Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Auteurism



I've had a couple of different trains of thought running through my head lately; let me draw them together in this post under the broad, common theme of auteurism.

The subject of Adrian's new column at Filmkrant is the screenwriter/auteur debate. He recounts an exchange between Josh Olson and Brad Stevens. Olson wants to remind everyone that even though Cronenberg might get the credit for the two much-talked-about sex scenes in A History of Violence, he (Olson) is the one who scripted them word by word. Adrian writes:

Stevens fires back with an impeccable cinephilic example. The opening scene of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière (2003) is so rich and complex on the level of its sounds and images, gestures and spaces, light-values and rhythms, that it could never have been entirely 'foreseen' or described in a script. Stevens does not mention Hou's close longtime script collaborator, celebrated Taiwanese novelist Chu Tien-wen, but his point is solid. However, it sends Olson and his LA-based comrades into apoplectic fits: it's a critic's fantasy! Auteurist nonsense that can only believed by eggheads who have never made a film! Give the greatest directors in the world a blank page, and see if they are so great then!

As Steven Maras argues in his forthcoming Wallflower Press book on screenwriting, this rage rests on the metaphor-idea that, while the writer is the true creator, and the script functions as an architectural blueprint, the director is merely the person who 'executes' the script, or builds the house to prior specifications. What auteurism - in its most enlightened form - is about is not the god-like primacy of the director on set, but the 'holistic', integrated, organic conception of a film, from first idea to final post-production. Hou guides this process from the start; while Cronenberg imposes his vision on projects that he does not always initiate. But cinema is the weaving of many different 'writings', from the written to the filmic - not the primacy of any one over all the others.


* * *

The above piece sparked an interesting discussion in the comments to the previous post (scroll down about three-quarters of the way). I thought we might continue and extend it, either here or in the previous thread. Let me offer a few remarks in response to that discussion.

In my view, auteurism is not an account of how films are made. It is instead one among many ways we, as viewers, choose to read a film. In other words, it is one particular lens through which films can be viewed: by foregrounding the 'marks' of expression belonging to one person, the auteur, most frequently the director.

The first widespread use of the term in France in the '50s occurred in a very specific historical and political context. Cahiers du Cinema critics used their politique des auteurs to champion those filmmakers working in the Hollywood system who managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production. Thus, the CdC critics chose to read Hollywood films—and this was a political choice they were making—in a way that focused on the 'identifying marks of expression' made by an auteur like Nicholas Ray or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks.

Since then, the term 'auteur' has found use in a looser, broader fashion, but I don't see it as objectively claiming (as a 'theory' might) that the contributions of the director trump those of the screenwriter, the stars, the cinematographer, etc. In fact, the term 'auteur theory'—first used by Andrew Sarris when the politique made its trans-Atlantic crossing in the early '60s—is misleading since auteurism is not a theory at all, but instead a certain mode and manner of reading films.


* * *

Dana Polan has a fascinating essay called "Auteur Desire" which was published at Screening the Past in 2001. He explains the double meaning of the essay's title:

On the one hand, in auteur theory, there is a drive to outline the desire of the director, his or her (but usually his) recourse to filmmaking as a way to express personal vision. The concern in auteur studies to pinpoint the primary obsessions and thematic preoccupations of this or that creator is thus an attempt to outline the director's desire. On the other hand, there is also desire for the director - the obsession of the cinephile or the film scholar to understand films as having an originary instance in the person who signs them. Here, it is important to look less at what the director wants than what the analyzing auteurist wants - namely, to classify and give distinction to films according to their directors and to master their corpuses. [...]

[There is a] belief in conventional auteurism that it is precisely because the pressures of the system so weigh down on the auteur that he/she (but usually he in the canons of such criticism) is forced to creativity as a veritable survival tactic.

Polan makes a distinction between 'classic', Cahiers/Sarris auteurism and contemporary auteurism. The former was frequently mystificatory, believing that "personal artistic expression emerged in mysterious ways from ineffable deep wells of creativity," while the latter involves closer attention to the encounter between the auteur and the resources of filmmaking, and

a greater concreteness and detail in the examination of just what the work of the director involves. Gunning, for example, is explicit in his understanding of Lang not as a romantic genius drawing inspiration intuitively from hidden depths of insight but as a veritable pragmatist who directly labors on the materials of the world.

Likewise, the historical poetics of David Bordwell focuses attention on the immediate craft of the filmmaker - how he/she works in precise material ways with the tools and materials of his/her trade.

There are precursors to these contemporary approaches: for example, the mise-en-scène criticism of Movie magazine and V.F. Perkins, and Manny Farber's close attention to the myriad 'surface' details of a film—what Polan calls "an auteurism of energetics rather than metaphysics or thematics."

He also proposes this interesting idea:

[I]t might not be too extreme to suggest that in the auteur theory, the real auteurs turn out to be the auteurists rather than the directors they study. Faced with the vast anonymity and ordinariness of the mass of films that have ever been made - and in contrast to the anonymous, ordinary manner in which many people see films (the LA times reports that many average spectators go to the multiplex not having a specific film title in mind and choose once they confront the array of offerings) - the auteurist quests to have his personal vision of cinema emerge from obscurity. He struggles to impose his vision on a system of indifference...


* * *

This brings me to a notion that I have long wondered about: why is it that seasoned, intelligent auteurists don't always agree on the value of a particular film or filmmaker? In the light of "auteur desire," the answer is not difficult to see. If each auteurist brings to and imposes his/her desire upon a film or filmmaker, and no two people share the exact same configuration of desires (assuming that the desires of a person are influenced by his/her 'subjectivity', which is historically shaped by the accumulated set of cultural experiences that person, or 'subject', has had), each person would, naturally, have a different and unique encounter with a particular artwork. This makes disagreements both a matter of course and perfectly understandable.

Dan Sallitt, in a thread from the a_film_by archives, offers interesting insights on disagreements about the value of artworks:

When we disagree about the value of an artist or a work of art, we wonder how intelligent observers can be so far apart, not only in their opinions, but also in their perceptions. One possible model for disagreement is that one person has a wiser perspective on the topic at hand, and that the other person simply has grabbed hold of the wrong end of it. In most cases, this model is deeply inadequate from any objective perspective: it doesn't account at all for the great coherence and thoughtfulness that we often see on both sides, even when the positions are plainly mutually exclusive. But, in our hearts of hearts, this is the theory that we usually hold when we are one of the parties to the disagreement: our own position seems so coherent that we suspect the wisdom or the motives of the other party. Once in a while life presents us with an example of a disagreement where one side is clearly better supported than the other, and these occasional instances give us hope that maybe all of our opponents are similarly misled.

What occurred to me this morning is that maybe we underestimate: a) the incredible amount of data available in even the simplest work of art; and b) the mind's ability to find strong, coherent patterns in even a small collection of data. So, for instance, I come to Kubrick with a particular heightened aversion to a certain acting style which is connected to a certain personality trait. I identify this element, am ticked off by it, and calibrate my perceptive apparatus so that I start picking up any other element with some aspect in common. Because there is so much data in a movie, I have no trouble finding lots of support for my initial aversion, and in discarding the occasional data point that doesn't fit what I'm looking for. Within minutes, voila! I have constructed a coherent Kubrick-pattern that I call a sensibility. Meanwhile, other observers, without the same baseline aversion that I have, not only construct a different Kubrick-pattern, but also lack a slot in their Kubrick-pattern to help them identify the traits that look obvious to me.


pic: The train animations from Hou's Café Lumière.

88 Comments:

Blogger nitesh said...

Girish, as usual a wonderful post: mixed with your regular dose of collage and insights. Their something about Auteurism, I have never been able to grasp or understand completely, in the midst of all this theories and definition and judgment, the silver lining between an auteur and craftsman is something which I haven’t been able justify and collectively understand (presumably this has to do with my lack of insights and navieness about the medium). The title of the current post reminded me of a class on, “Film Appreciation” in college, my teacher who in mist of being an FTII graduate was far vocal and pessimist against all the auteur theory- and she had her set of reason, though definitely not as critical, as we don’t have a base or foundation of a genetic pool of critical study here in India.


The question hence raised was: Is Karan Johar, Rituparno Ghosh as much an auteur as the people you champion (here she referred to the bunch of young left cinephile from East India like me). The debates went on for days: yes, the discussion was interesting but in the end: no conclusion was ever reached. After all, if Mirnal Da, Or Buddadeb Dasgupta: Writes, Direct, and forms a visual idiom and syntax of their own which can be traced from films to films, which also is true for a film of Karan Johar or Rituparno Ghosh. So what then makes the thin distinction between a commercial filmmaker like Karan Johar, a semi-art filmmaker like Rituparno Ghosh and the likes of poets like Buddadeb Dasgupta?


A couple of months back I was interning on a film, which was to be, ‘ different’ in all its form for the Indian market, to certain extern it was, Dil, Dosti, etc. But the director never got his due. I remember when he said, I’ m trying to work towards certain sensibilities of the French New Wave, the unanimous reply was you have two choice : Get out of the film or make it the way we want( a major portion was re-shoot again). Since theories and stuff no one believes or gives damn. The only moment when such talks of theories are fine, it’s behind closed doors. The major distinction for our, ‘Media’ are, ‘Realistic’ filmmaker and, ‘Non-Realistic’ filmmaker. The fact India is a country which produces one of the highest number of films in the world, and has an audience whose apettite for films are not going to decline any time soon- I wonder how much of all this autueurism really is important after all, since, most people really don’t get it. I guess a certain pool of real critical and mainstream study is required here.


It’s always an immense pleasure reading the blog, and the comments which proceeds especially with the likes of Maya, Harry and others there is an immense joy in learning. Sorry, the post got a little long, but I believe this is an important place of discussion, and in all my navity I think it’s important for the people of our generation here to be in touch with major critical analysis from the world, and thank god, the Internet has really helped. Else I wouldn’t have got a pat behind closed doors discussing Cinema with some important filmmaker, after, they were not aware what happens in the world beyond their own small world or what they had seen Film School, but Critical standpoint nil. Though while leaving they said: ‘ Beta, it’s nice yeh theories, ye all this, par French New Wave and tumhara critics, film nahi banathe hai, so you better leave all this make some films, in our Indian tradition and later you can do experiments.
(Son, all this theories are nice- French New Wave and this critic , but they don’t make films, so you better leave all this, and first make films our ways: then you can experiments)… Cinema is about storytelling, was the unanimouous agreement with most people, rest sab bakwaas hai (Rest everything is crap). Well, at least I dint’ believe any of this.

March 31, 2008 6:58 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This old debate pre-dates the existence of cinema. It's the conflict between "art criticism" and "reader's response", one looks at the generation of the artwork inside the artist's inspiration (and the way its coherence spans the entire oeuvre), the other looks at the final result, an object out of context, as perceived by the emotional sensibility of one certain witness (one film at the time, and only what is seen on screen). They operate on a different level and don't really contradict each others because they don't focus on the same thing at all.

I agree auteurism is one way to analyze an artwork but we could hardly ignore it entirely if we consider cinema an Art equivalent to Literature and Painting. La Politique des Auteurs did more than just offer a new perspective on Hollywood, it changed the status of cinema (in general), from an industrial spectacle made by a team of industrials to a personal art made by an artist. If there is no artist at the origin of the work, there is no Art.

Now the fact that only one interpretation of an artwork could exist is a common misconception. Nobody argues that in Literature, various art critics could offer differing and complementary readings of a poem, most of which would even elude the poet's consciousness. A poet puts a lot more than (s)he is aware of intentionally consciously generating when spontaneously inspired, and theoretical frameworks can help to extract the hidden symbolism, the subconscious desire, the rhythmic patterns. If the poet herself is not aware of it doesn't mean it is an invention of the analyst, it doesn't mean that the poet's own interpretation/explanation of her work is the only valid one. But if these interpretations are soundly constructed and significant they converge toward a particular perception of truth, because a critic's subjectivity is formed from the same general patterns than another critic or the artist himself. We are all humans that's why we can share emotional experiences and that's why certain pieces of Art may resonate universally with mankind (beyond individual subjectivities). We don't know why an artwork makes such a powerful consensus within the population and throughout ages (beyond fads), and that's the critic's job to figure it out (with the help of tools the average witness is not conscious of).

But the critic is just a human like any other witness, and therefore cannot entirely escape the projection of his/her own subconscious desire onto the object of study. This is the reason why people mistrust "theoretical objectivity" while this uncertainty is part of the equation, and still connects with the "collective unconscious" : if our very personal fantasy is triggered by a stimulus, it wasn't put there by chance, and most likely this pattern also resonates with what the artist has put together (whether consciously or unconsciously), because we all react to the same archetypes.

p.s. Thanks Nitesh. It's the collective discussion and mutual sharing that is priceless here. :)

March 31, 2008 7:44 AM  
Anonymous Daniel said...

Perhaps it is oversimplifying things, but I look at auteurism more as an interpretative context rather than a theory of production/creation/intention. I use it as a critical tool to find consistency, continuity, and patterns (or their absences) to better understand a film or group of films, hopefully in a similar way to understanding the historical context or industrial context.

March 31, 2008 11:30 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

That's the logic behind my own "autuerist philosophy" too, daniel. But I must admit that sometimes I notice myself lazily slipping into a shorthand when talking or writing about films, in which the words I'm using seemingly imply that the director is also paramount in creation and especially intention. I can see how this shorthand would frustrate some people, yet it's almost necessary if I don't want to start each conversation with a disclaimer.

I read the entire exchange mentioned in Adrian's column, and I found it interesting that Brad Stevens never really qualified his comments with statements like girish's "auteurism is not an account of how films are made. It is instead one among many ways we, as viewers, choose to read a film." He did speak to the difference between being interested in studying the filmmaking process and studying the work itself, though- perhaps this is roughly equivalent.

I can see why Olson would have grown so frustrated with auteurism and want to stamp it out in all its forms. Clearly some people misinterpret and misapply the tool, and I have no reason to disbelieve when he rails against the influence the director-as-auteur concept has in Hollywood. I wish I could be optimistic that the general perception of the director's actual role in filmmaking could become better-informed, without the abandonment of a highly useful way of looking at and speaking about films. But I'm afraid that it may be too late for that- that what comes to most minds when the word "auteur" or "director" appears is already impossible to dislodge.

March 31, 2008 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

I'm rather old-fashioned when it comes to my appraisal of whatever it is that we may call "art". I use the New Critical framework of "the artist is dead" so that I don't, say, proclaim a poem a "great poem" simply because I know it was written by Sylvia Plath. So most of my appreciation of any artform undergoes this movement of consideration: the art object first and the artist second. Of course, there are always exceptions, but for me the most important is that I appreciate the object first. That said, it's obvious I don't abide by the notion that "a lesser work of an artist is more worthy than the superior work of a mere craftsman". Art is in itself the result of craft.

