January 29, 2010

The Allure of Megalomania

From Taki's Magazine:

With James Cameron’s Avatar shouldering aside George Lucas’s original Star Wars and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight for second place on the all time movie box office rankings (behind only Cameron’s own Titanic), it’s a good time to note one of the odder twists in the evolution of popular film culture: the rise of the self-proclaimed do-it-all writer-director-producer.

Of the last thirty Best Picture nominees (2003-2008), ten had directors who also took screenwriting credits (including George Clooney for Good Night and Good Luck).

And of the top 30 box office hits of all time—a list dominated by recent films due to inflation—the director has also served double-duty as a screenwriter on 16.

The growing allure of the writer-director extends even to Lucas and Cameron, both of whom seem more intrigued by technological innovation than by fine-tuning dialogue. Lucas is notoriously tin-eared, while Cameron abstains from originality in plot and dialogue to—as he explains it—avoid confusing the audience.

After triumphing as the sole writer-director on the original Star Wars in 1977, Lucas took a public role for his 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back more like hypomanic producer David O. Selznick’s on 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Lucas handed the screenwriting credits to old-timer Leigh Brackett and young gun Lawrence Kasdan, and the directing credit to Irvin Kershner. Is it surprising that The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the best of the five follow-ups?

Yet, when Lucas returned in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, the spirit of the age encouraged him to take sole credits for both writing and directing. And it showed.

Still, The Phantom Menace made plenty of money. People like the idea of the embattled genius coming back after 16 years away (or 12 years in Cameron’s case) with his deeply personal revelation. Ironically, a variant of the auteur theory—that dauntingly intellectual Parisian rewrite of Hollywood history intended to establish the primacy of the director as the “author” of the film at the expense of the actors, screenwriter, producer, and the rest of the crew—is becoming the standard way to make crowd-pleasing popcorn movies. The public adores identifying with megalomaniac filmmakers.

Read the rest there and comment upon it here.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


DCThrowback said...

Reminds of pro football teams that (used) to hire guys to be their coaches and GMs. It's tough to do either job correctly, but both is quite difficult.

Usually Lurking said...

When The Natural came out, weren't you working in marketing? If so, how the hell did you know who the Cinematographer was?

That is a little like knowing that you like the Broncos new Defensive Coordinator because he was the Linebackers Coach for the Packers.

robopox said...

Robin Williams once said that a writer-producer-director-star is the only life form that can blow smoke up it's own ass.

Fellow Traveller said...

Why couldn't Lucas take a leaf out of his own work and adopt a Yoda like role? He could sit in his office and dispense pearls of wisdom to young apprentices who would then go off and make the films for him. I'd imagine a lot of head scratching after coming out of one of his conferences though: 'What was George talking about?' 'I've no idea' 'Oh well...'

You may be right about the generational aspect of the phenomena - look at Steve Jobs for a counterpart, dancing around on stage before Apple fans like he's Mick Jagger or Bowie.

Also: does this move toward taking all the credit have something to do with points on the box office as well as artistic ego?

David said...

As a low-budget indie filmmaker myself, I can say it's not megalomania, but integrity. Nothing but bad experiences with admitting other people to the creative process as co-writers, co-directors, co-producers, or (God almighty!) co-editors. To edit another man's movie, as Simon Cowell observed, is to cut off his balls.

Usually, unless it's a exploitation, popcorn, or other commercial money-getting project (as opposed to a work that's original and coheres), a film is one person's project at root. One person instigated it, dreamed it up, gathered the crew and gave them all jobs in the first place. "Co-" anybodys get in that person's way and harm the project every single time, and usually do so with ulterior motives and even maliciously. What kind of mentality wants to be only "co-" something? Someone looking to hitch a ride and take much of the glory, while you are relegated to being just another banana.

I feel strongly about this from personal experience. My advice to any filmmaker: hire hands to help you (sound man, production assistants, musicians, actors), and respect them greatly, and run the script and first cuts by trusted professionals and other friends...but don't give official power over script, direction, editing, or anything else to anyone else except the man who IS the movie, you. You don't need snakes and bedbugs.

These guys aren't all megalomaniacs, just people with years of bitter experience.

Michelangelo had talented helpers. At the basic creative level, though, he didn't brook collaborators. (He told the Pope where to put it in the planning stages of the Sistine Chapel, for example.) Is film art (or can it be)? Or is it a shady business enterprise where projects are cobbled together by committee for the purpose of making a killing on an audience of undiscriminating boobs?

Anonymous said...

Nothing but bad experiences with admitting other people to the creative process as co-writers, co-directors, co-producers, or (God almighty!) co-editors.

No doubt that's the reason the Coen brothers produce, direct, write and edit their own movies. Only a hack would desire less control.

Steve is pushing his "against the conventional wisdom" persona too much on this subject.

Guts Strongman said...

David: In making the case filmmakers are not megalomaniacal, it might be best not to compare them to Michaelangelo. Perhaps you could instead draw a comparison like, "God didn't delegate, he created the world himself, in only six days, under budget..."

Jorn said...

Steve, your statistical sense has abandoned you here. If you include classic writer-directors like Wes Anderson and Woody Allen (etc etc etc) with their comparative tiny boxoffice draw, sanity will be quickly restored.

An alternate explanation is that directing is so much more important than writing that a good director can dash off a mediocre script and still draw an audience, while a good writer can't get by by contributing mediocre direction.

I'm also astonished that you can't hear the vastly superior artistry in "After the Gold Rush" (my fave Neil)... or a zillion other singer-songwriters. Songwriting is so much more important than singing that a mediocre voice can sell great songs, if it expresses their subtle emotions. Sinatra had a great voice, but you almost never felt you were getting inside his skin.

TCO said...

1. Cooper, Cooper, Cooper. Read the damn bio and then write something based on it. You're not to old to learn. Plus I want your insights.

2. DC throw: lots of good guys have done both jobs (George Allen for a start). If anything, I wonder if this is more a formula for success (although perhaps confounded with the issue that anyone with the power to get both jobs is damn good to start with...however, there may be some unity of command benefit also.)

Black Sea said...

Re: David's comment, Pauline Kael once observed that the reason why you have so many terrible novels, and few great ones, is that a novel is essentially a one man production. She believed that the collaborative nature of film-making tended to produce something OKish more often than something great or terrible.

I do tend to think that the best films often flirt with disaster, and that's less likely to happen in an extensively collaborative process.

Udolpho.com said...

Auteur theory is loved by film geeks but movies are a massively collaborative enterprise. George Lucas got the look of Star Wars by choosing concept art swatches. Hitchcock relied heavily on very good, very glamorous actors. What did Kubrick ever write on his own? Managing a production of such scale is very demanding and requires creative thinking, but it is still management of other creatives, and success follows the better managers, not necessarily the more creative ones (see David Lynch, who is vastly more creative but whose movies are not so good).

But the biggest pushers of auteur theory are critics, because it gives them the ability to assign laurels for greatness despite having no clue what went on during the production. You don't have to know how much the AD or the DP or the actors contributed, you just valorize the efforts of the director. A reviewer's blurbs demand this simplification.

regularjoe said...

Dude,noboby cares that Cameron was the writer director producer shoe black lead gaffe whatever. People are seeing Avatar because its an awesome popcorn muncher with perfect CGI.

Yes, such things might tweak ratings amongst the movie nerds like yourself, but do you really, really think that broad, mass market appeal is driven by people's assesment of how romantic the story of the movie maker is? Do you think most people think about the differance between "directed by" versus "written and produced by" or whatever?

Sure, having a brand name to cite, starring celebrity so and so, or directed by so and so, or produced by the creator of previous hit movie X, is handy. But do you really believe that mass market appeal is added thru lumping on more titles to that brand name?

Maybe there's an alternative theory. I know you like the work of journeymen professionals in the entertainment world, its a theme of yours. But in a mature industry like movies, there's not much that's novel, and the more the product is the result of the broad professional Hollywood class, the more it will taste like standard Hollywood stuff.

So maybe the reason megalomanics are increasingly associated with mass sucess is that mass sucess rewards novelty, and megalomaniacs produce it more often?

crooked said...

"As a low-budget indie filmmaker myself, I can say it's not megalomania, but integrity."

In the end, it all comes down to talent. An artist without much integrity will produce better work than all those myspace artists so FULL of integrity.

Of course, it helps to have both integrity and talent, but talent is what really counts.

But, artistic commitment isn't always about integrity but greed, vanity, egomania, etc. Each case is unique. When Michael Cimino shot over 150,000 feet of film for a scene(in Heaven's Gate)that lasted a few minutes, was that integrity or indulgence borne of megalomania?

Some directors want to make a small movie to call their own and don't care too much about money or great fame as long as their films are appreciated by those who love cinema. Others not only want to be respected as a great artist but be famous and make a lot of money. I think Spielberg thinks in those terms with his popular serious films like Saving Private Ryan or Amistad. David Lean was pretty much the same with his mega-epics.

