Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #14 - Rob Reiner

photo by Franz Richter

-The Princess Bride
-A Few Good Men
-When Harry Met Sally
-This is Spinal Tap
-Stand By Me
-Alex and Emma

-The American President
-The Bucket List

The thing that surprises me about Rob Reiner is how many excellent movies he has made.  Not only that, but they are so varied in type and tone.  It amazes me that the maker of the Misery also made The Princess Bride.

Reiner is not known to be showy in his approach to directing.  He takes what I would call the invisible approach, where he uses his skill to wrap you so much in the story that you don't realize the effect the directing is having on your emotions.

He deserves a lot of credit with making the comedy mockumentary what it is today with This is Spinal Tap.  Every movie and TV show that uses this format owes a lot to the pioneering vision of Reiner, who figured out how to make everything in the film feel like a documentary while giving it the intense absurdity of a screwball comedy.  He gets his actors to take the amazingly self serious tone that people who are subjects of documentaries have.  Look at how he gets Christopher Guest to look almost offended when asked why is 11 amp is different than other amps.

In Stand By Me, Reiner captures those last days of innocence before high school, when you are still a kid.  He got his actors to walk that fine line between childishness and the onset of maturity.  All the while he makes this woodland trek, with its horrible destination, filled with visual wonder and nostalgia.  Very few movies capture so well that very specific time of life with those types of friendships.

When Harry Met Sally gets a lot of its acclaim from Nora Ephron's witty script and the chemistry between leads Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.  But he takes this R-Rated story (for those who don't remember, the dialogue gets pretty raunchy), and makes it feel lighter than it actually is.  The movie deals with a lot of dark subjects: depression, divorce, infidelity, etc.  But in the last magical moments, he lets us feel Harry's desperation as he races to let his life begin.

One of his best directing efforts, though, was A Few Good Men.  Aaron Sorkin's script is so powerful, but Reiner really brought his A-game to this court room drama.  Go back and watch his subtle manipulation of the camera in that final confrontation with Col. Jessup.  As he walks in, the low angles make him feel like a giant, untouchable and fearsome.  And on the witness stand Reiner makes him still feel imposing on the entire room (not an easy thing to do with someone sitting in a chair for 10 minutes).  But then watch the visual tables turn until the very end of the interrogation and watch how he has been diminished visually.  It is powerful and, again, invisible.

But his boldest accomplishment is The Princess Bride.  I have read the original novel, and it is cynical and snarky book.  Reiner could have easily taken that route with the story, doing a satire of fairy tales.  But he instead wanted to unlock the secret of the stories we tell children.  The framing of the story of a grandfather reading the book to his grandson is not incidental to the movie; it is the whole point of the movie.  The stories we heard as a child are a bit silly, but never cynical.  And the ones that were shared with us by those who love us are the most important.  Reiner fully commits to the odd tone of the film, part swashbuckling adventure, part slapstick comedy, part revenge epic, part true romance.  And it all fits together perfectly because Reiner understood that the common thread through all the stories was sincerity.  It is hard to depict that kind of earnestness without appearing unintelligent.  But Reiner wove a magical story together perfectly.

Invisible directing can often lead to directors being overlooked for their craft.  But by looking at the sheer number of good films he's made, Reiner has shown that he knows how to make good art.

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