I've been reading the a_film_by archives as well, particularly the posts about auteurism, and I find myself sympathizing with Dan Sallitt's view on auterism (that his critical outlook is not solely dependent upon it). I firmly believe that film is a collaborative art that is produced by the interaction of various creative forces (directors’, actors', screenwriters', cinematographers', art directors', costume designers', etc.) because, well, simply put, that is how film is made in reality. It's easy to apply auteurism to literature because there is the writer alone in direct contact with the pen, paper, keyboard, computer. There is one mind at work. All the words and metaphors come from this single person. But the film crew is not composed of brainless objects but rather human minds that are constantly creative. People do not stop thinking (unless they are dead). The vision I see on the screen is a vision that is the result of all these creative forces at work. I guess the director is able to "direct" these creative forces into a comprehensive vision that we see on screen, but that doesn't mean he is the sole artist of the work. That's a bit too fascistic for my tastes (unless he is directly responsible for the minutiae of every process – art is in all the details). Whenever I've sat in and watched people making a film, it's always struck me how much it is a collaborative process. I guess the narcissism comes after. (Not to name names but a young Philippine director du jour in the Senses of Cinema World Poll comes to mind).

Anyway, I wonder why the work of a single creative mind is usually prized above the work of several creative minds? If in literature we are able to accept exquisite corpse and renga as valid art, why not artwork that does not possess a single "auteur"? What about the Dardennes, Coens, or Quays? Surely we grant each of the brothers their individuality and thus their individual creative obsessions, processes, etc., and that their films are results of multiple creative forces at work? Or what about that for something to be deemed as art, that it is entirely possible that the creative force behind it isn’t even identified in the first place (I’m thinking of Beowulf or the Bhagavad Gita) If this is possible in the auteurism of literature, then I personally believe that auteurship in film is never limited to the director alone, or that such ascribing is even necessary.

I know, my rationale may be simple-minded, but, heck, I've been more than happy sticking to it throughout my cinephilic life so far :)

March 31, 2008 9:37 PM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Girish brings up the point that auteurism is a way of reading film instead. I have no objections to that perspective :) But I myself can't seem to ignore the fact of how film is made in the first place. I have to know how this art is produced, and then I will know how to approach it, to read it.

March 31, 2008 9:46 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I get the sense that there are probably as many theories about auteurism as there are auteurs hoping to fit the theories; much like the ball of a roulette wheel going round and round and round, finally falling into its appropriate chance slot. Of course as W.C. would grumble, "This ain't a game of chance. Not the way you play."

I like how Girish has qualified this ongoing debate. Auteurism is not really a theory at all but a way of reading a film! That makes sense. Auteurism would then more pertinently describe the sensibility that informs a film, with the caveat that this might be an energy at work distinct from the director's vision (which—it seems to me—is how auteurism is popularly conceived). As I've mentioned before, Lewton as producer was considered (by some) to be the auteur of his productions, though one would have to be downright blind or misguided or lacking in generosity not to commend the contributions of Tourneur's directorial flair, Musuraca's atmospheric cinematography, or Robson's infamous "bus" (the granddaddy of the startle edit). The auteur's sensibility or personal sense of style, the way he or she holds the film together, would have much to do with a spirit of collaboration or the lack of it, the willingness to share credit or to not share credit, the overall awareness of what each individual on the moviemaking team has contributed to the final product. So if the lens of auteurism was applied by the French to the film factories of Hollywood, it was to grant credit and credence to whoever gave the gift of cohesion (or as Dan eloquently states it, coherence) to a film and—for ease of interpretation—the director seemed a likely choice, since he (or she) came off like a conductor guiding an orchestra. But as anyone who loves classical music knows, the music doesn't really belong to the conductor—and extending the metaphor to film—the conductor isn't always synonymous with the director. Dottie and I are in concurrence here.

As for why one man's testament to coherence is another man's messy bedroom has everything to do, I think, with vibration. The ability to sense an affinity or to understand another's intent is the gravitational pull—the recognition you might say—of their sensibility. Films, like paintings, like any image for that matter, have gravitational fields. In some instances even magnetic fields. They draw you in or deflect. You are either destined to crash and crater, sworn to orbit, or off on the thrust of your own ellipse, as happy and carefree as a comet.

Aside from Polan's astute forensics that the fingerprints of "auteurists" are all over their auteurs (I think he's got the ship in the bottle), perhaps the noun should be severed from the individual and given back to the act? Auteurship rather than auteur? That might more readily allow for how two (or more) individuals can "make wonderful music together" (to hammer that metaphor into place). The dyslexia that informed and fractured Guillermo Arriaga's narratives were given a particular focus and athletic vibrancy by Alejandro González Iñárritu's directorial prowess. Their synergy created a great internationally-acknowledged trio of films. A comparable synergy was achieved when Arriaga broke off to work with Tommy Lee Jones who likewise flexed directorial prowess. Arriaga's Night Buffalo, however, lacked some vital thrust. Perhaps the virile synergy of collaboration? And we have yet to see what Iñárritu can do on his own. Though I will say that Iñárritu's adamant refusal to share his auteurship (banning Arriaga from attending the Cannes Film Festival) is a bit telling. In my book, one can be more generous with what is really their's.

Again with Dottie, to insist on granting auteurship to single individuals is to beg indulgence of the wisdom of Solomon who will, undoubtedly, blithely advise that you split the baby in half. Some fools just might do it. And judging from some films, some have (Orson Welles comes to mind).

The Polan essay looks intriguing. I've printed it out so I can sit down with it in the morning when I'm most alert with coffee at hand and—as an alternate to comprehension—when my remembrance of origami is at a heightened pitch; fold here, fold there, fold here, fold there (sip of coffee). I'll be back on that, though I must admit upfront that "an auteurism of energetics rather than metaphysics or thematics" just makes me want to sneeze outloud. My sinus cavities can only be tickled by so many "ics" and "isms" before they protest.

Nitesh, thank you for your kind words. Girish's class is the best, isn't it? No false dichotomy between teacher and student; it's all learning here for everyone or—I name no names—not.

Dear Harry: Can I fix you a cup of coffee and teach you some origami? Fold here, fold there, fold here—Harry!—don't fold there! Heh. I very much like the craft of your paragraph that ends with: "If there is no artist at the origin of the work, there is no Art." Even if I don't agree. Workers are the origin of work. Promote them to craftsmen. Flatter them as artists. But workers are the origin of work. Art is something else. Some transcendent interpretive interaction belatedly contingent on no less than a billion variables. Just look how an indigenous artifact, for example, can be converted to art merely by removing the fact and placing it ingeniously in a white cube. Did that Mali dude mean for that ladder to sell for hundreds at Sotheby's? I've been in home interior stores where old propellers, rowing oars, even patent leather clown shoes, leave utility behind and—through form, through shape, through nostalgia's desire—become invested with the attributes of art. Every now and then some seasculpted driftwood or smoothed touchstone gains an aesthetic currency as consensual as gold.

Interesting you should venture into the archetypal patterns of poetry. I've just picked up a second-hand volume with that title by Maud Bodkin published in 1958. I bought it as much for the smell of the paper as for its homage to the biological wealth resident in the human psyche.

Brian, I strongly recommend you begin all your conversations with disclaimers or at least end them with apologies. At least with me. I can't bear to be any more frustrated than I already am. For starters, I'm not sure if I'm upset with the director-as-auteur approach simply because it has more hyphens than it probably should.

April 01, 2008 12:25 AM  
Blogger Peter Nellhaus said...

Probably the best support for the auteur theory that I read came from a screenwriter. John Gregory Dunne wrote a piece in Esquire as I recall, about reading two unfilmed screenplays. He thought The Great Gatsby was one of the best screenplays ever written, while The Wild Bunch was one of the worst. As Dunne pointed out, it takes more than the screenplay to make a good film.

April 01, 2008 1:34 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Conversely, a bad director can ruin the better of two scripts. You're begging a definition with exceptions.

April 01, 2008 4:28 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Nitesh, Harry, Danny, Brian, Dottie, Maya, Peter!

Maya, your origami examples make me laugh out loud.

Perhaps I can add just a few more thoughts:

-- I think auteurism can be very sensitive to issues of craft. Dan Sallitt is a filmmaker with two admired feature films to his credit; he is an extremely sensitive and insightful auteurist, with great knowledge of craft. David Bordwell is an example of an auteurist who has written (his late work, especially) in amazing detail about craft--e.g. his book Figures Traced in Light, about staging practices in cinema, which have rarely/never before been studied with the sustained care and detail he devotes to them here.

-- As people, we don't simply belong exclusively to just one category of art-lover. e.g. I consider myself an auteurist, but I'm not only an auteurist. My recent immersion in Indian popular cinema has shown me that auteurism is quite a limiting way to enter that cinema. Genre and stars are at least as, if not more, valuable ways to personally make sense of, e.g. '70s Bollywood cinema. So, I often end up foregrounding them more than I do the director.

- For auteurists: Do all the films you like/admire lend themselves equally to a high degree of auteurist appreciation? I wonder what kinds of cinema begin to slowly pull you away from auteurism...?

April 01, 2008 9:48 AM  
Blogger Peter Nellhaus said...

For myself, it's not being pulled away form auteurism but recognizing that not all directors are auteurs and not all auteurs are directors. A couple of years ago when Freedomland was released, Andrew Sarris wrote a piece appreciating the work of Richard Price, novelist and screenwriter.

In the case of some of the vintage films from 30's, I generally like Warner Brothers films no matter who the listed director may be, whether Michael Curiz, Lloyd Bacon or Archie Mayo.

April 01, 2008 11:22 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Like Miguel Marías said in the last post, it's surprising that of all places on the internet we should argue with auteurism here like it was a whole new conundrum all over again... If we have to go back to the raison d'être of an auteur it's going to be a looooong debate. Especially since there is more than one issue brought up here. So many problematics are conflated and solved as if there was only one. Not all of them (if any) have the liability to debunk the auteurist theory.

And sure we can watch and love movies without the auteurist theory, without knowing the name of the director, but that's besides the point. It's like worshipping a love poem for its intrinsic beauty and forgetting that someone actually made it for you and that the love feeling at the origin of this production is what matters, not the incidental singular incarnation. That love could generate hundreds more of poems alike. If you keep the poem and get rid of the lover your relation to that sentiment is purely fetishist and superficial. That's the reason why a critic cannot remain a simple blissfully ignorant viewer like anyone in the audience. A critic's aim is to extract the hidden quintessential desire that made the visible achievements of the film possible.

"Conversely, a bad director can ruin the better of two scripts. You're begging a definition with exceptions."

This is a correlation rather than an exception. ;)

"For auteurists: Do all the films you like/admire lend themselves equally to a high degree of auteurist appreciation? I wonder what kinds of cinema begin to slowly pull you away from auteurism...?"

The answer is in the wording of your question, Girish. You oppose "like/admire" to "appreciation". Not that they are incompatible, but they refer to a different level of approach to cinema. We may love films that have no artistic values and it may be intolerable for us to sit through a film we recognize great artistic values. There is no self-contradiction at all. The "cinephile" (Eros) and the "critic" (Aesthetics) inner conflict to win over your mind. The cinephile doesn't needs to have "good" taste, there is no guilt or shame to sport bad taste or subversive/peculiar/obsessive attractions. And "taste" is proper to the individual, it no longer applies when we look back at the history of Arts with some distance.

April 01, 2008 12:12 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Dottie,
"a lesser work of an artist is more worthy than the superior work of a mere craftsman"

Being an auteur doesn't preclude being a bad auteur. It only means having a distinct own consistent coherent meaningful signature.
Now what is your distinction between "artist" and "craftsman"?

"But the film crew is not composed of brainless objects but rather human minds that are constantly creative."

No disagreement there. Now just compare the scope and depth of each of these individual employees to the impact of the auteur's creativity.

"art is in all the details"

But details alone, separated from the sum and its transcendence, aren't as great as the complete work. It's completion that matters. And the artist can replace a missing detail by another one if an employee fails. The master-artist in control cannot be replaced however, without dramatic changes. Remove the artist from the team of creative minds and the artefact loses its status and value of Art.

New Criticism also ignores how the object was made (intentional fallacy) so the number of "creative forces" doesn't matter. Your understanding of the word auteur is too literal, it's an abstract concept for the original generating force authoring the distinctive identity of the artwork (which is more important to Art than its craft materiality). So the "Auteur" could very well be a duo or a team, but a team of auteurs then, not a group of mere creative individuals (who each have no idea of the final achievement of the whole outside of their own contribution).

Take the example of Lynch who keeps the point of his film a secret till the end (and it even remains unknown after projection fo the film). This is a good metaphor for the artist's vision that is proper to the artist and cannot be shared (even if he wanted to) in words. The artist only knows how things should go and how it shouldn't be (even if he's unable to explain it, to predict or to verbalize it). The point is that he knows and that he will control all contributions in order to accomplish this vision. Give a Lynch project to another director, they wouldn't know what to make of it! This is a dramatic example , but even with simple scripts and easy films, the auteur's intention is not transmissible.

"If in literature we are able to accept exquisite corpse and renga as valid art, why not artwork that does not possess a single "auteur"?"
Auteurism doesn't negate "collective artworks". It's just a particular case. Usually, the vast majority of art is made by individuals, that why we often take this generalisation as a rule. Auteurism isn't a numerical rule, it depends on the identity of the signature, whoever authored it.

April 01, 2008 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Thank you, Maya, you've put into such eloquence what has been in my mind and that I've only managed in fractured comments :)

Harry,

"It's like worshipping a love poem for its intrinsic beauty and forgetting that someone actually made it for you and that the love feeling at the origin of this production is what matters, not the incidental singular incarnation."

First of all, how is disregarding the auteur theory disregarding the fact that the act of creation produced such a work of art? I acknowledge that art must be produced (it did not fall from the heavens!) It just means that I don't find identifying the source of creation as necessary to appreciating a work of art. No one can identify who wrote the Bhagavad Gita. Don't tell me it is not a work of art, or that my appreciation of it as a work of art is invalid because I do not know the specific circumstances of its creation?

"If you keep the poem and get rid of the lover your relation to that sentiment is purely fetishist and superficial. That's the reason why a critic cannot remain a simple blissfully ignorant viewer like anyone in the audience."

I do not get your point here. How is simply appreciating the intrinsic value of art fetishist and superficial if we are able to be critical about it? Your analogy does not make sense to me. Surely, the highest value of a love poem received is found in the fact that it was given by a lover. But how can you say that filmmakers make their art out of love for their audience in the first place? And how is one ignorant if he or she simply decides to appreciate the object in question with a critical mindset, without any interest in its creator, BUT acknowledges that the artwork has been produced through the process of creation?