Some people shun collaboration because they have fragile egos. An artist wants to feel like he's all-around great at everything, and the idea of sharing credit with others--or having to bear their criticism during the creative process--is just too much for them. There's a funny scene in Fellini's 8 1/2 where Guido imagines hanging a writer who's been hired to critique the script. 8 1/2 may be Fellini's greatest movie--his first totally unrestrained megalomaniac exercise(everything is exciting the first time)--, but its out-of-control auteurist formula harmed his later works which were essentially the master's ego flying high.

Fellow Traveller said...

It could be that the appeal of the big name writer-director-producer-gaffer comes down, not to marketing appeal for the audience but for its appeal within the professional community. It's not like the old days of the studio system when films got produced in batches and Mussolini like studio bosses marshaled the talent. Perhaps a need remains in the business for a big personality upon whom the project can hang. It attracts funding. The more the director does, the greater his supposed talent, status and reputation, the more likely the film will get to the other side of pre-production with its cast intact.

Slight OT but do you have any comment on (Brittany Murphy's widower) Simon Monjack's proposed suit against Warners for allegedly causing her death by canning her role in the upcoming Happy Feet 2? What pertains? Casting directors and agents will need insurance cover from now on in case the bad news they break results in unexpected cessation of life?

abby tarr said...

"Dude,noboby cares that Cameron was the writer director producer shoe black lead gaffe whatever. People are seeing Avatar because its an awesome popcorn muncher with perfect CGI."

This may be true for most people, but the 'cinephile' community does care about the creative personalities.

And though most people are going to see AVATAR because of the hype, JAMES CAMERON is a brand respected or held in awe by many people--in both the film community and among the masses. Same goes with STEVEN SPIELBERG and GEORGE LUCAS. They are brandnames, and people know what to expect. Same was true of CECIL B. DEMILLE, ALFRED HITCHCOCK, DAVID LEAN, and JOHN FORD. Just see those names on movie posters, and one gets the general idea. De mille: Biblical Epic. Hitchcock: Master of Suspense. Ford: Classic Western. Lean: Historical Epic.

From the perspective of the masses(or popcorn munchers), these big names serve more as brandeurs than auteurs. Auteurists and cinephiles are not only interested with what's the screen but the creative process involved behind it.

Brandeurists--the masses--flock to the movies of certain big name directors because they know what to expect and want more of it. So, it is not insignificant that Cameron's fame is associated with Terminator, Aliens, Abyss, and Titanic. For those who loved Terminator 2 and Titanic for their cutting edge technology and huge scale, Avatar promises more of the same--or more of the same-different.

grampy said...

"An alternate explanation is that directing is so much more important than writing that a good director can dash off a mediocre script and still draw an audience, while a good writer can't get by by contributing mediocre direction."

Generally, a good script(plus good acting)with mediocre direction leads to better movies than mediocre script with good directing. Take the Fanny trilogy based on the Pagnol's screenplays. Only adequate directing but wonderful script and fine acting. On the other hand, take something like Rumble Fish. It has a script so pointless that Coppola's arsenal of wizardry cannot redeem or salvage any of it.

There is this misconception that screenwriting is mostly about dialogue. In some cases, this is true. But, some screenplays go to great lengths to set the mood and pacing, describe the setting, and even suggest camera angles. This was clearly the case with Apocalypse Now by John Milius. Paul Schrader was also a detailed screenwriter for something like Taxi Driver.

Consider Milius's script of Apocalypse Now:


For the long stretch in the beginning, there is no dialogue but rich and detailed description of unfolding action, how the film should look and sound(and smell). In other words, Milius wasn't just writing but directing through his writing.

Not all scripts are this dense and detailed. Some scripts mostly offer the dialogue and leave it up to the director to figure out the rest; the director has greater leeway for auteurship with such scripts.

But, if a screenplay is densely detailed and dictates how everything should look and feel--and if the studio orders the director to stay close to the script--, then the writer may be more crucial than the director.

The TV series Forsyte Saga was directed by various peoples, but all of it looks of one piece because each director stuck close to the script and wasn't given freedom to express his PERSONAL style. When Sam Peckinpah directed TV westerns, he had to stick pretty close to standard formula too.

Mr. Anon said...

"regularjoe said...

Dude,noboby cares that Cameron was the writer director producer shoe black lead gaffe whatever. People are seeing Avatar because its an awesome popcorn muncher with perfect CGI."

I have to agree. I think Steve is wrong on this one. Most movie goers don't even know the name of the director, nor would they care if they did. They have no idea who directed the film, or what other films he may have directed. The broad viewing public think in terms only of the star actors. Only film-nerds care about direction, cinematography, and screen-writing, or even supporting roles for that matter.

Tubby said...

"Of the last thirty Best Picture nominees (2003-2008), ten had directors who also took screenwriting credits (including George Clooney for Good Night and Good Luck)."

I wonder about those credits. Writing/producing credits are bought and sold in Hollywood like carbon credits. And singers sometimes buy composing credits for songs they didn't write.
Take the notion of 'executive producer'. Many do actually little or nothing but just invest money in the movie to get their names splashed across the Big Screen.

Also, there's the difference between partial writing and full writing. Great many directors have altered or added new material to scripts.

Maybe, it's now easier for directors or producers to earn--or buy--credit for having contributed to the script. Peckinpah contributed to every script he worked on whether he got the credit or not. Though Kubrick hired script writers, he closely supervised and dictated what or how it should be written. If the director has the power to reject what's offered by the writer and demand changes or different ideas, then the director is deeply influencing the writing even if he's not doing the writing himself; he is conducting the writer.

Same is true of music composition. For RAN, Kurosawa kept making Takemitsu to re-do the score to make it sound Mahleresque. Though Kurosawa didn't compose the music, he got the music that he wanted from the composer who was none-too-happy for being pressured this way.

We should also keep in mind that OSCAR nominated films tend to be the most ARTISTIC ONES. Generally, artistic films tend to be personal projects where writing and directing are often inseparable.

We should also distinguish writing professionally and writing personally. Writing professionally is applying the skills one learned in Screenplay 101 class to succeed in Hollywood. It is also known as hack writing.
Personal writing is about expressing something serious, unique, eccentric, or visionary. It is willing to violate formula in order to access a greater truth.

Most dumb Hollywood movies are written by a gaggle of hack writers and made by hack directors.
The more serious films nominated during Oscar Season tend to be made by independent studios where personal writing and directing--they often go together--are more encouraged.

However, it must be said that most Oscar nominated movies also follow a pretty staid formula. Look closely at stuff like CAPOTE or REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and they are similar in tone, style, music, and sErIoUsNeSs. The same 'subtle' piano chords, arty visuals, chic angst, ham-fisted ironies, hushed restraint(as if to say, 'this is for all you SWPL out there who are too smart for Hollywood movies but too lazy for foreign art films')

Binks said...

"The growing allure of the writer-director extends even to Lucas and Cameron, both of whom seem more intrigued by technological innovation than by fine-tuning dialogue. Lucas is notoriously tin-eared, while Cameron abstains from originality in plot and dialogue to—as he explains it—avoid confusing the audience."

I don't know about Cameron but not sure this is true of Lucas. Lucus began as a genuine auteur and was encouraged to both write and direct by Coppola, his mentor. Also, keep in mind that movie-writing, like a novel, isn't only about dialogue. A novel can go on for long stretches without dialogue. It can descripe nature, houses, towns, events, moods, smells, sounds, etc. A novel is not a play.

Is cinema more like theatre or the novel? It depends on the film, but most are more novelistic than dramatic, which may explain why more novels than plays have been made into great movies.

So, every element in Lucas's films is part of the writing. His student film THX 1138 has little dialogue, but it too was written--narratively mapped out and conceptualized. His feature film version also had minimal dialogue--perfect for the material--, but it was clearly a work of a writer-director.
And, judging by American Graffiti, Lucas could write decent dialouge when familiar with the setting.

He had a problem with writing dialogue for Star Wars because he was going for Flash Gordon-ese, West Coastese, and Shakespearese. A movie about BIG THEMES for 10 yr olds. So, you have Ben Kenobi doing Shakespeare, R2D2 bleeping like mad, and Jabba going huh-huh-huh. Btw, I'm not sure Empire Strikes Back is the best of the series in terms of direction or dialogue.
As with Avatar, Star Wars lives or dies depending on its 'visionary' effects. The technology simply wasn't ready back in the early 80s.

Lucas finally got the chance many yrs later but screwed up royally with Phantom Menace, a film eagerly anticipated yet terribly disappointing.
It was so bad that it dampened enthusiasm for the much superior Attack of the Clones(and not-all-bad Revenge of the Sith). Had Phantom Menace delivered the goods, the Attack and Revenge would have done even better at the box-office. But, adults who saw Phantom were convinced that the next two films would be more-of-the-same.

