Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Beyond the Auteur Theory

In his 1968 book The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris popularized the notion of the film director as auteur. The problem (as Harlan Ellison has pointed out most colorfully) is that Sarris’s theory is now routinely applied to ALL directors and ALL films – rather than just to those inspiring cases when a director’s vision unifies and defines a work by making the whole magically greater than the sum of the parts. No one sets out to deny that film is a collaborative art form, but we often – for the sake of expediency – refer to films as the work of their directors alone. That’s why Ken Dancyger’s book The Director’s Idea (Focal Press, 2006) made such an impression on me. Dancyger reminds us of what the auteur theory proposes, and when a director deserves the title.

Dancyger’s thesis is that directors must have a “director’s idea” – a pivotal theme that informs their work. Martin Scorsese explores “the gap between the inner life of a character and the lives of the character’s surrounding family, community, or society.” Michael Mann presents “life as a test.” Francis Ford Coppola views “the narrative events of each film not as believable but rather as an opera.” Woody Allen breaks down the third wall between performers and audience. “How good a director will be,” the author says, “depends upon how far the director goes in his realization of the director’s idea.” (This is assuming, of course, that the director HAS an idea. Dancyger concerns himself only with directors who are, at the very least, competent storytellers.) The director’s idea, the author says, informs his or her Voice.

“Voice” seems like an unfortunate choice of words, which muddles the issue. In my mind, there’s a difference between Voice and Vision. Voice is the domain of the writer and the actors; they actualize the story. Vision is the domain of the director, the cinematographer, the art director and the editor. They visualize the story. To his credit, Dancyger qualifies his argument by saying that the director should oversee and influence all aspects of Voice and Vision to determine the attitudes of the characters in the film and create a unified perspective and tone in the narrative. This process begins with the director’s selection of a script (ideally, the selection is made for personal reasons rather than simply monetary ones) and continues as he develops the subtext that interests him, thereby internalizing the story. In pre-production, he works to clarify the narrative and character motives / arcs, then casts the picture according to instinct and intuition, and ultimately guides the performances according to his director’s idea.

Above and beyond all of this, the director must visually bind plot and scenery, words and faces, subtext and lighting, delivery and pacing… When you stop and think about everything that comes to rest on one person’s shoulders, it’s amazing that films ever get made, let alone turn out to be works of art. At the same time, it’s not hard to understand the necessity for someone to exert decisive control. Committee meetings quickly become problematic when you’re spending thousands of dollars a day. More to the point, the Voice and the Vision must be coherent; all parts must enhance the whole or the story simply won’t work.

Dancyger notes that Scorsese’s “active, searching, moving camera” reflects the interaction between his characters and the world they live in: “The energy is the desire, the moving camera the hope, and the lighting the anxiety that hope will be dashed and desire will be disappointed.” He analyzes Michael Mann’s film COLLATERAL to show how visual context heightens dramatic intensity: “Max and the hit man are often shown in close-up with the camera placed close to them, as if they were the only two men in the world. The environment, on the other hand, is objectified, the camera distant… The point of view only shifts when Vincent is doing his job or during an impending crash of the cab. At those points, Mann shifted into subjective motion and camera placement.” He uses the Coen Brothers film O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? to illustrate how performance and art direction can make all the difference in storytelling: “This fable-like idea requires exaggerated performances, exaggerated text readings, and a visual style that connotes the opposite of realism – let’s call it the fabulous.” Finally, he acknowledges that the editor has the power to transform the meaning of a story by rearranging everything that’s come before. He agrees with critic Sigfried Kracauer’s assertion that “of all the technical properties of film the most general and indispensable is editing,” and he pays obligatory homage to director/editor Sergei Eisenstein. (A short visit to could effectively make the same point.)

That said, I have to wonder: In cases where the camera work or the lighting or the art direction or the editing – or any other technical aspect, taken in isolation – is the most memorable or effective part of a film, why should the director receive the main credit? Purely and simply: Because most audiences don’t consider these contributions in isolation. We (the audience) generally experience films as a whole, rather than a collection of parts. That’s part of suspending our disbelief so that we can get immersed in a fictional world. With truly great films, all aspects of the storytelling cohere around the director’s idea, and we can safely say that the experience of the whole is a credit to the director. Such films are easy to watch and appreciate.

Viewing the work of lesser filmmakers takes more work... but there's a fine art to it, and plenty to be gained. In essence, the viewer completes the vision of an imperfect film in their imagination. I love getting immersed in a story… so much so that I forget I’m watching a movie and not living it. I don't need a perfect (or even a near-perfect) film in order to do that. In fact, most of my favorite films are far from perfect. The secret to viewing imperfect films, I think, is being receptive to ideas, intellectual or emotional, that aren’t fully supported by all aspects of the production. Since imperfect films vastly outnumber the perfect ones, I’d love to see a follow-up book to The Director’s Idea, about those ideas that exist above (or in spite of) the film as a whole. Title suggestion: Everyone Else’s Ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a great and informative book, Joe. Thanks for highlighting it.