How is this a work of art? What are its values as art? These are the questions I ask myself. I don't necessarily need: how does this work of art fit into the oeuvre of its creator? What does it say about its creator? Of course, that doesn't mean I don't ask these questions myself.

"A critic's aim is to extract the hidden quintessential desire that made the visible achievements of the film possible."

And for this to happen the critic must without a doubt know who the director of the film is or who its auteur is? What if Mizoguchi had died without ascribing his name to any of his magnificent films? Does that render them valueless as art? Does that render them inferior because of their anonymity? If they were anonymous and yet exhibited sensibilities that made them seem to be related, how can we be perfectly sure about that?

Look at Maya's previous post. He answers a lot of the questions here.

"The "cinephile" (Eros) and the "critic" (Aesthetics) inner conflict to win over your mind. The cinephile doesn't needs to have "good" taste, there is no guilt or shame to sport bad taste or subversive/peculiar/obsessive attractions. And "taste" is proper to the individual, it no longer applies when we look back at the history of Arts with some distance."

More dichotomies? Such a simplistic way of thinking about people. I'd like to think I have more subtleties and nuances about me and that you were referring to me here, indeed, in the first place! So, I say: I am a critical cinephile. I love cinema first, and I am a critic second. Just because I'm a proclaimed "cinephile" does not mean I lack in critical faculties. Stop assuming, Harry.

Taste, such a worthless word. There is no good taste or bad taste, just personal taste. But that's already a given.

April 01, 2008 1:38 PM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Harry, I just saw your post. Must be the difference in time zones!

I'll admit I don't know much about auteurism, but I've always thought it depended on identifying who the "auteur" is in the first place. Anyway, I like thinking about things simply, so just a disclaimer on my thought processes here, unless you think me some ignorant fool!

"Remove the artist from the team of creative minds and the artefact loses its status and value of Art."

What? Are you talking about film? Or any artwork that involves creative minds at work? Are you saying that out of these creative minds there must be an artist who stands out, or that these creative minds function collectively as an artist?

Does the status and value of art rely on an artist? What if the artist can't be identified? I'm repeating myself: the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the numerous oral epics, the anonymous art found in museums, etc. etc. etc. Do these works of art need a signature? Whose is it then? The signature of the cultures that produced them? Okay, art is borne out of a process of creation. For me, knowing that is enough.

Craftsmen and artist: I don't distinguish between the two.

"Now just compare the scope and depth of each of these individual employees to the impact of the auteur's creativity."

Is it even possible to know this for sure? How can you say so? People lie about their contributions all the time. Can it be gleaned from the object itself? Who can say if it was Greta Garbo or George Cukor who was primarily responsible for her exquisite maneuvering of space in Camille? Were we actually there when they made the film? There is the dilemma: Greta Garbo moves exquisitely in her other films, and the actors in Cukor’s films move exquisitely as well.

"But details alone, separated from the sum and its transcendence, aren't as great as the complete work. It's completion that matters. And the artist can replace a missing detail by another one if an employee fails."

I never said as much. I just said that art is composed of details. Are you still talking about film? How would you know if an employee fails? Does the director say as much? How do we know he is not lying?

Allow me an example (a real life one): the artist is a particularly well-respected Philippine sculptor. When I go to his workshop, I don’t see him actually producing his sculptures! It is his assistants who handle the material, and shape the final product. Who is the artist here? Even though these underpaid apprentices used the artist’s “vision”, shouldn’t the value of art rely on who made it in the first place? Can we ignore the artistry of these mere “employees”? Now most of the critics of his work don’t know that he works this way. They rely on his “signature” to appreciate these artworks. They’ve made valid cases for them. What if they found out this is how the artist actually works? For me, it is enough that I know that the object in question was made by human beings. To hell with knowing whoever’s signature is on it when first acknowledging it as art. Auteurship, for me, extends the critical appraisal of an object. It is not the starting point.

"Your understanding of the word auteur is too literal, it's an abstract concept for the original generating force authoring the distinctive identity of the artwork (which is more important to Art than its craft materiality). So the "Auteur" could very well be a duo or a team, but a team of auteurs then, not a group of mere creative individuals (who each have no idea of the final achievement of the whole outside of their own contribution)."

See disclaimer above. I always begin with the literal essence of something, and then move from there. That's how I work. And it's very clear that I deviate from the auteur theory with regards to the value of art being dependent upon the identity of its auteurship, its signature, so to speak. I don't care whose signature it is. As long as it is art. The intrinsic value, for me, is always the most important, and for me it applies to all artforms. See the above with regards to anonymoust art.

Unfortunately, I don't see how your Lynch example is a very good example...

"The point is that he knows and that he will control all contributions in order to accomplish this vision."

Whenever I try to apply this to film, it seems insufficient. Is such fascism even possible? Really, all? Each single gesture, utterance, quality of breath, depth of voice of the actors? Each thread, embroidery, tassel of the costumes? Auteurism is easy when applied to literature. The poet, for example, is supposedly responsible for every punctuation mark, linebreak, tenor, vehicle, metaphor, and word of the poem. (Of course, there could be other forces at work – Ezra Pound is as much the author of The Wasteland as Eliot). The poet is clearly and obviously the autuer. How is this possible in film? Costumes, props, sets, acting, editing, camera movement, negotiation of space, etc. Can we really answer who is the auteur? I'd rather ask: how is this art?

"Auteurism isn't a numerical rule, it depends on the identity of the signature, whoever authored it."

It just struck me that auteurism is very passe when applied to the other arts. What is with the obsession with the identity of the artist? That's why a Picasso costs a million dollars when in fact it should have no monetary value but simply possess its artistic value... But that is another discussion. Sorry for being tangential.

I know, I'm being frustratingly literal. Ah well :) I just keep on blabbing... I need to stop. I need to take care of the baby!

Maya is much better at expressing my thoughts anyway. Harry, I also hope that you don’t think I’m being deliberately antagonistic! All my arguments spring from love.

April 01, 2008 2:43 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Long-time reader, first-time commenter, so bear with the long post.

Sarris in "Toward a Theory of Film History," the intro to The American Cinema, writes,

"Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude...The auteur critic is obsessed with the wholeness of art and the artist. He looks at a film as a whole, a director as a whole" and

"[t]he auteur theory should not be defended too strenuously in terms of the predilections of this or that auteur critic" and

"The transcendental view of the auteur theory considers itself the first step rather than the last stop in a total history of the cinema...[it] is merely a system of tentative priorities, a pattern theory in constant flux."

I cite this not only because I have an American Cinema 40th anniversary blog-a-thon coming up on the 14th (plug!), but because it backs up Adrian's "holistic" def of auteurism as well as situating it as an interpretive, reading tool rather than a simple exaltation of the director at the expense of craft and collaboration.

It just so happened that Renoir, Ford, Hawks, Ophuls, et al. each made films that Sarris loved; it's the films themselves, considered in groups as well as wholes, rather than the individuals behind them, that led him and the French and everyone else to examine those who may have had a hand in the films' creation. Sarris states in "The Auteur Theory Revisited" that he wishes he had put more polemical emphasis on "the tantalizing mystery of style rather than on the romantic agony of the artists," and although I think the study of mise en scène was obviously what he was always after, some others have definitely made this same mistake of emphasis. Polan's assertion than an auteurist wants "to classify and give distinction to films according to their directors" then seems backwards to me, because great directors have always been ones that make great films, not the other way around. Finally, Andrew asserts that the theory "is one of several methods employed to unify these bits and pieces [of films] into central ideas."

I've been gearing up for the blog-a-thon, sorry for the Sarris-heavy comment, but I think he's worth revisiting in order to discuss the worth (or worthlessness) of the auteurist and auteurism in the 21st century. In some ways I think the entire concept has run amok since 1968, wildly overpraising the director-as-auteur-as-personality while giving a useful focus to cinephiles and critics. To discuss how a new film fits with the previous director's is a given critical strategy today. Yet with the exceptions of Hitchcock and Welles, all of Sarris's Pantheon Directors (and most of the Far Side of Paradise and Expressive Esoterica) had passed on or quit making films by '68. Auteurism made sense, both for the French and for everyone else, as a method of historical (re)evaluation and taking stock of film history rather than as a hierachy of the here-and-now and a predictive function. Has it run its course in relation to the "classic" Hollywood system that the Cahierists and others lionized? Is the director-centric attitude in its wake, which may have helped allow the movie brats of "New Hollywood" gain traction in the 60s and 70s, still useful? Can it gain new hold in analyzing a mainstream American cinema that may seem even more corporatized and homogenized than its golden age counterpart?

April 01, 2008 5:14 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

It's probably relevant, somehow, that I remember Josh Olson himself getting into arguments over auteurism in other online forums a good ten years ago.... The subject get kicked around a lot, but doesn’t seem to settle anything. I suppose that’s normal: it’s an amorphous subject, and a lot of the issues raised are perennial problems with thinking about films, so it’s not likely to be settled. I'm not sure what I would add to the conversation, but I definitely feel like I need to post a disclaimer when the subject comes up... So - this is mostly just that: a disclaimer....

I think:
1) that film is a composite art - and the arts that make it up can all be considered on their own merits, with or without reference to the film as a finished whole. Ditto the artists who work on a film. (When it comes to film, the answer to Harry's line "If there is no artist at the origin of the work, there is no Art" might be, in most films there are 50 or more artists and hundreds of craftsmen. Trying to pin film down to one artist isn't too helpful.)

2) On the other hand - if you consider a film as a whole - you may or may not find a consistent, coherent artistic vision. Which means - an identifiable and analyzable style that exists apart from the film. When you do - it usually belongs to the director, though not exclusively. Producers, writers, performers, even source material (Shakespeare - Stephen King) can function that way.

3) The most useful way to think about "auteurs" is as a kind of genre. Ozu films are more like Shakespeare films or the melodrama of the unknown woman, then anything else. Which really means - biographical and psychological considerations of "auteurs" are not very helpful; the romantic notion of the auteur as a heroic artist is not very useful. Its better to look for what the films have in common - what stylistic, thematic, production, etc. traits can be identified and analyzed. When identifiable patterns coincide with a specific filmmaker, that's when you have an "auteur". (Though there's no way I would use the word itself for it: too much baggage, too many bad analogies,and too much Roland Barthes.)

4) Taking films as a whole, this happens most often with directors - usually directors who do a lot of the work themselves (writing and directing - Chaplin to Bergman to Godard to Wes or PT Anderson), or had significant control over the process (Ozu or Capra or Hitchcock or Hou Hsiao Hsien, etc.) But it can happen with other functions, whether through control of the production (Douglas Fairbanks or Val Lewton) or a strong, identifiable voice (Charlie Kaufman scripts) or even just an element that binds groups of films together, into a kind of genre (Busby Berkeley or Fred Astaire; Stephen King adaptations; Batman films.) It bleeds into genres as such...

5) And - there is no need for their to be only one "auteur" per film. A western can be a comedy, a horror film can be a kung fu movie, so why can't a Val Lewton film be a Jacques Tourneur film?

I don't know how important it is to have this category of artist to talk about; but it does seem to work. I mean - it seems very much justified to talk about Ozu's films or Wes Anderson's films - or Charlie Kaufman's, or Val Lewton's... There are identifiable elements shared by the films - they can be described, analyzed, interpreted, etc. A group of films can generate and illuminate an individual films - just as component parts of a film can be analyzed as complete realized works of their own (I think they can), films can be seen as part of a body of work. Tracing the style, themes, approaches of a filmmaker across films is a very useful process.

April 01, 2008 9:07 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Girish says, "My recent immersion in Indian popular cinema has shown me that auteurism is quite a limiting way to enter that cinema. Genre and stars are at least as, if not more, valuable ways to personally make sense of, e.g. '70s Bollywood cinema. So, I often end up foregrounding them more than I do the director."

Which reminds me of Rosenbaum's anecdote about Marilyn Monroe on a_film_by a couple of years ago, in a similar discussion.

April 02, 2008 12:29 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Sorry for the endless comments, Girish, but you've opened the can of worms... ;)

Dottie, I don't think you're an "ignorant fool". You define yourself from principles of New Criticism and that's this conception of criticism I argue with. ;)

I don't think there is as much antagonism between New Criticism and Auteurism as you may think. The only major difference is the intentional fallacy, i.e. ignoring any background information outside of what we see on screen. But both consider the film a work of art, and ask themselves roughly the same questions (nobody says New Critics aren't critical, but their scope is self-limited), they just don't give credit to the same causes.

I didn't mean "love" to be the analogue in my poet metaphor. It was the proxy relation of the recipient to the author through the object. The New Critic focuses on the object, the Auteurist prefers to contextualize with an oeuvre. But Auteurists don't necessarily develop a personal fetishist relationship with the actual person behind the signature name (if they do they are misled critics and it did happen to the Young Turks btw).

If we keep going at the meta-free-for-all (Colbert trademark) allow me to use an iceberg metaphor instead. The Auteurist will strive to imagine how the entire iceberg looks like, to inform and nurture the understanding of what is visible. Yet both walk on the same tangible surface, none can access the non-visible depth directly (even the artist himself might not). The New Critic only considers the surface, intentionally restricting the domain of expertise (so "superficial" wasn't derogatory in my mind).
And if the middle of the surfacing iceberg is submerged, leaving 2 separate "islands", only the Auteurist will guess they belong to the same body by connecting the dots.

How do New Critics consider a trilogy (which can only make sense in terms of transversal coherence of distinct artworks because of the same vision of the same author)?

re: anonymous art.
If we don't know the DNA of the actual author, we still know someone had to produce this artwork (like you say), whoever it was, that is the abstract "Auteur", and we just name it "Shakespeare", by convention.
People argue Shakespeare didn't write his plays, who cares? The point is that whoever wrote these plays (Joe or Jim, man or woman, one or several writers) is the abstract Auteur. Auteurism is interested in the personality and inspiration of whoever make the art possible, the administrative identification and the DNA (to figure out who that person was for sure) doesn't influence the theory we might develop about the signature of this "artist entity" giving birth to the piece of art, about his vision, his world view, his patterns, his motivations.
And in this, Auteurism agrees with New Criticism that what matters in art is the work actually done (the evidence on screen), not the talking points of its creator (or his personal life).

Your sculptor example isn't a shock, most artists have always worked that way. It doesn't change the definition of "artist", nor our analysis of the job.
Do you realize that Michelangelo didn't paint the ceiling of the Chapel Sistin by himself? Renaissance painters only painted the faces and hands, the rest was relegated to their disciples under their supervision.
Christo didn't warp up the Reichstag by himself. But nobody doubts that without him we would never have seen that happening. That's the artist's intention. The operative realisation of the material artefact is secondary, critics don't even have to worry about it for the simple reason that whatever the individual workers did right or wrong (at the scale of their contribution) during the construction will never alter the nature of the final idea by any means. It would be very narrow to limit Art to notions of skill, sweat, or time spent on an actual realisation.

