Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Auteurism Is a Taste, Not a Theory

No two people who call themselves auteurists will agree on what the term implies. I persist in regarding auteurism as an aesthetic taste, or rather a collection of aesthetic tastes that are somehow related to the concept of film direction. Historically speaking, one can make a strong case that the Cahiers critics, Sarris, and other prime exponents of auteurism advocated real canon change by demoting acclaimed filmmakers and promoting relatively unsung ones. Apart from this evaluative goal, it's difficult to point to tenets of theory that truly belong to the historical auteurist movements.

Nowadays auteurism sometimes seems too obvious to bother proclaiming, and sometimes seems too vague to be worth proclaiming. And yet film direction remains a controversial concept, if one looks at it from the right angle.

If I am about to try to restore some controversy to the idea of film direction, it's not because I want to establish a pure and objective standard for auteurism. I've pretty much given up on that goal: there's no trademark, anyone who wants the word can have it.

Case 1: Gone with the Wind

Depending on your accounting method, Gone with the Wind is either the most popular film ever made, or one of the most popular. As is well known, producer David O. Selznick included the work of five directors, plus a lot of second-unit footage, in the released product. A fair number of theatergoers seemed not to mind.

A few years ago, I posted to the a_film_by group a brief account of my attempt to decipher this bizarre experimental film. (The thread that follows my post contains the usual heated debate about who the "auteur" of the movie is. I am not interested in this issue: I don't believe that a film has a single "auteur.")

Here we have a nontrivial test of the importance of film direction. Possibly as a result of my cinematic indoctrination, Gone with the Wind seems to me positively incoherent. Not that I think it's a bad film: there are some strong sections, and the project in general has an interesting slant. But it feels like different movies from scene to scene. If I were watching a rough cut in Selznick's screening room, I would have said, "David, for God's sake, you can't release this thing! It's all over the place." And yet, for many viewers (and certainly not just unsophisticated ones), Gone with the Wind gives a high level of satisfaction and does not seem incoherent. In this case, monitoring the tone of the direction induces a response that diverges dramatically from the norm.

So I hypothesize that Gone with the Wind creates a significant divide between viewers whose appreciation is closely bound to film direction, and viewers who are at least capable of falling back to a different mode of appreciation.

Case 2: Television Series

Most of the critical acclaim for serial television goes to the series creator, who is often one of the chief writers as well. My impression is that directors are generally engaged on a short-term basis in TV, sometimes for single episodes, sometimes intermittently throughout a season or series.

I don't even have cable, and am not up to speed on TV developments. But, when I do watch TV, I don't seem to be able to suppress my interest in direction, even though the director of a TV series is just a poor thing.

I still think that "Beavis and Butt-Head" is the greatest sustained artistic achievement that I have encountered in the television medium, but, more recently, I've had some very good experiences with "The Sopranos." I first spotted series creator David Chase back in 1986, when he wrote (from a story by Clark Howard) and directed an unusually controlled and expressive episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" titled "Enough Rope for Two." Chase kept a low directorial profile until the excellent pilot episode of "The Sopranos," then didn't direct again until the series' final episode, the enigmatic "Made in America." Whether or not directing is a high priority for Chase, "Made in America" left no doubt that he had become one of the most accomplished filmmakers in America, with a light editing touch, a wild surreal humor conveyed through the slightest exaggerations and dislocations, and a melancholy sense of time slipping away through storytelling holes.

I've seen only two other episodes of "The Sopranos," both written or co-written but not directed by Chase. I thought they were both interesting, but didn't feel as if I was in the same universe as that of the Chase-directed episodes.

Of course, one can't expect that a hired director, presented with an existing story line and characters and presumably unable to influence script and editing, be able to compete with a series creator directing his or her own creation. The criterion I'm interested in here is not quality or freedom, but coherence. Because of my tastes, I can't imagine making general claims about a series: swapping directors creates discontinuities too great for me to regard the series as a unity. And yet a great many sophisticated viewers praise or deride TV series on a larger scale, as if the contributions of the series creators were able to keep series from flying apart as the directors are shuffled. Is this another criterion for separating the stubborn partisan of directorial style from the more aesthetically flexible viewer?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hyazgar (Desert Dream): MOMA, through April 20, 2009

