Thursday, June 14, 2007

Friedkin, Auteurism, and Bug

William Friedkin was for many years held in low regard by auteurist tastemakers. Part of the reason may have been that auteurism retained some of its original affinity for the filmmaking values of the classical cinema, and Friedkin seemed allied with the forces of dissolution: it was easy in the early 70s to dismiss his jagged cutting and irregular rhythms as messy semi-competence, at a time when many film lovers were worried about the destruction of Old Hollywood craft. And another part of the reason may have been that auteurism had traditionally been aligned with values that were religious or redemptive or in some way affirmative. Truffaut kicked the shooting match off with an essay that condemned the nastiness and anticlericalism of the French Tradition of Quality; Sarris felt obliged to exile his beloved Billy Wilder on charges of cynicism and sourness; Robin Wood linked auteurism to Leavis's moralist valuation of art. Whereas Friedkin's true metier is existential horror, and one finds no trace of uplift anywhere in his style.

However, there's a different sense in which Friedkin fits quite well into auteurist praxis. American auteurism had an M.O. that was fitted to the way Old Hollywood worked: auteurism's compelling message was that submerged directors who looked like anonymous hacks to the undiscerning eye were in fact transcending the limitations of the system and making art. When Old Hollywood collapsed, and New Hollywood began promoting the director as superstar in the hope of creating an un-television-like sense of event, auteurists found themselves in possession of an outmoded archetype. And, not surprisingly, they have had trouble ever since agreeing on which modern superstars are hip and which are square. Meanwhile, the workaday commercial cinema, where auteurism had always scored its big coups in America, began to look so rote and conformist that auteurists (with only a few exceptions, such as Michael E. Grost) couldn't force themselves to sift through it in search of a new generation of heroes.

Not too many careers these days fit the old auteurist model, but lo and behold, Friedkin's is one of them. From the high-water mark of The French Connection and The Exorcist, his clout gradually declined to the point where he needed to accept assignments of truly unpromising material. But he never seemed completely to lie down for his corporate masters, and on a few occasions (like Rules of Engagement and The Hunted), he actually managed to realize the auteurist dream and put across a semi-coherent, powerful vision over the dead body of his scripts. With the exception of Jim McBride (where are you, Jim?), I can't think of another director of his generation who waged a successful fight against such adverse commercial conditions.

The only thing this discussion has to do with Bug, Friedkin's new release, is that Friedkin has for the moment given up trying to turn sow's ears into silk purses, instead mounting a film version of a rather good play by Tracy Letts. I like Bug, and there's no doubt that it's more of a piece than anything Friedkin has done lately. But the auteurist in me resists the idea that Friedkin is "back"; and, after all, filming theater is tricky business, maybe trickier than filming mediocre action scripts.

I said just about all I have to say about Friedkin's style in an old 24fps piece on The Hunted. Bug doesn't show off Friedkin's sensibility as much as some of his films, but it's a smart movie, and not just on the script level. I was especially impressed by the way Friedkin approached the film's most dangerous scene, in which Ashley Judd delivers a long manic monologue that doesn't travel all that well from the stage. Yet Friedkin almost manages the trick by using cross-cutting to throw emphasis upon Michael Shannon's joyous, nearly tearful reaction to the speech; the effect is to move Judd out from under the stage spotlight and make us see her as an object of scrutiny rather than a vessel of pure drama.


Noel Vera said...

No, I agree, you don't get a sense of Friedkin in this film, not as much as in others (The Guardian, even).

But it's a surprising match, isn't it? Who knew he was a good choice for stage material that psychologically treads some of the more outre science fiction territory?

Dan Sallitt said...

There are aspects of the film that are more obviously Friedkinesque than others. Like that weird shot that opens and closes the movie, the content of which I didn't pick up. The opaque and Frankensteinish aspect of Michael Shannon's performance, or the way he's presented, feels familiar to me from other Friedkin films.

Noel Vera said...

Not quite sure which shots you mean. Care to describe em?

Dan Sallitt said...

Unless my memory is fuzzed, the opening shot of the film is a handheld image of an unidentified unconscious or dead person lying on the floor of that tin-foil-covered room. And then, if you wait the end credits out, the same shot closes the movie.

Noel Vera said...

Sorry for the late response. I need to see the film again, I suppose, someday