March 17, 2009

The genius of Billy Wilder

You may notice that the sole permanent picture on my blog is one of Billy Wilder. In addition to being a totally rad picture, I had no trouble handing over the only spot to Wilder, because he is a cinematic genius. Films like Double Indemnity, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard are all impeccable classics, as well as less famous works like Ace in the Hole and Sabrina. A more thorough examination of his filmography reveals treasures like the stunningly dark alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend (a Best Picture winner, actually) and the Berlin comedy A Foreign Affair, which I'll be catching at my beloved Brattle this week. Nobody's gonna argue that this guy wasn't a brilliant filmmaker and writer (he wrote of lot of classic films that he didn't direct, like Ninotchka). But why was he so brilliant?

I have a theory. Some directors build a reputation on a distinct visual style. Others are all about plot (looking at you, Hitchcock). But what Wilder was about - and what many screenwriting books tell you films are all about - was relationships. The key, however, was that they were not just any relationships, but a subversion of relationship archetypes, which therefore meant that the conflicts were built in. Instead of husband and wife, how about wife and man trying to kill her husband, or wife and man exploiting her husband that is trapped in a mine? Instead of boyfriend and girlfriend, how about younger man kept in a mutually dependent relationship by a decaying older woman, or married man lusting after a fantasy girl upstairs that might not even be real? Man and prostitute in Irma La Douce becomes man who is prostitute's pimp but falls in love with her and has to start going to her with an alternate identity. Boss and employee becomes more complicated when the boss is using the employee's apartment to have sex with a girl they both like. The relationships of Kiss Me, Stupid are so complicated that you need a road map, but what might have been a simple infidelity scenario becomes lots of people pretending to be other people in order to get what they want. A quick browsing through the AFI Top 100 proves that not many other classic American films relied on this concept. Oh sure, you take something like screwball comedy where the hero and heroine get into all kinds of entanglements and conflicts in their path to an eventual union, but from the first frame you know that both of them are basically there for a straight courtship.

It seems to me that a lot of writers and directors, both past and present, make things too complicated. Now, that isn't to say I don't love a good thriller or mystery, but sometimes you just have to go back to basics. Maybe modern filmmakers should take a hint from Wilder and look at the relationship as the source of their inspiration. You might have a really great character, but if you don't give him other people he's just going to sit in his house alone and be boring. But instead of just giving him a wife, maybe give him a woman pretending to be his wife - something with an inherent conflict. Watching people relate to each other is maybe the most relatable thing you can show on a movie screen.

What do you think? Other Wilder fans in the house?

1 comment:

David said...

Thanks for this. I love Billy Wilder and my affection has been growing over the past months. Just watched the genius Foreign Affair yesterday -- how absolutely ridiculous this film isn't available on Region 1 DVD. Speaking of which, Fedora is terrific, along with other late-period works like Avanti! and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

I agree with your assessment that Wilder's is a cinema of relationships. I think this in part comes from his idol Lubitsch, but Wilder takes it further -- basically, into the subconscious. His characters are stuck in behavioural patterns of which they are initially only faintly aware. This is comedic but also disturbing (look at his first film, the hilarious but trenchant The Major and the Minor). I find that, often, characters trade one pattern for another, which is seemingly converse but actually quite similar to the first. Perhaps the best thing about all of this is that Wilder is committed, above all, to entertainment: all this patterning, however intellectual, is simply an age-old recipe for satisfying adult-oriented comedy, from Shakespeare to Moliere to Sheridan to Wilde to... Lubitsch!

Finally, I think it's very important to give credit to Wilder's collaborators, namely his screenwriters Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond, who are undoubtedly responsible for making his films as consistently good as they are.

Thanks again for the post.