February 11, 2010

auteur woes

A discussion about the auteur concept is going down at girish's place. This is a topic that interests me, so I wanted to jot down some thoughts here.

The frequency with which people throw around the word 'auteur' has always annoyed me, especially when it serves only as a description of quality. Calling James Cameron an auteur, for instance, is just a way to distinguish him as a director of quality, as someone who consistently delivers what the audience asks of him, as an 'artist' with an unpolluted personal vision; it is a simple way to give artistic legitimacy to any director a writer chooses.

'Auteur' is one of the defining concepts of artistic legitimacy in film theory. How do we value a film? What standards of art and beauty do we hold film to? The Cahiers crowd aggressively accorded artistic legitimacy to the auteur (and fought the artistic legitimacy of studio-polish), and young film snobs lovers have readily picked up on this method of artistic valuation ever since.

The rise of the internet+film discussion has given the word a healthy boost. It is an easy way to talk about and judge films, and using the word 'auteur' gives the writer/speaker an air of cultural sophistication and so bolsters the legitimacy of his/her opinion. Its spread and sway is no surprise. It can legitimize any creative producer. If we can call James Cameron an auteur, why not Steve Jobs?

These complaints aside, I personally do find something attractive about the auteur. Rivette, explaining the allure of the auteur, once compared Hawks with Moliere -- this comparison worked for me. Moliere is one of my favorite playwrights, but it is his body of work as a whole which fascinates me more than any individual play; and this is true, too, of certain directors -- Welles, Renoir, Lubitsch -- whose filmographies are more dynamic and exciting than any individual film within them. It is John Ford, however, who exemplifies what curiously compels me to the auteur concept: his characters, themes, and style (everything but his camera) repel me, but watching a Ford film can be a genuinely thrilling experience, and I delight in having another piece of the giant puzzle that is his filmography.

To counter myself: perhaps consuming enough work of an artist/filmmaker will lead one to discover an underlying persona or artistic vision to connect with. John Ford, after all, made a lot of films; if you see enough of them (nearly 50 in my case), you cannot fail to feel his presence, to be drawn to it.

I am not an auteur-driven movie-watcher. I have found the concept of the auteur useful as a critical method -- to discover similar themes and techniques among an artist's work -- but terribly limited. As a matter of artistic valuation, whether a film is the product of an 'auteur' does not matter much to me. There are many other ways to judge this art. I worry that the auteur has limited the judgments of young film lovers. I worry that films are hastily categorized as 'auteur' or 'non-auteur' and judged accordingly (the latter always losing). I worry that the widespread use of the word auteur has turned it from critical tool to meaningless show. I worry that artists too often fret about their artistic vision and strive blindly to be 'original' and 'personal' when that was what they were all along.

Anyway, I am hoping that the few regular readers of this blog could comment with their own thoughts. What has the auteur meant to you? What do you think about how widespread this word is? Do people overvalue the auteur as artistically legitimate (as I think) or not? &c.


DG said...

I'm not sure exactly what the problem is. I don't come across the word itself all that often except from people who don't really know what they're talking about (my sister once had a heated discussion with my father about whether or not Fritz Lang was an auteur--I couldn't help but think it was a meaningless argument). As a reading strategy I do think it's useful for the reasons you state. The best example for me is Chris Marker: more than loving any individual film, it is the voice that I identify with, that I have come to know after watching so many of his movies. Of course there's some difficulty with Marker since he tries to be anonymous, but I think that's more a resistance to the commercial valuation of the film object rather than against reading his films as part of an (auteur's) ouevre.

Um yeah so in conclusion I don't really know what the problem is...

Ian said...

How does your sister have a film degree

DG said...

one of those mysteries you know