Michael Koresky poses a series of provocative questions to his roundtable participants about the “now” moment of cinephilia, and wonders if cinema isn’t simply what we make of it:
Kent Jones responds to the prompt with a pointed argument about how cinephiles see “every director as if he or she were a Monet or a Stravinsky,” followed by an eloquent call for why and how criticism should be refashioned:
Is Jones on target here in his analysis of auteurism and cinephile-based criticism? Does selective vision prevent critics from seeing “the film and the world around it” before the work of writing begins?
auteurism: order focuses perception
But the transcendence did not happen on a broad, career-long level. It happened in flashes, or in the sustaining of a certain tone or mood, or in the divining of certain values outside the official “theme” or thrust of the movie, and it always occurred in reaction to and/or in concert with studio conditions.
And we come to understand that^ when the auteur is the center of reference.
Auteurism provides us the convenience of a center, from which we can gauge the integration of things.
The triangle formed by the film, the auteur and the viewer is more important now in an environment where not all films are receiving the attention of critics.
eh, my feeling is that the word “auteur” is more useful in identifying a “cinephile” than it is in describing any stable sort of relationship between a director and their films. Call a director a director, we know enough about their role for that to suffice.
As an analogy, I think you use la politique des auteurs in a manner similar to the way so-called New Criticism was used in regard to literature—by limiting a work or works in this way, you can treat the work as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. This doesn’t necessarily (and shouldn’t) mean that, if used properly it obliterates all other possible meanings and referents, but it does at least provide use a means of considering Walsh separately from Borzage, Borzage separately from Dwan, etc., rather than seeing them all simply as part of an undifferentiated mass of craftsman making films under the aegis of Hollywood. Farber and Patterson’s qualifications are well-founded, however.
I agree—to me it makes more sense to think of it as a way of looking at a director’s work, as an imposing of order for the purpose of focusing perception, as Robert says, than it does to use it does to use it as a synonym for director, or to use it as merit badge.
Yeah, it isn’t as if the Cahiers crowd “discovered” that directors were the primary artists involved with a film, the directors role was noted, and even celebrated in criticism long before they came around. Arguably criticism before the auteur theory was even better balanced as the roles of other cast and crew members were given greater weight as the screenwriter’s contribution was mentioned more often. Of course they also had some pretty nifty screenwriters back then, so that also helped. Increased attention to the director was almost inevitable given the “need” to associate an artwork with an artist. To my way of thinking the more important aspect of auteurist thinking came from a sort of sleight of hand where the focus on the importance of the director as ’writer" of the films took some measure of emphasis off the films as narratives which opened the way for less reputable genres to be seen as being the works of “artists”, and if the film is the work of an artist, then the film can be, or even must be, art. So it allowed for films that may not have been considered art worthy to be looked at under a different light due to that shift in emphasis. For good and/or bad, it helped move film art from having to attend to “high art” concerns in order to be seen as worthy to covering a broader range of representations. This too was likely an inevitable outgrowth of other societal changes and pressures, but the role of auteurists in breaching that wall in film was a significant one as the body of work and techniques used from film to film were examined more thoroughly.
Some of the problems with auteurist thinking is that it didn’t cover the different circumstances of the directors involved very well, and once the theory was established and became better known it became even less useful. In some ways it was simply a redundancy as the better directors often gained more freedom to make films in the manner they chose giving them more opportunity to assert some form of dominance over their work. The role of John Ford in the films he directed was of a different nature then Tourneur’s role often was in his films, so the ability of each to express some vision in film doesn’t compare particularly well even if one thinks of them both as being “auteurs”. A guy like Lewis Milestone started off his career auteury as all get out, but the conditions changed, as did the types of films he worked on, so his auteury aura faded as his career went on. Someone like John Cromwell, Bernard Vorhaus or Richard Wallace could exhibit flashes of excellence, but they didn’t get or take the same sort of free hand approach as someone like Hawks could do. The bigger “auteur” then was often the more financially successful filmmaker, which hardly needed reiteration.
