The first of a two-part debate between CURNBLOG’s Simon Butler and Jonathan Eig on the legitimacy of the Auteur Theory. See Part Two here.
My esteemed colleague Jonathan Eig and I have a little debate going on: Is the auteur theory, which finds that the director is the creative visionary behind the film, truth or hogwash?
I’m in the truth camp. And I came to this conclusion while watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) recently.
There’s no way this eerie, lyrical Japanese film could’ve been made without the control of an artist at the helm. It’s brutally anti-war. It’s cinematically fluid, with painterly landscapes and strikingly composed takes. And it provides a blistering comment on the plight of women in a flawed society, a subject Mizoguchi tackled in the harrowing Life of Oharu (1952), among others.
These aren’t perspectives that just any filmmaker can take. These are views with vision and forward thinking. Evidence of the auteur’s influence.
And I don’t believe it stops there. Hollywood has seen its masterpieces too, ranging anywhere from Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) and before to Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and after. The studio system and inimitable art can go hand in hand, I say. They’re not mutually exclusive, despite what the producer thinks (or does).
That leads me to the issue of whether the impact of other movie contributors – screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, et al. – falls under the director’s domain as well. It should … and if the filmmaker is good enough, his or her influence should help shape the picture. Directors give the OK to confirm or nix camera angles, edits, performances, music. They’re in charge of the whole idea. The quality of the flick, then, is their responsibility. All the cinematic decisions are, ultimately, theirs.
One can make the argument that this theory is easily observed in the films of masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa, all of whom had distinct visual styles. But what about in the case of, say, Michael Bay. Or Joel Schumacher? Directors with less-than-sterling credits and resumes that pander to the popular side. Can one attribute a vision – or lack thereof – to them, too?
Yes. Yes, one can.
I don’t think auteurism is relegated to greatness. Everyone has a vision, including those whose creations are less than perfect. Schumacher’s and Bay’s styles are typified by directorial flash and, unfortunately, philosophical flatness. But hey, they’re not alone. Ed Wood had vision, too, right?
Even folks such as Zack Snyder have a style. Slow motion is overused. Posturing is seemingly encouraged. Splashy computer-generated effects are plentiful. What’s the vision? It’s hard to boil down, but I think it has something to do with special, powerful people and their impact on the world. Not very profound, but it’s something.
See what I mean? This theory can be all-encompassing.
This doesn’t mean a cinematographer is entirely absolved for crafting a dreadful shot or that a great screenwriter can’t be reputed for an ability to generate classics. But it does suggest that directors have the lifeline to their films. They control what goes in and comes out. And that means they’re accountable.
If Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu didn’t have famous actors such as Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo in it, would it still be as great? They had the star power, after all. Would the movie have retained its impact?
I don’t think film, an art of permanence, is a conceptualist entity. We don’t wonder “what if?” because we have the finished product. If Mizoguchi had chosen lesser-known actors to play the roles of the potter Genjuro and the ghostly Lady Wakasa, it would’ve been a different movie – but we don’t have that with us. Instead, we have the masterpiece he created, and he’s responsible for. It has his look, his themes, his style, his arguments. It has everything one expects from a director like Mizoguchi.
That’s why I believe in the tenets of auteur theory. The components make the whole, but only the director can glue it together. It’s that glue which provides the creative vision of a movie. To me, it’s essential, and defines both the filmmaker and the end product.
Frankly, I don’t see any other ingredient as important.
Check out Jonathan Eig’s argument against the Auteur Theory here.