Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Contemporary Auteur, Part 2

By  · Published on March 30th, 2010

Last week I wrote about the history of the auteur theory and its strengths and weaknesses when applied to actual film practice. Regardless of the theory’s apparent problems, it’s clear that the idea of the auteur still holds great weight in framing the way even the most casual of filmgoer goes about experiencing cinema. But what’s hardly ever considered, and what I’ll be exploring in the second half of my discussion of the Contemporary Auteur, is how the visibility and popularity of the idea have affected the work of filmmakers themselves. With so many talented filmmakers whose work has been exposed to film journalists, critics, theorists, and fans over the past decade, it must be considered that many of these directors – especially those who came from film school – went into filmmaking with the idea of the auteur planted firmly in their head, and thus actively aimed to form a signature style and a thread of personal themes throughout their work with a degree of self-consciousness not apparent in the work of their predecessors.

Many of the filmmakers who were retroactively labeled as auteurs, it must be remembered, themselves dismissed the label, John Ford being a prime example. But New Hollywood filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese, as well as men who dramatically changed the business of Hollywood like Lucas and Spielberg, came into filmmaking with an awareness of film history and a veneration of the great auteurs of Hollywood’s past, elevating the likes of Hawkes, Wilder, Huston, and Hitchcock to a degree that would make those Classic Hollywood filmmakers blush.

While film is without denial a collaborative medium, of all today’s living directors, it’s most evidently the New Hollywood filmmakers still working today that most comfortably and unproblematically embody the classic idea of the auteur. The filmmaker who started this discussion in the first place, Martin Scorsese, is probably the strongest living go-to example of this. Scorsese is a known cinephile, one who grew into his film knowledge and filmmaking venerating the likes of Kurosawa, Powell & Pressburger, et al.

Scorsese is safely bestowed the title of genius by many, fans follow his entire career exhaustively (would anybody really care about After Hours had he not made it?), and according to detractors of Shutter Island, he’s often given the “auteur pass” – that is, his films are automatically elevated to a greater level than most going in as a result of his reputation, and his lesser or more problematic works are still appreciated and celebrated as a part of his overall ouvre. But Scorsese is also somebody who has had the idea of auteurism embedded within his cinematic psyche since he was a young filmmaker, and while his palpable signature style can indeed be argued as an extent of his personality as well as his natural stylistic disposition, it can be just as convincingly argued (as with any celebrated cineaste) that Scorsese’s signature stylistic implementation is a result of a self-conscious effort at achieving the status of the auteur. In other words, it makes sense that one who celebrates great directors seeks out a comparable career himself in hopes of being legitimized by the artistic label; one who loves great directors sets out to achieve what is necessary in his work in order for himself to also be deemed great, and the essential component of that criteria, when Scorsese was a young filmmaker, was that of the idea of the auteur.

I’m not saying Scorsese was simply out to achieve fame and fortune through making a name for himself as a filmmaker. Far from it. The aspiration for greatness and the admiration of the greatness of one’s predecessors can overlap a great deal; Scorsese doesn’t confuse himself with those filmmakers he admires, and probably doesn’t even put himself on their same level (although by any standard he deserves to be up there with them), but one who learns that a signature style is a signification of greatness in filmmaking would understandably seek out such a style himself in order to best aspire to what his predecessors, those who he imitates, have achieved. This is why the most admired filmmakers in the contemporary cinematic landscape are all cinephiles as well, and reference or combine the works of directors they admire into wholly something new and unique unto itself. Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, Christopher Nolan, and especially Quentin Tarantino have used recent and not-so-recent cinema history (of various canons), combining homage and pastiche into an amalgamated collage of transparent influence, resulting in a final concoction that echoes and reflects other works but never copies them. It’s originality through appropriation.

The first generation of auteurs never engaged in such an exercise of lifting from the (then much smaller) cinematic library, while many of the first auteur theorists (French New Wave filmmakers) are probably the first to engage in the now-common practice of film history assemblage, followed in turn by the cinematically educated New Hollywood and the filmmakers that have followed since. So it is through the institutionalization of film through universities and inter-media discourse (one can, after all, receive a remarkable degree of education on film studies simply through a DVD collection today) that the auteur theory serves a self-manifesting and self-realizing function: it was perceived to exist, and through its pedagogical implementation amongst a new generation of filmmakers it realized and proved itself time and again, manufactured and conditioned into continued acceptance.

Nowhere is this new self-conscious implementation of the idea of the auteur more transparent than in recent functions of film advertising. Directors are used to sell films, not only by association with a previous batch of work (Green Zone: From the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum!), but sometimes simply by name recognition itself if the filmmaker is well known. This works best, of course, when one has a Scorsese or a Tarantino on their hands, but it’s also been manufactured more explicitly. In the ad campaigns for both Sin City and Watchmen, certain trailers or commercials would call the respective directors of each of these films “visionary,” a word that implies the unique, singular vision necessary for one to qualify as an auteur. But this is the most superficial manifestation of the idea of the auteur that has arisen to date, and it is the central problem of the vague, competing contemporary definitions of the auteur.

Advertising has manufactured an association of the possession of anything slightly resembling a visual style with auteurism. For example, the fact that Zack Snyder uses fast-to-slow motion staging of action scenes in his recent films, whether or not this limited visual approach serves the story of the film its used for, is automatically associated with signature stylization. It confuses “vision” with “visionary,” substituting a music video definition of signature style with the (inferentially) much more involved requirements for cinema. There are no associations threading the thematic explorations or Snyder’s work, nor is there a consistent personality embedded in the storytelling, yet because he possesses an immediate signpost of personal style, no matter how simple it may be, he is advertised, if not accepted, as a visionary auteur.

First, the auteur was decided upon in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight. Then in French cinema of the 50s and American cinema of the 60s and 70s, the aspiration toward auteurism was something informed through dense film education and slaved over through the entirety of one’s career. Now the status of the auteur is one easily achievable through the immense simplification of its definition, as anybody possessing the visual skills to implement self-conscious stylization and the arrogance necessary to force that style into a given story no matter how (in)appropriate can be unthinkingly bestowed the once-exclusive connotation. If we continue to confuse vision with visionary, and if we continue confusing filmmakers who reduce a signature style to one unoriginal visual tic (Snyder) with those who use their informed stylistic choices in the best service of the story (Scorsese), then the auteur, no matter the degree of the theory’s arguable relevance, is a definition rendered increasingly meaningless and vague through its liberal overuse.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

Related Topics: ,