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by Eric Kohn
July 4, 2012 11:45 AM
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Critical Consensus: Anthony Kaufman and Peter Rainer on Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Today's Auteur Theory

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Indiewire contributor and ReelPolitik blogger Anthony Kaufman joins Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer to discuss the directors of two new films -- "Magic Mike" and "Savages" -- as well as the auteur theory that arguably hovers over any conversation about a filmmaker's career.

Steven Soderbergh.
This conversation will have three parts, but one unifying factor: the auteur theory. Last week, Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike" opened nationwide, while Oliver Stone's "Savages" opens this Friday. Both filmmakers have achieved enough success and visibility over the years to have "auteur" status. The recent death of auteur theory popularizer Andrew Sarris provides us with the occasion to look at these two filmmakers in light of the auteur theory's lasting relevance.

Anthony, since you edited a book of Soderbergh interviews a few years back, let's start with you. In your introduction to that book, you talk about Soderbergh's career going through a series of ups and downs. How does "Magic Mike" fit into that pattern?

ANTHONY KAUFMAN: It may not exist in that pattern anymore, although I think that if you look at the box office and critical attention on the last few films, you could say that "Magic Mike" is part of a rise. I felt like "Contagion" was also part of a rise and got a lot of mainstream attention. I think "Magic Mike" is a success -- financially, at least -- and stylistically, it's interesting. But what do you do with a movie like "Che" coming after "Ocean's Thirteen"? People think "Che" is a masterpiece. I don't know if you want to necessarily apply the "rise and fall" thing to him post-"Ocean's Eleven," really, because he's doing his own sine curve. Even films that people previously considered not very good, like "King of the Hill" -- now a lot of people think it's a great film. I'd be careful about that. Because of where he is now, he's doing his own thing and his success or failure on any given film is not hurting his auteur status.

Creatively, do think "Magic Mike" fits into Soderbergh's oeuvre?

KAUFMAN: I think so. I feel like there's a lot of interesting editing work in it that feels very much like Soderbergh where he's sometimes cutting abruptly on moments and sequences that go somewhere unexpected. That's something he experimented with quite early on, with "The Limey" being the most obvious example. Also, I think there's a lot of stuff continuing the work he did with "The Girlfriend Experience." However, even his first film, "sex, lies, and videotape," was about sex and people trying to connect. If he ended his career with "Magic Mike," I would see that as a nice bookend.

Peter, what's your take on "Magic Mike"?

PETER RAINER: I don't think it's terribly magical. I enjoyed the film. It's certainly well-crafted and there are some of the themes that Anthony has brought out about the connectivity or lack thereof among people and the fringe parts of society.

'With Soderbergh, the films themselves are often chancy in the right ways so that even when they go wrong I think it's good that he has done them.'
But for me, the interesting thing about Soderbergh -- more in theory than in practice -- is that there are a lot of filmmakers who say, "I'm going to make that big commercial movie and as soon as it hits I'm going to make all those small movies I really want to make." And they never make those small movies. You've got to hand it to Soderbergh because he has worked all over the place. He's gone from the "Ocean" movies to films like "Bubble" or even "Haywire." This is something that started at the very beginning of his career. "sex, lies, and videotape" is the kind of movie that would typically launch a director into the stratosphere of budget and big stars. What did he do after that? "Kafka." That was a deliberate thumbing of his nose at the system that had been set up for directors like himself. The films themselves are often chancey in the right ways so that even when they go wrong I think it's good that he has done these things.

In some ways, I like his straightforward pictures more than the "Bubble"-type pictures. "Out of Sight," I think, is not only one of his best genre pictures but one of his pictures of any type. It's very deeply felt and underseen.

KAUFMAN: Do you put "Contagion" in that category?

RAINER: I thought it was his big-canvas version of what he normally does on a small canvas. That was his socially conscious movie, in a way, except that he's such a particular director. It's eerie how it didn't register at all on any award-show radar given the people involved with it.

KAUFMAN: I don't think it was a prestige film. "Traffic" is on that level and was obviously recognized during the awards season. With "Contagion" -- technically, Soderbergh is incredible at putting scenes and structure together. But with "Contagion," "Haywire," and "Magic Mike," while I like all those films, I didn't leave them feeling transformed.

RAINER: I didn't, either. If you compare "Magic Mike" to something like "Shampoo," which is the obvious point of comparison, the difference there is that "Shampoo" has a sense for the whole society. It's not just about the people, but "Magic Mike" is mostly a lot of floor shows. They're fun to watch, but in a way they're like movie musicals. Someone just breaks into song and that takes you out of the movie.

