Culture Warrior

Culture WarriorEvery Tuesday, Landon Palmer brings you Culture Warrior: an analysis of film as an art form and an examination of its role within larger trends in culture and society. Integrating media scholarship and film history with a critical eye on popular and contemporary cinema, Culture Warrior combines ongoing conversations in the worlds of academia and online film criticism. Whether looking at big studio franchises or arthouse indies, changing industry practices or new distribution models, every week Culture Warrior brings what you’re seeing in the theater or at home into a whole new light.

Updates Every: Tuesday

The Blair Witch Project

On July 30, 1999, The Blair Witch Project expanded to a wide theatrical release and raked in over $25,000 per screen on over a thousand screens, thus becoming the first sleeper horror hit of that late summer, one week before The Sixth Sense opened. The weekend of July 30th solidified Blair Witch’s status as a phenomenon, but to recognize it as a defining date of the film would be to misrecognize what Blair Witch did. Rather than come about as an instantaneous cinematic event (in the way that the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain or the 25th anniversary of Batman have been nostalgically reflected upon this summer), Blair Witch’s reputation manifested as a slow unraveling over many months of speculation and word-of-mouth, from its chilling first-screening at Sundance to an Internet-based fury of speculation to a teaser attached to The Phantom Menace of all things. The film represented a first in many respects – transmedia marketing via the web, a jumpstart of the modern found footage subgenre – but it also bears its young age in surprising ways, whether in its analog aesthetic or the particularly 20th century character of its word-of-mouth circulation. Despite that the film set the supposed standard for viral buzz-creation and found footage horror, The Blair Witch Project remains an important anomaly for a shaky tent-full of reasons.

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Robin Wright in The Congress

Stardom is a fundamentally contradictory experience for audiences. On the one hand, we can feel like we know a star intimately as a human being, despite the many roles that they play and despite the fact that they do not know us. We carry our past knowledge of the star onto each new project. And every time a star is captured by a camera, a brief record of them is made, in a moment solidified for a seeming eternity. Marlene Dietrich may be long deceased, but in revisiting any close-up fashioned from Josef von Sternberg’s films, she can feel as immediate to us as she was to the cameras eighty years ago. On the other hand, a star is always both more and less than a human being. Stars are the foundation for an industry of magazines, brand names readily available for peddling products, personalities to be mimicked, fashion icons to aspire to, and economic conditions for a film’s making and marketing. We can experience fleeting moments of intimacy with a star image, but the industry that makes stardom possible continually alienates us from a polished, selectively represented human being before us. It is through this dual capacity of stardom that stars continue to exist well after the physical lives of the people who embodied them. These inherent tensions between personhood and media are explored in great depth in Ari Folman’s new film The Congress, a film that uses the strange condition of stardom and the technological advancements of the current […]

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 06

Warning: Spoilers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and all of the Apes films, for that matter) When Battle for the Planet of the Apes ended the franchise’s first cinematic run in 1973, it concluded the series with something of a whimper instead of a bang. While many of the original Apes sequels are enduringly fascinating in their expanding narratives, trenchant topicality and surprisingly bleak endings, they were also assembly line products rushed through production annually, with nearly each successive entry’s budget slashed in half – a series constructed on a model of diminishing returns. Most of the normal creative team were not available for the fifth entry, so The Omega Man’s married screenwriting team of John and Joyce Corrington were hired to helm Battle despite being unfamiliar with the series. After inter- and intra-species conflict, Battle ends with a flash-forward (a bookending device) showing a monument of Caesar (Roddy McDowall) with a tear going down his face as the orangutan Lawgiver (John Huston) tells his story of unifying man and ape. The ending has been criticized then and now for its cloying, unearned sentimentality – perhaps the fatigue of Vietnam made even this call for peace in a “family film” ring false only four short years after John and Yoko urged Americans to give it a chance – and it emotes without ever really saying anything. Is the Caesar statue crying over achieving peace, or with the knowledge that peace is only temporary? Inadvertently or not, the ambivalence of this final moment […]