After the sixties, once auteurist thinking became sort of ingrained in the critical dialogue, and the director started to achieve greater prominence as the old studio systems started to devolve into new and less coherent forms, directors started to write and direct more frequently, similar to the way rock musicians were no longer content to be voices for the songs others wrote. Once that happened, the idea of the auteur became even less important in its original sense as the writer was often the director, or at least the director often had a much greater role in the production then before. More and more the director could shape their production from beginning to end, rendering the need to celebrate some as auteurs increasingly silly as they were so obviously in control of the major aspects of the film that noting it in some special way became almost a redundancy or, at best, akin to calling an artist a master compared to his lesser comrades. Antonioni an auteur? Fellini? Bergman? No shit. Do we need the word to say that? The distance between the control someone like Fellini could have on a production and someone like Mitchell Leisen could are so enormous that to try and use that same term for each confounds far more that it enlightens. Calling someone like Malick an auteur and then trying to use the same sets of references to talk about Tony Scott is just perverse, even if Scott would better fit the old school definition of the term.
I also agree with the idea that auteurist thinking has overcorrected for less attention being given the visual side of the filmmaking dynamic and has, in the use of some of its adherents, gone too far in giving the director a sort of control over meaning that would be more sensibly placed on the head of the screenwriter. It isn’t even that the screenwriter isn’t given the credit they deserve or that the screenplay isn’t considered to carry nearly the same sort of authority over the film, its that visuals for their own sake seem to be given more emphasis than the spoken word or even the narrative as a whole in some quarters. This just doesn’t make sense to me at all. This imbalance is, however, in the process of correcting itself as I see it, and the screenwriter’s role is coming back into a sharper focus in some areas of study. Partly this is simply a reaction of market forces on the academic and critical communities, I suspect, as it is easier to find something new to say about a screenwriter than it is about a director who has been written about three hundred times before. So too is there a growing examination on the role of the production designer and the roles of other “passive” crew members. I have little doubt but that there will be a lot more critical space given over to people like Perry Ferguson or Charles Brackett in the coming years as this will allow for more articles to be written about the Hollywood films that are so of interest to many out there.
This interest in old Hollywood though is, I believe, also waning as generations who didn’t grow up with old movies being shown on broadcast television all the time come into their own. The lack of exposure to “classic” films at a young age makes the films just inaccessible enough that the interest in them isn’t as intense as it was for those who did grow up watching them. I suspect that this will lead towards a shift away from some older forms of criticism as many of those were based off of a studio system that is becoming less and less familiar to people as the years roll on. Needless to say, everything I’ve said is only a guess based my experience and what I’ve been able to grok as trends from scattered readings so take it all with a grain of salt, well, all except for the idea that the term auteur should be given the boot, on that I’m certain.
“ts that visuals for their own sake seem to be given more emphasis than the spoken word or even the narrative as a whole in some quarters.”
I kind of see this in terms of oppositional forces—we could agree that, as a general principle, film is appreciated by the general public as primary a “storytelling” form, right? Much of the push back from specialist then emphasizes other elements in the interest of the “whole” being a more complete picture even if the specialists’ actual practice starts to involve smaller and smaller fragments of the whole.
“giving the director a sort of control over meaning that would be more sensibly placed on the head of the screenwriter. It isn’t even that the screenwriter isn’t given the credit they deserve or that the screenplay isn’t considered to carry nearly the same sort of authority over the film”
This was partly to free film from being beholden to literature, but also I think this is a natural offshoot of the oft mysterious nature of the screenwriter’s contribution. There’s a lot of collaboration, sequential revising, and script doctoring going on, a lot of writing credits are split into “story” and “screenplay” credits, for example, novels and plays are adapted. And with the exception of somebody very high profile like Tarantino or the Coens, or somebody of high status like Schrader do you even seen screenplays published, etc. Then of course you have directors who work actually ends up changing quite a bit during shooting from what was original scripting because they’re improving with the actors in rehearsal or whatever. So, do we really even know what the writers’ contribution really amounts to in many films? (though, I think that in and of itself would be a very interesting avenue for investigation).
“Arguably criticism before the auteur theory was even better balanced as the roles of other cast and crew members were given greater weight as the screenwriter’s contribution was mentioned more often.”
One man’s opinion: having read a fair amount of pre-auteurist American film criticism, there’s some great work, but a lot of it is pretty dire. I’m tempted to say that great theoretical constraints led to greater criticism even if it did indeed sacrifice some balance that was more available in the macro view, but I’m not sure I can offer support for that view in a very comprehensive fashion.
