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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

Andrew Sarris. Robin Holland www.robinholland.com

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.
 

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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.