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Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

Warning: Spoilers for the ending of Snowpiercer Somewhere along the way, purchasing a ticket for Bong Joon-ho’s long-awaited Snowpiercer became a populist act that echoes the content of the film itself. Months of coverage followed Harvey Weinstein’s threat to cut the festival favorite. Knowing the kind of backlash that would ensue, Weinstein opted not to cut the film himself but instead asked Bong to shave 20 minutes off and add an explanatory voice-over to bookend the film. Bong refused, and the web backed him by reporting on the story, supporting the director’s vision and pushing for its unblemished release. While The Weinstein Company narrowed the rollout of Snowpiercer from a wide to a limited opening, no cuts were ever made, and it would seem that the voices of many overcame the far more powerful voice of one. It’s a strange case of life mimicking art, with movie fans and erstwhile supporters of artistic integrity using collective action against a major cultural gatekeeper. After traveling worldwide mostly without incident, film fans and prospective moviegoers pushed Snowpiercer to pry open the door and enter the American moviegoing scene on its own terms. But, as the film itself shows, the relations of power are never quite as simple as they seem.

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Do the Right Thing

“Heroes, as far as I could then see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection: I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take. This difficult coin did not cease to spin. It had neither heads not tails: for what white people took into their hands could scarcely be called vengeance, it was something less and something more.” In his autobiographical essay on movies and American racism, “The Devil Finds Work,” James Baldwin discusses at length the absence of black subjectivity and the prominence of white heroism in the milieu of classical Hollywood in which he came of age. At one point in the essay, Baldwin states that he has seen no black persons that he knows in the movies. He does not mean that he has never seen black faces onscreen, but rather that he has never seen a black protagonist whose experiences honestly reflect his position, neither the “debasement” of Stephin Fetchit nor Sidney Poitier’s role in The Heat of the Night, the latter of which Baldwin refers to as conveying, yet refusing to confront, “the anguish of people trapped in a legend.” That legend forbade black characters from achieving anything resembling the vengeance that white characters so regularly found on American screens. While published thirteen years before the movie’s release, Baldwin’s reflections on American cinema are essential […]

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Rian Johnson

When news broke that Rian Johnson would helm Star Wars: Episode VIII and write a treatment for Episode IX – adding to the numerous Star Wars properties scheduled for screens shortly behind J.J. Abrams’s mystery box – it was almost universally regarded as a solid, promising move to those cautiously optimistic about the rebooting of a galaxy far away. And no doubt, Johnson’s hiring is a very good move for Star Wars, lending the franchise not only the director’s subcultural clout, but also his precise sense of style, passionate knowledge of genre and careful approach to cinematic world-building. His skill should benefit greatly a franchise whose previous incarnation suffered from scant evidence of inspiration or vision. But before seeing a final product, we can only take this news as a gesture of goodwill, or even a reason to be happy for a talented director worthy of admiration and success. Unfortunately, a facet largely missing from conversations about this news is whether a Rian Johnson-led Star Wars will be good for Rian Johnson, especially in a Hollywood that loves courting indie directors but shows questionable regard for their autonomy upon arrival. Marc Webb. Gareth Edwards. Doug Liman. Bryan Singer. At various points during the ‘90s and ‘00s, this list of names would denote the creators behind film festival highlights and limited release word-of-mouth gems. But in 2014, these are the names of the men in the director’s chair for some of the summer’s biggest tentpole titles, the kinds of movies that make or break a fiscal year […]

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Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in THE ROVER