And, even though dialogue was never Lucas's forte, it wasn't the main flaw of the Star Wars. Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford said a lot of inane things, but they came across pretty good. Darth Vader says, 'Luke, it is your destiny' over and over, but he looks impressive too. The problem was the other main actors. Dull Hamill, plain Fisher.
Return of the Jedi had too much silly stuff, like in Jabba's lair. Did we really need an elephant jazz pianist and dancing lip? And then there were the Ewoks, a tribe of jungle teddy bears who took on the Empire and won.

Phantom Menace suffered from similar problems. The little kid couldn't act. Even fed with the best dialogue, he would have garbled it. There were too many funny characters. You had a big fly-man that looked like an Arab. There was not just one Jar Jar Stinks but a whole tribe of them. No script could have saved it.

This is too bad since Attack of the Clones, despite weak script and the godawful actor, did so much right in terms of overall vision, concept, and effects. (It also limited Jar Jar to a single scene, and Yoda finally went from handpuppet to CGI character. Why Lucas stuck with the hand-puppet yoda in Phantom Menace is something I will never understand.)
There are breathtaking images in this film and some awesomely mounted action scenes. It is impressive enough for us to forget about the dialogue, just like we don't care the lyrics to Led Zeppelin tunes. It is a blast made for the right audience--young adults--than for toddlers, like Phantom Menace was.

jody said...

i would not discount everything lucas wrote. he wrote raiders of the lost ark, and the last crusade, too. both good scripts exploring the most important religious legends of christianity. they turned out to be a lot better on film than any dan brown book.

his ability to write plot and especially dialog did not drop off a cliff until the phantom menace. all the dialog in the second 3 star wars movies is cringe worthy, and the plot, in at least the phantom menace, was flat out boring. i saw video camera footage from 1999, when lucas first sat in his studio theater with him team of closest advisors, and they watched the finished version of the phantom menace for the first time. after it was over, lucas was exasperated. he knew he had made a weak movie, but did not have time to fix it. because of the way all the sub plots were organized, editing could not improve the phantom menace, only make the movie incomprehensible.

he also dusted off an old script from around 1995 and used that for the crystal skull. i think his original script was called "indiana jones and the saucer men from mars". now that was a bad script. but most of it still went directly into the crystal skull.

nolan, on the other hand, is a master writer. maybe the best writing director ever. the academy fears him. he easily outwrites the writers that they prefer, so the academy automatically uses their "not a serious movie, will not be nominated" veto on nolan's work. inception might be YET ANOTHER awesome nolan masterpiece.

i don't think there is anything weak about cameron's writing, and i disagree that his material is unoriginal. those are standard trolling arguments the haters bring out when cameron releases another masterpiece of entertainment with mass appeal, and people show a preference for his movie over some well made but soon forgotten drama. cameron's writing is fine, and suits his movies. sure, he does not deliver tarantino writing. and that would not work in his movies either. tarantino, a master writer who delivered yet another great movie this year worthy of an academy award nomination, thinks cameron's writing in avatar was fine, and so did most other directors. one of the only people who objected to avatar was jason reitman, who obviously had his hopes of an academy award in 09 smashed by a better director. but reitman will be back in 2011 or so with another well made, soon forgotten drama that the academy might like, so he can chill.

if we want to talk about overrated dialog, acting, writing, pacing, cinematogray, directing, i'll be happy to get into the hurt locker. or, as i have started calling it, the foot locker.

Saber said...

"Still, The Phantom Menace made plenty of money. People like the idea of the embattled genius coming back after 16 years away (or 12 years in Cameron’s case) with his deeply personal revelation."

In the case of Return of George Lucas, I think it was more a issue of redemption than revelation.

Though his first Star Wars trilogy was a huge hit, most of the critical community had turned against him by Return of the Jedi. They found it excessive, stupid, and infantile--much more so that the previous two. And, Star Wars fans--kids who grew up with the first two installments--were none too happy either. They hated the Ewoks and too much silly stuff in the movie.

Also, keep in mind that the critical community came to associate Lucas and Spielberg with crass materialism of the Reagan Era. Indeed, many critics--who loved early 70s cinema of Altman, Cassavetes, Peckinpah, etc--argued that Spielberg and Lucas had killed personal American filmmaking in the late 70s by hatching the monster called the summer blockbuster movie.

Critics who had championed THX 1138and American Graffiti(and even the first Star Wars as a novelty act)were disgusted with how Lucas got lazy and hired hacks to make the sequels. Spielberg was also attacked for hiring hacks to make cheapie Spielbergian imitations like Goonies. It was if Hollywood had turned purely greedy, formulaic, and cynical: corporate than personal. (Corporateur than auteur?)But, this became the norm, with Stallone returning over and over to Rocky. Romero making yet another lame Zombie movie.

So, the critical community didn't give a damn about the Return of Lucas. But, the Star Wars generation did anticipate something great with the next trilogy. There was much hype and some of the images leaked out through the internet.
Star Wars fans hoped that Lucas now had the money and techology to finally redeem himself and give the world STAR WARS as it was really meant to be. They got Phantom Menance, a movie so horrible that its crappiness rubbed off(unfairly)on the sequels as well.

Why was Phantom such a big hit? Star Wars had become such a phenomenon that people were curious. And parents who grew up with the first batch of Star Wars films took their kids.

Had Phantom Menace been truly good--and geared toward young adults than to toddlers--, it would have made double the amount at the box office.

Many people went to see Titanic and Avatar(and Gone with the Over)over and over. I don't think many people went to see Phantom Menace more than once.

That'll be the day! said...

"Besides, saying 'I like John Ford Westerns' sounds more sophisticated than saying 'I like John Wayne Westerns,' even though they are more or less the same movies."

Leaving aside the fact that many John Ford Westerns didn't star John Wayne, the above statement sounds insanely philistine.
While one can make a legitimate case that Ford did, more or less, work within the studio system and stuck to a general formula, it is ludicrous to say John Ford Westerns and John Wayne Westerns directed by other directors are about on the same artistic level.

It is mostly an insult to John Ford but also to other directors who could do things Ford couldn't or wouldn't. Take Howard Hawks's first Western, Red River with Wayne and Clift. NO ONE could possibly mistake this for a Ford Western. It would be apples-and-oranges to compare Ford and Hawks, but they had different personalities and sensibilities, and it shows when we compare their Westerns.

Though John Wayne made some decent Westerns with directors other than Ford or Hawks, most are not memorable. There's a reason why Stagecoach, Searchers, and Man Who Shot Liberty Valance have had such impact on film history. When we include a non-Wayne Western like My Darling Clementine, Ford's greatness becomes all the more apparent.

The difference between Ford and lesser Western directors is the difference between a Steinway Piano and a mass manufactured one. Even as he worked within the studio system, he made his films with greater care, finesse, focus, and (deceptive)originality than most directors could manage. The work of a master carpenter and a layman carpenter may be 90% or even 95% the same, but the 10% or 5% or even 1% makes all the difference.
It's also what distinguishes a great ballerina from a good ballerina.
Ford didn't have an obviously fanciful style like some Hollywood directors, but he created a Fordian vision and mood that came to be imitated by countless directors. If so many John Wayne Westerns made by other directors superficially resemble Ford Westerns, it was because they were imitations of(or homages to) the vision perfected by Ford.
The Western genre would still have been popular had Ford never worked in Hollywood, but its development would have been notably different without him.

One could argue that the Beatles and a whole host of British Invasion bands were, MORE OR LESS, the same. Yes, they were all essentially popular music about love aimed at teenagers. They were rock n roll songs or pop ballads. But, if one cannot tell the difference in quality and talent between "Yesterday" and "Mrs. Brown You've Gotta Lovely Daughter" OR between "Ticket to Ride" and "Do the Freddy", one needs to listen to music more closely.

What is the difference between Spielberg and Michael Bay? Perhaps not much to the average popcorn muncher. But, for those who can see, it's the difference between a creative/expressive master(despite the childishness of the material) and an imitative hack.

MORE OR LESS isn't what art or culture is about. Most artists during the Renaissance could do 90%of what Michelangelo could do: paintings or sculptures with Biblical or Classical themes.

The question is what extra element--the X factor--did Michelangelo have that could not be emulated or equaled by others? Otherwise, any Renaissance painting of Jesus is, more or less, the artistic equal the work of Michelangelo or Da Vinci and should satisfy us just as much.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Pitting the artistic abilities of Cole Porter against Neil Young.
Let's see if we can pull this off.

Okay, Cole Porter expresses life's sadness:

My story is much too sad to be told
But practically everything
leaves me totally cold!
The only exception i know is the case
When i m out on a quiet spree
Fighting vainly the old ennui
And i suddenly turn and see
Your fabulous face!

Neil Young expresses life's sadness:

Old man lying by the side of the road
With the lorries rolling by,
Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load
And the buildings scrape the sky,
Cold wind ripping down the alley at dawn
And the morning paper flies,
Dead man lying by the side of the road
With the daylight in his eyes.

I think I'd have to give the artistic depth points to Neil.
But wait. Let's give Cole a chance, here.

