By Jyoti Prakash Mallick
|Image courtesy of English 1B: Cinerama / sjsu-eng1b-sum13.blogspot.in/|
According to the Auteur Theory, the director is the chief creator of a film and gives it an individual style that is evident in all aspects of the finished product.
I was surfing channels when something, inconspicuous to most, caught my eye. It was before the credits would start rolling and the screen read- A Rohit Shetty & team film. The film was the madcap, mostly silly, Chennai Express. Anyway, the words took me back to some exhaustive reading I had done - cooped up in a room, scribbling down notes and drawing inferences when I paused for breath - on the auteur theory. The notes were nowhere to be found, so I tried recollecting. The first thing I remembered was an interview of Quentin Tarantino, who was answering a question that I would paraphrase as- What was the one recurring, crippling thought that he had had about & before making movies?
I remember his answer quite vividly.
Tarantino said: "Everyone sets out to make a good film. No one wants to make a bad film. There have been several people with the vision and great stories too, but have failed to make good movies. And that was what scared me. What if i am just a great writer with no talent for filmmaking?! So, I put the question to Terry Gilliam in Cannes. He told me, and I still remember it, that if you have a vision, to bring it to life, you have to assemble a group of people who are great at their jobs, and if they do their jobs right, you have your movie."
He wasn’t even talking about the Auteur theory, but I felt, Terry Gilliam, in that one line, pretty much threw his weight behind Pauline Kael’s vicious essays against Sarris’ Auteur Theory and championing the merits of collaboration instead.
Let’s delve a little deeper into the rationale behind discrediting, and, in fact, disparaging the auteur theory. I would divide the whole tribe of critics that didn’t agree with auteurism into two major schools of thought championed by two of the greatest (and, probably the most unforgiving) voices in America, writing exhaustively on movies.
1). Manny Farber-
While Manny Farber focused on decrying the merits of auteristic films, as opposed to directly contradicting the theory, he had his share of fun at the expense of the smug, anti-philistine army of critics. He remarked on the theory and its proponents, and I quote him second-hand: "A bunch of guys standing around trying to catch some director pushing art up into the crevices of dreck." He loved films that kept at it, pushing ahead, and not moving laconically, not unlike a white elephant trudging ahead in all its glory, demanding attention, and intimidated gazes.
And there’s merit in his opinion. Terry Malick, supposedly, the last, true living auteur, chokes the life of a film in the crib, and plays pastelist, painting the room instead with the careful precision of a long-at-it killer. The life of a movie, many opine, is the narrative. I agree, but if a filmmaker, instead of going hammer and tongs at a self-absorbed recreation of his convictions (à la Malick), makes a movie out of self-abandonment and unfettered passion like Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, narrative ceases to matter. Pulp Fiction explodes on the screen, and that movie has a disjointed narrative too.
The point being, the closer one gets to making a film completely on his own, his indulgences make the film virtually unwatchable. That’s what Farber contended and this theory was, agreeably, contentious. He later owned up to liking Godard (the darling of critics amongst the French new-wave directors), and had to disavow his theory against auteurs.
I still agree with him though, and my distaste toward both Godard and Malick remains consistent with every film of theirs that I have to sit through.
I will tell you why, and with examples too.
Kurosawa found and used axis cuts to make a point in Rashomon, if I am not mistaken, and filmmakers still employ that technique, a case in point being the end of the famous “horse-head-in-bed” scene, in which Coppola employs the axis-cut, with macabre effect. A technique to further the film!
If Hitchcock didn’t use the dolly-zoom, Vertigo wouldn’t be Vertigo. The technique was almost waiting to be discovered during and for the movie. Spielberg uses the same to scare the life out of us in Jaws.
Compare these with Godard employing jump-cuts in several of his movies, notably Breathless, more for a different style of filmmaking than anything else.
The two former techniques still appear in films, whereas jump-cuts no longer find takers. Again, the closer a filmmaker gets to driving the film as and how he deems fit, without any solicitude to what the characters would say, he stifles the narrative with style, as opposed to a director, say, a de Palma whose cinematic style is a major character- The Voyeur.
Do auteurs or filmmakers, who do everything or micro-manage the crew, virtually owning and figuring in every aspect of a film, make good films? If I were one of Farber enthusiasts, I would vigorously nod side-to-side; a resounding ‘NO’.
2). Pauline Kael-
Now, Pauline Kael emphasized that the process of making a film is a collaborative process, and the auteur theory is unfair to the writers, cinematographers, and several technicians on board. Most of the essays on this line of thinking are usually non-inclusive of actors.
If Kurosawa is an auteur, would his major films be the same without his collaboration with the constantly frowning, hurriedly leaping through the screen in giants lopes, the terrific- Toshiro Mifune.
What would Scorsese be without De Niro giving it his everything in their movies together?
Would Fellini have made those brilliant movies without Mastroianni playing those characters?
Would Elia Kazan’s films have the same life if someone other than Brando were in it?
We can’t say for sure, but we can be safe in assuming that they just wouldn’t be the same.
These are just actors.
I will go ahead and take the example of Robert Rodriguez, who famously does ‘everything’ in his movies. His credits in Sin City read, rather quirkily- Shot & Cut by Robert Rodriguez. He writes his movies, gives music, shoots them, cuts them, and yet, the only noteworthy film of his, barring El Mariachi, wouldn’t even exist if it were not for Frank Miller.
If it weren’t for George Lucas, there would be no Indie, and Spielberg would be still trying to make his ‘Bond’ movie.
Closer home, Satyajit Ray, arguably the greatest filmmaker and the only renowned auteur that our country has ever produced, couldn’t quite recreate the mise en scene of his earlier films after Subrata Mitra, the brilliant cinematographer, stopped collaborating with him. The cinematography, and the ingenuity of the camera-work in Charulata, is spell-binding, to say the least.
Hell, the dolly-zoom that I have mentioned earlier was suggested to Hitchcock by a crewman.
Sometimes, the voice of the director and, maybe, his persona off-screen is so Goliathesque that we tend to overlook those invisible hands that make sure the edges of a film is polished. Orson Welles, as an original voice in filmmaking, was so intimidating that when Sarris needed a hero to be the face of his auteur theory, he chose him, and when Kael needed an example to refute the theory, she chose Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane as the subject of her scrutiny.
So, when Naseerudin Shah says that he is infuriated when “An XYZ film” comes on screen, I can’t help but agree with him. And there, coming full circle, I would like to give some credit to Rohit Shetty for going for a shared credit rather than for a sole ownership of a movie.
Personally, two of my most favourite filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, seducing us all these years are all team-players. Anderson still lets his actors do their thing, and is constantly enamoured by the performances they give. And all this while, it has been the formidable director-editor duo of Scorsese & Schoonmaker - all crisp, crunch, and biting sauce.
That being said, I would say the two filmmakers who, as far as I remember, come the closest to being true auteurs are Charlie Chaplin, and Abbas Kiarostami. There’s more to this subject and the discussions on the auteur theory could and should go on, as opposed to the word being casually thrown about in conversations.
Till then, cinema beckons...
Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!
Jyoti Prakash Mallick, an alumnus of NIT, Rourkela, is an IT Professional who believes that watching Do Aanken Barah Haath, the very first film he saw, The Basketball Diaries, Taxi Driver, and There Will Be Blood were the most seminal experiences of his life.
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