Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet, Front Page Obituary

Hey, everybody, remember the New York Times front page obituary game? Oh, c'mon, you know, the one where you have to gauge whether a celebrity is famous enough to warrant a front page death notice? Well, to my surprise, Sidney Lumet, the great film director, who died on Saturday morning, April 9th, made it! In today's Times, on the bottom, right-hand corner of the front page, Mr. Lumet, best remembered for such films as "12 Angry Men," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Verdict," and "Network," is reported to have died in his Manhattan home at the age of 86. The cause of death was Lymphoma.

My guess would have been that Lumet was not renowned enough to enjoy this kind of attention. For instance, as the obituary by Robert Berkvist indicates, Lumet never won an academy award, despite being nominated 4 times. I'm glad I was wrong, though, as at least a handful of his films, including "12 Angry Men," "Network," as well as "Long Day's Journey into Night," "Fail-Safe," and "The Pawnbroker" will endure. There wasn't anything showy about Lumet's direction, but he could be extremely subtle in how he used the camera and was a master at getting excellent performances from actors. I'll never forget learning from Lumet's own book "Making Movies" (one of the great books about the craft of directing films) that to convey the sense that the jurors in "12 Angry Men" felt trapped by their situation, he employed progressively longer lenses as the film proceeded, while also gradually lowering the orientation of the camera so that in the end the ceiling and the walls seemed to be closing in on the men. This is the perfect example of what Lumet himself called "good style" which is unseen. "It is style that is felt."

I don't know if you could say that Lumet was one of the last members of a dying breed of director, but it is certainly true that we will not see his like again. Despite Lumet's own demurral, Manohla Dargis was right to call him "one of the last great movie moralists," which, in part, meant that he saw film as apt terrain to dramatize some of our most daunting social problems, ranging from criminal justice to nuclear war to the holocaust to media sensationalism. How he approached these issues and shed light on them through film remain his major legacy and his great contribution to helping all of us understand our own culture better. That's a noteworthy accomplishment and helps to explain the Times' decision to acknowledge him. In the end, though, the best way to remember him is to sit down with a friend or two and to slide a disk of one his classic films into your media player. You may not love what you see, but you will be surprised, provoked, and challenged. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

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