Lionsgate was a pioneering label for brooding dramas, compelling imports and insightful nonfiction until it partnered with Tyler Perry, Jigsaw, and a certain YA book series. Miramax was the flagship of envelope-pushing American indies until the Weinsteins became better known for re-cutting films than for supporting filmmakers. Focus Features was the home of young early-aughts visionaries like Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry and Joe Wright until CEO James Schamus was ousted to “broaden its portfolio.” As indie distributors and studio subsidiaries refocus their efforts towards studio-sized earnings, their previously coherent brand identities as vessels of imaginative filmmaking quickly fade out. Since the indie boom of the ‘90s gave way to the ‘00’s bottom lines, it’s been increasingly difficult and frustrating to rely on name distributors to continually devote their efforts toward risky films. All of which makes it all the more incredible that A24 has made itself into a distributor dedicated to anything but convention – and, at that, has assembled a slate of films defined by a certain amount of risk and subversion. With its 2013 slate – which included Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Coppola’s The Bling Ring, Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now – A24’s first year was (intentionally or not) focused on films that produced a dark, incisive and more complex vision of youth than can be found elsewhere. But A24’s 2014 films have provided something even more needed in the current cinematic landscape: central performances that openly defy cinematic convention and expectation.

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The Wedding Singer Culture Club

The Wedding Singer is set in 1985, but it might as well have just been set in “The 80s” in big block letters, scare quotes preserved. As represented in that late ‘90s Adam Sandler-starring hit, the ’80s were more of a simultaneous event than a brimming block of time that bore its own shifts and specifics as it rolled on. In the 1985 of the Sandlerverse, New Order was as popular as Nightmare on Elm Street and Billy Idol held simultaneous relevance to “Billie Jean”-era Michael Jackson. Any sign of a previous decade having existed before the ’80s is absent. Much of cinema’s millennial nostalgia for the ‘80s followed the lead of The Wedding Singer. From American Psycho to Hot Tub Time Machine, the ’80s of the ’00s have not been so much a part of history as they are an “idea” having to do with greed, excess, frivolous pop culture, and easy cracks at anachronistic fashion. But somewhere down the line, at some point between La Roux and The Americans, we started to take the ‘80s seriously.

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Godzilla 2014

In order to convince David Straithairn’s Admiral Stenz not to use nuclear power to annihilate the giant behemoths quickly approaching American soil, Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa brandishes a deceivingly quotidian object: a stopped pocket watch. It was Dr. Serizawa’s father’s during the bombing of Hiroshima, an instructive moment in history now literally frozen in time as a cautionary token. Though Ken Watanabe looks nowhere near 70, my (I thought, reasonable) assumption during this scene of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was that Dr. Serizawa’s father had immediately perished alongside tens of thousands of others during the infamous 1945 atomic bombing. But regardless of this emblem’s status as a memento of death on a massive scale, that Dr. Serizawa’s father survived Hiroshima and Dr. Serizawa is a healthy mid-50s man now seems far more likely considering this film’s view of tragedy. Despite its keeping with the summer movie tradition of mass destruction, despite its conflagration of images evoking recent tragedies from the Fukushima to Katrina, and despite updating a film 60 years its junior that was in no way afraid of dealing with violent devastation head-on, 2014’s Godzilla is not a monster movie about understanding tragedy. It is instead a rather strange film about survivors, and it demonstrates how disingenuously low-stakes studio summer movies have become.

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The Dance of Reality

Long gone is the ‘70s golden age of midnight movies, psychedelic surrealism, and film industries’ deistic attitudes towards auteurs. Perhaps no filmmaker’s career has suffered more from this change in commercial and cultural sensibilities than Alejandro Jodorowsky, who birthed the successive cult staples El Topo and The Holy Mountain in the 1970s but has only seen the realization of sporadic (if no less brilliant) productions since. All of which makes it all the more amazing that Jodorowsky has experienced something of a quiet career renaissance in 2014 as the subject of Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune and as the director of The Dance of Reality, the filmmaker’s first completed feature in nearly a quarter century. Yet for the never-not-great-news of new Jodorowsky, these two films hardly feel like a collective appreciation for an underappreciated artist in the twilight of his career, despite the direct relationship they share (Jodorowsky’s Dune reunited the filmmaker with producer Michel Seydoux, which resulted in The Dance of Reality). Jodorowsky’s Dune and The Dance of Reality present a tale of two Jodorowskys: one an eccentric and hyperbolic personality dictating an uncompromising and supreme vision, the other an octogenarian artist using what might be his final venture behind the camera to reflect on his work’s relationship to his family history and ethnic identity. One film chronicles a work never completed, while the other bears all the burdens and wisdom of a late career entry.