I absolutely agree on the oppositional forces idea, and something like that is how I imagine much criticism , academic work, and art comes about in a way as it is opposing the “natural” flow.
As to your second point, I largely agree with what you are saying, but I didn’t mean anything quite so precise as I might it sound, I was suggesting more that the tendency to favor the ’director’s" contribution, which can often be the cinematographer’s, the production or costume designer’s or what have you, the “screenwriter’s contribution” by which I merely meant the language and possibly the basic plot of the film no matter who really put it together as long as there is some split between the duties. I wasn’t trying to suggest that there is one person entirely responsible for that aspect, but that often one can find a coherent style, sets of interests or body of work from the writer across different directors as you can a director working with a number of different writers. For example, I would argue that Domino should be seen as a Kelly film as much as a Scott one as the themes and method is as related to Kelly’s other films as it is to Scott’s, or that Social Network can be profitably understood as being a Sorkin film in addition to a Fincher one as some of the ideas presented in dialogue fit with interests Sorkin seems to hold more than they do with other Fincher films. Arguable? Sure, but to diminish that side too much regardless of the possibility of some contamination would to me be foolhardy.
The last point was merely meant to suggest better balanced in the sense of apportioning credit to different members of the cast and crew, not to suggest the reviews as a whole were better, some were, some weren’t, there certainly weren’t as many of them and they generally sought different goals, but they did seem to have a fair handle on who to assign credit to in many instances as a wider range of names seem to often be brought up, possibly due to the theater influence.
Edit: Damn, I forgot to bring up an Ephron / Scott comparison! Try and read that into what I wrote above, it will make me feel better…
Auteurism provides us the convenience of a center, from which we can gauge the integration of things.
I would agree that in both of those examples it would be useful to look at the writer’s contribution.
Robert, I think we can say that the director is the center of the film, and generally the most important single contributor to it as everything else goes through them (or a particularly invasive producer/studio head). I just don’t think we still need the auteurist model to understand that as it carries some distortions as well, which I think can be seen from many discussions on movies around here as well as in the film community at large. I also suspect that model has lost a great deal of its coherence, so I’m just hoping to help it on its way out the door.
Anything can be misused. Should we dump auteurism because people misuse or misunderstand it?
It’s like the adage: guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
I don’t understand why the auteur theory is so controversial. All it does is reinforce the notion that the director is the artistic mastermind behind a film. I don’t understand why so many have such a problem with that. i can understand how some may find the name for the theory pretentious, but the theory itself is certainly grounded in some truth. After all, anything French-sounding is accused of being pretentious these days.
I think it has to do with the perception by some that it’s a sort of “grand theory” that, in terms of cinema, explains it all . . . or at least the perception by some that some have this perception of it, and something also to do with what we have been calling “oppositional forces”—that it was far one way prior to auteurism, and now has gone pretty far the other way, so there’s a tendency to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.
On a side note, why does it seem that in theater the playwright receives all the credit, whereas in film the director receives all the attention? Why aren’t theater directors viewed as creative artists in their own right unless of course they wrote the play as well, whereas there are plenty of filmmakers who’ve directed screenplays written by others who still receive artistic respect in their own right? It strikes me as a double standard.
I’m just going to outright say that in my online criticism, I pretty much talk about the work in terms of what “the director” did whether I speak about editing or cinematography or whatever. This is not a defense of my belief in the auteur theory, it is self-admitted laziness. Intriguing to think about, but the auteur theory does sort of promote a shorthand for responsibility as a production is concerned, so that no longer does a movie need to be read in the sum of its collaborative parts but seen and detailed via the concerns of a single talent.
I am not a huge fan of David Thompson, but one thing you can immediately recognize in his books is that he puts a little more detail into the history of the production itself as part of its construction of meaning, both in terms of when it was made, and for what reasons. I think the premise is good, I am not of the opinion Thompson does it well.
Besides, can’t all artistic mediums be collaborative. Bands write music together. Paintings can be created by more than one person, or painters and writers can’t advice and suggestions from others and use it as they see fit, so the role of the director shouldn’t be diminished simply because he has a separate editor and cinematographer. No artist works in a void.