Cole Porter is appalled at our nations accepted value system:

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today
And black's white today
And day's night today
When most guys today that women prize today
Are just silly gigolos

So though I'm not a great romancer
I know that you're bound to answer
When I propose, anything goes!

Neil Young also has concerns on the same theme, as expressed:

Southern man
better keep your head
Don't forget
what your good book said
Southern change
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
Southern man

I saw cotton
and I saw black
Tall white mansions
and little shacks.
Southern man
when will you
pay them back?
I heard screamin'
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

I think I'd have to give this one to Neil again. I like Cole, though, despite his vague stance on integration.

Masculin Feminin said...

"The auteur theory is popular because it is less scholarly than it is Romantic, an aid to hero-worship. It personalizes the vastly complicated business of making movies into one man’s struggle for self-expression."

There is some truth to this, but there's more to the Auteur Theory than meets the eye. The theory was also ideological or about power. It made an argument for personal artistic vision over both mindless commerce(most of Hollywood) and stuffy middle-brow-ism(post-wr French Cinema). Ironically, the French Auteurists were champions of certain Hollywood directors who were regarded as sub-auteurs--subversive auteurs. Against the European Left which insisted that all of capitalist Hollywood was suspect, the French Auteurists insisted that there were certain artists working in Hollywood who managed to produce art through commerce. Auteurists were not interested in guys like Lean and Wyler but in the so-called underappreciated directors--often working in B films--like Boetticher and Fuller. Or, they would defend Ford or Hitchcock as directors of such mastery that their genius could not be denied nor suppressed by the studio system.

The over-excitement on the part of French cinephiles had something to do with the fact that Hollywood films hadn't been available to French audiences during the war and then had come under ideological assault by the culturally dominant French Left. So, the French cineastes approached even standard Hollywood fare with virgin eyes. It was to them what rock n roll was to British teens in the 50s. Something exotic, different, and even rebellious.

To the extent that people compete for power in any enterprise and endeavor, auteur theory became an argument for power on the part of the critic and the director. This may sound a bit curious. Why would movie critics favor the director over the writer? Shouldn't men with the pen identify with other men with the pen?
It was because those who write want to be associated with those who act. Thus, Gabriel Marquez Garcia was smitten with Fidel Castro. Sartre supported everyone from Stalin to Mao to Che. Henry Williamson was impressed with Hitler. Those wielding the pen want to be associated with those wielding with the sword, whip, or camera. Directors who moved about on the set and gave loud orders seemed more cool and powerful than writers hunched over their desks.

Auteurists were like French intellectuals during the revolution hoping for a Man of Destiny, someone like Napoleon who would finally put their ideas into action. Only directors could satisfy this dream.

Centrality of directorship also came into focus as a result of the 'camera stylo' theory which said a true film artist not only shoots actors reading scripts(like filming a play)but uses the full visual aspects and potential of cinema to explore and expand film language.
Camera mustn't merely visually record what's in the script but 'write' with imagery. Just as a song is not only the lyrics but also the music, true film writing is the image-music that subsumes the written script. In this sense, a director would be like a image-composer or image-symphonist. Since the cinematographer, no matter how talented, must take orders from the director, the director would--or at least should--be the central author.

In other words, cinema shouldn't be so slavish to the other arts but discover and express its unique qualities. The man to do this job should ideally be the director since he is the spider at the center of the web. He is the creative sun around which all the other planets revolve around. He's the conduit between the cinematographer, the actors, the writers, editor, musical composer, etc. Film is collaborative but it is not egalitarian. It is hierarchical in terms of who shapes the central vision, who gives the orders, and who makes the final decisions based on the advice of many people involved.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine was Cameron's personal assistant for a while.
Cameron is the real deal. He can do every single job on a movie set himself--including catering.
He could physically take apart ever piece of anything on a movie set and put it back together. Many people don't know he was an engineering major in college, and he did well there. He has a big brain.
He's also an accomplished painter. The pencil sketch of Rose in Titanic that Jack was drawing was Cameron's pencil sketch, and Cameron's hand in the shot sketching it.
If anyone qualifies as a renaissance man of his generation of filmmakers, it would be Cameron. He probably has an IQ of 180.
A big reason he brings in very complicated films at or under budget is because he knows everybody's job as well or better than they do, so if a camera man says "It'll take a day to set up that shot," Cameron can, and will say, "No. It will take about three hours. Do it." So what happens after a couple of exchanges like that is, they don't challenge him, they just do it, knowing Cameron is on top of everything.
I know it sounds like propaganda, but my friend was around him every day, watched him do his thing, and would tell me about it. My friend isn't easily impressed, but was astounded by Cameron.
Oddly enough, he's the least flashy of any of his peers, yet has more skill as a filmmaker than any of them.
Don't underestimate Cameron. You may see his version of "Raging Bull" one day that will blow your socks off.
His only major challenge is that there are only so many hours in a day.

Golli said...

I think Lucas worked on the script alone for the last three Star Wars movies because he's essentially a shy and insecure person.

If Lucas hired a truly talented writer, the latter might laugh at Lucas's ideas and make Lucas feel real small. If Lucas hired a slavish hack writer, the end result would be hack work--which Lucas could have done on his own.

NY NY said...

"Sure, the 1956 version of I’ve Got You Under My Skin is a finer piece of popular art than any Neil Young recording..."

It is attitudes like this which have stifled creativity on the Right--and in America in general. I do not contend that one has to like Neil Young or prefer him to Sinatra.
What bothers me is the Cult of 'objective dimension'.

It's true enough that some people can 'objectively' sing or draw better. But, great art is more than about objective or technically quantifiable qualities. Sure, the top contestants on American Idol may sing better--'objectively speaking'--than Fats Domino, John Lennon, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or Jimi Hendrix, but are the Idols greater artists?

I suppose any Hollywood movie is 'objectively' better-made than "Open City" by Rossellini or "Breathless" by Godard.
I suppose the Parthenon in Nashville is technically or objectively better than the one in Athens, especially as it's in a state of ruin.

But, art isn't just a machine or a sport that can be judged by 'objective' performance.
Indeed, many singers were 'objectively' better singers than Frank Sinatra. What made Sinatra stand out? Others had louder voices, could sing higher notes, and pull vocal tricks he couldn't.
Sinatra was greater because he was unique in voice, style, delivery, and movement. And his gaze; he wasn't called Old Blue Eyes for nothing.
Same goes for Stevie Nicks; she has a uniquely bewitching quality.

Dylan wasn't much of a technical singer but his voice was perfect for his surreal songs. Surely, Tom Jones could sing "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Just like a Woman" better than Dylan, but Dylan's versions open more doors to strange corridors.

I suppose more handsome and better-trained actors might have been 'objectively' better as main characters in THE WILD BUNCH, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Those grotesque looking men--Borgnine, Oates, Jonson, etc--are just right for the movie.

We may disagree on the artistic merit of Neil Young--personally, I think AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, along with RUST NEVER SLEEPS, is one of the greatest and most beautiful rock albums ever--, but we should commend him for having the guts and vision to weave his own unique musical tapestry. I hear the hawk, the eagle, the young man, the old man, the dreams, the dashed hopes, poetry, madness in his songs.

I'd say the same for Lynyrd Skynyrd. It may well be Kenny Rogers was 'objectively' a better singer or musical artist than LS, but I like the wild and saucy raw energy of Sweet Home Alabama. It's not pretty and may be rough around the edges, but I can feel and smell the essence of Southern America so lacking in so many formulaic and 'objectively' well-done country or country-rock music.

To be sure, we need to be wary of the CULT of authenticity--as opposed to talented authenticity. A work of art, no matter how 'authentic' or 'personal', isn't worth a damn if there's no talent to express it. There are plenty of sincerely authentic musical artists on facebook, myspace, and youtube. 99% of them suck. There are plenty of 'authentic' indie or personal filmmakers with their dream projects. But, most of them suck too.

But, we should welcome talented authenticity. While a well-composed commercially oriented song is surely superior to a bad song by an authentic or personal artist, the greatest achievements in any artform are nearly always by those with both talent and authenticity. It's not a zero sum game where it has to be one or the other.

As for Sinatra vs Young, it's apples and oranges and not even worth the botter. How does one comare the merit of something so romantic-hip-cool as 'Strangers in the Night' with something so poetic-stirring-haunting as 'Pocahontas'? I value both, just like I value both '2001' and 'Husbands'.

Anonymous said...