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Manhattan Movie

“I’m a minimalist. I see things in simple ways…It’s human nature to define complexity as better. Well, it’s not.” – Gordon Willis Cinematographer Gordon Willis, who passed away on May 18th, leaves behind an incredible legacy of deceptively “simple” lighting schemes and compositions that will forever be stuck in the minds of cinephiles. Willis was perhaps best known for his high-contrast use of shadows and high-key lighting, which filled his frames with a tremendous aura of depth and mystery. While he was referred to as the “Prince of Darkness” by colleagues, Willis himself stressed that it was visual contrast between light and darkness – not darkness itself  – that can produce such memorable imagery. The look of movies in the 1970s, from The Godfather to Annie Hall, is inseparable from the eyes of this master of the craft. Here is an overview of some of his best work.

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Come With Me Godzilla

The ‘90s were a special time for the Hollywood movie soundtrack. From Prince’s “Batdance” for 1989’s Batman to LL Cool J’s shark dance for 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, pop soundtracks became no longer a direct record of the songs featured in a film, but an eclectic hit parade of contemporary popular artists whose relationship of the film in question was often tenuous at best. Movie soundtracks, especially those for summer tentpole entertainment, served a function similar to the ‘90s NOW! series: as a means of assembling tested and would-be radio and MTV hits in one accessible package. Except this package was meant also to promote a movie. Such promotion followed a routine formula. Turn the music video into a four-minute commercial for the film. Turn the film into a promotional device for the soundtrack by placing the big single over the end credits like an earworm. None of the other songs on the soundtrack needed to be in the film. But the 1998 soundtrack to Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was different. Like its title character, the soundtrack was big, brash, noisy, not-at-all subtle, and lucrative, yet it destroyed everything in its path. There are several reasons why Hollywood movies don’t produce pop soundtracks like this anymore, but the Godzilla soundtrack (if not the movie itself) deserves appreciation for its dumb, audacious weirdness.

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Scarlett Johansson Movies

Last year, Steven Spielberg postulated that sometime within the next few years, a series of subsequent major flops will, in effect, dismantle the blockbuster mentality that has dominated Hollywood since Spielberg himself became a well-known director. While this doesn’t look like it will occur anytime soon – certainly not in 2015 – it’s not hard to imagine that the culture industry of remakes, sequels, adaptations, umpteenth reboots and general unoriginality will one day go the way of the September 2008 stock market. It’s happened before. When Hollywood attempted to compete with the rise of television, studios produced an onslaught of lengthy widescreen Technicolor historical pictures, all with massive star power and even bigger budgets. But this model of putting so much money into fewer individual films proved unsustainable, and now even massive hits like Cleopatra are remembered as flops in part because the stakes were so high and their productions were so troubled. It’s hard to believe, but the series of epics that Hollywood produced during the 1950s and 1960s are a blip on the radar of Hollywood’s history compared to the exponential bloating of budgets and expanding of franchises now. We’ve been swimming in the Blockbuster Mentality since 1980 and it’s only intensified since. Hollywood has dug its heels in, only to continue reproducing the same existing properties – thus limiting both the imaginations of audiences and filmmakers – in a way that’s unstoppable unless a West coast economic catastrophe happens. Well, at least, that’s the conventional wisdom.

