One of the running themes of this blog since its inception has been my on-again, off-again relationship with the approach to film criticism. In some cases I have argued that works should be seen as windows into the writer’s mind, in other places I’ve been happy to cast it into the dustbin of history on the grounds that a) if you buy into auteur theory then you really need to know quite a bit about the auteur before writing about their works and b) a lot of films become more interesting if you completely ignore what it was the director was trying to achieve.
Another reason for rejecting auteur theory is that it seems to be the case, in American cinema at least, that the clock has been turned back on the director/auteur in favour of a return to the days of the all-powerful producer. The poster boy for this development is, of course, J. J. Abrams.
But I see it elsewhere too…
While on my daily perambulations I came across this saucy fellow :
From the people that brought us Friday The 13th and The Hills Have Eyes? Wow… those are two of the defining works of the first wave of slasher films. And they’re collaborating on the remake of The Last House On The Left? Well… kind of.
The original Last House On The Left (1972) was directed by Wes Craven and produced by Sean S. Cunningham, who went on to produce and direct his own slasher film Friday the 13th (1980). The Hills Have Eyes was (1977) was also directed by Wes Craven, who returned as a producer for the 2006 remake directed by Alexandre Aja. Friday the 13th was also remade but this time it was produced by Michael Bay amongst others. The new version of The Last House on the Left is neither written, nor directed by either Craven or Cunningham.
So when the poster says it is “from the people who brought you The Hills Have Eyes and Friday the 13th“, they mean that the makers of those two films are now producing a remake of their original collaboration. Is this what “from” means in cinema nowadays? Is the remake of Last House on the Left not “from” Dennis Iliadis the relatively inexperienced Greek director who is actually directing the film? How about Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, the credited screen-writers. Is the film not “from” them either?
Auteur theory attempts to place sole agency for a film’s character with its director, which is of couse ridiculous if you consider quite how huge the crews are on some Hollywood films. But apparently auteur theory is incorrect. It is not the director who is responsible for shaping the nature and character of the film, but two of the film’s eight producers, executive producers and co-producers. Readers are invited to speculate as to the reasons why the remake of Last House of the Left should be ‘from’ Craven or Cunningham as opposed to executive producer Ray Haboush whose previous gig as a producer was making a short film about the on-set catering for Mission Impossible III.
This amused me Jonathan as well the semantics, white lies and all out bullshit that marketing departments muster should.
Regarding ‘Last House…’ I had presumed it was simply to associate it with the remakes of ‘Hills…’ and ‘Friday 13th…’, a cash in on those Brand names that proved fruitful at the box office. Certainly the spate of remakes has proved very lucrative to Hollywood – I think the ‘Texas Chainsaw’ remake in 2003 was one of the most profitable films that year and it required no stars, the script was already written, lasted barely 90 minutes in length, a single location, with a guaranteed audience of ABC1’s waiting to watch.
The irony is of course, when ‘Red Eye’ was released a few years back, Wes Craven’s involvement was downplayed, so as not to dissuade thriller fans. As such you are quite correct in your summation that the language on posters is significantly reduced in meaning.
Regarding the auteur-theory, I have never really bought in to either the Romanticism of that era (now a heritage culture if ever there was one) the dodgy Politics that smacked of the worst aspects of the Left, nor the basic concept that a director is the sole ‘author’ of the film, despite the obviously enourmous role they can have in defining how the film looks and sounds. Certainly, the break with both the hegemony and rigidity of the studio system was important, but when it comes to the films, I’m drawn far more to the formalists from that era (Meliville, Chabrol) and the Neo-Realists.
I wonder though, moving forward, whether digital technology is moving us towards a few genuine cases of auteur-ship. Examples like ‘INLAND EMPIRE’ (Lynch wrote, operated cameras, designed the sound, edited and even sung the soundtrack) or a film maker like Guy Maddin or Jonathan Caouette, who are similarly self-reliant, even appearing in their work?
Initially, I thought that they’d said “from the people that brought you THHE and FT13th” meaning the remakes.
When the Friday the 13th remake came out its posters had “from the people that brought you the Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on it and in that case (also a bit of fraudulent advertising) they did mean the remake but here “from” is widened even further to “some guys had some input into the film that also had some input into a couple of other films”.