Your article reminds me of a pretentious academic paper or something in The New Yorker...


jody said...

what i think is more interesting, is how these guys prefer to use the same actors over and over.

cameron starting working with 4 or 5 actors in the 80s, and used the same people in almost all of his movies. he was even going to cast michael biehn as the colonel in avatar, until after he hired sigourney weaver, and then started to worry that people would think it was aliens again, so he got stephen lang instead, who put in a good performance.

christian bale and michael cain, who don't have trouble getting parts, will nevertheless now have lots of chances to get great parts in nolan's major films. a couple disappointing movies in a row? just phone up nolan and ask for a major role in his next big project. minor actors, like ken watanabe, have to be psyched about being on nolan's short list.

for an actor, there's nothing better for your career than getting a major part in a major director's successful project. indeed, this is probably THE way that most actor's careers works. it only takes 3 years after that last big hit, and a couple flops, for producers to start losing interest in casting you. that's when you start hoping for a role in a big project to help your career.

michale cera, for instance, is one flop away from not getting those phone calls for the next quirky comedy movie. he desperately needs some funny jews to cast him in a hit, or his career is going the way of john heder.

it might not be an exaggeration that arnold schwarzenegger was popular enough to become governor of california, because of what james cameron did for his visibility.

Whiskey said...

Lucas's first script for Star Wars was apparently a mess. Steve I'm surprised you did not mention this, it was (the script that is) all over the internet a few years ago, including the scene where Luke Skywalker hits Leia in the face, other stupid stuff.

Apparently some REAL script writers took Lucas's script, boiled down the few essential elements, and created basically a whole new script (including IIRC Obi-Wan, Darth Vader, cutting the Princess Leia retinue to none, etc.)

You can also list HUGE turkeys, particularly the Matrix II & III movies, Speed Racer, and so on from the Wachowski brothers. Cameron had the Abyss, which was a failure. If you look at this List for the 2000's, I see ONE original source material done by "Auteur" which is AVATAR. The others are based on rides, comic books, a beloved fantasy novel series, toys, and Jesus Christ.

Look, for example, at Spider-Man. If you have say, 40 plus years of proven working story lines for the character, its a matter of simply not screwing up. The work has already been done. You could argue that Michael Bay is a better "Auteur" than Cameron or the Wachowskis because he has more hits.

Cameron is of course stupid like most Hollywood folks, thinking his talent makes him wise. [He's in favor of eco-terrorism, except not for burning HIS mansions or luxury cars down.] AVATAR is really the first serious (i.e. not Spy Kids 3-D) IMAX 3-D movie, so no surprise it cleaned up in the box office.

I would toss out Oscars because that's a matter of how much studios pay for the campaign.

[FWIW, I've seen people allege that Cameron was demanding unsafe stunts for the Abyss, True Lies, Terminator 2, and Titanic, and the cost of the movies ballooned just to keep Cameron from killing people while keeping Cameron happy with the shot. Joss Whedon, another Hollywood idiot, once said that having a more limited budget made him write better, since he had to focus on emotional moments not effects tricks. There's probably a limit to which movies can rise via effects tricks instead of emotionally affecting moments, given piracy and other pressure on prices for tickets, DVDs, streaming video, etc.]

I'd guess that it is on TV that the auteur theory is most applicable. Directors are hired hands who come and go, meanwhile the writer-producer generally has a plan for each season and often the entire series.

James said...

You ought to rank successful movies by the number of tickets sold.

dirty sally said...

Though film is a collaborative process, a great director-as-auteur does have an inspirational effect on those around him. Psychology matters in making movies as in making war. A great leader inspires his underlings and troops. He brings out strengths and abilities they didn't know they had. Take General Patton. He was an inspirational leader(or so the movie said). His men loved him. They were willing to go to hell and back for him. Napoleon and Hitler tragically had the same effect on those who followed them.

So, a great auteur not only collaborates with but inspires the people he works with.
Consider the collaboration between Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Why did Morricone produce his best music for Leone's films: Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in America? He did some very good work with other directors too, but his fame mainly rests on his scores for Leone films. There was something about Leone's vision and personality that brought out the best in Morricone. When Morricone worked on something like Red Sonja, he was no better than a hack. Working with Leone, his creativity went into overdrive.
Same was true of Hitchcock and Hermann. Part of this is pure chemistry: some talents mix well while others do not. Bergman and Nykvist were meant for each other. Kurosawa and Mifune too. Mifune once said the only films he's truly proud of are the ones he made with Kurosawa. What was it about Kurosawa that brought out the best in him? It wasn't egalitarian collaboration but masterful authority and control on the part of Kurosawa. He was known as the Emperor.

Of course, there are good and even great films made by directors without strong personalities or even strong vision. These films tend to be either theatrical(dramatic) or conventionally novelistic. But, consider the greatest films ever made, and they tend to be the works of strong directorial--even dictatorial--personalities. Ivan the Terrible, 2001, Persona, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and etc could not have been envisioned or directed by Ivan Reitman or Ron Howard.

And when a great director's power or vision is excessively suppressed, the work suffers accordingly. Spartacus has some great moments, but it may be Kubrick's weakest work because of Douglas's interference.

Don Siegel did much better work with Eastwood when he called the shots. When Eastwood got things his way, Siegel did less well. Beguiled and Dirty Harry are finer works than Escape from Alcatraz(which still isn't bad).
The most horrible example of a talented director being reduced to a hack-whore was probably Roland Joffe--who once made the excellent Killing Fields--making 'Scarlett' for Demi Moore. Joffe was just a hired hand for an egotistical Hollywood bimbo.

To be sure, auteurs have gone mad or been corrupted with too much power and freedom. Bertolucci's 1900, Cimino's Heaven's Gate, Coppola's One from the Heart, De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities among many others come to mind. For some reason, Italians and Italian-Americans have had this operatic need to work big. Even Scorsese caught this bug since the 90s.

Finest demonstration of the importance of a great director is the remake of Magnificent Ambersons. Alfonso Arau worked on the script that served Welles, yet the result is unwatchably bad whereas Welles's film, though truncated down to 89 min from an original 140 min, is maybe one of the 10 greatest films ever.

Or compare the original Manchurian Candidate to the remake. A pity since Demme used to be one of America's finest directors of the 80s. All downhill since Something Wild.

Yoda Soda said...

Maybe guys like Lucas and Cameron want control over 'everything' since it's hard to trust anyone in the industry. Most producers are sharks, and too many writers demand percentages and even sue you later, and etc. More major collaboraters you have, more money you lose. Auteurs must feel like fisherman in Old Man and The Sea. They got this Big Fish but they see all these sharks coming to bite off huge chunks.

Unless a director "controls everything", he will be treated like shit by Hollywood. I heard Tim Burton didn't make much from Batman. And, Peter Jackson felt he got robbed by the producers of LOR. My Bigass Greek Wedding, though having grossed over 300 million, reported no net profit, and its writers and directors felt cheated. Indeed, Hollywood is notorious for 'creative accounting', which is why anyone who knows anything about anything in Hollywood never signs on for 'net profit'. Net profit in Hollywood is like Santa Claus. A fairytale.

Most directors never made much money, and they won't unless they control the movie-making on many levels. And unless they put their stamp on the writing, they might come under all sorts of lawsuits later by disgruntled writers who complain that THEY got robbed.

Coppola had the right idea when he opened his own Zoetrope studio. He believed that artists should produce their own films. And there was United Artists created much earlier by Griffith, Pickford, and Chaplin. Supposedly, directors had mattered more in the early yrs of cinema, but the suits began to take over. So, United Artists was an attempt to maintain control in the hands of the artists.

Generally, companies run by artists failed since they tended to be naive idealistic. (Beatles and Apple, by golly!) Griffith went bust with Intolerance. Coppola lucked out with Apocalypse Now but then fell on his ass with One from the Heart.

There was also an artistic union in the 40s with William Wyler, Frank Capra, and others. The first film they produced was the very successful BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. But, the next film was a total box office bust. It was IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. That pretty much put an end to that artist-producer collaboration.

In the 70s, four notable Japanese directors came together and formed a company to make artistic films. Members were Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Kobayashi, and one other guy. First film was Dodeskaden, a total bust, and the group disbanded.

Lucas and Cameron must have learned something from all this. For artists to maintain control, they must make surefire commercial hits--be popular than personal, commercial than artistic. One may ask, "with independent artists like these, who needs studio hacks?"
(Even so, Lucas is forever to be commended for bringing Kurosawa back with Kagemusha).

On the other hand, Spielberg not only made huge hits, gained control over production, but also found time to make some quality films for adult viewers.

jody said...