“why does it seem that in theater the playwright receives all the credit, whereas in film the director receives all the attention?”
It’s historical. If you think about it this way it’s easy to see. Plays predate the ability to preserve performances by quite a large margin. The ability to record a play as text greatly predates the ability to record any of the other aspects of it, so historically, plays get preserved as text. The author of the text of a play is the playwright, so therefore he became accepted as the author of the play. It’s essentially the same with music prior to audio recording, the composer of the score became the author of a work (because that’s what was able to be consistently preserved), even though obviously the musician and possible the conductor had a profound influence during the course of any actual performance. Film has a different set of historical contingencies to contend with.
Excellent point about it being efficient shorthand and, yeah, regarding Thompson, and Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” would be another example of trying to shift emphasis away from the director (in that case, to the writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz).
Well conductors, at least in the 20th century, are respected as artists in their own right regardless of whether or not they were influential composers, as well.
“Bands write music together.”
So you credit that band as a single entity. This doesn’t work with filmmaking. Do you credit the actors with the script? Sometimes. Do you credit the editor with the script? Rarely, but possible. Do you credit the producer with an artistic vision? Sometimes. When it’s the band, usually it’s considered everyone equal, with maybe a frontman who organizes the show. Rarely do people actually credit things like the band manager or the mixing/mastering/producing team, but the music is considered to have originated with that entity that is the actual musicians of the show.
“Paintings can be created by more than one person”
Yes, and typically all painters involved get credited individually. Again that’s basically how movies go, what with the closing credits, but there are a LOT more people and their input to the creative process is a lot less distinguishable. Do you credit the best boy with his artistic vision? No. A collaborative painting in most cases either has individual sections done by individual artists, or is directed by one artist. A movie image is a sum of a lot more parts artistic, technical, and otherwise.
“painters and writers can’t advice and suggestions from others and use it as they see fit, "
Thus acknowledgments pages in books, or thank yous in movies, or in a public introduction to the painting, et al.
“the role of the director shouldn’t be diminished simply because he has a separate editor and cinematographer. "
Not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the auteur theory allows people to say, “The director frames a close-up on…” which sometimes is the director’s choice… and sometimes was chosen by the cinematographer when the director just focuses on the acting or something else… or was a cropped close image by an editor needing an insert shot from b-roll. These choices and the collaborative decisions made are unclear to the viewer and so auteur theory was developed as a method of putting a stamp or signature on the director’s participation as author of the work. This theory is controversial because before it was popularized, it really wasn’t what the director was around for. The director in a sort of technical business sense is the middle management between the producers who want a certain product, and the crew that sets about making that product. Thus the director’s command of the set can range from a very specific vision, to merely insuring that all the requisite and determined shots to tell the story are captured and the editor can figure out how they go together.
The auteur theory is, in a sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy because it inspired directors to BE auteurs, and this is not a bad thing. It is just worth noting that it’s not always significant to the details of a production and how it turned out. Take Spartacus. People struggle to see which parts are “Kubrick’s” and which parts are not, and are often wrong. Spartacus is Kirk Douglas’ movie, through and through. It’s his movie, his vision, what he wanted done, but auteur theory taken no further than its simplified “The director is the artist” form (which is really an incomplete way of looking at it) would demand that we “read” Spartacus in terms of Kubrick’s vision and thematic concerns.
Pendulum swing . . . and a quite recent development in terms of the history of music. And partly that’s due, I’d say, the relative deemphasis now present in classical music on new compositions, so you have a proportionate increase on emphasis on particular performances. Obviously the presence of recordings makes this much easier for this or that performance of Bach to be “canonized” or considered definitive, but that doesn’t even begin to become a viable option until 1900 or so.
This is true, too. As cinema is beset by auteur theory, music is beset by live performance. Artists in both groups question and confront these roles often, but the general trends of perception from critics and public have a tendency to maintain their expectations developed by status quo—and the proliferation of so many artists “confronting” and “questioning” things has unfortunately become so common that it’s relatively ignored, and also because an artist cannot simultaneously “question” and “confront” his own identity AS artist without taking at least some amount of credit for developing the artwork.