Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): THE AUTEURS: A Declaration of Principles

Friday, July 25, 2008

THE AUTEURS: A Declaration of Principles

Directors, auteurs, filmmakers -- call them what you will. Certain individuals carry a presence into their work which makes them the undisputed authors/auteurs of their movie. Well, not quite undisputed. Accomplished screenwriters like Budd Schulberg and Gore Vidal, along with other film professionals and many critics and historians, gripe to this day about the injustice of attributing a film entirely to its director. They complained that the theory, originated in France and applied to American cinema in the 60s and 70s, retroactively overevaluated directors who were little more than hired hands on the set, their power subservient to the producers and their creative input eclipsed by the writers. Certainly, there's a fair amount of ridiculousness emanating from the auteurist credo. Anyone who's worked or observed filmmaking in process, on anything from a major production to the smallest student film, knows that it's impossible for the director to have his hand in every aspect of creation, unlike the novelist or the painter.

What's more, the role of director is somewhat nebulous and can encompass a great deal or comparatively little depending on the personality in charge and the context of the film production. The director can operate as a mere supervisor, essentially greasing the wheels and providing the bare minimum of glue to hold together an already-established screenplay, a director of photography with their own firm ideas about framing, lighting, and staging, actors with a strong vision of the character, who need little guidance, and an editor familiar with the language of film and current fashion. Or the director can be a true visionary, writing the screenplay alone or dominating a collaboration, storyboarding and planning everything in advance so that cameramen and set designers have little wiggle room, dictating the performances of the actors to the smallest detail, not allowing a single cut to go without their imprimatur (though even in these circumstances, they will never have complete control).

Most directors, including many of the best, exist somewhere in between. And in fact the ambiguity of the director's position, combined with the clarity of the auteur theory, provides an interesting tension, and draws, rather than repels, adherents of the "director-as-author." Indeed, what initially drew so much attention to the theory in the first place was not so much the adoration French critics lavished on filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson, long taken to be fully-fledged creators of their own material. Rather, it was the light they shone on Hollywood filmmakers like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray. Often these directors did not have an obvious (or any) hand in the writing process, and overzealous studio heads guided the film through cutting (though clever directors like Ford and Hitchcock were able to shoot so specifically that their films were difficult to assemble in any way other than what they intended). But these limitations gave critics an exciting challenge: tease out the author's voice from the circumstances of creation. Among other things auteurism, as practiced by the French and articulated by Andrew Sarris, became a tactic to liberate the sacred from the profane and mundane, the individual voice from the thoughtless clutter of standard styles, industrial policy, and committe creation.

Auteurism is of immense value for several reasons. One, it pointed the way to a formal analysis of film, an attention to the nature of the medium itself, instead of treating film as just another vessel for storytelling or performance. Additionally, it allowed historians to, in Sarris' terminology, focus on the trees rather than the forest, and to personalize an art that some saw as impersonal. Finally, it liberated filmmakers themselves and allowed them to think about the art form in new ways. What Ford and Hawks and all the others did within their restraints still astounds today, and there is something valuable in the classical tension their films thrive on, a tension which is perhaps lacking in later years. Yet it is not to demolish their accomplishment to say that the voices of Cahiers du cinema, on page and onscreen, opened up new avenues for self-expression in the cinema and enriched its texture greatly.

This blog is not systematic for the most part; daily I will deal with whatever I've seen most recently. But two or three times during the week I hope to continue an ongoing process of looking at a specific director's work. This will be doubly chronological -- I will be tackling the directors in the rough order they emerged in film history, and will follow their work from the earliest to the last. There are many limitations to my scheme. Some more esoteric directors are not on my list (which will already take years to complete, if I ever get that far with it) and of those who remain, the works I will examine are limited to those that are accessible on Netflix. I've done this before in a more thorough way - two years ago I watched every Kubrick film in order (not a difficult accomplishment given that he directed about a dozen or so), starting with his postwar newsreels and ending with Eyes Wide Shut. It was illuminating and exciting, and I repeated the experiment a year later, following Ingmar Bergman's death, with all the Swedish master's films I could get my hands on. In both cases, the development of assurity in the technique, storytelling, and vision was fascinating. Such attention to detail will not be quite as possible here, since I am watching various other films between each director's work and am not going to be completist. Furthermore, if I see no reason to watch a director's film that I've watched numerous times before, I won't. So "THE AUTEURS" series will not be as thorough as possible, but as one of its future subjects once wrote, "nobody's perfect."

Which provides a good segue into the forthcoming entry on the first director, D.W. Griffith. A more obviously imperfect cinematic genius would be hard to find. However, I'll save that for tomorrow, since I've taken up enough space with my declaration of principles (obviously, a reference to Charles Foster Kane's manifesto, in title if not in brevity).

Next: D.W. Griffith - Biograph shorts, Part One

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