"Cameron is the real deal."

the amount of scientific research that went into avatar is tremendous. several real scientists were technical advisors on avatar for a full year. i had a scientist, a marine biologist, tell me she was impressed with the plants in avatar and found them scientifically plausible. two real physicists designed the space craft at the beginning of the movie, a hypothetical anti-matter nuclear thruster. i have a science degree, and i think cameron probably undersold the level of robotics in the year 2154. the only thing which is not probable, but still plausible, is finding intelligent aliens on a rocky moon within range of a spacecraft which only moves at 75% the speed of light.

this is why the film critics have it exactly backwards with the hurt locker. cameron went to great lengths to make his fiction technically plausible, but the people who made the hurt locker did not. it is obvious to people with military experience or simple military interest, that there was no technical director on this movie. a lot of the movie is simply not correct, and not in a trivial way which can be overlooked in the pursuit of "serious" movie making. you don't need to be an expert to spot these problems. you don't need to be, for instance, real doctor watching a hospital drama to see the mistakes. for instance, the movie specifically tells us that it is iraq 2004. then proceeds to instantly forget what iraq was like in 2004. a single adult male crashing through an army perimeter with his car would simply be shot instantly. the risk of a suicide car bomb was sky high. john mccain had to travel baghdad with 30 soldiers, 6 hummers, and 2 helicopters, but the main character in the hurt locker leaves the base in the middle of the night by himself. later, 3 bomb technicians go into the city at night, with no intel, no backup, no plan, looking for a shootout.

the critics say they can take the hurt locker seriously because it is a "serious" movie. but it's not even close to serious. it's not a realistic war movie. bigelow is an action director, and the hurt locker reflects this. it regularly veers away from being a realistic war movie and into being an action movie. it routinely trades realistic war movie credibility for action movie conventions. the hurt locker is exactly the kind of movie which the academy does not take seriously. the hurt locker is a "serious" movie about a bomb technician who does stuff so stupid that only a hero in an action movie would act the same way. he's disarmed 800 bombs. what? those are rambo numbers. he routinely disobeys his superiors. what? that's lethal weapon, cop movie stuff. "Don't send the robot, I'll do it!" he directly handles explosive devices with his bare hands, moving them, pushing them around, lifting them. what? it's safe to do this with unstable bombs? even bomb makers blow themselves up sometimes, and they made the bomb. showing the main character doing this removes the element of danger to the characters and lowers the tension of the scene. this might work in an action movie but it doesn't in a realistic war movie. any character in a realistic war movie has to be in real danger of getting killed at any time. even IN an action movie, they usually do a better job of selling a bomb as dangerous. the sniper scene was just plain wrong from a technical standpoint. the tension was much better than the bomb scenes, yet no better than sniper scenes in some other war movies. enemy at the gates blows away the hurt locker here.

jody said...


this shift, from realistic war movie to action movie, which happens often in the hurt locker, disqualifies it as "serious". i love a good rambo movie - but the academy doesn't. i love a good lethal weapon movie - but the academy doesn't. i am at a total loss as to what was so serious, credible, or heavy about the hurt locker. at one point a character in the movie actually points this out, calling the main character "a wild man". aside from this academy award credibility problem, when the soldiers are not in the field, the hurt locker is actually boring. the character development is nothing great. in fact, the hurt locker never flirts with greatness one single time. was it that much better than jarhead, the kingdom, or three kings? no, and i think the kingdom was probably better. black hawk down was better for sure, and more realistic too for obvious reasons. critics who watched the hurt locker and thought it on the level of saving private ryan, are objectively wrong. not subjectively. objectively. veterans praised saving private ryan and said that spielberg got it exactly correct. yet veterans who saw the hurt locker universally panned it, saying it was totally wrong.

about the abyss:
the abyss wasn't a failure. it made it's money back, and was an important success from a special effects perspective. it featured the first instance of the computer generated effect which cameron needed for terminator 2. you can see it in the scene when the aliens use the ocean water to send a liquid tentacle into the underwater base, checking out the miners, and then the SEALs who have a nuclear warhead from the submarine.

avatar wasn't even supposed to be a major deal. avatar was actually supposed to be like the abyss. it was just a project cameron did to get the special effects up to the level he wanted so he could make some other movie. it's called "battle angel alita". cameron needed all the special effects developed in avatar so he can make battle angel alita, an adaption of a 1993 japanese comic book.

Yago2046 said...

" AVATAR is really the first serious (i.e. not Spy Kids 3-D) IMAX 3-D movie, so no surprise it cleaned up in the box office."

Whiskey you shameless ***

AmericanGoy said...


There is too much individuality STILL in Yoo Ess of Ey!

What we need is the glorious corporate model, of a rule by committee.

TCO said...

I'm very impressed and enjoying the comments in this thread. Learning a lot and effortlessly. Why can't all the threads be this quality?

Steve Sailer said...

"The Hurt Locker" is very much a half full / half empty glass movie. It's both over the top and small. I suspect most Oscar voters will eventually decide it's not a big enough movie to be Best Picture. It would be kind of like "Memento" winning Best Picture.

I suspect "Up in the Air" is over as the Best Picture frontrunner: pretty good movie, but not good enough.

"Avatar" has the problem going back to the 1980s when "Back to the Future" didn't even get a Best Picture nomination despite being the top box office film and hugely entertaining.

So, now I'm figuring the Best Picture will turn out to be the one that made quite a bit of money, but not too much, the one that's kind of cheesy but also has a lot of layers to it: "Inglourious Basterds." I think it could be promoted to the mostly old Academy voters as the anti-Avatar, as a tribute to silver nitrate film stock in a digital age, a fictionalized tribute to Henri Langlois hiding away old films in wartime Paris.

Amauteur said...

"the auteur theory—that dauntingly intellectual Parisian rewrite of Hollywood history"

This is debatable. The main instigator of the Auteurist line was Francois Truffaut, the least intellectual of the major figures of the New Wave--ironic since he was the only (half)Jewish one.

Prior to becoming a film director, Truffaut was known mainly for passion and polemics than intellectual complexity or depth. Godard and Rivette--even Chabrol and Rohmer--were far more intellectual. Another group of French filmmakers who rose to fame around the same time--Resnais, Marker, etc--were yet more intellectual still.

Truffaut's films--and he made several masterpieces--were never known for their intellectualism. His first major film 400 Blows was a movie of the heart. Shoot the Piano Player and Jules & Jim were stylistically more experimental but not particularly intellectual. Truffaut often defended the world of knowledge and intellect--Fahrenheit 451 and Wild Child--, but he was always closer to the soul-inside-the-mind than the mind-inside-the-soul.

The reason why Auteur theory caught on so quickly was because it was--as Sailer points out later in the article-- heavily 'romantic'. Even as it pretended toward intellectual complexity, its main virtue(or vice)was its simplification of the movie-making process. It allowed disussion of auteurs as god-like beings. Not for nothing did the premier auteurist in America, Andrew Sarris, write a book--American Cinema--where he designated the top directors as 'pantheon directors'.

Steve Sailer said...

Perhaps the most pervasively influential American movie of the 20th Century was "The Wizard of Oz." That, or "Gone with the Wind."

Yet, "The Wizard of Oz" has a hard time being shoehorned into film studies organized around directors because it had three different directors in sequence, with Victor Fleming ending up with the credit. That same year, 1939, Fleming was one of three directors on "Gone With the Wind," and wound up with the credit on that one, too.

Koko said...

Auteur theory, like all theories, took on a life of its own.
Some think auteurism is about common themes in a given director's body of work, but it was more about common style or 'signature'--often subconscious & natural.

Auteurists were not interested in directors like Stanley Kramer without discernible stylistic signatures to speak of. Sure, all of his films had the common theme of do-gooderism, but he was a zero in terms of auteurship. In contrast, Howard Hawks made all sorts of films--screwball comedies, westerns, thrillers, drama, war movies, action/adventure, etc--with varying themes but madee them shine with the same stylistic brilliance.
Auteur theory's full impact cannot be appreciated without considering the prevailing ideas of the 50s. Sarris's never stopped bemoaning the fact that he'd included Kramer's ON THE BEACH as one of the best films of 1958 while excluding VERTIGO & TOUCH OF EVIL. Even he had been under postwar cultural influence that art should be ABOUT something & 'save the world'. Even a hip urbane place like NY had Bosley Crowther as the top film critic. There was the moralistic strain of do-gooder puritanism in American culture. Also, there was the idea among SERIOUS people that Europe had the film artists while American had the entertainers. And Hollywood movies were divided along the lines of SERIOUS movies and genre entertainments. Since Kramer made SERIOUS social-themed films, he got more respect than Hitchcock who made thrillers, Ford who made Westerns, & Welles who made a good number of genre flicks.
It was the French auteurists who insisted directors like Hitchcock and Ford were genuine artists, indeed the equal if not greater than their European counterparts. As for guys like Kramer, worthless plodding propagandists whatever their good intentions. This view was a revelation in the 50s, especially in America. It made them think about the whole of American cinema in a new way. Film scholars began to notice that directors like Hitchock and Welles didn't just churn out genre films but expanded & subverted the perimeters of genres to convey psychological or philosophical depth. Touch of Evil can be seen as a crime thriller or a gothic-Kafkaesque journey into darkness. In Vertigo, Hitchcock manipulated the staples of the mystery genre to explore the boundaries of reality vs illusion.

Of course, Auteurism--like any theory--got out of hand and was abused, with some film geeks declaring yet another 'neglected' American director as an auteur.
Worst of all, there was a tendency to favor the bad films of auteurs over the good films of non-auteurs. William Wyler got overlooked because of his 'generic' style while every Hitchcock film was sacrosanct.