And I disagree with Maya who assumes Nature creates art by itself. It does matter a great deal to figure out if an artefact we find was made by a conscious mind or was the result of natural phenomena. Maybe it doesn't matter in terms of aesthetics (appreciation of Beauty in the universe), but it matters to critics (thus the History of Human Arts) who only criticize the effort put in the work by an artist. Nature doesn't need to be criticized...

I hope we are not defining Art from its price market either (it's only a commercial speculative exploitation, at best a result of the aesthetical value critics put in it)!

I didn't mean to be demeaning when I said the average audience is "blissfully ignorant", it is a coveted state of viewership (think of it as "unspoiled" by pre-knowledge).
Though when we talk about consumerism and Art, we have to make the levels of contacts with the film stand out, and qualify their respective commitment.

"How would you know if an employee fails? Does the director say as much? How do we know he is not lying?"

I'm just saying employees, however creative they are, are replaceable. The fact a cinematographer lensed the first half and another shot the rest (which happens a lot with secondary unit shooting) is of lesser importance since the auteur piloted whoever was holding the camera to get things done the way he wants them. If the auteur thought the change in skill and style would alter his project too dramatically he wouldn't let it happen. That's why we don't have to question such details (unless we investigate the reasons of a flop), and we only judge the auteur's intentions on whatever he decided to greenlight to be shown publicly, he therefore endorses (and appropriates) all mistakes and contributions made during the shooting.

April 02, 2008 5:56 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

The main reason why La Politique des Auteurs denied to screenwriters a right to authoring a film wasn't (from my understanding) because an auteur had to be alone and had to be the director, but because the position of a screenwriter within the production of a film (the level of commitment to the final result on screen) doesn't make him/her an auteur or co-auteur. The point was to split off with the inappropriate model imported from Literature and Theatre where writing is the source. In cinema, writing isn't THE major source of creation of the essential mise-en-scene.
If a screenwriter (or a producer or an actor) does participate in mise-en-scene (in a strategic notable way), by blocking a scene, by developing the cinematic language, then maybe they become auteur too. But dialogue alone, however great, only make you an author of Literature, just like a great costume, makes you an author of Couture, not an author of Cinema. ;)

April 02, 2008 6:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone!

Harry, don't apologize--discussion is what this space is meant for!

April 02, 2008 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps someone here could explain this so I can better understand at least some aspect of the auteur theory.

Taxi Driver is widely acknowledged as a film by Martin Scorsese.

However, as far as I can ascertain, Scorsese was hired to direct it by producers who thought Paul Schrader's script would make an interesting film.

One memorable scene in Taxi Driver is the overhead shot of Travis's hand sweeping over Betsy's desk in the campaign office. Scorsese once said in an interview that he didn't like the shot because it looked like something out of a Robert Bresson movie, but he filmed it simply because it was in Schrader's script.

Maybe I'm missing something, but how could it be a film "by" Martin Scorsese if he's essentially at the mercy of the producers and Schrader's screenplay?

April 02, 2008 11:34 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

anon, I consider TD as least as much a film by Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro as by Scorsese. There need not be one single auteur to a film. Jonathan Rosenbaum goes into detail about the various competing strands of Taxi Driver here at the Reader Archive, and he even includes Bernard Hermann as a composing auteur.

April 02, 2008 12:51 PM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Well, Harry, just a few more words, since I think I've been rambling on for too long, and I'm sure there must be a couple of people here who are already sick of me!

First, you have to know that my appreciation of art does not end with New Criticism. It is simply the foundation of how I approach objects (particularly objects whose provenance is unknown, say, a sculputure by an unknown artist and without much cultural or chronological context, a lot of postmodern works really - how to judge such a thing?). Of course I agree it is limited, but I think it is very useful. If the object does not hold up under such simply scrutiny, how can it in other frameworks?

Even if it ends there, I'd have to say that is sufficient in and of itself - such an object is by that simple standard already art. I do not find it superficial at all. But when we move towards other contexts, then the understanding of the object is further enriched. Moving away from New Criticism, which, I think, does not treat the object superficially at all, the appreciation of an object is simply further enriched. Maybe it is a matter of perspective, but I don't find New Criticism limiting at all. Of course, that's easy for me to say since I wouldn't consider myself a "New Critic". I'd call my approach eclectic or weird or even undisciplined, but, oh well, I find that it works!

My argument for the sake of "employees" I'd have to admit is really more of a personal bias than anything else. Why aren't they given credit at all? In our examples wherein the artists aren't directly involved in the actual creation of their art, why must these people go unnoticed? Who are the other people who painted the Sistene Chapel? History has forgotten them. We have forgotten them. That is a terrible thing, in my opinion. Is Michelangelo somehow more important than them because it was his vision? I personally doubt it. Without them, there wouldn't be a Sistine Chapel! Again, this is a personal reaction more than anything else.

"It would be very narrow to limit Art to notions of skill, sweat, or time spent on an actual realisation."

Ah, but without these things art isn't even possible. It would be narrow to limit the idea of art to these things, indeed, but to ignore that they are an integral and fundamental part of art is not a good thing either. They are necessary to art, so for me they are a part of art. A body needs its organs to exist.

"And I disagree with Maya who assumes Nature creates art by itself."

I don't think he said as much. The way I read it (the last sentence in the paragraph), it's just him taking his statement on art to the extreme. Sort of like what Duchamp did with his infamous toilet or what Japanese artists achieve with suiseki. It's the best statement on art I've read, in my opinion.

Harry, I take it you do not take kindly to postmodernism? (The intentional fallacy figuring into it prominently). Just a bit of levity there... :)

Anyway, I take my leave of this thread. I've taken up too much of everyone's time already. Kisses.

April 02, 2008 1:30 PM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Oh, just a little bit of glance back. Girish, to answer your question, auteur-wise I find the stars of the Hollywood studio system as much the auteurs of the films as the great directors they worked with. I'm thinking of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn alongside the likes of Frank Borzage, George Cukor, and Raoul Walsh.

Davis, the Marilyn Monroe anecdote is wonderful. And Adam, thank you for pointing out another lovely piece by Mr. Rosenbaum. It reminds me of another unsung auteur of classic Hollywood cinema: Edith Head.

April 02, 2008 1:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

All--There's a terrific interview with Pedro Costa at Greencine, by our own Maya.

April 02, 2008 3:11 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks for quoting my post, Girish. I should mention that it was written in a moment of doubt about my vocation, and that I found afterwards that it was impossible for me to change my auteurist mindset in any fundamental way. So these days I simply use those ideas as a check on my wilder auteurist impulses, a moderating influence.

It's true that discussions about auteurism tend to be unsatisfying, because everyone has different ideas about what's at stake. I would like to make one observation that I don't believe has been mentioned in this thread: namely, that there are historical justifications for regarding auteurism as an aesthetic and not as a theory. That is to say, in the periods in which auteurism has flourished, it has been strongly identified with a mission to promote one set of filmmaking gods and demote another set. My feeling is that not everyone should be an auteurist: that auteurism is basically a way of codifying what you like and what you don't like. The fact that the auteurist "what you like" is strongly associated with the practice of direction is probably best regarded as a corollary rather than a central theorem.

Of course, it's difficult, maybe impossible, to theorize about whether works of art are good or bad. But I do believe that that's the context in which auteurism is meaningful, the context in which it's perhaps more than just a lens or a tool.

April 02, 2008 5:18 PM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

I guess I am a hardcore directorial auteurist. As I see it, while a first-rate director can make a first-rate from a so-so script, a mediocre director is not likely to make a first-rate film from even an excellent script.

To me, cinema is ultimately all about vision. And the writer of a script (unless he is also the director) plays no real role in determining just what we get shown in a film. (I am more interested in the theoretical possibility of cinematographic auteurism).

That said. There are certain screenwriting credits that have a sort of brand value. Almost the only truly major films made by Kon Ichikawa were those written by his wife Natto Wada. She seemed to have the ability to write scripts that Ichikawa proceeded to infuse with visual genius. Once she retired, his sense of vision atrophied. Why? I haven't a clue.

Another example -- a script credit by Yoko Mizuki (who wrote scripts for Naruse, Imai, Yoshimura, Kobayashi et al.) definitely makes me take extra interest in a film. Interestingly, she is one of the few people (other than Wada) who managed to write a script for Ichikawa that resulted in a first-rate film (Ototo).

I tend to favor the earliest version of auteuist analysis -- which utilized the notion as a hypothesis to be explored with regard to the issue of whether particular directors could be viewed as the ultimate creators of their works.

Finally I would note that most of my favorite directors had (or have) remarkably stable creative teams -- routinely working with the same writers, cinematographers, art directors, performers, etc. So designation of a director as an auteur should not lead to overlooking the contribution of the other important members of the team that participates in making a great film. One thing I love about Ozu (as director and man) is the fact that he insisted on being introduced to each and every new staff member at the outset of making each film -- and then addressed them by name (in polite form) from that point on.

April 02, 2008 10:37 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Topical audio podcast, this week at NewYorker : Cinema Revolution, Richard Brody talks about Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague auteurists. ;)

April 03, 2008 8:50 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Thanks for the tip of the hat, Girish. You're so generous.

Well. I go away for a few days and the joint runs riot. I got through the Polan article, Girish, and now I have a flock of hand-folded cranes, a couple of boats, some planes, and a prancing Blade Runner unicorn.

Juss jokin'.

Actually, it's a well-written, accessible essay and I thank you for linking to it. There's so much to read out there on the Internet that it's nice to have some guidance now and then. Almost immediately I was able to spot Polan's definition of the contemporary auteur in the press notes describing director Rob Minkoff for The Forbidden Kingdom. This ain't your daddy's auteurism! But I certainly empathize with Polan's caution that continuing the classic auteur tradition uncritically is perhaps the least interesting approach of all and might invoke a spirit of diminishing returns. I've likewise come to fully appreciate the timeliness of your bringing the subject of auteurism up on the eve of the May '68 anniversary. It's a valid time for review for the role of auteurism in the cultural revolution of that time, let alone the revolutions it inspired. That being said, my eyes start to glaze over when we begin reading about writing about writing; it becomes too "meta" for me. Talk about distanciation! I'd rather go watch a movie.

"I disagree with Maya who assumes Nature creates art by itself"—which, of course, I never said, Harry; but, little cattle little care. I said that the forms of nature can be perceived as artistic; that the indigenous artifact can be interpreted as artistic; and that the "artistic"—dependent upon the white cube; i.e., any given moment in culture—can be elevated to the definition of "art" that you're creaming your jeans about. I'm glad to hear you say that nature doesn't need to be criticized. Perhaps I can seek refuge there?

Michael, I like your honest defense of hardcore directorial auteurism. You claim your tools lovingly and with responsible awareness of how you can use them to understand the directors you favor and how they, in turn, have been responsible to their creative teams. That's very well stated.

April 04, 2008 2:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Dan, Michael K., Harry and Maya, for your thoughts and for gamely continuing this discussion!

April 04, 2008 10:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Errol Morris has a huge blog post at the NYT. Let me excerpt some interesting bits:

"Memory is an elastic affair. We remember selectively, just as we perceive selectively. We have to go back over perceived and remembered events, in order to figure out what happened, what really happened. My re-enactments focus our attention on some specific detail or object that helps us look beyond the surface of images to something hidden, something deeper – something that better captures what really happened. [...]

[on The Thin Blue Line]: "Critics don’t like re-enactments in documentary films – perhaps because they think that documentary images should come from the present, that the director should be hands-off. But a story in the past has to be re-enacted. Here’s my method. I reconstruct the past through interviews (retrospective accounts), documents and other scraps of evidence. I tell a story about how the police and the newspapers got it wrong. I try to explain (1) what I believe is the real story and (2) why they got it wrong. I take the pieces of the false narrative, rearrange them, emphasize new details, and construct a new narrative. I grab hold of the milkshake as an image because it focuses the viewers’ attention and helps them to better understand what really happened. The three slow-motion shots of the milkshake – the milkshake being thrown, its parabolic trajectory through the night sky and its unceremonious landing in the dirt at the side of the road – are designed to emphasize a detail that might otherwise be overlooked and to focus attention on where Turko was and what she saw. [...]

"Critics argue that the use of re-enactments suggest a callous disregard on the part of a filmmaker for what is true. I don’t agree. Some re-enactments serve the truth, others subvert it. There is no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood. There is no veritas lens – no lens that provides a “truthful” picture of events. There is cinema vérité and kino pravda but no cinematic truth.

"The engine of uncovering truth is not some special lens or even the unadorned human eye; it is unadorned human reason. It wasn’t a cinema vérité documentary that got Randall Dale Adams out of prison. It was film that re-enacted important details of the crime. It was an investigation – part of which was done with a camera. The re-enactments capture the important details of that investigation. It’s not re-enactments per se that are wrong or inappropriate. It’s the use of them. I use re-enactments to burrow underneath the surface of reality in an attempt to uncover some hidden truth."

April 04, 2008 11:22 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Methinks the documentarian doth protest too much. Though I'm a great fan of the work of Errol Morris, I was none too fond of Standard Operating Procedure, not so much because of whether or not it should have included re-enactments; but, because the re-enactments struck me as way too horrific. It's one of the very few times I've cancelled an interview because I knew I would be combative, which I don't like to be when I'm interviewing someone. Besides, what could I ask him to explain that he hasn't gone on at length about in his blog entries?

April 04, 2008 12:08 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Dottie, I never studied PoMo, so I don't understand what this is exactly.
From your replies I gather that your conception of "Art" is very much pragmatic, dependent on contingency, tangible aspects while my conception of Art is removed from this materiality, it is human genius, creativity, visionary perception, not in a prosaic way but in a transcendental way.

Actually some of Michelangelo's "helpers" became great artists themselves when they did their own art, and critics like to point to the blooming touch of the disciple within the scheme of the master. But isn't usually enough to disown the master's overwhelming oversight and artistic property.

What does it matter if you ignore the firstname of whoever sculpted the Venus of Milo? A critic is expected to be able to investigate and notice the personality of the person who did it, why he used these proportions, this posture, this facial expression, this technique. It is different from another Greek statue of the same period or the same area and it's this (unknown) artist's incarnated vision that makes it unique. You know, it's not because we know the artist, or that we can even talk to the person directly that we'd get more useful information to help us analyze the work done. My issue with New Criticism isn't that they ignore the personal psychology of the artist, but that they just see an object and forget about the larger motivation that urges a person to become artist, to share this vision, not only in this object but in a consistent signature.

Maya, if you make a difference between "artistic value" and "art" (which I don't understand within the context of our discussion), are you saying it's possible to interpretate something as "artistic" non-critically? And what makes you think you (yourself or anybody's action) could escape criticism? Without criticism there is no Art. It's because someone declares, critically, this stuff in our environment is art that objects (or actions) become Art.

