“Best Director” Madness 2023: Final 4 and Championship Game

To see the intro page for “Best Director” Madness, click here.

To see the Round of 64, click here.

To see the Round of 32, click here.

To see the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, click here.

Sixty-eight directors walked in. Four directors are still standing. One will walk out as the champion of “Best Director” Madness 2023, a prize which is ninety percent as good as an Oscar and sought out with greater fervency by the world’s preeminent film directors.

We have two more Roger Ebert quotes to pull in as criteria. The Coens-Lean and Malick-Bergman matchups will be decided by this one, from Cries and Whispers, which at the early stages seems like kind of a raw deal for Terry:

To see it is to touch the extremes of human feeling. It is so personal, so penetrating of privacy, we almost want to look away.

Roger Ebert, August 18, 2002

The thing about this quote that stands out to me, and which ended up making the difference for me in both matchups, is that Ebert finds expression of the “extremes of human feeling” not in intensity or constancy but in humiliation. That disbelieving feeling we have when we cannot understand how it is or why it is that we are being watched when these most personal things happen to us or within us. Humiliation and degradation are primary feelings to search for her, but surely exultation or joy or despair or fright could fit in here as well.

The thing is, though, that humiliation just works so well for this prompt that Joel, Ethan, and Ingmar just have this incredible leg up on the competition. I think it’s worth talking about this mortifying privacy without recourse to Cries and Whispers in Bergman’s work, and happily for him, there’s plenty more to choose from. The two best chapters of Scenes from a Marriage are “Paula” and “The Illiterates,” which have the deceptive quality of undercooked chicken. There’s a sear on both episodes, but bite into both and there is this unpleasant, then disgusting, then horrifying quality of what you’ve just put into your body, what you’ve just exposed yourself to. That zoom on Marianne when she realizes that her husband is leaving her for another woman. That shot where you can see Marianne and Johan grappling with each other on the floor, finalizing their divorce and still so mad at each other that even the final steps of signing paperwork can’t be completed without violence. It’s embarrassing to watch. But it’s personal, more private than any bodily function or sexual act. Malick is great at this cutting down to the marrow as well, but as they say when they want to start an argument about theodicy, the reason Malick loses out here is God’s fault. They say it in The Tree of Life, when Mother asks, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” The people of Malick’s movies are in God’s hands, a state of grace like being swept up into a tornado. But it’s hard for something to be so private when God is already there with the camera. There is no god for Johan and Marianne scuffling on the floor, no god for Easter struggling for breath in bed in The Silence, no god for Rut in her tantrums in Thirst. It’s just them and us.

David Lean has been making hay for the past couple rounds on these films which are so much about individual feeling, but even if the feelings are undignified, or the results of those feelings are undignified, Lean does not leave his characters stripped all the way bare. Their humiliations, those moments where Lean makes us desperately uncomfortable because of or for his people, are pulled back from the edge of the train tracks. Laura comes home after Dolly Messiter interrupts her final moments with Alec, and her husband says: “Thank you for coming back to me.” Lawrence, for as much personal turmoil and doubt as he goes through, gets to die young and as a national hero. “What have I done?” Nicholson murmurs. Rosy leaves town while we know that her father is the true coward-villain of the story. Ridgefield gets to prove that he’s not just some heartless engineer. Adela receives some confirmation that she is not all bad. On the other hand, the Coens are not afraid to do surgery and then leave the body open for a little while so everyone gets to see inside. Not to bring up Fargo yet again, but that’s Fargo. That’s Burn After Reading and A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis. The world the Coens see is made of Lundegaards and Gopniks, Davises and Litzkes and Coxes. The sympathy we can feel for Llewyn Davis, the world’s most unlucky asshole, is the sympathy we can raise for assholes and not the good kind we have for martyrs and victims. The sympathy we can feel for Linda Litzke, a self-important middle-aged woman of delusional character, is more like pity than something kind. The Coens get accused too often of making fun of their characters, which I don’t think is quite right. They’re not laughing at people like this so much as they are refusing to ennoble them.

