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Critical Consensus: Anthony Kaufman and Peter Rainer on Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Today's Auteur Theory

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 4, 2012 at 11:45AM

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.
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Andrew Sarris.
Robin Holland www.robinholland.com Andrew Sarris.

We've been speaking for over 20 minutes about numerous films exclusively in terms of their directors. Given the recent passing of Andrew Sarris, the auteur theory has been on a lot of people's minds lately. It's been roughly 50 years since Sarris wrote his famous "Notes on the Auteur Theory" piece. Considering the focus of our earlier discussion, do you still think the auteur theory is the best way to approach films and filmmakers?

KAUFMAN: I don't know if it's the best way, but it's one useful way. It's an easy tool for people to look at a group of films. At the time when film scholarship was getting started, that was important. I don't think it should be overstated as the "best" or only way to look at films because it excludes a lot of other contributions and it tends to favor the canon -- you know, it tends to favor white men.

RAINER: Right. It's a convenient shorthand. The more you know about how movies are made, the more obscure the auteur theory becomes. My big problem with it has always been that when carelessly applied -- and this is not something Sarris really did -- it not only says one must judge a film by a filmmaker's personality but it implies that the personality by itself is of value. In other words, the continuity of personality, the ways in which various films link up, is of value. You can have a lousy director who has a really consistent personality in all of his or her films just as you can have directors who are all over the map. And yet you can have somebody like Soderbergh, for instance. There's not a lot superficially connecting his films and yet he does have a recognizable style.

To me, the way of a looking at movies from a directing point of view predates the auteur theory. It just wasn't called a theory. If you go back and look at James Agee's reviews from the '40s, or Manny Farber's reviews, or Otis Ferguson's reviews, they look at films very much in terms of directors. Agee wrote a very long essay called "Undirectable Director" about John Huston. The auteur theory was a way of applying a scholarly imprimatur, which had been transposed by the Cahiers du Cinema group and André Bazin onto American films to legitimize a lot of studio films that had been otherwise relegated to B-movie status because they weren't bigger movies.

Peter, you've really brought into focus the numerous generations of film critics that have come and gone since the beginning of the form. So far, most working critics have been impacted on some level by Sarris' "The American Cinema" and the auteur theory he espoused in it. But how will the critics of tomorrow -- the teenagers of today -- look at movies? These are people whose initial love for the medium coincided with Netflix recommendation engines and the like. They can see more movies than ever before, but there are also a lot of factors that might lead them to watching the wrong movies or missing out on the right ones.

KAUFMAN: It's a good point. I don't know that much about how teenagers discover movies. Will the recommendation engines drive them to think about a filmmaker's work and think about film that way or drive them to watch a film with a similar genre or star? Of course, it has been argued that stars can be an auteur force as well. I wonder if the director as a figure will have less importance to discussion around films as they have in the past.

'The more you know about how movies are made the more obscure the auteur theory becomes.'

RAINER: I know that, speaking for myself, over the last number of years, the director's name on the box matters less and less because Hollywood has been geared much more than in the past to producer-driven projects. The directors who make films for the under-30 generation tend to be people who were hired because they aren't going to give the moneymen a whole lot of guff. They're just anxious to get these films made. There's not a whole lot of personality in these movies. Producers don't want to deal with all this auteur crap, so they just hire people who are more or less willing to do their bidding. The names are forgettable from one film to the next. That's more the case now than it was 10 or 20 years ago when films were much more director-driven. If you're going to see any of the big franchise movies, unless it's Chris Nolan, chances are that you're not going because of the director.

KAUFMAN: But in some ways, if somebody like Nolan or some of these indie directors were plucked to handle big franchises, that's getting more important than all the "Poseidon Adventure"-type blockbusters, those big films from the seventies. Although then you did have the birth of Spielberg and Lucas. It may be too diverse to pinpoint.

RAINER: The films I'm thinking about are post-"Poseidon Adventure" but pre-"Jaws." You had directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Malick, et cetera, who made these hand-crafted and very personal films. You went to them because you knew that this was the work of a filmmaker who had a very singular way of seeing things. Even the Ridley Scott movie that just came out, "Prometheus" -- are people really talking about it that much as a Ridley Scott movie or just as a big experience?

KAUFMAN: But let me throw something at you: What about somebody like J.J. Abrams? I don't know if he's an auteur, but that guy has cachet. I would think that, whether it's "Star Trek" or "Lost," there is a group of people out there who consider this guy a kind of creative god. Eric, maybe you know something about that.

The interesting thing about Abrams is that everything he does is based to some degree on the pop culture that influenced him when he was young. That includes Spielberg, who was himself influenced by the pop culture of his youth, so the fandom around Abrams actually predates his own creative tendencies.

RAINER: A lot of these guys are visionary capitalists as opposed to auteurs. Like I say, I have a lot of issues with the auteur theory, but I think there's a difference between J.J. Abrams and Terrence Malick. I didn't like "Tree of Life" much, but when it came out, so many critics rallied around it. There was something very antiquated about that film, like critics were trying to will something into existence; this auteur experience that doesn't really pertain to movies now.
 

This article is related to: Critical Consensus, Anthony Kaufman, Peter Rainer, Reviews, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Andrew Sarris, Magic Mike, auteur theory, Savages, Brian De Palma







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