I don't like to call "auteurism" a mere "genre"... a filmmaker is not "auteur" by choice like he would put on a comedy hat, or a drama suit. Genres are horizontal, equivalent optional narrative categories. To be an auteur is not optional. I hope auteurism is not limited to choosing to make "art films". Either a filmmaker is an artist who knows what he doing, or he's an employee doing the job he's asked to do and apply formulae learnt in school. But as far as we consider Cinema an Art, there are only artists making it. There are bad artists and great artists. There are auteurs who have no clue how to exploit and translate their inner personality so they will not be able to inprint their signature in the work they do. But being an auteur is part of the nature of this creative activity, it's not an alternative.

This polemic around auteurism is less about favoring such or such theoretical approach of an artwork, it's whether we consider Cinema an Art and filmmakers artists (i.e. auteurs). Attacking auteurism and especially arguing the filmmaker is not in control of everything that there are many contributors is always denying cinema it's status of Art equivalent to Literature and Paintings.

April 04, 2008 1:38 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Harry, the fish aren't biting today. They're enjoying their own nature.

April 04, 2008 1:51 PM  
Blogger edo choi said...

To seize upon this notion of 'wholeness' as integral, if not essential, to the auteurist quest...

As the cinema is first and foremost about the way we see, it seems to me that auteurism is or should be about a certain integrity of vision. Here I use the word integrity as much in an historical sense as an individual sense. Thus, when we see a Renoir film we engage not just the individual, abstracted-from-history Renoir but the Renoir situated in a certain area of space-time. As Tag Gallagher has noted, it's a matter of feeling the presence of the auteur behind the work. This presence emerges not simply out of darkness - the greatest fallacy of misapplied auteurism is to assume that the film is just that sequence of images we see on the screen - but out of the chaos of history itself. We feel it engaging as an eye engages a world much bigger than it, attempting to encompass this world, and, depending on its power, succeeding or failing forthwith. In this sense, all auteur cinema is great neo-realist cinema as well. It is a matter of trying to create a space which resolves spacial and temporal tensions.

The 'presence' is manifested stylistically. The auteur is the style, the films themselves. The auteur is not a mere individual but everything that makes up the films, even much that seems alien within the frame, and all that is without the frame. Thus, biography, history, sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis etc. - all of these are valid ways of describing and engaging this auteur presence. All is relevant, because all interweaves into and out of the text. Does it not enrich our experience of Ford to know that Ford's own mother was illiterate? To know that he watched Winslow Homer paint? As Mizoguchi said, the cinema is essentially atmosphere, and the point of auteurism - as Sarris put it - is to act as a first step in deepening our sense of what this atmosphere is, of what it means to refer to 'atmosphere'. Because atmosphere is not something that can be reduced to the sum of a film's formal mechanics - Bordwell does not grasp this and so often stops short in his analyses just as the film is starting to reveal itself in his writing. This is not to say that atmosphere is more than style. For I have already submitted that the auteur is style. Well, another identification: style is atmosphere. Style is not just a bunch of well-oiled parts, though it may often be achieved this way. Style is a glimpse of something greater, a way of seeing and encapsulating the extraordinary and ineffable experience of history itself. Thus, the atmosphere that produced the films themselves from the ethno-capitalist frenzy that spawned "Force of Evil" to the consciously produced chaos that Rossellini perpetrated on his own set for "Voyage in Italy" is part and parcel of what's on screen. We feel all of it. The auteur is a presence which incorporates all around it alchemically. Yes. It is like magic, something like the sublime and the spiritual, if not exactly any of these.

Today, the fallacy of misapplied auteurism, which I described briefly above, is produced by our own individualist notions of individuals as separate wholes rather than, shall we say, nodal entities. None of us are mere individuals. We are all ineluctably connected to the world around us. The auteur is a consciousness that can manifest this tension of whole but integrated individual in the space of the cinema screen. The contradiction that one can exist without every being truly one - this is auteurism.

April 04, 2008 3:46 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

It's OK Maya. One only requires to be critical when confronted with Art. But we can live without. ;)

April 04, 2008 7:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Powerfully put, Edo! There's a full essay's worth of good ideas in there.

April 04, 2008 8:10 PM  
Blogger John said...

Funny you should post this; I was just watching Magic and it reminded me of Marathon Man (preposterous plot carried off with confidence, sudden flashbacks showing a nostalgic past, retreat from danger to an isolated house in the country), and then I remembered that one was directed by Richard Attenborough and the other by John Schlesinger, so I dismissed it. And then I remembered that they were both based on novels by William Goldman.

April 04, 2008 9:11 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

That Errol Morris piece is a nice read. Thanks for pointing it out Girish. I don't know if there is anything original in it. But I do appreciate that he, being a filmmaker, thinks about those issues with such passion and interest. As we sink deeper into a world of created/fabricated images and created/fabricated moving images, issues of verisimilitude and honesty will rage even more.

April 04, 2008 9:12 PM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

Glad to see that my 'debate' with Josh Olson has inspired this interesting thread.

To answer the question asked by 'Anonymous':

"Perhaps someone here could explain this so I can better understand at least some aspect of the auteur theory...One memorable scene in Taxi Driver is the overhead shot of Travis's hand sweeping over Betsy's desk in the campaign office. Scorsese once said in an interview that he didn't like the shot because it looked like something out of a Robert Bresson movie, but he filmed it simply because it was in Schrader's script. Maybe I'm missing something, but how could it be a film "by" Martin Scorsese if he's essentially at the mercy of the producers and Schrader's screenplay?"

The shot was not in Schrader's screenplay. A description of the shot was in the screenplay. A description of a shot is not a shot, any more than a description of a painting is a painting.

Perhaps someone here could explain this so that I can beter understand at least some aspect of opposition to the auteur theory.

You often hear people saying things like "NORTH BY NORTHWEST can't be considered Hitchcock's film, since Hitchcock didn't write the screenplay", but you never hear anybody say "THE MAGIC FLUTE can't be considered Mozart's opera, because Mozart didn't write the libretto". Why?

April 06, 2008 10:55 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Everyone knows Mozart can't write. All the poor guy could do was compose. And for this they call him an auteur.

April 06, 2008 11:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Brad, good to hear from you here. I've long been an admirer of your writings, e.g. the Abel Ferrara and Monte Hellman books, your Sight & Sound columns, etc.

April 06, 2008 11:32 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I agree that "a description of a shot is not a shot"- and here is where anti-auterism intersects with the view of cinema as above all a narrative form. For those of us who consider film first and foremost a visual experience (or an audiovisual experience) the difference between a shot and a shot description is easily perceived. For those who consider it primarily a means of telling stories, the difference is comparatively negligible- and for their purposes they're right.

The comparison to Mozart doesn't hold, however. Perhaps it would had he not composed so many great symphonies and quartets and other works not requiring a libretto (then again perhaps not). But since the 40th Symphony is proof alone of his genius, we can feel safe saying that "the Magic Flute" is another example of it, and safely forget about the librettist. Film directors working outside the personal avant-garde sphere can't make such a claim.

April 06, 2008 2:47 PM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"For those who consider it primarily a means of telling stories, the difference is comparatively negligible- and for their purposes they're right."

Presumably these people also regard novels as "primarily a means of telling stories", and are not bothered by novels that are poorly written. They're not interested in such things as literary style. And for their purposes, they're right. Though I think it's necessary to point out that their 'purposes' are completely idiotic. How exactly do these people think that stories are told? Do they believe that they attach themselves to the page or the screen by some kind of magic?

"The comparison to Mozart doesn't hold, however. Perhaps it would had he not composed so many great symphonies and quartets and other works not requiring a libretto (then again perhaps not). But since the 40th Symphony is proof alone of his genius, we can feel safe saying that "the Magic Flute" is another example of it, and safely forget about the librettist. Film directors working outside the personal avant-garde sphere can't make such a claim."

Ah, if only Hitchcock had made some avant-garde/experimental films - then we'd be able to describe him as the auteur of NORTH BY NORTHWEST without embarrassment.

April 06, 2008 3:18 PM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

On the other hand, there are operatic collaborations in which the composer and librettist are almost equally (and inseparably) important. Looking at Mozart, his three operas with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte belong in a class by themselves. Ditto the operas that Richard Strauss wrote with Hugo von Hoffmansthal -- and those Verdi wrote with Boito.

Similarly, in cinema, one needs to open to the possibility of dual authorship when appropriate -- as was (I think) the case with Kon Ichikawa and Natto Wada.

April 06, 2008 4:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I must agree with Michael about the big disparity in quality between the films Ichikawa wrote with Natto Wada and the films he later made without her involvement.

"For those who consider it primarily a means of telling stories, the difference is comparatively negligible- and for their purposes they're right."

Brian, it is certainly their privilege to look at and enjoy cinema in that way, but if they pass critical judgments about the quality of films without considering medium-specificity at all, I would regard their critical judgments as poor and not deserving of respect. I don't think it's possible to detach 'stories' from their manner of telling (application of style within a specific medium/artform) without suffering some simplification, distortion and loss, since stories are always told through style.

April 06, 2008 6:06 PM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Harry -

"Dottie, I never studied PoMo, so I don't understand what this is exactly.
From your replies I gather that your conception of "Art" is very much pragmatic, dependent on contingency, tangible aspects while my conception of Art is removed from this materiality, it is human genius, creativity, visionary perception, not in a prosaic way but in a transcendental way."

Again, as I've said, I've never been an either/or kind of gal. My idea of art is that it is both pragmatic and, as you say, transcendental. Both halves equally at play, useless without the other. I'd like to think I can appreciate human creative genius and the transcendental qualities of art as much as you! :)

Let me tell you this: when I began to be critical about art, when I began to approach it as a critic, my appreciation of it belonged to what you call the transcendental camp, removed from materiality. But when I began my own long journey to create what I hope to call art one day (I am trying to be a writer), then I became aware of, as you say, its materiality, the importance of craft, its tangibility. And so my perspective on art has become such: that art is something both material and transcendent and cannot exist without either.

I've never been one for dichotomies, this or that, either/or ideas. I'd like to believe my mindset is more nuanced and organic than that.

Sorry, Maya, this fish couldn't resist biting :)

April 06, 2008 6:18 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

I suppose I'll jump back in as well.... I’m not sure comparisons to other art forms are all that helpful. Comparisons to opera are an improvement over comparisons to literature or panting, but they’re still a bit off. How does comparing Mozart to Hitchcock support the auteur theory? Isn't what Mozart did closer to what the screenwriter did? Mozart wrote the music - Hitchcock didn’t write the film. Mozart is more like a screenwriter than director, isn't he? If a description of a shot is not the shot, how is a score for a piece of music the music?

For me - I’ll go back to my earlier comments. Auteurs are like genres: they are made by shared characteristics. What makes Mozart Mozart? The body of work - whatever his music has in common across all the works. Which is what makes Hitchcock Hitchcock. But in neither case does that close off the possibility that something they worked on could “belong” to someone else as well. Or that any particular recording or performance of The Magic Flute can be meaningfully said to belong to the people who stage or perform or record it. (Or for that matter, the librettist.)

Which segues into another point: maybe we need a symposium on Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, because it is a very rare instance of a script being shot twice, almost intact. I think this is one place where comparing films to music is definitely revealing: films, like recorded music, are mechanical reproductions of a specific performance, based, usually, on something written ahead of time (script/score, etc.) But films, unlike music, are not recorded over and over. Even film remakes tend to rewrite the script. If this were different - if there were a dozen versions of North by Northwest or Taxi Driver in existence - or exactly one version of The Magic Flute - the balance would be different. I think the existence of multiple versions of a piece of music tends to emphasize what they share - the score, and the person who composed it. Though the real effect of this seems to be to emphasize the artistry of the different artists involved: we appreciate a singer or musician for what they do - and a composer for what they do.

I'm not sure there's any reason not to do the same for films. Writers write, directors direct, producers produce, actors act - sometimes, one person does a bunch of these things, sometimes, the lines aren't all that clear what they're doing at any given moment, but basically, whether it's one person or thousands, the functions can be considered separately, or combined as makes sense. And if you're looking at what a specific film does, it's probably not that important to parse out who did what...

April 06, 2008 6:58 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Maya spots a hook with the most delicious-looking worm dangling from it....

If the notion of dual authorship is unconscionable for a pure auteurist to handle, might there be room for consideration that certain auteurs have achieved specific brilliance--if not their best work--inspired by a muse? The example of Ichikawa and Natto Wada has already been noted. I might add that Pedro Costa--who some might consider an auteur filmmaker--came to a fullness of sensibility inspired by Vanda Duarte who complained that the way he was making films within Fontainhas was simply not working and that he had to reconsider it, first by staying longer and not subjecting the residents to unnatural schedules, and secondly that he had to work lighter with less intrusive equipment. In a sense you could say what he ended up with was her idea, though it came filtered through his vision. So perhaps an argument could be made for these idiosyncratic auteur-muse collaborations? And if so, that screenwriters or a script itself can be inspiration?

Also, preparing for a potential interview with Heinz Emigholz (I'm not fully convinced I'm equipped to handle this), I've had to give consideration to the double conundrum of the auteur filmmaker (Emigholz) filming athe auteur architect. Auteurism amplified!!

It makes me want to drink Diet Coke and watch Stargate.

April 06, 2008 7:23 PM  
Blogger David said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 07, 2008 1:41 AM  
Blogger David said...

"None of us are mere individuals. We are all ineluctably connected to the world around us. The auteur is a consciousness that can manifest this tension of whole but integrated individual in the space of the cinema screen. The contradiction that one can exist without every being truly one - this is auteurism."

I guess I agree with the ontology, Edo, but isn't this anti-auteurism?

"The auteur is not a mere individual but everything that makes up the films, even much that seems alien within the frame, and all that is without the frame. Thus, biography, history, sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis etc. - all of these are valid ways of describing and engaging this auteur presence."

This seems to run against not only my self-taught auteurism, but your first paragraph (which I wholly agree with). My own understanding of auteurism has been that while, as any post-60s post-post-modern academic must (if grudgingly) agree, Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, and cultural/historical readings of films are all viable, all revealing, auteurism signals the power of an individual approach to grapple with these traditions and redefine or oppose them. Auteurism signals not only the presence of a personality, but actual personality unifying the film; of course it's a personality defined by culture/gender/psychoanalytic history--who isn't?--but a personality all the same. Individual and, one hopes, somewhat personable.

Perhaps this is what you're saying.