Zhang Lu, the Chinese-Korean director who garnered international attention with 2005's impressive Mang Zhong (Grain in Ear), has developed one of the most distinctive styles in world cinema, formalist almost to a fault, obtaining its effects via the internal development of autonomous, highly organized shots. His second feature, Hyazgar (Desert Dream), premiered at Berlin 2007 and received a mixed response on the festival circuit. It's a bit demanding on one level, in that its story - of an idealistic environmentalist (Osor Bat-Ulzii), tirelessly planting trees on the steppes of Mongolia, whose journeying family is replaced by a refugee North Korean widow (Seo Jung) and her son (Shin Dongho) - is more ambient than eventful, and necessarily light on dialogue, as the main characters do not speak the same language. And yet Desert Dream is highly eventful from a formal point of view: barely a shot goes by without springing on the viewer an interesting surprise, a visitation of the uncanny out of the stillness of the Mongolian landscape. Typically Zhang uses sound or offscreen space to create an alternate focus for our attention, then pans repeatedly to create a dialectical tension within the visual field. He is so stubborn about refusing to follow action with his pans, even when the material begs for it, that his formalism can sometimes seem mannered. But there is nothing academic about the intricate balance of comedy and bleakness in Zhang's work: comedy from his quantization of events and his deadpan revelations of the unexpected; and bleakness from the way that his characters inevitably find the solitude and emptiness that the compositions have been promising since frame one.

Desert Dream will be at MOMA for the rest of the week: Friday, April 17 at 7 pm; Saturday, April 18 at 2 pm; Sunday, April 19 at 4 pm; and Monday, April 20 at 6 pm. For those of you who become Zhang fans (I rate only Jia higher among mainland China filmmakers), the Walter Reade will show his two most recent features, both made in 2008, as part of its upcoming China on the Edge series: Chongqing on Friday, April 24 at 6:45 pm; and Iri on Sunday, April 26 at 8:45 pm.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Films of Jim McBride: Anthology Film Archives, through April 13

Anthology Film Archives is drawing welcome attention to the admirable American director Jim McBride with a retrospective of his early work. Best known for the delightful, lucid 1967 David Holzman's Diary, McBride soldiered on with the occasional independent project through the early 70s, then found his way to a marginal place in the commercial film industry, where he acquitted himself valiantly, finding worthwhile angles on unpromising material even as he drifted into made-for-TV work in the 90s. Other than David (screening Friday, April 10 at 7:15 pm and Saturday, April 11 at 9:15 pm), all the films in the series screen rarely: my picks from among the harder-to-see titles would be the eccentric 1971 sci-fi/hippie drama Glen and Randa, co-written by Rudy Wurlitzer (screening Friday, April 10 at 9:30 pm; Saturday, April 11 at 7 pm; and Monday, April 13 at 7 pm) and McBride's then-maligned, exuberant 1983 remake of Breathless (screening Thursday, April 9 at 7 pm; Sunday, April 12 at 9:15 pm; and Monday, April 13 at 9 pm). Here are scans of parts one and two of a review of Breathless that I wrote for the L.A. Reader on 20 May 1983.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Exploding Girl: Tribeca, April 23, 25, and 28 and May 2, 2009

Once in a while a film coheres around an acting performance in such a way that it's difficult to tell whether the director's sensibility is radiated through the actor, or whether the actor's contribution is comprehensive enough to qualify as direction. Zoe Kazan is a phenomenon as the rather ordinary college girl Ivy in Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl: she acts so completely from within the character that her smallest, least significant bits of business are as vivid as her dramatic peaks. Either Kazan is Ivy - unlikely, as the character is sweet and sensitive but probably not reflective enough to play herself - or her powers of observation and assimilation are uncanny. While we're waiting for clues about Kazan's acting range, we note that her co-star Mark Rendall, as Ivy's best buddy who is secretly in love with her, is also quite good, which suggests that Gray is able to nurture ambient, pseudo-documentary performances that nonetheless have dramatic structure. His verité-style camera is pleasingly simple, a little more stable than the norm, landing on attractive telephoto compositions at key moments. The Exploding Girl has a slight and familiar John Hughes-like story that will probably disqualify it at art in the eyes of many. Yet the drama too is simplified to the point where its one unusual element - Ivy is an epileptic - is deployed so transparently that the story almost becomes a structural commentary on storytelling. The Exploding Girl has four Tribeca Film Festival screenings, all at the AMC Village VII: Thursday, April 23 at 7:45 pm; Saturday, April 25 at 2:45 pm; Tuesday, April 28 at 7:00 pm; and Saturday, May 2 at 5:45 pm.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch): MOMA, April 4, 2009

On the slender chance that any of you are checking your blogs this morning before deciding which New Directors/New Films screening to attend this afternoon, let me put in a strong recommendation for Gianni Di Gregorio's Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch), showing once more at MOMA at 3:45 pm on Saturday, April 4. Making his directorial debut, Di Gregorio, one of the writers of Garrone's Gomorra, places himself in the tradition of filmmaker/stars like Sacha Guitry, Jacques Nolot, late Chaplin: a tradition in which the force of the artist's on-screen personality is used to inflect cinematic conventions, so that drama or farce is nudged toward a level, reflective tone that one suspects one would also encounter in the director's drawing room. I have no time for details now, but you will also see: four wonderful octogenarian or nonagenarian actresses who don't fake anything; a casual, natural lighting scheme that brings out the beauty of the Roman summer sunlight; the best on-screen cooking scenes I can remember; and, if the director attends, a charming and informative Q&A.