Annoyance Experts

I’ve been reminded of the source of that famous Howard Hawks line about how a good film always has “three great scenes and no bad ones.” It’s from Joseph McBride‘s “Hawks on Hawks,” which has just been republished by University Press of Kentucky. I referenced the line in last night’s “Howard Hawks Wants to Know” piece. But the broader Hawks quote contains a side-thought that nobody ever mentions these days.

“Not that you’re trying to make every scene a great scene, but you try not to annoy the audience,” Hawks tells McBride on page 36. “I told John Wayne when we started to work together, ‘Duke, if you can make three good scenes in this picture and don’t annoy the audience the rest of the time, you’ll be good.’ He said,’“Do you believe that?’ I said, ‘Yeah. If I make five good scenes in this picture, and don’t annoy the audience, I think I’ll be good.’” Wells insert: Now wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute…did Hawks believe that nailing three great scenes was all you needed, or did he believe that five was a much better tally and that three might not be enough?

“So [Wayne] started to work on that. And he always comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, is this one of those scenes?’ and I’d say, ‘This is the one where you get it over just as quickly as you can and don’t annoy the audience.’ ‘OK.’ We work that way, and now he preaches that as though it’s gospel,and he does a great job of not annoying the audience. As we got to be better friends working together, I could hear him telling some actor who was trying to ham it up, ‘Look, the boss says this. You see that you do it. Get it over in a hurry. This is one of those scenes.’”

How many directors even think about not trying to annoy their audiences, much less act upon this? I feel as if 80% of the big-time directors out there not only know they’re annoying me but are almost trying to intensify my anguish. Does anyone believe that while cutting together that 80-minute-long battle between Superman and General Zod in Man of Steel that the concept of “not annoying the audience” even occured to Zack Snyder?

  • otto

    The problem is exactly the opposite. Big-budget Hollywood has a battery of prophylactics designed to ensure the picture does NOT annoy the audience, which has led to pre-tested, saccharine, walking-away-from-the-explosion-in-slo-mo predictability in 90% of what hits the cineplex.

    The great/bold directors are the ones with the courage to annoy the audience by doing something that doesn’t digest easily. The groundbreaking flicks – I’m thinking City of God or Run Lola Run – deviated from expectations and didn’t worry about mollifying their audiences.

    • brenkilco

      Agree with you about most Hollywood product. But there is a big difference between challenging and irritating. Audiences were generally held rapt by City of God and found Run Lola Run an unexpected kick. Now take a movie like Stoker which I was dumb enough to sit through on HBO last night. Much hyped director, Talented cast. The earmarks of a superior genre piece. But, alas, unbearably arty, pretentious, unbelievable, pointlessly perverse, both intricate and confoundingly stupid, and grindingly slow. Old Hawks had a point

      • Brad

        The car scene between Mulroney and Goode is flat-out the funniest scene of the year. Nothing touches it. Not surprising Goode has been typecast as preening jerks because his one attempt to emote is a disaster. The crocodile tears, the hundred hard stare, the whimpering: PURE GOLD.

  • pizan܍amore

    This level of filmmaking insight, applied to skiing:

  • berg

    in other breaking news …. watching the screener for August: Osage County and the ending is edited differently from when I saw this a couple of months ago at a fest …. the ending I saw did not include a shot of Streep embracing Misty Upham on the staircase

    • hupto

      That is not in the version I saw at the Academy screening last week, either. It IS the last scene of the play. Did she read the T.S. Eliot quote when you saw it?

      • berg

        the screening I attended had a q&a with Tracy Letts and he suggested that a (not seen) shot of Johnna Monevata was his input to the ending

        • hupto

          Hmm, interesting. Possibly implying that (don’t worry, not a spoiler) he was not comfortable with the movie ending with Julia instead of Meryl. Thanks.

  • Krumly

    I read it as Hawks meaning that the actor needs to deliver three great scenes, but he as the director needs to make sure there are at least five good scenes overall in the film. Not that that necessarily makes sense, but it reads like that to me.