Thursday, October 12, 2017

Authors in Cinema?

So I have been thinking about the question of "auteur theory."  Although auteur theory appears not to be very popular currently it is hard for me to get past some fundamental facts about my own experience watching movies.  First, I tend to group movies according to directors, a Hitchcock movie, etc., and if I discover a director I really like I want to see more films by that director.  Second, I agree with Truffaut and Sarris that our interest in great directors is such that we want to see all of their films as part of their overall oeuvre:  there is something inherently interesting in even a relatively bad film by Woody Allen, for example.  Third, although I do not have any faith in their objective validity, I like looking at rankings of great films and directors, and I find such rankings to be helpful, that is, if made by a well established film critic or through an amalgamation of evaluations by film critics.  These lists help me to decide which film to see next. 

I understand the anti-auteur position.  For example, I have no trouble with the idea that films are collaborative exercises or with the idea that often the creative force in a film is not the director, but the producer, the main actors, the writer, or someone else.  But I am somewhat skeptical about the overall attack on auteur theory.  I am reminded by these attackers of what Nietzsche referred to as "the last man."  The last man has no trouble with mediocrity, and indeed aspires to mediocrity:  the last man says "what is a star" and blinks.  The last man is someone, actually some big swath of our society, that just does not believe in the possibility of greatness, and resents the idea that anyone might be considered great.  And yet there was Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Fellini, and the list goes on.  There is something perverse and self-defeating about denying greatness or claiming that certain low-level films are worthy of as much regard as the masterpieces of, say, the 20th century.

I therefore have a problem with Jim Gisriel’s “Auteur Theory: The Cinematic Class System” published Sep 24, 2016 on Youtube,  Although this piece is very nicely produced and I have enjoyed showing it in class, it seems to harp on and on about how terrible it is to have a "class system" in the cinema world.  "Class system" here seems to have nothing to do with economics or oppression of the working class but is simply an attack on the idea of saying that some film, type of film, or director is better than another.  OK, I'm sorry, but what exactly is wrong with such a "class system"?

Truffaut, who was one of the original proponents of auteur theory, provided a list of directors who he believed were better than another group who mainly just filmed adaptations of novels.   The directors on his list, which included Renoir, Bresson, and Tati, among others, have stood the test of time.  The others have not.  Really, no one remembers them.  Gisriel seems pretty excited about some directors who mainly make action or sci-fi movies, and although these directors are probably good within their genres, I have no problem with ranking them below the truly great directors that Truffaut lists. In a hundred years no one will remember them either.  For example, although Gisriel seems excited about a director who features pilots and flying in his films, I find this to be of no real interest.  I favor democracy on most fronts, but I think there really are qualitative differences between artists/directors.  Some directors produce films that encourage repeated viewing, contemplation and reflection.  Some, for example, are worth writing about.  Some cinematic works fall within that category Kant called "fine art" which is to say the art of genius.  Such an artwork induces what Kant referred to as aesthetical ideas in his famous Chapter 49 of the Critique of Judgment, ideas that seem unending and that cannot be explained in language.  So, as the old song goes, my question is: 

"Would you like to swing on a star 
Carry moonbeams home in a jar 
And be better off than you are 
Or would you rather be a mule"  or a last man?


Unknown said...

Dear Tom, Thank you for clearly articulating the value of excellence in the arts. I wonder about your thoughts on Ki-Duk Kim, whose 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, is one of my all-time favorites. --Kathleen McSharry

Tom Leddy said...

Hi Kathleen. I saw that film when it first came out. It would be interesting to look at it again. The New York Times critic said "It seems less a modern work of art than a solid, ancient object that has always been there, waiting to be found." It does have this timeless quality. It definitely captures something about Buddhism itself.