I have two reasons for preferring auteurism to the above approaches. The first is that auteurism tends to promote originality, whereas the rest tend to promote conformity; with auteurism, it's easier to read a film for its accomplishments, its contributions, and what it does to raise possibilities for movies. I don't get this sense much when I read how Hitchcock and Anthony Mann were bound in patriarchal traditions (theories easily debunked by auteurism), and I've come across far too many psychoanalytic essays recently that feature a few pages of issues surrounding psychoanalytic theory and the rise of alternative hermeneutics post-1970, a few pages devoted to recapping Lacan's "petit objet a," a few pages devoted to the tensions inherent in the work at hand, and a paragraph suggesting how Lacan might read the work at hand.

Obviously plenty of psychoanalytic criticism doesn't do this--Tony Pipolo's upcoming book on Bresson looks to be awesome, as talks of his have indicated, and Zizek's a provocateur of the best sort--but I'm more interested in how the artist would read his work, showing possibilities that may not have occurred to us, than how Lacan would read the work, only reaffirming his theories. It's a too-reductive dichotomy I'm employing, but at that point, there doesn't seem to be much reason to read the work.

This is the other reason I prefer auteurism (maybe the same reason?). If Marxist/psychoanalytic/gender readings are revealing, they're usually revealing about Marxist/psychoanalytic/gender theory and trends. Auteurism can be revealing about the film itself (the references in Pierrot Le Fou to Godard's other films; the references in Eyes Wide Shut to Kubrick's other films), although to be honest, despite a rapidly growing obsession with Ford's life, I don't find anecdotes about Ford and Homer enlarging my appreciation of The Searchers. What's so great about auteurism is that while Marx and Lacan already have their theories in place, with auteurism, each film works as a separate body contributing to a brand new, entirely original philosophy, a suggestion, at the very least, of how the world might look to other people. I watch a few Richard Fleischer films and I've got myself a whole new approach to the world. If a rather dour one.

But again, the dichotomy is too reductive. Auteurism, for example, encourages a psychoanalytic reading of Eyes Wide Shut--Kubrick was a student of Freud--which proves incredibly useful toward understanding his intentions. The problem, as Adrian Martin opined recently, is when you read a critic knowing exactly how he will read a work. Critics should have personalities too--because, of course, they do.

April 07, 2008 2:22 AM  
Blogger edo choi said...

I think it's wrong to view the relationship of auteurism to these other critical methodologies as an antagonistic one. So in my phrasing I'm trying to recuperate all these approaches which are often too narrowly embraced or too quickly dismissed. Of course, as I am an auteurist, I recuperate them by subsuming them into the auteurist project itself.

My criticism of your phrasing is that you do structure this relationship in antagonistic terms. In order to valorize auteurism, you maintain that other methodologies limit their focus to the ideological aspects of texts, thus encouraging the development of conforming and compartmentalizing perspectives on texts. But it seems to me that any theory, methodology, or sensibility, when misapplied or applied too narrowly, impatiently and lazily, will do exactly that, even auteurism.
Now, as it turns out, due to complex historical developments beyond the scope of this debate, many of our outstanding examples of misapplied methodology are of the psychoanalytic/feminist bent (e.g. that damned Mulvey essay), but this fact should not lead us auteurists into a false sense of complacency that we have somehow transcended all that ideological bullshit.

It is far from the truth that auteurism has led to the most liberated readings of 'the texts themselves', or the most 'original' readings. Auteurism has only produced the best auteurist readings of texts. And besides, as you must admit, the best auteurist criticism can never have been purely auteurist. That's an historical impossibility. On the contrary, where we find good auteurism we also tend to find good formalism (Fred Camper, Chris Fujiwara, Manny Farber), good history (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr), good literary criticism (Robin Wood), and, yes, good Marxism (Godard).

Because there is no text itself. There is only everything the text points to from itself. The text cannot be isolated. Like the auteur, the text is porous, permeable, and covered in reflective surfaces. It is a prism or a hall of mirrors.

The point of our argument has been to emphasize that nothing can be viewed apart from everything else.

Thus, rather than engage in an academic pissing contest, better I think to contend simply that good practice has always made the best criticism, and that no matter what ideological baggage each of us carries with him/her, due diligence will see us through, if not always or ever completely, then by fits and starts. One step forward, two steps back.

I argue that good auteurism must entail a holistic approach. It must encompass good formalism, good history, good sociology, good psychoanalysis, good feminism, and good Marxism etc. To the historian, all is history. To the feminist, all is feminism. To the Marxist, all is Marxism. To the auteurist, all is auteurism. The problem is too often we see 'only' auteurism, or 'only' feminism, or 'only' Marxism. We forget that any of these theories when applied as discipline will have nothing to work with if it sees itself as the only tool.

April 07, 2008 3:31 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Wait a second, what is "auteurism"? Is it a style in film writing? Or is it the definition of the medium?
Whether a given critics wants to investigate a signature or just talk about the film, or about politics, or History is a valid choice. But to talk about cinema without acknowledging it's an art made by artists gives a shaky premise to any theoretical approach.
Obviously if a (non-auteurist) feminist deconstructs the male gaze in a film and blames it on the producer or the score composer it's not going anywhere...

April 07, 2008 5:21 AM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

" weepingsam said...
I suppose I'll jump back in as well.... I’m not sure comparisons to other art forms are all that helpful."

To me, the great thing about the auteur theory is that it finally made cinema the equal of the other arts. This is surely why it annoyed (and continues to annoy) so many people, who (whether consciously or not) regard film as a second-rate form.

I have no objections to the concept of multiple authors: Elizabethan theatre was intensely collaborative, and Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots and characters from other sources. But nobody doubts that Shakespeare was the 'author' of his plays, because he was the individual who had the greatest amount of control over those aspects of them which were most important to the particular art form in which he worked: the words. Nobody doubts that the composer must be the true author of an opera, because s/he has the greatest amount of control over the most important aspect of that form: the music. All auteurism did was to say 'the director should be considered the author of a film, because s/he has the greatest amount of control over the most important aspect of this particular art form: the images'. I guess it's hardly surprisng that certain individuals should still reject auteurism (there are, after all, certain individuals who still don't believe in Darwinism). But, in all honesty, does anyone disagree with the claim that the image is the most important part of cinema? Or with the claim that the director has more control over the image than any other person in the filmmaking process?

"Comparisons to opera are an improvement over comparisons to literature or panting, but they’re still a bit off. How does comparing Mozart to Hitchcock support the auteur theory? Isn't what Mozart did closer to what the screenwriter did? Mozart wrote the music - Hitchcock didn’t write the film."

The terms you are using here are very revealing. A composer writes music. But a screenwriter does not write a film. A screenwriter writes a screenplay. A director directs a film.

Emil Schikaneder provided Mozart with a libretto containing the plot, characters and dialogue of THE MAGIC FLUTE, just as Ernest Lehman provided Hitchcock with a screenplay containing the plot, characters and dialogue of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. All Mozart did was add the thing that was most important about the art form in which he was working: the music. And all Hitchcock did was add the thing that was most important about the art form in which he was working: the images.

April 07, 2008 6:07 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Brad (and girish), thanks for illustrating the absurdity of my remarks. I hereby dismantle my "those who consider..." straw man, and retract my rejection of the Mozart/Hitchcock comparison.

April 07, 2008 6:23 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

"But, in all honesty, does anyone disagree with the claim that the image is the most important part of cinema?"

Well, Bazin disagreed, and that would mean that most 50s/60s auteurists, both the Cahierists and the Sarris/Wood Anglo camps, probably would have. (Sarris made occasional comments about film being a visual art, but I don't think the idea dominates his thinking.) It took a while for auteurism to find common ground with visual formalism (which of course far predates it).

I certainly think it's possible to be an auteurist without believing in the primacy of the visual. On the most reductive level, the director has just as much control over his or her other collaborators as over the cinematographer, art director, and makeup person.

April 07, 2008 8:49 AM  
Blogger David said...

Edo, I think we mostly agree; as I was indicating in my final comment and in my comments that any auteur is working within historical/gender/psychoanalytic frameworks (he has to; it's a question of how), I don't think auteurism should necessarily stand apart from other approaches--you're right, of course, it can't. But the difference, for me, is that a Marxist or feminist reading is simply a Marxist or feminist reading, and much (not all) of the time, it's a reading anyone with the proper background could do, like mathematics: an equation. An auteurist reading, on the other hand, can include all these other disciplines within it. I don't really see how auteurism, done properly, can be limiting, since it arises from the texts at hand themselves; no one starts with a philosophy of John Ford, then watches his films and figures out how to apply it. But other readings apply other texts.

But I agree: I don't mean to denigrate Lacanian readings, simply how they're handled 90% of the time. I'm sure there are bad auteurists--I can think of some--but it's harder to avoid original thinking when you're abstracting/surmising the philosophy you're discussing.

"...these approaches which are often too narrowly embraced or too quickly dismissed."

Not my experience, but hopefully you've fared better with so much recent academia.

"Because there is no text itself. There is only everything the text points to from itself. The text cannot be isolated. Like the auteur, the text is porous, permeable, and covered in reflective surfaces. It is a prism or a hall of mirrors."

Here I wholly disagree. We all have our own versions of what we see, but that doesn't mean they have only a phenomenological basis. There is a monistic text, if not conception of it; I can hold it in my hands, count its words, or watch it on my laptop in my bed. Criticism would be worthless if we only used texts as a mirror to validate our concerns and beliefs.

As much as I like Adrian Martin's own suggestion that criticism should suggest possibilities--possible ways of interpretation, possible films to be discussed--and this is nearly the criticism Godard himself has practiced, I also agree entirely with this Godard quote that Filmbrain ran last month:

"Daney was one of the last to do that work. He described the actual thing, you'd want to go or not, in any case you'd make your judgment based on the evidence. An entire paragraph of his article on L'Amant is devoted to a lace-up boot. You understand what takes place in the film. Likewise, when Rivette spoke about the tracking shot in Kapo, he described it straightforwardly, like Thucydides describing the Peloponnesian War. That dimension has been lost because we no longer see the film. You tell me it's good. You'll have to show me. I don't believe you a priori. What you say is interesting. Maybe you're even more interesting than the film."

April 07, 2008 10:55 AM  
Blogger edo choi said...

"Here I wholly disagree. We all have our own versions of what we see, but that doesn't mean they have only a phenomenological basis. There is a monistic text, if not conception of it; I can hold it in my hands, count its words, or watch it on my laptop in my bed. Criticism would be worthless if we only used texts as a mirror to validate our concerns and beliefs."

Perhaps I chose my metaphors too liberally. I didn't mean to suggest that the object doesn't exist, but that the object does not exist, could not exist outside of some context. For this reason, the object will always be mired in an atmosphere of ideological tensions. I have a problem with the strident dichotomy between monism and moral relativism you employ, because I'm trying to say that the nature of the object-world, world-object is always an oscillation between these two poles, the extremes of which are merely useful guide posts that do not really exist except in our imaginary. So is there object? Yes. Is there context? Yes. Is there either of these things alone? No. Never. The one cannot exist without the other.

By this I neither mean to suggest that the object does not have some influence or power of its own - "art as catastrophe" - but what I do mean is that this essence of the thing is inextricably bound to many different determining factors some of which can be traced to the psychological disposition of the viewer and some of which can be traced to the plotted or arbitrary causes and traditions from which the object itself was birthed. The aesthetic work is thus like one pole of a magnet. It has its pull, while the other pole (the world around the object) has its pull.

The 'direct' act of description beautifully evoked by Godard here isn't conceived as any less fraught with ideological magnetisms. Godard understands all too well, I think, that this capturing of the thing itself is a matter of belief, faith even, that these magnetic forces can be transcended somehow, almost magically - much like the act of making art itself. I sense a desire to go back to a naive state of consciousness, which, and perhaps I'm misinterpreting his melancholy, Godard believes he personally cannot recover.

For myself, I think this 'direct' seizing of the thing is the way to go. In most of my writing, I'm trying to recapture that sense of seeing something for the first time anew. But this isn't to escape ideology, but to try and subvert it in a way, to try and speak honestly, to bare forth all our traumatic experiences in the writing. In other words, we must expose ourselves to the object, to let ourselves be pulled in its direction, just as inevitably we will pull it in our own.

April 07, 2008 2:54 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

"it is certainly their privilege to look at and enjoy cinema in that way, but if they pass critical judgments about the quality of films without considering medium-specificity at all, I would regard their critical judgments as poor and not deserving of respect."

Well said Girish!

Dottie,
sometimes things are either/or because they are mutually exclusive, all depends what we are talking about. That's why the debate gets confusing when a notion means different things to different people. Art must be material or it remains a wishful unmade project, OK. But even when realized, the idea that made it possible supersedes its making. Before the breakthrough of Modern Art, Art used to be confused with artistic skills (a painter needed great technique to be an artist). But since Duchamp's urinal (ready-made like found-footage), Art can be a simple gesture, while borrowing the materiality done by someone else. So we can't define Art by the resulting object, we know now that the concept is far superior to identify what matters in the result of an art piece.
As far as cinema is concerned the risk is to see it as an industrial and commercial practice too decentralized to hold a single coherent vision.

The materiality you talk about in Literature is merely a means to achieve a greater end. Craft, technique and style are necessary, though not sufficient, to produce great writing. Without it you're not considered a writer in a Literary sense. But this is the basics, however great your technique is. You need much more (personality, understanding of the world, inspiration, sense of Poetry) to turn your skills into Art.

When we talk about Art (capital A) and Art criticism, we refer to more than just the concrete practice of writing, or playing music or playing with paint brushes. So the ontological definition of Art appears dichotomic. But that doesn't mean we can't then interpret it organically at the level of concrete practice (which is a different thing altogether).

re: Hitchcock
The suspense H. created is image-based (mise-en-scene, cinematography) not plot-based. So the most important impact in a H. film is the visual language, rather than whatever plot structure the screenwriter came up with (which was nothing revolutionary in the History of suspense Literature).
H.'s relationship to his actresses, his latent sexual fetishism, his conflictual tension towards the femme-fatal is something the auteur brought in his films consistently, despite the different screenwriters in his films. (Zizek does a great analysis of The Birds and Vertigo in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema)

re: Muses
The rule of thumb for co-authorship should be that any co-auteur should be able to pilot the project from end to end by himself (i.e. equally qualified to achieve the shared vision). If the muse only inspires the artist, it's a passive participation. Again we are talking about intellectual property here, it doesn't discount in any way the importance of secondary collaborators, the skilled technicians who will materialize the auteur's directions, or the muses. All this contribution is important to the final product, though however irreplaceable they may seem, a buggy only has one driver (like the Mulholland Dr. cowboy says).

April 07, 2008 5:32 PM  
Blogger David said...

"I didn't mean to suggest that the object doesn't exist, but that the object does not exist, could not exist outside of some context."

Me too. But the text still creates a world of its own, faulty reflection though it may be. Vertov just filmed the real world and fancied himself a sort of documentarian, but with his best films, you get the sense he was harnessing his images to create an entire language each time out. This is why his images of the real world serve as propaganda for an ideal world--one that, in reality, we have to work for to make it exist.