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the Empire Strikes Back

The story typically goes something like this. In the 1960s, Hollywood had weathered an economic crisis but was losing an ongoing battle with television, so it turned to youth-oriented, smaller projects and gave unprecedented freedom to envelope-pushing directors who worshipped in the churches of Bergman, Kurosawa, Hawkes. Then Jaws (huge) and Star Wars (way huge) came along in the mid-late 70s, imbuing Hollywood with a renewed focus on entertainment spectacle that has, for the most part, dominated its practice since. George Lucas’s original Star Wars without doubt had a significant role in shifting the industrial history of Hollywood toward what we recognize today. It illustrated the lucrative possibilities of mass merchandising, helped elevate B-movie genre fare to A-movie status, and contributed to the now-entrenched thinking that informs our annual movie calendars: the notion that big, expensive fun belongs on our summer movie screens. Yet despite its arguably peerless impact on popular culture in 1977, Star Wars alone resides far more comfortably alongside the film school generation of New Hollywood than the blockbuster mentality it allegedly produced. Rather, it was the film’s 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back that made good the changes that have since come to dominate the logic of today’s Hollywood.

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Corman

In Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, prolific filmmaking legend Roger Corman discusses a philosophy of entertainment that he developed about a decade into his career. Corman had just made his first serious drama, the 1962 integration-themed The Intruder. The film, which he and his brother self-financed because studios wouldn’t touch it, was Corman’s first work that he felt to be truly important, and it stands today as a film without equal in its timely diagnosis of American race relations. The film also turned out to be Corman’s first indisputable box office failure. So after The Intruder, Corman changed course: he decided to continue pursuing relevant themes in his work, but maintain his dominance of American B-cinema. The text of his films would entertain audiences, but the subtext would resonate with an eye on timely social, cultural, and political issues. Corman saw his 1967 film The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, for instance, as both an entertaining gangster picture and a comment about the underground economy that develops when immigrant groups are sidelined from legitimate social mobility in a xenophobic America. The message, Corman admitted at a local Q&A this weekend, would not be apparent to all audiences. But at least it would be there. Corman was hardly the first to recognize the political power of entertainment, but the fact that one of the most prolific B-movie producers in history understood this unique potential is significant: what are supposedly the most lowbrow or expendable of movies can actually be the most […]

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Nic Cage in The Trouble in Louisiana Trilogy

Every few years, Nicolas Cage reminds us what a compelling screen performer he is and can be. While such reminders seem fewer and further between, the utter expendability of much of his recent filmography make strong performances like his brooding lead in David Gordon Green’s Joe all the more powerful – not because we forgot about Cage’s talents, but because we’re afraid that he might have. Joe has been deemed (by this site and others) to be a “return to form” for Cage. It’s easy to declare with a handful of titles what form Cage is returning to. In celebrated roles like Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas, and Bringing Out the Dead Cage has displayed an uncanny ability to balance pathological self-destruction with varying undertones of dark comedy. He is the actor of choice for men who struggle outside the norms of society, yet wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere else. But outside of The Wicker Man, mesmerizing mash-ups, and whatever he was doing in Face-Off, it’s perhaps harder to concisely define the form that Cage is returning from when making films like Joe, despite the fact that it’s Cage’s more forgettable (and sometimes more batshit) work that creates the rule which highlights welcome exceptions. A recent, unofficial trilogy of particularly Cagean works speaks volumes to the one-of-a-kind spot that Cage’s stardom finds itself in now. While these films do not share a producer, a studio, or any other factor that justifies their making beyond their existence as Nicolas Cage vehicles, Trespass, Stolen, and […]

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Three Days of the Condor

The glut of American superhero films that continue to dominate the US box office have proven time and again to provide a rich and repeated diagnoses of post-9/11 American power. Whether showing an empowered Spider-Man triumphantly swinging between NYC buildings, depicting Bruce Wayne going all Patriot Act to save Gotham from being subsumed in terror, witnessing Iron Man privatize the defense industry, or simply blowing up iconic buildings ad nauseum, these films have served – sometimes with surprising depth – as startling funhouse mirrors for 21st century values, sentiment, and fears as they bear upon the politics and iconography of armed defense and homeland security. But no other film in this endless cycle of cinematic behemoths has explored with such clarity and precision the larger paranoia-industrial complex as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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Le Week-End Movie

