I have always wanted to convene a symposium for critics called "Well Directed" or — more bravely — "Badly Directed". It would force critics to really put it on the line, if they had to concretely talk through, in excruciating detail, why they believe a certain scene in a film they either love or hate is good or bad.
But don't critics do this all the time? They certainly do not. They only appear to do so. What most writers do is take their 'gut reaction' — their general, amorphous sense of pleasure or unpleasure prompted by what they see and hear — and project that back into the film. If it's a bad film, it's got to be badly directed, right? Or badly written, or badly acted, or badly edited... or some combination of such judgements.
Critics hurl these kinds of verdicts, and some of them seem to stick. But that is pot luck, because much of what they are doing is pure fiction. As a rule, people who write about film without ever having been involved in making one have almost zero understanding of craft — of the type of the variables (practical as well as aesthetic) that are being juggled in the construction of even the simplest shot or scene.
Does this matter? Not all the time. The fiction that is criticism can go along easily, and sometimes magnificently, without any nuts-and-bolts appreciation of the filmmaking process. But today, one relatively unexplored space in the genre of critique is a renewed appreciation for — and argument over — good and bad direction.
I recently caught up with a movie that is uncontroversially considered by most viewers to be very bad: M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (2008). I agree with this consensus. But to get specific, I believe I can point, here as elsewhere, to a dependable index of shaky direction: it is what I call the Many Heads In Frame syndrome.
Bad directors always cram too many heads in the one frame. The idea itself is not wrong, or automatically out of bounds — no idea is. But successfully pulling this one off demands definite control and skill. Many heads means many actors, and unless you can blend the various histrionic levels of these diverse performers, the result can be wildly off-the-leash.
Bad movies often generate a certain, mounting hysteria in audiences. This is a fascinating psycho-collective phenomenon that, to my knowledge, has never been properly explained. I do know, however, that when a bad movie begins wildly shoving many heads in a frame, this laughter can reach its orgasmic peak.
Such an event happens more than once in the woeful Australian gangster-modernisation of Shakespeare's Macbeth (2006). Whenever, in the midst of some shaky-cam shot, these mini-gangs of criminals or teen witches freeze into a group posture — while rattling off the Bard at machine-gun speed — hysteria instantly takes over. One actor or two actors in a frame does not trigger the same derisive affect. But three or four or more, and the Divine Mystery of Bad Cinema locks in.
Of course, there are directors who handle Many Heads in Frame superbly. It demands a delicate stylisation, like Sofia Coppola achieved in what is still her best film, The Virgin Suicides (1999). Tim Burton is a master of visual seriality: a dozen identical creatures in a line, aided by digital effects. And there's the veritable Daddy of this technique, Sergei Eisenstein, as in a typical composition from Alexander Nevsky (1938): what a great eye, to split a forward-line of three heads from eight in the background! But take careful note: Eisenstein at least had the good sense to unify the picture by sticking all the heads in identical helmets.