I'm confused about the moral relativism. The text must be created out of context and interpreted in a new context, and is, for our purposes, a series of signifiers, but it's a series that will outlive whatever context you put it into. I'm thinking of Derrida's fun, useless "SEC," but I'm not sure what any of this has to do with moral relativism or our ability to write good criticism. I think, again, that we agree.

April 07, 2008 7:35 PM  
Blogger edo choi said...

What I was objecting to was the way you put this comment: "There is a monistic text, if not conception of it; I can hold it in my hands, count its words, or watch it on my laptop in my bed. Criticism would be worthless if we only used texts as a mirror to validate our concerns and beliefs."

I think your contrast between the monism of the text and the potential irresponsibility of critics to push whatever beliefs they have is too stark and exaggerated. This is the dichotomy I'm talking about. In this regard, I think your definition of 'context' or 'culture' is too narrow. You say that the text will outlive whatever context we put into it, but then it will only be made up of other contexts. The text will never achieve wholeness except in its relationship to a constantly shifting world around it.

April 07, 2008 8:20 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

But, in all honesty, does anyone disagree with the claim that the image is the most important part of cinema?”

Well - yes, I’ll disagree with that. When you get down to it, I’m less an anti-auteurist than an anti-essentialist. There is no such thing as the most important part of cinema. Even if you could find a technical definition of cinema, that would tell you nothing about what makes film art, and less about what what kind of art film is. Films can be all kinds of art. David Bordwell has written about this: film can be - photographic art, narrative art, visual, audio visual, performative art (his list: others may come up with more) - any given film can emphasize any of those elements, any combination of them. I think that's right -the principal, certainly. Any given film sets out to do what it does with the means it favors: maybe story telling is dominant; maybe the pictures, or pictures and sounds; maybe the psychology of the characters, the mood - which is already moving beyond the formal issues, but art has purposes...

Though even if film were just a visual art, there’s no absolute tie between the director and the images. Producers and set and production designers, actors, cinematographers, the technology itself, all control aspects of what appears on the screen. Maybe to the point that their input is more important than the director’s. How is Gone with the Wind more Victor Fleming than Selznick, or William Cameron Menzies? And exactly how is the film improved by isolating one of them as an "auteur"?

I admit - when someone emerges on a film as something like an auteur, it’s usually the director. For good reasons, probably - because they have the most control over the image, sure; though maybe even more than that, because they tend to have the most direct input into the story telling, into the control of the flow of information in the film. From staging to shooting to editing. (And not infrequently from script and design and casting as well.) But this is just a tendency - there’s nothing inherent in directing that makes directors “auteurs” in a way writers or producers can’t be. Maybe everything is in the script - maybe the producer is directly involved in the whole process (as Lewton was I think.) And there's also no reason why anyone has to have that kind of control over the artistic side of the production. There are plenty of great films made quite explicitly by committee - there’s nothing about The Adventures of Robin Hood to mark it as less a film than Citizen Kane. It's probably still true that "Orson Welles film" is a more descriptive term than "Michael Curtiz film" - that Welles' imprint on his films goes deeper, takes in more of the film as a whole, than Curtiz' does. (And Curtiz can be a pretty distinctive director.) But that tends to be more about what Welles was, as a specific artist, and what the films they worked on were, as specific films.

April 07, 2008 9:53 PM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"When you get down to it, I’m less an anti-auteurist than an anti-essentialist. There is no such thing as the most important part of cinema. Even if you could find a technical definition of cinema, that would tell you nothing about what makes film art, and less about what what kind of art film is. Films can be all kinds of art. David Bordwell has written about this: film can be - photographic art, narrative art, visual, audio visual, performative art (his list: others may come up with more) - any given film can emphasize any of those elements, any combination of them. I think that's right -the principal, certainly. Any given film sets out to do what it does with the means it favors: maybe story telling is dominant; maybe the pictures, or pictures and sounds; maybe the psychology of the characters, the mood - which is already moving beyond the formal issues, but art has purposes... Though even if film were just a visual art, there’s no absolute tie between the director and the images. Producers and set and production designers, actors, cinematographers, the technology itself, all control aspects of what appears on the screen. Maybe to the point that their input is more important than the director’s. How is Gone with the Wind more Victor Fleming than Selznick, or William Cameron Menzies?"

Yes, that's all fine. Study the entire package if you like. I have no doubt that such an approach will yield all kinds of information of psychological, sociological or historical interest. Just don't pretend that what you're doing has anything to do with a film's artistic interest. Don't pretend that a film directed by H Bruce Humberstone is equal to a film directed by Max Ophuls, and don't pretend that the obvious superiority of the Ophuls is due to anything except mise en scene.

Robin Wood summed it up well in one of his first published articles (it appeared in DEFINITION 3 in 1960): "A director is about to make a film. He has before him a script, camera, lights, decor, actors. What he does with them is mise-en-scene, and it is precisely here that the artistic significance of the film, if any, lies".

April 08, 2008 7:56 AM  
Anonymous Dottie said...

Sorry, Harry, I'm tired. I'd like to respond in full, but the more important things in life are calling. The baby needs me. And the cat and the dog.

Anyway, I just hope that more than anything it must be said that to pigeonhole people's ideas about art based on a few replies over a short period of time isn't a very polite thing to do :) I reject all your definitions of me as a critic! Haha!

Cheers! It's been interesting!

I wonder when post-auteurism will finally take hold...

April 08, 2008 8:16 AM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Yes, that's all fine. Study the entire package if you like. I have no doubt that such an approach will yield all kinds of information of psychological, sociological or historical interest. Just don't pretend that what you're doing has anything to do with a film's artistic interest. Don't pretend that a film directed by H Bruce Humberstone is equal to a film directed by Max Ophuls, and don't pretend that the obvious superiority of the Ophuls is due to anything except mise en scene.

Well, first, though I have no brief against psychology sociology or history, I haven't been talking about them, I have been talking about the films' artistic interest. Narrative, characters, etc. are formal qualities of a film, though even if we stick to visuals (which is very dubious: sound and editing are at least as important, in pretty much any films you want to talk about), there are films where other factors are more important than the director's work. (Even more than the examples I offered last time, The Wizard of Oz comes to mind.) And - all right: there are films where the artistic heavy lifting is done by something other than the Mise-en-scene. Where the script or the acting or the editing are the main carriers of artistic value.... And finally - there are films where significant elements of the mise-en-scene come from someone other than the director. Fred Astaire films come to mind. Which - the Astaire example being a good one for this - doesn't imply that the director is not doing fine work. I think Mark Sandrich did a very good job on his Astaire films, especially the early ones - but it's at best a collaboration with Astaire and Hermes Pan. And it's as good as anything: they made the single best reel of film I've ever seen....

Also - I wouldn't want to deny that Ophuls was better than Humberstone (though I rather enjoyed the only one of his I've seen) - that might be why I compared a Warner Brothers film to an Orson Welles film instead.

April 08, 2008 7:05 PM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"there are films where other factors are more important than the director's work."

Sure there are. Just no great ones.

"there are films where the artistic heavy lifting is done by something other than the Mise-en-scene."

Errant nonsense.

"And finally - there are films where significant elements of the mise-en-scene come from someone other than the director. Fred Astaire films come to mind. Which - the Astaire example being a good one for this - doesn't imply that the director is not doing fine work."

If you could prove that Astaire was responsible for the mise en scene of his films, it would simply mean that the wrong person had been credited as director.

April 08, 2008 7:15 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

"there are films where other factors are more important than the director's work."

Sure there are. Just no great ones.


The Wizard of Oz, The Gay Divorcee, The Adventures of Robin Hood; Duck Soup; Groundhog Day; This is Spinal Tap; Swordsman (unless 6 directors are 6 times better than one)....

"there are films where the artistic heavy lifting is done by something other than the Mise-en-scene."

Errant nonsense.


Duck Soup; Groundhog Day; Spinal Tap...

If you could prove that Astaire was responsible for the mise en scene of his films, it would simply mean that the wrong person had been credited as director.

Is mise-en-scene just one thing? or is a mix of staging, shooting, sets and angles, etc.? if the latter, then the choreography of a movie about dancing would seem to be significant. In any of those big dance routines, the choreography is at least an equal partner to what the camera does... if the choreography is not part of the mise-en-scene, then I guess we're back to other elements being equally or more important. In great films.

April 08, 2008 8:14 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I'm sorry if you feel my words offended you, Dottie. I'm not assuming anything about you as a person, I'm not judging you. And when I use the word "you" it is a rhetorical address, an impersonal "you". Sorry about this literal translation from usual French phrasing. What we discuss here is what everyone brings to the table.

Just one thing to add. Why bother killing "auteurism" when film writing could take any "angle of attack" imaginable (as long as every approach is relativised within the big picture).

April 09, 2008 3:40 AM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"The Wizard of Oz, The Gay Divorcee, The Adventures of Robin Hood; Duck Soup; Groundhog Day; This is Spinal Tap; Swordsman"

This is the problem I have with anti-auteurists. They genuinely can't seem to grasp what I mean when I say that great cinema can only be created by great directors. I mean, seriously: THIS IS SPINAL TAP! THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD! GROUNDHOG DAY!!!!!!!!! This is your pantheon of great cinema?! Why not throw in THE SUNSHINE BOYS (proof positive that a writer can be the auteur of a film) while you're at it? THE WIZARD OF OZ is pleasant, but its finest moments were directed by King Vidor. The only significant film on your list (with the possible exception of SWORDSMAN, which I haven't seen), is DUCK SOUP, which was directed by Leo McCarey (and is superior to the other Marx Brothers vehicles for precisely this reason).

"Is mise-en-scene just one thing? or is a mix of staging, shooting, sets and angles, etc.? if the latter, then the choreography of a movie about dancing would seem to be significant. In any of those big dance routines, the choreography is at least an equal partner to what the camera does"

It's the use that a director makes of this choreography in his/her mise en scene that will determine whether or not the film has any value. Why do you think that the musicals directed by Vincente Minnelli are invariably superior to those directed by other filmmakers at MGM (no matter who the choreographers were)?

April 09, 2008 5:58 AM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

This is the problem I have with anti-auteurists. They genuinely can't seem to grasp what I mean when I say that great cinema can only be created by great directors.

I think I can grasp what you mean by auteurism: it's a tautology, where any film you like, you claim is the director's work, and say it proves your point. Leo McCarey's contribution to the Marx Brothers may have made his film for them the best of their career, but you can't seriously think he's the most important element in that film, can you?

Anyway: who said I was an anti-auteurist? I said I was an anti-essentialist. That's an argument for looking at films as a composite art, not for downplaying the accomplishments of directors.

April 09, 2008 7:42 AM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"I think I can grasp what you mean by auteurism: it's a tautology, where any film you like, you claim is the director's work, and say it proves your point."

I only 'like' films that have a rich mise en scene (which, I'm sure you'll agree, GROUNDHOG DAY doesn't have), just as I only 'like' books that are well written and paintings that are well painted. This seems to me nothing but common sense. I'm quite capable of enjoying a trashily written pulp novel, and I'm quite capable of enjoying THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, THE WIZARD OF OZ and THIS IS SPINAL TAP; but I'm also capable of distinguishing between these films and genuine cinematic art.

"Leo McCarey's contribution to the Marx Brothers may have made his film for them the best of their career, but you can't seriously think he's the most important element in that film, can you?"

Of course. His mise en scene is clearly the decisive factor.




"That's an argument for looking at films as a composite art, not for downplaying the accomplishments of directors."

As I said, looking at films in this way is fine. Just don't pretend that it has anything to do with cinema as an art form.

April 09, 2008 8:04 AM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

Leo McCarey is more important to DUCK SOUP than the Marx Brothers? How on earth does this view accomodate, say, VANYA ON 42nd STREET? That's an excellent film as far as I'm concerned, but it would be absurd to call Louis Malle's very real contribution to it more important than the performances and the "script" by Checkhov (in a Mamet translation)--to say nothing of Andre Gregory, who directed the actors in workshop rehearsals for three years.

And why this assumption that a collaborative art form has to be "second rate"? Is strictly improvisational jazz second rate?

April 09, 2008 9:30 AM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"Leo McCarey is more important to DUCK SOUP than the Marx Brothers? How on earth does this view accomodate, say, VANYA ON 42nd STREET? That's an excellent film as far as I'm concerned, but it would be absurd to call Louis Malle's very real contribution to it more important than the performances and the "script" by Checkhov (in a Mamet translation)--to say nothing of Andre Gregory, who directed the actors in workshop rehearsals for three years."

The cinematic interest of that film resides in its mise en scene. It may have all kinds of other points of interest, but its cinematic interest is due to Malle.

"And why this assumption that a collaborative art form has to be "second rate"? Is strictly improvisational jazz second rate?"

With improvizational jazz there are, of course, multiple authors, just as there are many films that have multiple directors (PERFORMANCE, SWORDSMAN).

April 09, 2008 9:52 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 09, 2008 1:30 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Again an either/or frame of mind assuming that when Auteurism credits one contributor of a film over all the others it makes the auteur superior and his collaborators worthless. The auteur is only prominent within the framework of auteurism, when we are dealing with the stylistic signature of the film as a whole (a transcendent sum of all parts).

What's with the necessity to always sound absolutist when writing on cinema? When we want to say a film is good, we always have to assert it the best film ever made. When we like a subordinate contribution in a film, we have to declare it the essence of the film, and therefore its initiator the auteur of the film (even if this contribution has nothing cinematic to it).

Again there is confusion of incompatible concepts there. The anti-auteurists use a syllogism to add up non sequitur :
1) Duck Soup is very enjoyable (though not necessarily for cinematic reasons)
2) the Marx Brothers are always very good at what they are doing
3) therefore they are responsible for the cinematic greatness of the film

Talent seems to be a universal concept, so if something is good it automatically becomes the essence of whatever medium it appears in. The Marx Brothers are good at dramatic arts (line delivery and performance), which existed long before cinema. It's not cinema that makes them look any better than they would on a live stage. Their performance is always as good as their comedic talent, whoever films this performance.

A little analogy in another Art, maybe easier to grasp:
We don't make great photography just by shooting good looking women. The model doesn't give a quintessential value. It's the gaze, the composition, the interpretation that are ontological attributes of photography greatness. We just need to make it clear whether we are talking about the aesthetic of the model (general beauty not inherent to Photography), or the aesthetic of the act of photographing it (Photographic Art).

So when we talk about cinema, and its greatness, it should always be in terms specific to values inherent to cinema. Or else we are talking about something else, about other arts, about other kind of greatness and we should be specific.