But all said and done, Americans became aware that their cinema had not only created a great entertainment but some of the greatest works of 20th century ART.
In Hollywood, American directors didn't have the artistic freedom of, say, a Bunuel or a Bergman, but they still managed remarkable advances in film language and expression. Today, Vertigo and Touch of Evil are rightfully and universally considered as among the greatest artworks of the 20th century. Who even heard of On the Beach?

One may draw an analogy between Hollywood directors and Shostakovich. For much of the 20th century, many music scholars refused to take Shosta seriously because of the formalistic perimeters he worked in. Shostakovich could never do anything as avant-garde as Stravinsky or Schoenberg did. But, within available creative space, he still managed to compose some of the grandest, most powerful, and even original and personal musical works of the 20th century. No one doubts or questions his greatness today. One can even argue that the institutional repression deepened his work. He had to be more creative in expressing his creativity. We hear not just the nobility of his music but the nobility of his struggle to circumvent the system.

Gone with the Wizard said...

Perhaps the most pervasively influential American movie of the 20th Century was "The Wizard of Oz." That, or "Gone with the Wind."

Yes and No.

Yes, in terms of centrality of special effects and populist value in American cinema. The spirit behind Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind lives on in films like Titanic and Star Wars.

No in other regards. For one thing, Gone with the Wind was a miracle of sorts. Even Selznick could never replicate its success. Same with Wizard of Oz. It's hard to think of another children's film of such magic and wonder.

Also, if we regard Wizard of Oz mainly as a musical, its influence was almost non-existent after the 60s when the musical pretty much died.

And, most films made since 1939 do not resemble Gone or Wizard--costing awesome amounts of money; most movies tended to be humbler--more on the scale of Casablanca. For every big historical pic or mega-musical, there were 50 Westerns, thrillers, dramas, or comedies.

And when we consider the great blockbusters since the 1970s, can we say a film like Star Wars, Close Encounters, Aliens, Saving Private Ryan, or Terminator 2 owes more to Wizard of Oz than to 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, Bambi, or the Wild Bunch? Did Godfather owe more to Gone with the Wind or to Bad Sleep Well(or Visconti epics)?

Also, films like Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz are rare because they were perfect storms. Why did Eisenstein, Kurosawa, and Kubrick make several masterpieces throughout their careers while Selznick never got it right after 1939? He never lacked for ambition. It's because he'd gotten lucky with Wizard and Gone. Not a creative force himself, his forte was bringing creative people together. The creative planets aligned miraculously for Gone and Wizard. Rarely does a truly great film get made this way without a strong directorial presence. Selznick was less auteur than conducteur. Yet, the people he recruited for Wizard of Oz not only had talent but the right chemistry. (He hired lots of talent for Duel in the Sun, but no spark there.) In this sense, Gone and Wizard were true movie miracles, a kind of hitting the jackpot at the casino.

Gone and Wizard will go down as all-time-greats. Their appeal is probably a kind of creative populism. Since no clear auteur signature is evident--like that of Kubrick or Welles--, we feel like it's OUR movie, that we've all contributed something.

We may love the megalomanic grand auteur, but their films make us feel like humble people worshipping great gods. Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz are more like American Populist Christianity where Jesus is your friend and God is your buddy; God is great but also accessible and 'one of us'. Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Visconti's The Leopard are great historical epics, but we watch them in hushed tones, like in visiting an art museum. But, watching Gone with the Wind or Wizard of Oz is like visiting Epcot Center at Disney Land. We get the grandeur but we can relax and have fun.

I wonder about Cameron. Is he more Selznick or Kubrick? He's like Selznick in knowing how to marshal the forces. But, if Selznick couldn't replicate his successes after 1939--as he creatively depended on others--, Cameron may have the Kubrickian power to command the elements. Selznick was only as good as the just-the-right creative talents he brought together under one roof before pulling on the slotmachine lever. Kubrick, on the other hand, had the creative power to make one masterpiece after another. Even his box-office failures are amazing. Cameron may have the creativity of Kubrick plus the populist-managerial instincts of a Selznick. He can depend on his own talents(and vision) AND supervise the whole project. Spielberg seems to have this gift too.

David Davenport said...

... Dull Hamill, plain Fisher. ...

Shiksabelle Terri Nunn, singer for pop band Berlin, has said that she auditioned for but didn't quite get the Princess Leia part. ... Tribal nepotism won it for the plainer-looking Carrie Fisher or Fischer.

Here's Terri Nunn circa Star wars I:


Take General Patton. He was an inspirational leader(or so the movie said). His men loved him. ...

I wasn't around for WWII, but I've talked to some Third Army vets. I don't think "love" was their attitude.

Cameron may have the Kubrickian power to command the elements.

I watched the uncut version of director Stanley K.'s *Spartacus* over the Christmas holidays. This winner of four ( count 'em ) Academy Awards in 1960, script by the martyred Dalton Trumbo, is a bore, entirely 1950's Hollywooden hack stuff.

No auteuristic touches in it that I can discern.

rob said...

Whiskey said AVATAR is really the first serious (i.e. not Spy Kids 3-D) IMAX 3-D movie, so no surprise it cleaned up in the box office.

Right up there, proof that any idiot can predict the past, at least occasionally. There was This one moron Dood (bad-boys, betas, Car NOOKS!) on the internet called "Whiskey" who spent MONTHS saying that Avatar would bomb. So I'll bet that lying retard was surprised. Don't you think so too, Whiskey?

kudzu bob said...

TCO is right. This is an awesome thread.

I wonder how the advent of low-cost digital cameras will affect movie-making. "Film," Cocteau averred, "will only became an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper."

I am Spartacus said...

I watched the uncut version of director Stanley K.'s *Spartacus* over the Christmas holidays. This winner of four ( count 'em ) Academy Awards in 1960, script by the martyred Dalton Trumbo, is a bore, entirely 1950's Hollywooden hack stuff.

No auteuristic touches in it that I can discern.

Surely, you jest. The choreography of troop formations before the great battle is pure Kubrick. One senses not only photographic skill but the intricacy of a chess master or mathematician.

Much of the movie does have that generic 50s epic feel, but there is an edginess and intelligence in the movie that leave no doubt that it was a new kind of epic. DeMille, Vidor, or Wyler could not have made Spartacus.
Kubrick, along with Mann(of El Cid)and Lean(soon to release Lawrence of Arabia), created a new kind of epic with greater personal style, moral ambiguity, and innovative spirit. Spartacus is ultimately a failure because Douglas tied Kubrick's hand.

Even so, Spartacus is interesting in ways that most of Kubrick's films are not. Though Douglas wasn't much of an actor--and his role was too noble for depth or complexity--, there are juicy roles for Olivier, Ustinov, Laughton, and Simmons. And, the script is pretty good too. Olivier isn't just the bad guy but a bad guy we love to hate. A grand villain whose vision of Rome--romantic and cynical--is worthy of grudging respect. Ustinov is hilarious and delivers some of the wittiest lines in American movie history. These glories may have been possible because Kubrick wasn't allowed to get everything his way.

Though Kubrick made greater films after Spartacus, they generally lacked what we think of as 'great performances'. Because he was a total and perfectionist filmmaker where every little detail had to fall into place according plan, he used actors like chess pieces. He got the right or appropriate performances from them, but they were not allowed to grab the spotlight. This became especially problematic after Lolita. From Dr. Strangelove to Eyes Wide Shut, most of his characters are caricatures, ciphers, ideas, social types, or mannequins. Though his dream was to make a film about Napoleon, Kubrick was really more like Frederick the Great. Everything in battle had to go according to plan. And so, many have complained about the 'cold', 'mechanical', or 'inhuman' quality of his films. Indeed, all of his movies are kinda like the Overlook Hotel with Kubrick as the puppet-master over characters going through predestined motions in a world where free will is just an illusion.

But, if we approach Kubrick's films like classical symphonies, we can understand why Kubrick needed to control everything. His movies did not merely provide space for actors but used space and everything within it to convey a total vision of the world. Kubrick was a formalist than a humanist.

Templar said...

cameron starting working with 4 or 5 actors in the 80s, and used the same people in almost all of his movies. he was even going to cast michael biehn as the colonel in avatar, until after he hired sigourney weaver, and then started to worry that people would think it was aliens again, so he got stephen lang instead, who put in a good performance.

And Lang, coincidentally enough, had auditioned for the part of one of the Colonial Marines in Aliens.

Anonymous said...


I agree with Christgau on Neil Young:

After the Gold Rush [Reprise, 1970]
While David Crosby yowls about assassinations, Young divulges darker agonies without even bothering to make them explicit. Here the gaunt pain of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere fills out a little--the voice softer, the jangling guitar muted behind a piano. Young's melodies--every one of them--are impossible to dismiss. He can write "poetic" lyrics without falling flat on his metaphor even when the subject is ecology or crumbling empire. And despite his acoustic tenor, he rocks plenty. A real rarity: pleasant and hard at the same time. A+

Mr. Anon said...

"David Davenport said...

