Friday, October 23, 2009

The Auteur Theory: Filmmakers Beware

There was an interesting piece at Slate in 2006 about the auteur theory in film criticism
with regard as to whether film directors and screenwriters can both be given credit
for being the central creators of an especially great movie. Read that piece here and be prepared for a cogent lesson in the history of movie reviewing. I think the theory is useful, but that it ought to be considered sparingly: it'Sis useful as a particular aspect of film criticism and reviewing, but it is a notion that we are better off retiring altogether. The problem with the idea is that a generation of film critics spent their time generating convolutions about directors and their reputations , using the auteur-ism as the main filter, rather than actually assessing the films that were being made. What we wound up with was little about individual films and much about puffed up reputations.The theory , I suspect, has helped ruin a few film maker's product, as in the case of Martin Scorsese. Fascinating as his films are, they are marred by an arty( as opposed to artful)virtuosity that steps out of the frame and instructs the viewer that there's genius and vision being unveiled in front of them. Scorsesee might as well be screaming through a bullhorn about his auteur status. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, has an easy claim on the term, although he wears his ascendancy to Great Directorhood like it were a loose suit. It shows in the movies he makes, I think. There is great talent here as opposed to self-declared genius, which is to say that Eastwood uses his filmmaker skills to serve a story, not pad his resume.

I've thought for years that the auteur theory was useful mostly to fan boys who wanted a means to turn their film hero obsessions into matters of serious study, thereby providing them with a reason to discourse as matter of professional dispatch about their teenage enthusiasm. The same has happened to rock criticism, and continues as popular arts chatter mimics the tonier rhetoric of literary and theater criticism.Everyone, given a theory to match their preferred diversion, gets to be a know it all. It beats learning a trade, I suppose.

A pesky item in the concept is the advance of reputation over the quality of specific work. Dozens of second, third and fourth rate directors whose films exhibit the tendencies a nominal auteur must have, such as a readily identifiable camera style that accents and enhances a director's personalized view of the world. Jack Webb, creator and star of Dragnet, wrote and directed films that transported the cue-card realism of the television show to the wider screen, "30", "The DA", "Pete Kelly's Blues" among them. The style is very distinct, the writing stands out from anything else in the field, the world view, basically post-Hemingway misery about loners abiding by a code without which the planet descends into slow chaos, bespeaks the traits the auteur critics consider as graces.

Yet there's a reason Webb's films only see an infrequent screening on AMC or one of the Turner stations while Howard Hawks or John Ford are shown repeatedly; Webb's films are fascinating for their stiff professionalism, but are in plain fact dull and dulling.Just imagine Dragnet's basic flat line style transposed to newspaper offices, a Marine base, or a jazz band, with the storyline stretched to feature film length, and you can imagine something so trudging and
cement shod that you might mistake it for Brecht . Hawks and Ford, or others one can name, easily break out of the specialized auteur ghetto and aren't afraid to entertain the senses. Auteurism's particular limit is the failure of the proponents that not all film makers are worth the same amount of enthusiastic ink.

21 comments:

  1. It is something like a tragedy that Jack Webb and Heath Ledger didn't live to make a film together concerning Sgt. Friday's encounter with The Joker. I would have loved to have seen Friday forced to attempt The Pencil Trick while attempting to get just the facts. That would be auteroidism for the ages.

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  2. The basic flaw in the autuer theory is that it preferred hero worship over art, which was a convenient way to overlook the wooden set ups otherwise hack directors presented audiences. There was the misconception that just because someone would film situations similiar from film to film , it consituted an aesthetic and constituted a style; some were artful in their familiar scenes and scenarios, but far more were merely fashioning a way to work quick and under budget.

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  3. Sam Fuller obscure epic "Kraut Maus" confirms everything you are saying. I did like the random leech scene, however.

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  4. Fuller's movie "Vreep" caused the Frenchies to drop film as a arts catagory all together and to , to a man, reneg on their worship of static and mayonaise groan cakes. But Man, that bayonet scene, with a leech yet, was enough to make a dead letter office cough to the left.

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  5. Jerry Van Dyke in the final episode of "My Mother, The Car" had a similar approach -- remember Roger C. Carmel's star turn as the Patio Squid, giving the thorax squeeze to Burt Mustin? The boys at Cap'n B's Old Place couldn't turn their necks for a week.

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  6. Dude, that part in Nick Ray's Rebel W/out A Cause where he goes all willow knee'd and frowns like a cake in the rain and utters that you gotta do the jerk or see the harder edge of a bag boy's soap dish, man that was the shit!

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  7. Calm down, my good fellow -- let's keep some perspective here. For MY money, the supressed Fassbinder film THE LIVING PRIAPUS starring Leo G. Carroll and Edward Everett Horton sharing the title role is the difinitive art film of the past 40 years. Just to see their faces meld into one vast skein of scroidal skin flapping and writhing with eddies of arid conversation for 65 hours is enough to pop any conceptual zit one may harbor, no matter how deeply.

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  8. Anonymous10:43 AM PDT

    I liked the scene when SkinPlate
    asked for a bag of donuts.

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  9. No argument there. And wouldn't you agree that Lars von Trier's upcoming remake of THE SOUND OF MUSIC starring Diamanda Galas promises to redefine the musical as we know it?

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  10. As Rivette said to William Weller, there are no cootie shots in Sawbuck City.

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  11. I'm working on a mashup of the last three episodes of THE CHICAGO TEDDY BEARS STARRING ART METRANO with clips from THE SORROW AND THE PITY. Wanna invest?

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  12. Pung Bruiseslumber3:38 PM PDT

    Nice pants.

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  13. That's sweet. Getting back to the original topic, I am fond of Webb's long-unavailable film noir thriller THE BALTIMORE GONAD KING, which prefigured MOTHER, JUGS AND SPEED by at least 20 years. Norman Podhoretz did a gripping walk-on as the Commissioner of Sewers. Very fine.

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  14. Podhortz, remember , was the ORIGINAL Commisioner Gordon in the pilot episode of the 60s Batman tv show, the one that never aired.

    And Norman Mailer had a bit part as a minor villian, The Smell.

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  15. It's about time somebody brought this up. I happen to know for a fact that Mailer's film MAIDSTONE was actually cobbled together from that discarded Batman pilot, which in turn led to his role in the film RAGTIME and subsequent choice for the lead in THE INCREDIBLE HULK - THE BARBARY SHORE YEARS, which he wisely declined.

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  16. Jerzy Metrecal3:42 PM PDT

    What's really fun is the episode Blooper Wheel, where Mailer and Adam West can't get their lines straight:

    Batman: Ah, we meet again , Smell. I will put an end to your dastardly plans...
    The Smell: This is an extensional moment...uh...uh...Mailer's mind was shooting photons across the room---uh...how about some anal sex?
    Director: CUT!!


    That brought down the house at ComiCon Hangerman panel.

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  17. That's what I call home cookin'

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  18. I think you might be confusing the scene where Bruce Banner is turning green and swelling outward while Rojack is shooting out corrosive particles from his eyes while plotting his next step in the Ultimate Bologna-Burial...

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  19. No, no, no, I remember it clearly, Mailer was up to his chin in chains when Green Arrow, played by Rip Torn, said he was going to Spago's for a fast slunk with the Wine Steward.

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  20. Well, not to dispute your impeccable memory for such things, but I seem to recall that Mailer debated Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez (subbing for Gore Vidal) on an episode of the Woody Woodbury Show before demonstating his boxing prowess in the ring with Johnny Ginger -- now THOSE were the days...

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Say something clear and smart.Lets have a discussion.