Thursday, April 22, 2010

Auteurist backsliding

Those of us who wear our auteurism on our sleeves are occasionally informed, sometimes in a unkind tone, that many of the folk who formulated auteurism renounced their folly as they became older and wiser. This is not an argument that auteurists have to deal with - it's not an argument at all - but there's some truth to the charge, and I do occasionally wonder whether the auteurist stance is intrinsically unstable.

Here's a thought on the subject. There are as many variations on the auteurist aesthetic as there are auteurists, but they all cluster around the idea that the value of movies derives largely from the quality of their direction. Of course, one can engage in director analysis without any valuation; but auteurism as a movement has always been an array of likes and dislikes on the directorial level.

As such, the auteurist stance implies a critique of a prevailing industrial system of filmmaking. If the industrial system were functioning well for auteurists, if it were an effective generator of the value that we look for in movies, then the director's importance would be greatly minimized. A strong auteurist position is necessarily based on the conviction that the system, though it has money to buy craft and talent and the freedom to deploy them to best effect, is highly likely to produce a mediocre product unless a good director intervenes.

So, in theory, auteurism is at odds with a general, all-purpose love of movies. The auteurist, mild-mannered though he or she may be, walks around with a reserve of negative energy directed at the system. Without this negative energy, the auteurist will be absorbed back into the fascination of the silver screen, which inhibits revolution if we receive enough pleasure from it.

And therein lies a procedural problem. Because all areas of film studies draft their soldiers from among the ranks of congenitally compulsive filmgoers. People who are turned off by routine cinema product usually take up a different profession. Furthermore, auteurism has traditionally placed a special emphasis on mass consumption, on sifting through piles of neglected films of the past in search of glimmers of personal directorial expression. Where does the auteurist find the drive to undertake this sort of cultural research project if he or she doesn't get a contact high off of the dream factory?

In practice, the auteurist often has a split personality. Part of that personality simply loves watching moving images in a dark room, gets low-level indiscriminate pleasure from industrial film forms; another part judges more harshly and constructs aesthetic criteria that exclude some of the pleasure that he or she is capable of receiving.

A split personality can, with proper care and maintenance, remain in working order for a lifetime; but it's also not uncommon for the auteurist to wake up one middle-aged morning, overcome with guilt that he or she has been writing horrible things for years about films that he or she secretly loves.

But that doesn't mean that those films are actually good...


Theo said...

Pleasure to read, as always, Dan. But I gotta say, I think the mass-consumption notion of auteurism is a leftover from the days when critics actually sifted through disreputable genre forms rather than wade through prestige pictures and/or cinema du papa - all of which was before the rise of 'festival films' as a world unto themselves. Nowadays, far as I can see, very few people calling themselves auteurists actually have the time/inclination to watch much "industrial" fare. You yourself, if I'm not mistaken - and you're easily among the most compulsive filmgoers I know - watch very little commercial Hollywood, Bollywood or Euro-action pics. (Just to give a counter-example, yesterday I watched the NANNY McPHEE sequel in the morning followed by a Jia Zhang-ke double in the evening. But then, I'd never consider myself an auteurist.)

Dan Sallitt said...

Theo - it's certainly true that most card-carrying auteurists have stopped keeping tabs on Hollywood's output.  And I'd also agree that auteurism is a much fuzzier concept as a result.  Here's something I once contributed to an a_film_by discussion on the topic.

But auteurists still carry on with their outdated, inexhaustible mission as best they can, looking for the next unheralded old John Cromwell or Joseph M. Newman film to proclaim.  The principle I wrote about still applies, even if auteurism hasn't kept up with the times.  And many of us try to carry that approach forward into the contemporary art cinema, even though there are no clear auteurist battle lines to be drawn there.

Jaime said...

Dan, that link doesn't seem to work.

Dan Sallitt said...

I'm having trouble creating links from my phone - hope you don't mind copying and pasting:

Mark Notarberardino said...

Auteur Theory be damned! It is the gaffers and grips who make the film! Quite seriously, I paraphrase one wag who described the theory as the desire to make the screenwriter, cinematographer, actors, art director and editor disappear.

Dan Sallitt said...

Mark - I have no stats to back it up, but it seems to me that the in-depth appreciation of screenwriters, cinematographers, etc. often comes from auteurist types, who are accustomed to placing films inside filmographies.

It's impossible to deny that the boundaries between the various creative filmmaking roles are shadowy. To my mind, the biggest difference in styles of film appreciation isn't between fans of direction and writing: it's between people who choose to see movies as someone's personal expression, and people who choose to see them as a large-scale para-personal phenomenon.