Shiksabelle Terri Nunn, singer for pop band Berlin, has said that she auditioned for but didn't quite get the Princess Leia part. ... Tribal nepotism won it for the plainer-looking Carrie Fisher or Fischer."

Huh? Tribal nepotism? I don't think George Lucas (who is pretty goy, by the way) especially cared one way or the other that her dad was Eddie Fisher, although he may have been tickled that her mom was Debbie Reynolds. Anyway, Carrie Fisher was what the part needed, and she was quite pretty then. The fact that Carrie Fisher in her slave-girl costume may constitute the first sexual memory for a whole generation of young nerds, is a testament to Lucas's understanding of his target market.

"I watched the uncut version of director Stanley K.'s *Spartacus* over the Christmas holidays. This winner of four (count 'em ) Academy Awards in 1960, script by the martyred Dalton Trumbo, is a bore, entirely 1950's Hollywooden hack stuff."

Nonsense. It was a far above average script that was turned in by Trumbo, although to be sure it was ahistorical - turning the whole thing into some kind of 1930s comintern vs. fascism story, to say nothing of putting Graccus into the 1st century BC. Trumbo was indeed a loathsome communist hack, but the man could write.

Night of the Living Fred said...

I wonder how the advent of low-cost digital cameras will affect movie-making. "Film," Cocteau averred, "will only became an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper."

I think we saw a glimpse of this in DIARY OF THE DEAD which employed a style that might be called 'cellular verite', a cell-phone variation of 'cinema verite'.

The first NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was a cheapie movie but still cinematic in its construction and execution. Romero was trying to be like Hitchcock and Welles within confines of a small budget. He was emulating the masters than rubbing shoulders with the masses.

That was a time when visual reality was controlled by a limited few--TV networks and movie industry. Even to make a 8 mm home film wasn't cheap and it would be another decade and half before the camcorder became commonplace--even so, it wasn't something one carried around everywhere and there was no internet through which one should share one's files with the world.
So, shared or collective reality was the domain of a few companies, filmmakers, and networks. They recorded, processed, or manufactured the images, and we consumed them passively.

Then came the internet where people could trade all sorts of info, images, and ideas all over the world. And there was also the small digital camera which can instantly download images onto the internet. And the cellphone with the cam. This revolutionized not only technology but our perception of reality.

In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the people in the little house are isolated from the rest of the world except through intermittent TV and radio connections. In DIARY OF THE DEAD, it's like the whole world is tuned onto what's going on from the instant the horror begins.
No matter where one is, he or she is connected to others through cell phones, internet, etc.
Also, the style of the film is less cinematic and more happenstance-episodic, as it's supposed to be recorded by someone with a digicam.
The theme of NIGHT is about isolation in a world gripped by horror. DIARY is about connection in a world of horror. NIGHT is loney and depressing, whereas there is a sense in DIARY that even if the world goes to hell, we'll go there together.

Warhol said everyone will have his 15 min of fame. Looks like everyone will have his 15 min of auteurship as well.

9/11 was a cellular verite event, the first major event which was recorded by countless people(with cell phones). There is also youtube where news and views suppressed by MSM can make a big impression. Had 9/11 happened in the 70s, our perception of it would have been different as the only images would likely have been those filmed by newsmen. But, 9/11 became OUR event because we caught so many of the images. In the 60s, TV changed the way we looked at events during the Vietnam War. It was there in the living room every day. Even so, the machinery of journalism was controlled by few companies and few men with elaborate and expensive equipments. Now, every kid with a herky-jerky cellphone is a potential journalist.

At the one extreme, we have guys like Romero who are tapping into this new sensibility. At the other extreme, we have people like Cameron who move in the exact other direction--develop new forms of visual expression monopolized only by the select elite.

My pet peeve. Before movies, we are told to turn off our cellphones, but it seems like all movie characters do these days is talk on cellphones. It's so ubiquitous that you feel like you can call the movie characters and have a conservation. The whole magic of movies was about taking us to places and people far removed from us or voyeuristically peeping into a secret world. With everyone connected via the internet or cellphones and with so many exhibtionists on the net, the old magic of movies is gone.

Lola Montez said...

To my understanding, there are three dimensions to the auteur theory.

1. Director IS the main author of movies.
2. Director SHOULD BE the main author of movies.
3. Some directors WERE INDEED the main authors of movies despite seeming otherwise.

We can dismiss #1 right away since no Auteurist argued that the director is the most important 'author' in all movies. But, many have (mis)understood auteur theory to mean just this, which leads to countless silly debates. If anything, auteur theory argued that most directors were not worthy of auteur status.

#2 is more interesting. If #1 is a false observation, #2 is an interesting IDEAL. Should the director ideally be the central author of the film? Sure, the director may rely on someone else's script, and the overall success or failure of the movie depends on the people he works with. But, is a film likely to be great without a strong director at the center to pull it altogether with a vision, will, and talent uniquely his own? Suppose SEVEN SAMURAI was made by the all the same people minus Kurosawa. Suppose DR. STRANGELOVE had all the same writers, actors, and etc but didn't have Kubrick. Would they have turned out to be masterpieces?
So, Auteurism as an ideal sounds pretty valid. However, I would argue that a great film can be made by a talented and intelligent director even if he lacks what might called a strong personality or signature style. The finest example is MIDNIGHT RUN, a splendid film made with real intelligence and generosity on the part of the director. Sometimes, when the script is good and actors need to be given space to do their ting, it's better for the director to play a supervisory than creative role--better to play line cook than top chef.

Anyway, it's #3 which was the 90% of what Truffaut was getting at. If Truffaut had discussed only European and Japanese Art directors, there would hardly have been any controversy or excitement. Everyone knew that people like Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini, Antonioni, Rossellini, Bresson, Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Dreyer made the films they wanted to make. Everyone knows that David Lynch of Eraserhead and Mulholland Dr. is the main author of his movies. How could it be otherwise?There could be no doubt that such directors were indeed the main authors of their films, not least because many worked on the script as well.
They were seen as artists whereas Hollywood directors--even the best of them--were seen as entertainers, craftsmen, or hired hands.
Thus, the prevailing idea had been that Fritz Lang made genuine art films like M and TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE in Germany while he only made studio genre films in Hollywood.
The shocking part of Truffaut's polemic was that the Hollywood Lang was just as important--possibly even more so--than the German Lang. Truffaut challenged people to see beyond the stuffy dichotomy of high brow/low brow or art/entertainment and consider the creative power that is in evidence to those with unblinkered eyes.
Go beyond the categories of ART and ENTERTAINMENT and instead base one's judgment on what's up there on the screen. In other words, an ART FILM may be more serious by intention, but a Hitchcock film may be worthy of more serious appreciation. Lumet's PAWNBROKER is an achingly serious 'art film' whereas THE SEARCHERS is a genre western film. Is Lumet's film deserving of more serious consideration than Ford's because it strains to be soooo serious?

Paradoxically, this 'pro-American' position was uniquely European in its sensibility. To some extent, it was appealing to Europeans because they could allay their envy of American cinema by claiming to appreciate something that Americans were too dumb to do so--Americans created it but Europeans had the intellect to appreciate it. (There was some of this in the appreciation of Edgar Allan Poe and Jazz music too--what Americans merely enjoyed or dismissed as entertainment, Europeans recognized as genuine art.)

Udolpho.com said...

There is really no more insufferable cineaste than a Kubrick fan. They always want to think of themselves as intellectuals but really the way they kiss his ass, it's completely fannish and revolting. I like certain of Kubrick's movies quite a lot, but the man made several duds including Barry Lyndon (tedious and pretentious) and Full Metal Jacket (don't bother fixing the screenplay just shoot what you have). Kubrick is a huge benefactor of people being unwilling to say the emperor has no clothes. The first 30 minutes of 2001? Pompous artistic self-indulgence to the core.

Anonymous said...

"There is really no more insufferable cineaste than a Kubrick fan."

There is really no more insufferable whiner than an anti-Kubrick-fan fanatic.

Mr. Anon said...

"Udolpho.com said...

There is really no more insufferable cineaste than a Kubrick fan. They always want to think of themselves as intellectuals but really the way they kiss his ass, it's completely fannish and revolting. I like certain of Kubrick's movies quite a lot, but the man made several duds including Barry Lyndon (tedious and pretentious) and Full Metal Jacket (don't bother fixing the screenplay just shoot what you have). Kubrick is a huge benefactor of people being unwilling to say the emperor has no clothes. The first 30 minutes of 2001? Pompous artistic self-indulgence to the core."

I always thought that "Barry Lyndon" and "Full Metal Jacket were two of his best. I agree with you that 2001 is overrated, as indeed is Kubrick. Fundamentally, his movies were soulless.

Bat Guano said...

"I agree with you that 2001 is overrated, as indeed is Kubrick. Fundamentally, his movies were soulless."


Anonymous said...

Maybe AVATAR is really just a sci-fi fantasy remake of 10 with Bo Derek.