for it, and substituted something more upbeat-- Spacey still gets blown away, but in transcendent fashion, and with a smile on his face.) I must say I quite enjoyed that second quote -- one reads about studios conducting hatchet work on their films because preview audiences responded negatively, but rarely do you see a director patting himself on the back for bravery for doing so, especially in public.

I wonder how this approach would work for, say, Godard. ("Jean-Luc, it's confusing and a downer. They get stuck in all this traffic for hours, and then she winds up snacking on her husband. We have to reshoot.")

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Thank you for posting this, dirac. I like that second quote, too. When I was younger, I would have been appalled at the very idea. Care what the audience thinks? Pfui! Who are they to tell the artist what to do? The artist's role is to make great art, and if no one gets it -- well, no one ever gets great art in the first generation. Do they?

And yet I always preferred Truffaut to Godard, finding the latter pretentious.

Obviously a disconnect going on there. :)

Now I'm with Mendes. There's a difference between, say, Dickens writing "A Tale of Two Cities" only to find his focus group wanted Sydney Carton to whip out a six shooter and blast them all to smithereens (oh, pfui on anachronisms, too) and then comply, and listen to what the viewers say and accommodate them while retaining a smidgen of his vision.

I think that the biggest lesson I learned writing book proposals to publishers, and then writing a book, was that one has to get over putting down everything one wants to say, and think, instead, of what the reader needs to know. I think that works in any art form.

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Yes, but. Isn't there a difference between an artist who is accessible and has a natural popular touch-- I'm thinking of Spielberg -- and someone who is trying to have it both ways, which is, as the late Dwight Macdonald observed, "an infallible sign of nonart." When "Schindler's List" ends on an uplifting note, it's not because the script initially had everyone heading for the gas chamber but was changed because preview audiences found this depressing. It's the kind of ending that Spielberg is naturally inclined to favor (and maybe part of what drew him to that material in the first place). Truffaut's roots were in avant-garde rebellion, but he also had natural affinities with the mainstream. But he would never preview "Two English Girls" and, in the wake of a bad reaction, change the ending so that one sister doesn't die and the couple doesn't break up.

I guess my feeling is this -- if you want to be popular and successful, that's fine. But don't make blatant artistic compromises for such reasons and then applaud yourself as if you've done something courageous. It's pretty clear that Mendes didn't think there was anything about the original ending of "American Beauty" that was not consonant with the theme of the film. The audience didn't like it. That was all, really.

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I suppose that someone with a true popular touch (who can also be an artist, quite rare) knows instinctively what will work and so doesn't need to preview -- your Truffaut example. But I do think that some "avant garde" artists who see people heading for the exits could stop and think what they might find lacking. Sometimes it's lack of knowledge, information, or even taste, on the audience's part. But sometimes the artist is just being too indulgent.

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