Roger Michell’s Le Week-End is a far darker and less conventional film than its twee, Notting Hill name-dropping advertisements suggest. Its depiction of a bickering older couple stuck together on a perfunctory second honeymoon is hardly another indie grab for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel crowd to once again sightsee vicariously through British screen veterans. Rather, the couple’s failure to connect is presented as an existential crisis borne by their inability to overcome one another’s revisited insecurities and tics. Their disconnection is a reluctantly accepted marker of dwindling self worth in the face of a life run embarrassingly short of its rich potential. Jim Broadbent‘s Nick at one point dances alone to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” around the lavish Parisian suite he can’t afford, earbud cords bopping atop his undershirt while he sips on minibar whiskey. Abruptly, he stops. A former ‘60s radical, Nick has seen his dreams of revolution give way to practical compromise (including, apparently, marriage itself), professional disappointment, and aging out of hipness, until the very sounds of social change fit neatly into a library of songs for a portable Apple product. Le Week-End never fully paints a scope of the couple’s past, but instead lets their history emerge as infectious burdens upon the present. A glut of other indies have similarly tackled the topic of longterm relationship difficulties, offering depictions of complex couplehoods that serve as a corrective Hollywood’s convention of seeing marriage as love’s definitive triumph over conflict. While many of these “relationshit movies,” […]

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel hinges on three tiers of nostalgia that match its division of time periods and aspect ratios. On one tier is The Author (Tom Wilkinson and Jude Law), who in 1985 publishes his memories of staying at the dwindling (yet grand) Budapest and meeting its enigmatic owner. On that second tier is said owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham and Tony Revolori), who in 1968 reminisces on his bittersweet years at the hotel between the wars, during his tutelage under M. Gustave H. (Ralph Feinnes). The final tier of nostalgia is Gustave’s, who carefully maintains the hotel strictly in line with a vision of an old Europe that is starting to crumble at the promise of yet another brutal global conflict. Unlike these prior two tiers, Gustave’s nostalgia is never granted the concrete benefit of its own flashback. His desperate hold on the facade is only alluded to, and finally acknowledged in one brief part of a voiceover during the film’s final moments. Gustave, has, in a way, made the Grand Budapest into a fantasy that hardly corresponds to (and is frequently threatened by) the dark and foreboding reality existing outside its walls. Useful comparisons have been made alleging that Gustave is a stand-in for Anderson himself, who similarly constructs intricately detailed, strictly realized, and intoxicating worlds that are also palpably anachronistic. Yet if we look at Anderson’s filmography more broadly, we can see that Grand Budapest is yet another shift in Anderson’s ongoing obsession not […]

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Husbands Movie

This moment has proven opportune for a reflection of what the auteur theory means and has meant for film criticism. La politiques des auteurs, which originated in Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s and traveled, distilled but ready, to 1960s popular American film criticism, has irrevocably shaped how we’ve thought about and assessed movies to the point that it’s impossible to talk about cinema outside the claims of auteurism. Not only did the work of André Bazin, Andrew Sarris and their contemporaries, combatants, and students allow for the serious study of film as an art form, but auteurism’s legacy has even entered the film industry itself (film authors are now brands to be advertised) and solidified conventional readings of film history as the story of talented, uncompromising visionaries behind the camera (collect them all!). As Kent Jones’s excellent Film Comment essay points out, our means of loving the cinema owes a great deal to auteurism’s transformative power, particularly its now-common sense claim that “movies are primarily the creation of one governing author behind the camera who thinks in images and sounds rather than words and sentences.” Yet we must also recognize auteurism’s structuring power – its ability to create a framework of recognized artists through which it becomes impossible to see filmmaking, film history, and film themselves otherwise. It is nothing new to challenge the assumptions and associations of auteurism (or whatever fragmented versions of its politic – not theory – we’ve inherited), but it has proven incredibly difficult to ascertain what could […]

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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