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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Speaking of heavy-handed morality plays, let’s talk about Oliver Stone.

Peter, when you reviewed Stone’s “U-Turn” in 1997 you wrote that his “imagery belies his intentions.” Has your opinion on Stone shifted at all since then?

RAINER: As a filmmaker, Oliver Stone is a fever junkie. It’s been said about him that he’s the only person who ever went to Vietnam to cool out. For me, Stone is always a better director than he is a writer or — god forbid — a thinker. His movies, even the not very good ones, have a certain visual excitement to them. I think “Savages” is a return to form. If you like the form, that’s a good thing. (laughs)

He’s drawn to power on a personal, visual and thematic level. This is what he makes movies about. He’s made movies about JFK, Nixon, Alexander the Great, Bush, Wall Street tycoons… he’s constantly plugging into that dynamic. I don’t think he has a terribly big perspective on power because he’s such a powermonger himself. He doesn’t have a way of looking inside. His movies are very exterior experiences, which is why even a film like “Nixon,” which one would think is his way of getting inside the belly of the beast, was a surprisingly bland experience. It was the same with “W.”

KAUFMAN: One of the ways Stone has gone astray is by giving big displays of sentimentality in his films. “World Trade Center” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” were just terrible in that way. Those films are just failures; some of the earlier films, like “Salvador,” “Talk Radio” and “Platoon” had a harder edge. That’s my memory of them. Maybe it’s because he needs to be sweet now to get an audience. But when he tries to be sweet it’s a disaster.

RAINER: And now he’s putting together a multipart TV show on American history. This from the guy who thought LBJ was involved in JFK’s assassination. I would agree with Anthony. Stone is always trying to mainline emotion without seeing where it’s going and that belies his basic instincts. In “World Trade Center,” it was very funny that that film became a neocon favorite. All the people who demonized him for years were going on talk radio saying what a great film it was. That film has Michael Shannon’s character signing up to go to Iraq at the end — which feeds the idea that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. That’s an example of how Stone can go off on his own instincts for the sake of an emotional charge.

KAUFMAN: He’s obviously never been a subtle filmmaker. I just had a flash of a famous rape sequence in “Salvador.” Looking at films like “Born on the 4th of July” or “Platoon,” these aren’t subtle films. He’s got a weird, visceral approach to filmmaking that’s coming from the gut but can also splatter.

RAINER: It cuts both ways. I think “Salvador” is his best movie. James Woods was fantastic in it. And it has a political context. Stone isn’t very good at analyzing power because he’s too close to it. At some point you can get to the truth of human experience by examining those who are the most abhorrent. Stone’s anti-heroes are always people like Jim Morrison, Gordon Gekko, these sacred monsters. If you go to Oliver Stone for subtlety, you’re going in the wrong direction. What makes him a fascinating filmmaker when he’s going where he’s good is the same thing that makes him a terrible director otherwise. There’s a kind of comic ghastliness in his movies even in scripts he’s written for other directors, like Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.” That’s as much an Oliver Stone movie as a De Palma film.

KAUFMAN: De Palma is a fruitful comparison. They both tackle political content with a style that can be heavy-handed, but I would agree with Peter that with that heavy-handedness can come a certain power.

RAINER: Both of these filmmakers tend to take things to extremes because that’s how they see the word in paranoid worst-case-scenario terms. That’s where their juices are, where they live out their fantasies…

KAUFMAN: It’s worth noting that they’re both older than Soderbergh by over a decade.

RAINER: Some of “Savages” reminded me very much of a Tarantino film. The odd thing is that Stone was a strong influence on Tarantino. The level of violence in the torture sequences of “Savages” all have a sort of Tarantinoesque flavor. It’s not done as straight horror, but rather has a comic ghastliness that’s typical of Tarantino and has been from the get-go. It’s ironic that Stone’s latest film brings to mind Tarantino even though Stone is the progenitor of what Tarantino does.

Next page: Does the auteur theory still hold water today?

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.

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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