What bothers me is the vagueness of what the loaded phrase "a good film" implies. There are many reasons for someone to find a film "good", and not all of them are inherent to cinema.
Maybe the only reason why we need film critics is precisely to sort out this confusion of incompatible values sharing the same vague (generalist) vocabulary.
Isn't it important to identify and parse the causes of greatness and their relative impact on the "cinematic" finality (specific to Cinema as an Art)?

If we like the performance, we like a sub-part of the whole, and it would be an inappropriate generalisation to conclude that the rest of the film, in itself, is as good as the performance.
If we like the text of Shakespeare in a screen adaptation, we like Literature, that doesn't imply, in itself, that the film is always good if there is some Shakespeare in it.

It's as simple as that. Film criticism (and particularly its auteuristic branch) doesn't tell the world which movie is enjoyable to watch, it is supposed to (a role clearly ignored by most taste-maker reviewers) discriminate great "cinematic" inputs from poor efforts. But it's only the "cinematic" aspect of cinema.
There are other reasons to love watching movies. And some people may think the "cinematic" is not the most important to them... thought it doesn't change the fact that an art critic only criticizes the "cinematic art".

It's confusing everyone that reviewers who aren't even doing the same job (i.e. they don't criticize the same art) call themselves by the same name. There isn't just one type of film critics! It confuses the readers, the audience, the filmmakers, the reviewers themselves! And it gives us a very confused film culture where referential standards have variable interpretation depending on the film at hand we want to make look like the best ever made.

April 09, 2008 1:46 PM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

Since I'm for the most part sympathetic to such views, I'm not necessarily trying to argue against the auteur theory or any other director-oriented approaches to film. Apart from "The Fatal Glass of Beer," which some knowledgeable people have proposed as a candidate, it's hard to think of a great film that isn't well-directed. But the plausible requirement that a great film must be at least well-directed does NOT entail the claim that directors are always more responsible for the quality of a film than anyone else. Of course, it's trivially true that the features typically considered cinematic are to be credited most to directors, but unless you believe that a cinematically excellent film is necessarily an excellent film simpliciter, you can't argue that directors are the sole artists who make a great film great. LOLA MONTES, to take a well-known example, is not a great film, even though Ophuls's direction is outstanding. (A simple way of putting this is that good direction is a necessary condition on great films, but it isn't a sufficient one.)

I'd agree that Malle is responsible for the cinematic qualities of VANYA. But (continuing the comment made above) the film isn't great only or even particularly because of its visual style. Malle doesn't seem to deserve more credit for VANYA than Checkhov or the actors or Andre Gregory. And I'd say similar things about PANDORA'S BOX, the Lumet version of LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, ALICE ADAMS, and maybe even LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES.

April 09, 2008 8:08 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

We seem to be closing in on the slogan shouting part of the show... but before we get there, this exchange:

"That's an argument for looking at films as a composite art, not for downplaying the accomplishments of directors."

As I said, looking at films in this way is fine. Just don't pretend that it has anything to do with cinema as an art form.


...seems to get at the gist of it. I say again - if you are going to look at cinema as an art form, you will have to look at the script, the acting, the sets and locations and objects and people being photographed, at the photography as such, the stories, words, the use of sound, the music, as well as mise en scene, editing, etc. It all counts. It is all cinema. The fact that most of it exists outside cinema (and even mise en scene, or something very close to it, can be found in other art forms - comics at least - which also use devices very close to editing) doesn't mean it does not exist, and isn't important, in cinema. Now - given films, given filmmakers, use this array of devices in different ways, and some devices probably contribute more directly to the quality of the film - but anything can make a film great (or interesting or useful, or whatever you're looking for.) If you are analyzing or evaluating a film, you have to analyze or evaluate what that film does - what it uses - if it's extraordinary, what makes it so?

So with the Marx brothers - it's the scripts, and the performances, of that there is little doubt. Now - add a first rate director like Leo McCarey and you get that much more - the best visual/physical comedy of their careers; those glorious musical numbers, which are far more coherent and structured than in the rest of their films (and perfectly integrated into the plot [or what passes for a plot] as well). But that makes Duck Soup their best film: even without McCarey, Horsefeathers and A Night at the Opera (at least) are indisputably great films. And they are films - whether they would work as well on stage is of no importance to their quality as films.

None of which means auteurism isn't a perfectly useful critical tool - or that consideration of mise en scene or montage in isolation aren't perfectly useful critical approaches. Though so are consideration of scripts or genres or performances or the use of sound or plot constructions, or any of the other possible approaches you could take. And any of those subjects are as much about the art of film as examining mise-en-scene is. If auteurism has hurt criticism, it's probably here - in steering critics away from all the things films do toward one or two of the things films do.

April 09, 2008 9:49 PM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

Just a few more examples of films whose very capable directors don't seem to bear more creative responsibility than their writers or actors: THE SERVANT, PUBLIC ENEMY, WHITE HEAT, GEORGIA, and anything directed by Stephen Frears.

Harry Tuttle, when Sarris admits that actors and writers can be auteurs, he must be conceding that they can be the auteurs of films: it would ridiculous and arrogant to "allow" them to be the "auteurs" of their own performances and scripts. And as for the claim that the Marx Brothers could just as well have performed their act on stage, yes, that's true, but what about the behavioral acting in, say, a Mike Leigh film? Even if Leigh performances can be given on stage, they're far more suited to film; and I'd regard them as more truly "cinematic" than composition, which movies have in common with still photography and painting.

April 09, 2008 11:27 PM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"if you are going to look at cinema as an art form, you will have to look at the script, the acting, the sets and locations and objects and people being photographed, at the photography as such, the stories, words, the use of sound, the music, as well as mise en scene"

These things only exist insofar as they are given shape and context by the mise en scene - surely you don't believe that sets, locations, objects, people, words, sound, music, etc. have all been assembled randomly on the screen.

April 10, 2008 6:48 AM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"LOLA MONTES, to take a well-known example, is not a great film"

Too bad that those individuals who have written detailed studies of LOLA MONTES - subjecting every aspect of the film to close stylistic/thematic analysis, and making it sound like a genuine masterpiece - failed to grasp this simple truth. Think of all the time they could have saved.

April 10, 2008 6:56 AM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

I'm not knocking Ophuls, Brad--LA RONDE, LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI, and MADAME DE... are extraordinary, some of the greatest films ever made. LOLA, on the other hand, is hobbled by its weak script and its atrocious central casting, and I mentioned it because it presents a classic case of auteurists arguing that none of that stuff matters. If anyone is engaging in part-for-whole substitutions, it's the auteurists, not the folk Harry Tuttle is complaining about. And you can't seriously be offering as a proof of LOLA's greatness that many critics have written extended analyses of the film. If things continue as they are, there will likely be a huge critical literature on THE MATRIX someday; I suppose that in such a circumstance you'd have to call that a great film too.

April 10, 2008 9:33 AM  
Blogger Brad Stevens said...

"LOLA, on the other hand, is hobbled by its weak script and its atrocious central casting, and I mentioned it because it presents a classic case of auteurists arguing that none of that stuff matters."

Of course it matters. In fact, it's central to what the film is doing. LOLA MONTES without Martine Carol would be like VERTIGO without Kim Novak or NEW ROSE HOTEL without Christoper Walken (two other famously 'bad' performances) - it simply wouldn't be the same film. If you spent less time worrying about the 'bad' screenplay and 'bad' central performance, and spent more time actually looking at what Ophuls was doing with his mise en scene (for one thing, he's presenting us with a world in which Lola becomes a puppet manipulated by everyone around her), you might understand why LOLA MONTES is one of the greatest films ever made. Go on, give it a try - what have you got to lose?

April 10, 2008 11:00 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Here we go the "greatest film ever made" card tossed on the table as an end all discussions... if we don't agree on the meaning of "greatness" this type of confrontation is endlessly circular.
Weepingsam, I'm trying to empathize with your perspective as you see auteurism as a dictatorial tautology : "the auteur is greater because he is the auteur". But it's not a random self-justified theory invented by Truffaut and Godard to promote their favourite films over academism, or else we wouldn't keep using it today.

I agree that cinema is a composite art, as I said earlier, but I disagree with the equivalence of all sub-parts (which is only true if you look at them outside cinema, individually, for themselves, instead of a contribution to the whole project, like Brad said). I'd like to hear you guys explain how performance or editing or cinematography or lighting can be equally important to mise-en-scene in defining the filmic identity of a film.

dm494 : "A simple way of putting this is that good direction is a necessary condition on great films, but it isn't a sufficient one"

You're turning my own phrase against me there. If it isn't sufficient, it proves the auteur in charge didn't take the right decisions to make it work. If the auteur knows what he is doing he would hire the right people to work with.

weepingsam : "If auteurism has hurt criticism, it's probably here - in steering critics away from all the things films do toward one or two of the things films do."

Auteurism is a minority in film culture, how could it be influential enough to spoil it? How many auteurist reviewers do you count working in the press today? Besides it's a stretch to suggest auteurists never talk about the subordinate inputs in a film.

dm494,
just out of curiosity, which actors and writers did Sarris call auteurs? Not that these exceptions negate auteurism (like Brad said earlier, if the one responsible for the signature is someone else than the director the credits are wrong that's all).

"Even if Leigh performances can be given on stage, they're far more suited to film; and I'd regard them as more truly "cinematic" than composition, which movies have in common with still photography and painting."

Well, when a film mise en scène is stagey, it shows, and it's generally considered weaker filmmaking. Now cinematic composition might be inherited from a tradition of painting and photography, but it's quite specific to cinema, in that it uses dynamic composition on the move, temporal duration and 3D space. Cinematic mise en scène is also very different from theatre, since it uses depth, mobility, selective framing, dialogue between frames and spaces, real time and immersion...

April 11, 2008 2:36 AM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

Harry, my comments about sufficiency vs. necessity weren't a reply to anything you'd written; any resemblance to your words was quite unintentional. That said, I do have three objections to your claim. First, directors often do not have control over whom they will collaborate with; this was certainly true in the old studio era, and it's true in today's corporate Hollywood too. Second, your argument would prohibit directors from gambling on untested talent--new actors, designers, composers, whatever. Third, even if an auteur only worked with the best collaborators, he'd still have no guarantee that they'd always deliver excellent results.

Sarris's concession about actors and writers is on page 37 of The American Cinema, where he admits that Paddy Chayefsky, W.C. Fields and The Marx Brothers are all auteurs. (As someone else on this thread mentioned, Sarris has also said in his review of FREEDOMLAND that Richard Price is an auteur, and I know he's stated as much about Harold Pinter as well.) Incidentally, it's quite clear on page 37 of AC that Sarris does not consider 'auteur' and 'director' synonymous terms--he believes that Fields is an auteur, for instance, but he doesn't credit Fields with being the 'real' director of, say, THE BANK DICK, because he doesn't think any of Fields's films are truly directed at all.

As for composition, I think that is simply the arrangement of objects within an image. To me it's a contradiction in terms to speak of the composition of a moving shot (dynamic composition), unless the shot is moving so slowly that it can be regarded as approximately static. Composition-oriented films and movement-oriented films seem like opposed cinematic modes to my way of thinking. (Not that you can't have mixtures.) On the other hand, how can the duration of a shot have anything to do with its composition? And how is film composition three dimensional? Because of track-ins/outs--which undo composition by my lights?

I'm not sure why you think I implied that film and theater mise en scene are the same. If anything, though, theater mise en scene exploits depth a lot more than film because the stage really is three-dimensional. One thing that cinephiles complaining about theatricality don't seem to appreciate is that theater is a visual medium too. Where do you think the light dimming in LOLA MONTES comes from? How about the proscenium compositions in some of Greenaway's films? Or the dollhouse shots in BROKEN BLOSSOMS?

The last word's yours if you want it.

April 11, 2008 7:02 PM  
Anonymous T Kiran Menon said...

Girish: It seems to me that your view on auteurism is akin to Barthes's view on intertextuality in literature (correct me if i'm wrong)
- http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem09.html

Btw, incredible site. A cinephile's paradise.

April 13, 2008 2:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Kiran. Glad you find the site of use.

April 13, 2008 5:29 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Well if you ask questions I'll answer to the best of my ability, even if my breathless pompous patronizing is boring everyone to death. I wonder how we could warp up such complex controversies with one-liners...

dm494 : "directors often do not have control over whom they will collaborate with"

Maybe, but in France the industry is hierarchized around the auteur, thanks to the fights of the Young Turks. ;)

"your argument would prohibit directors from gambling on untested talent"

Well what I really meant was that the guy in charge exploits everyone's talent at the measure of their capabilities to best serve the project. To make a good film doesn't mean to hire all the best people, but to generate a synergy that brings out the best in everyone according to what they know. Reading what every collaborator can give to the film, and to get rid of the people who don't serve the original vision is the responsibility of the auteur. That's why we praise the auteur for the success of the team and we blame him/her for the failure too.

I don't know any of the Sarris references you cite there, same for the examples of films cited earlier, so I can't really comment on alleged "exceptions" to the auteur rule. Though in my mind, exceptions aren't impossible.

re: composition
We could talk about that at length. Your understanding of "composition" is very literal. Why couldn't it be dynamic? That's part of the history of Contemporary Arts (Kinetic arts, Speed painting, viewer-participatory arts, performance arts...)
Not only tracking shots, but combination of juxtaposed shots with matching dynamics, or even the motion of elements within a static frame. The harmony of directive lines of force evolve from one state to the next with a smooth, organic or scattered continuity.
Regardless for the static/moving frame, there is always dynamic graphic forces traced in the cinematography.
The structuring lines of a painting are also called "dynamic forces", even if it's static. The eye is drawn from one side to the next, following a visible or suggested line, or just by the tension between masses of colours.

re: duration
time gives a 4th dimension to space. The composition is not undone, it's just a constant re-organisation of the structuring dynamic forces. There are, of course, aesthetical properties in moving shapes (Bordwell talked about that on his blog. The way characters in a deep focus shot go through several shot-size scales from full body to face close up for example). The simple fact to move a character across the field of vision alters the proportions of the static background. And cinema can emphasize this a lot more than theatre, thanks to its selective framing of the field of vision.

re: theatre mise-en-scène.
Maybe it wasn't something you said, but I incorporated something said earlier (about the Marx Brothers performance I think).
We could develop this at length too.
There is no denying that theatre is a visual medium, but the mise-en-scène requires a greater suspension of disbelief because it's an abstracted set up.
A few distinctions: the stage is uni-directional because the spectators are the 4th wall. The cinema screen offers countershots, various angles to allow us to reconstruct a 3D space in our mind, we explore the space, not only with the eyes (like in theatre) but physically by moving around our vantage viewpoint. Paradoxaly, the screen is a flat image, but in our brains it has more volume, more reality. It's less about actual 3D than about our perception of space and time.

April 14, 2008 4:43 AM  

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