Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fleischer vs. Auteurism

I'm on record as being a Richard Fleischer fan, but boy did I not enjoy The Spikes Gang, which I saw tonight for the first time in 30 years. The screenplay, by Martin Ritt's regular writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., is a hopeless case, pleased with its laborious verbiage and pitched at a level of parable/cliche that excludes all references to real life except for a few reflexive socialist and anticlerical gestures. What really struck me this time is that Fleischer clearly perceived the tenor of the project as the screenwriters conceived it, and set out to work within their vision. All the stuff that interests me from other Fleischer films was banished: for instance, he clearly saw that too much deployment of natural sound, or emphasis on spatial continuity, would perturb the surface of Ravetch and Frank's moralistic nega-fantasy, and so he opted for a more abstract, elementary soundtrack and a simpler decoupage.

The film made me think about the dominant mythology of auteurism: the director who, knowingly or unknowingly, is true to his or her world view, struggles against bad material, and sometimes is lucky enough to overcome it by dint of sheer personality. The kind of transformation that I perceive in Fleischer between The Spikes Gang and, say, Mandingo (released almost exactly a year later) seems uncanny according to auteurist dogma; and yet outside of that dogma it seems not just possible, but an expected skill for a commercial director.

I'm not saying that the auteurist paradigm is invalid (trying to realize a screenwriter's vision certainly does not disqualify a director for auteurist consideration), just that this is a case where I personally am not working within that paradigm. It's not as if there are infinitely many Fleischers. The fact that I see multiple Fleischers may have a lot to do with my particular movie values: a more open-minded filmgoer, or one more attuned to Fleischer, might see the commonality among his different directorial identities. (I actually perceive some Fleischer-ness in The Spikes Gang - just not the level of Fleischer-ness that could make a film good. His weakly diagonal compositions were quite recognizable, for instance.)

Maybe the real division isn't between directors who assert themselves and directors who interpret, but rather between viewers who can conceptually integrate a director's work and viewers who can't feel the connections.

Only one scene pleased me: the final, heavily edited, disorienting, Madigan-like showdown between Gary Grimes and Lee Marvin.

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