The final matchup is between the 4-seed from Jupiter and the 2-seed from Wales, between a pair of directors who shared the Oscar for Best Director and a director who picked up some late career nods which do not seem have to done much for him. The quote which will decide who takes it refers back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and while it’s as specific as any other we’ve used, it’s also got the potential to be reasonably abstract:

The shock of the monolith’s straight edges and square corners among the weathered rocks is one of the most effective moments in the film.

Roger Ebert, April 12, 1968

I’ve been waiting for an Ebert quote that’s more about visual style than story or character this entire time, and the last matchup feels like an opportune time to bring that out. The way I wanted to run this to was to come up with suites of ten images per director, with only one per film. Whichever one I find is the more effective at juxtaposing shape and form in the aggregate wins. (One of my great pet peeves is when people put still images on the Internet and they’re like, ‘Oh my gawd what incredible cinematography this is.” I lack the technical ability to put moving images here; trust me that I am thinking about these as moving images and using these shots as bookmarks.)

Coens first:

A Serious Man, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis, Miller’s Crossing, No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona

Bergman second:

Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander, Persona, Sawdust and Tinsel, Scenes from a Marriage, The Seventh Seal, Shame, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician, Wild Strawberries

The simplest way to describe these suites is that the Coens are using shapes as a method of contrast and that Bergman is using focus as a method of contrast.

The most Coen shot of that group is probably the one from O Brother, Where Art Thou? which shows the rippling water where people have been baptized against the lines of people waiting for it. (The circle of the mirrors in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and A Serious Man meets the thin, structural lines of Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men.) It is a juxtaposition not only of shapes but of time; the past is present in that shot just as the present is, and the expectation of the future is in it as well. Timelessness is at the forefront in A Serious Man when we look at the goy’s teeth: how long could those letters have been there? The hell created in Barton Fink is like the timeless Hell of religion, showing us “the life of the mind” which must be unmoored from linearities like the one given to the lives of our bodies. The dream sequence of The Big Lebowski is so smooth and curious, and dreams and time already have a relationship based on a shared enmity (see also Wild Strawberries). The outlier of the bunch must be the shot from Inside Llewyn Davis where the focus rests on Oscar Isaac and a cat I really want to snuggle, and the rest of the restaurant rests in this shadowy ochre, blurred like you’re trying to blink the gunk out of your eyes. The Coens are not heavily reliant on deep focus in these shots; they build contrast in that shot by lighting Isaac at the expense of a world that he’s too stressed, too apathetic, too dissatisfied to care about anyway.

On the other hand, focus is what signifies Bergman in his suite. The hand and the professor in Wild Strawberries, the halfway-Fordian use of a three-dimensional frame that allows us to see Jarl Kulle immensely in the foreground and Gunnar Bjornstrand small behind the petite Margit Carlqvist on the right. The shot from Shame includes four different areas of potential focus and, distance aside, each of them is equally clear. Color and shape matter less to him, not least because so many of those films are in black-and-white, but even compared to the stewed cinematography of Inside Llewyn Davis, his color palettes are far bolder and simpler. Deep red for Cries and Whispers, white and black for Fanny and Alexander. When he shoots in lower light, as he does in Scenes from a Marriage, it’s done less for verisimilitude and more for the chance to light two people mirroring one another with a smiling, almost clownish paper lantern. Happy days are here again for two people who can drink wine at the same time without being tempted to smash the glass against the other’s forehead. Alternately, it’s a purposeful lack of contrast which makes Death so instantly arresting in The Seventh Seal. By rights, Death’s long cape should flutter in more in the sea air, but instead it hangs heavily, and so in black-and-white it looks as if he has risen from underneath this barren seascape in an instant and without effort.

The reason why Ingmar Bergman wins this bracket, and thus “Best Director” Madness 2023, is because of that shot from Persona which contrasts the faces of two women against each other and still suggests that they make sense melded into one another this way. They may be uncanny, but they still read as one human, as a single person. It is a contrast which is historic and terrifying, awful and delirious. It is the most adventurous moment in Bergman’s career, and would have been the most adventurous moment in virtually any other’s had s/he come up with it first.

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