Saturday, January 19, 2013

Beyond Stereotypes and Caricatures: More Thoughts on Auteurism and Intellectual Culture

One of the fundamental aspects of intellectual culture and its child academic culture is that, as Foucault and others before him note, humans tend to think in binary terms. This binarism is in our very cultural DNA. When we create identities of any kind we create identities which mark ourselves off from those who aren't us. In the West this intellectual binarism is also built into our very cultural heritage since the Christianity that so influenced and impacted Western intellectual culture has tended toward the binary, its binary of good versus evil being just one of many examples of this either/or tendency in human thinking.

This binarism, not surprisingly, has also done its cultural work on film and television theory. For many early critics of cinema and television, particularly Hollywood film and television, Hollywood film and television were not art forms because they were not authored in the same way a book, a painting, or a piece of classical music were "authored". Instead for the mass culture critics of the right and the left cinema and television were not arts because they were the mass produced products of an industrial system that either eroded high values in the name of the lowest common denominator or supplied the opium needed to make the masses happy with the unequal world made by the economic powers that be in which they found themselves.

Auteurism, of course, swung Foucault's pendulum in the other direction when it argued that there were film artists even in Hollywood. As Andrew Sarris notes in the 1985 afterward to his famous and now infamous, at least in some circles, book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, "The Auteur Theory Revisited", auteurism has never been a unitary phenomenon, however (pp. 271-276). The origins of French politique des auteurs auteurism, as Sarris notes in the introductory chapter in The American Cinema, "Toward a Theory of Film History", lie in the wannabe filmmaker polemics of French critics like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard who argued that the films of Jean Renoir, for instance, were better than the films of the critically revered papas, like Marcel Carné, of 1940s and 1950s French film criticism. American auteurism, on the other hand, arose, in large part, as a reaction to the notion that the Hollywood cinema, since it was the mass produced entertainments of "capitalists" or "philistines" with its boy meets girl and good guy fights bad guy and wins girl generic happy endings, was not art (p. 21). Many critics of Hollywood cinema, as Sarris notes, counterpointed Hollywood low brow entertainments with European art films, the avante garde, the documentary, and polemical social realist films like John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath and the films of Stanley Kramer (High Noon, The Defiant Ones, Ship of Fools, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), "real art", in other words.

It is important to keep in mind the different histories of auteurims because Sarris's auteurism is quite different from the auteurism of Truffaut, Godard, and Andre Bazin though it carries within it the influence of each of these strains of French auteurism. Sarris's auteurism is fundamentally a historically oriented auteurism (p. 19). Sarris, writing at a time when there was little historical and academic study of film, was trying to "author" a historically sensitive, analytical, and systematic approach to film. In The American Cinema he argues that film should be studied in its totality (p 26-27, 34). Sarris, of course, was writing at a time before totalism, the idea that everything had to be studied, cataloged, classified, and synthesised, became the dirty word it seems to have become since the late 1960s. He was writing in an era when totalism, a concept with a long historical pedigree that threads its way through Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Lukács, many theorists of the Frankfurt School, and Jürgen Habermas, still seemed desirable even if, as Sarris fully recognises, it may not be fully possible (p. 34).

Because it strives to be historical and totalistic Sarris's auteurism is not, contrary to popular intellectual and scholarly opinion, an auteurism that regards the director as someone who creates in a social and cultural vacuum. Sarris notes that all directors, like artists in general, are imprisoned by "conventions", in the film directors case by the studio system, the conditions of their craft, the public, and by the social and cultural contexts in which they work (pp. 31, 32, 36), and that cinema is a window that looks outward on the real world (p. 31). Sarris, in other words, does not argue that cinema is a completely personal art (p.32. 36). Nor does Sarris argue that only directors are auteurs or that every film by an auteur director is a "good" film (p. 35). Sarris notes that screenwriters and actors might be seen as the auteurs of certain films as well(p. 37). Sarris doesn't even argue that all directors are auteurs (p. 37). Sarris lists thirteen Hollywood auteurists Olympians--Charlie Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Josef Von Sternberg, and Orson Welles--in order to establish what he calls a set of priorities for film historians (p. 27) which should guide their historical foray into the Hollywood cinema.

Sarris's auteurist theory, he prefers to call it "a tendency", a Kierkegaardian "inner picture", a "critical instrument" (p. 278), "an attitude", "a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography" (p. 30), is a tentative "theory", a "theory" always, he says, in a state of flux (p. 34) precisely because it is historical. This historical approach to film theory would eventually lead Sarris to recognise, in his 1985 afterward to The American Cinema, that aesthetic preferences are, to some extent, in the eyes of the beholder (p. 271), something that should even make fin-de-siecle postmodernists jump for joy. Positif's revered auteurs, as Sarris points out, differed somewhat from those of Cahiers du Cinema.

Not everyone who has followed in the auteurist footsteps of Sarris has been as circumspect as Sarris. Just as those who followed in the footsteps of Marx tended to simplify and apply, in a rather knee jerk fashion the notion that the economy and who owned and controlled the means of production of that economy, were the "authors" of the culture of a given social formation, so many who counted themselves auteurists often came to see every director as a potential if not actual auteur. Jean Pierre Coursodon's wonderful two volume edited collection American Directors (1983), for instance, explores the themes and mise-en-scenes of 117 directors who worked in Hollywood during the studio era. Yoram Allon's, Del Cullen's, and Hannah Peterson's Contemporary North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide (second edition, 2002) contains almost 600 pages of thematic and stylistic analyses of contemporary directors working in the US and Canada. The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera (1999) edited by Amy Unterburger's contains hundreds of entries on the themes and visual styles of a number of women directors. Assuming these are excesses they are "excesses" that cannot be laid at the doorstep of Andrew Sarris.

Cinema is, of course, a collaborative enterprise as Sarris recognised way back in 1962. But the question is, is it really a more collaborative enterprise than any other art form? I don't think so. Painters, to pick one example, like directors, are not monads living in some mythical libertarian utopia before the coming of the equally mythical social compact. Painters are impacted in some way, shape, or form by the societies in which they live. Painters are impacted in some way, shape, or form by the cultures and world in which they live. Painters are impacted in some way, shape, or form by the paintings that came before them. Painters are impacted in some way, shape, or form by the economic realities in which they find themselves since they generally purchase art supplies from someone or something that produces them. Painters often have to deal with patrons and the owners of art galleries. Painters and their paintings are often impacted by cultures of criticism. Painters and their paintings are often impacted by the economic realities of the art market. It might be argued that Hollywood is a more collaborative enterprise than painting. And while that may be true the differences between a painter and most Hollywood directors is less binary--a painter is the "author" of a painting in the broadest sense of that term while a Hollywood director is not--than that both painters and Hollywood directors lie on a continuum in which there are similarities and differences between these two "artistic" enterprises. Filmmakers and painters, in other words, should be seen as part of the same family rather than as two entirely separate and distinct species.

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