KAUFMAN: And the characters only go skin deep.

RAINER: Literally.

KAUFMAN: But I don't think it's striving for more than that, either.

Did either of you find the film's message to be fairly conservative? Even though it celebrates the glamor of the stage antics, ultimately it portrays stripping as a disreputable profession.

"Magic Mike" Warner Bros.
KAUFMAN: It's the same thing he did with "Girlfriend Experience." That movie didn't celebrate porn, but people flocked to it because of that. All those women flocked to see "Magic Mike" because of the hot male bodies in it. I don't think it's necessarily problematic, because the film is critical.

RAINER: I don't think Soderbergh takes a terribly judgmental view of anything, which is one of the things I like about his films. There's a certain morality-play aspect to "Magic Mike," but I don't think it's very heavy-handed. He's not saying that this guy needs to get out of the business because it's immoral. He needs to get out of the business because he's not who he wants to be.

KAUFMAN: It's not saying anything about the stripping. It's saying something about capitalism. That's where the critique is.

Next page: Kaufman and Rainer on Oliver Stone, "Savages" and more.

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6 Comments

  • korman | July 5, 2012 12:30 PMReply

    Great discussion. The role of the auteur has disappeared because of economic responsibilities. The director is the punching bag if the economic reality clashes with the artistic reality

  • MELGUIZO | July 5, 2012 1:19 AMReply

    I've got to disagree. I think David Fincher is an example of a director that is carrying the torch to some degree. Even while taking on big projects that he was brought on as more of a hired gun. And what about Wes Anderson? Or even a David O. Russell to some degree...

  • RB | July 4, 2012 6:27 PMReply

    I loved this article. Its true! The Role of the Auteur is no LONGER! It's a lost art form, no more singular points of view. Everything is watered down and catered to the Audience…I went to film school to study the Greats, ie, Coppola,Spielberg Scorsese, De Sica, Truffaut, which built the Greats before them AkiraKursawa, Elia Kazan, and Hitchcock. Soderbergh cinematic master pieces are the Out of Sight and The Limey. But he's retiring or headed to Television/Cable. Which is one with a singular voice can thrive and take license to have a point of View…I am in agreement and concur with everything in the Article! Great Piece!

  • Vino | July 4, 2012 5:45 PMReply

    Film is a collaborative art. The nonsense that it's all the Director and his Personality
    will soon fade away. It's a convenient yardstick for slothful critics. Today every
    nitwit Director (which =s 95% of em) burble, "I'm an auteur." No, you're not.

  • A.C. | July 5, 2012 1:15 PM

    Film making is the last dictatorship of the western world. I've worked on film sets where everybody felt their role and opinion was of equal, if not of greater, value than the director and it broke into anarchy for the most part. The director is given that role for a reason and film making guilds and societies are set up so the current government stays together, because it works.

    I get what you're saying, movies shouldn't just focus on the director when so many people are involved but that doesn't mean the Director should have his importance watered down.

  • Ted | July 4, 2012 6:30 PM

    I agree with you to some extent, but I think you are rejecting the auteur theory too quickly. Yes, film is a collaborate art - but some directors have such control over the production and how the crew collaborates that it's appropriate to call them the primary "author" of the film. A prominent example that was the first to come to mind was Terrence Malick. A Malick film is immediately recognizable as a Malick film. Change the actors; the producers; the cinematographer; the editors etc. and it all looks and feels like a Malick film still. To me, that's strong evidence that Malick is clearly the primary vision of the film and everyone is more or less mimicking his desires. I could have easily chosen a few other directors with very distinctive styles and made my point. Think of the films of Ozu, for example. Where I agree with you is that at times we give way to much credence to the auteur theory. Take Charlie Kaufman. Even when Kaufman does not direct his screenplays, the films all look and feel like Kaufman films. I think it's just as valid to call "Adaption" a Charlie Kaufman film, as it is a Spike Jonze film. I'm reminded of the films of Powell & Pressburger. Emeric Pressburger's scripts were clearly so distinctive and clearly had so much influence over Powell's direction, this is was valid to call them Powell & Pressburger films. Same goes for Prevert's scripts for Marcel Carne films. I think we often don't give screenwriters the credit they deserve. In fact, there was a time when the screenwriter was given the same billing as a director. Of course, on the flip side of that, there are directors like Hitchcock who clearly exerted so much stylistically control over a film that the screenwriter's role was much smaller than usual. I think it's probably wiser if we think about each film and direcotr individually rather than trying to either accept the auteur theory in total or just reject it out of hand and call it a "collaborative" art.