On the Nouvelle Vague, my problem with films of that era is that I really don’t like Godard – Breathless and Alphaville have always struck me as flabby and self-indulgent. As opposed to Melville whose films – right down to the more thrillery generic ones at the end of his career -were invariably as tight as a drum. Conversely, I went to see 400 Blows expecting to hate it but actually quite warmed to it… so maybe the Nouvelle Vague isn’t completely off limits to me after all.
I think Auteur theory made sense when you had small crews in which the director wrote and shot the film himself. Yes there were actors having input into the roles and you had sound guys but otherwise you can make a pretty strong case for certain films being someone’s particular vision.
I think it makes more sense to talk about particular films and particular directors being susceptible to auteur theoretical analyses.
But then finding subjects isn’t easy :
Maddin’s My Winnipeg (a work I really enjoyed) was written and directed by him, but not shot. Conversely Soderbergh directed and shot Che but didn’t write it.
Given how visual My Winnipeg is, it seems odd to credit Maddin alone for the film. Che, by constrast, is a film that is barely about dialogue at all.
> Yes there were actors having input into the roles and you had sound guys but otherwise you can make a pretty strong case for certain films being someone’s particular vision.
Couldn’t you argue this for a filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford I wonder, who were working within the system? Obviously, Trauffaut did argue this for Hitchcock, but it certainly provides complications.
Alternatively, the director Andrew Dominik was thrown off the post-production of ‘Assasination of Jesse James’ long before a final cut was achieved. I’ve worked with an audio engineer who worked on that project and he said the only person who was regularly involved in post-production was Brad Pitt, the film’s producer and star. It’s similiar to Edward Norton’s often heavy involvment in scripting and post-production (most notably on American History X). The films were being completed in the absence of a director.
If you’ll forgive a football metaphor – my own experiences of making television and film are that a good director always assumes a managerial role (like a Ferguson or a Wenger) but the form the match takes is always dependent upon 22 other players and nobody can ever predict the result.
In short them, Godard was self-aggrandising (partly for political reasons), not identifying a workable reality.
I think the problem with auteur theory is that aside from being a philosophical position, it is also a proscription for better film-making AND a reflection of the commercial realities of magazine publishing.
The cult of the director as auteur was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the 50s critics said that it was how films worked, by the 60s they were making films that way and by the 70s Hollywood was infected by the idea. So working out the truth of auteur theory is complex because people started making films that reflected those beliefs.
The theory also reflects the fact that if you put out a magazine with a picture of Hitchcock or Ford on the cover you’ll sell more copies than if you promise “another long, noodling theoretical piece about tracking shots by Andre Bazin”.
So I think it’s very hard to take auteur theory seriously as a philosophical position and, I’m not sure it is fair to do so. In the case of Hitchcock and Ford, those were the poster boys for the first wave of “fuck french cinema” nouvelle vague criticism. I think that our understanding of them and their films is so tainted by the cult of the author that even if they weren’t all-powerful auteurs, it would be difficult to know.
Speaking of which, there’s a piece in this month’s Sight and Sound about Raymond Chandler clashing with Hitchcock over Strangers on a Train and how, after overhearing himself being called a ‘fat bastard’, Hitchcock fired Chandler and hired a rookie screen-writer who simply didn’t care that much about characters and themes. Hitchcock used the stripped back and dumbed down script as a means of making the film he wanted… one all about interesting settings, innovative editing and cool camera angles. That suggests an authorial veto if not authorial agency.
I did know about Norton on American History X (and the career-destroying fit thrown by the director as a result) and on the new Hulk film. I suspect something similar also happened with the new Terminator film (if you listen to the infamous rant McG comes across as barely paying attention to what was going on on the set… naturally, he was almost a second unit director, there just for the effects shots and action sequences). However, I didn’t know about the Assassination of Jessee James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Your football analogy is sound. I think that, traditionally, this was the director’s role; the guy who managed the production. The “metteur en scene” as the French still call it. But in truth, I suspect that different directors have different levels of engagement and the same is true of Football. Some managers don’t get to decide who they sign for their team, others leave the training up to their assistants, some concentrate on tactics, others on motivation.
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