Forests and Trees: Let’s Rethink Filmmakers as Individuals and John Cassavetes as Auteur

By  · Published on March 11th, 2014

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 reasonably function in its place.

Through auteurism’s legacy and even its dissenters, we’ve been given a fundamentally false choice: to think of filmmakers as either individual artists or as cogs in a larger commercial system.

In the introduction of Andrew Sarris’s “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions,” the famed critic lays out how American film criticism can benefit from France’s politique des auteurs.

Where French auteurism rebelled from the Tradition of Quality, thumbing its nose at the snobbish distinctions that reflexively presumed René Clément a master artist and Howard Hawks a negligible anti-aesthete, Sarris argues that autuerism separates “forest critics” from “trees critics.” Forest critics despise the system through which films are made, seeing “an entity called the cinema” as “betrayed by an entity called Hollywood.” Such predisposed conclusion lead the forest critic to a series of (in Sarris’s estimation) prejudices attending an assumed hierarchy – namely, the inherent superiority of documentary, avant-garde, and that ever-relative category of “foreign” films.

Far from taking these assumptions in reverse (say, predisposing Hollywood films as inherently superior to documentaries), an auteurist lens as “tree criticism” concentrates on the particulars: not those conventionalized aspects that make Hollywood seem a monolithic entity, but those glorious ruptures and excesses and markers of style which make select Hollywood films different and distinct; not the ways in which certain filmmakers work with and within the system, but their production of a unified and artistic vision despite it. As such, auteurism posits an expressive individual against a system in which s/he cannot possibly overcome, yet somehow finds an authorial voice within:

“The strong director imposes his own personality on a film; a weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant…The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression. It is as if a few brave spirits managed to overcome the gravitational pull of the mass of movies.”

Yet despite making room for artistic possibility within the mechanized commercial filmmaking system of Hollywood, auteurism and its legacy still largely see the industry within the same terms as the Tradition of Quality and “forest critics”: as a monolithic, interpersonal system always invested in wielding its power against artistic risk and personal expression. The career of Orson Welles has been made a vanguard of auteurism within this logic: that of an uncompromising visionary whose work was tragically cut short by Hollywood’s ill will.

American film studios and distributors no doubt have a too-rich history of shaping directors into a narrow ideal of what movies can and should be, and of using their economic and assembled power to take films away from their prospective authors, most often for the worse. The film industry has shown little patience for the aesthetic idealist/l’enfant terrible, so Terry Gilliam still has trouble getting distribution.

But in defining auteurism by difference (Hollywood auteurs vs. for-hire functionaries within the system, visionaries vs. a powerful, monolithic, artistically vacant industry), auteurism has largely failed to take into account how studios themselves have been historically defined (like auteurs) as individuals.

As Jerome Christensen studies at length in his book “America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures,” Hollywood movie studios have defined themselves from the classical era until now according to house styles and brand ideologies that they have repeatedly sought to mold their productions into. It has never been the case that an auteur’s vision contradicts “Hollywood” as an unwavering bulwark, but rather comes in conflict with a studio’s self-defining identity. Movie studios were, in contemporary terms, exemplars of “corporate personhood.” Movies, after all, fought for first amendment protection in 1915 and 1952 as corporations and organizations, not as individual persons or citizens or artists seeking personal expression.

Classical Hollywood movies, according to Christensen, were almost unprecedented entities in the development of industrial capitalism, “self-advertising artifacts that market the studio’s brand in the very act of consumption.” Rather than point to one director’s body of work, each studio film contributed to a larger vision of the world purported by studios across their output. That so many movie studios are named after their founders – from Disney to Warner Bros. to the Weinstein Company – illustrates the obvious attempts to connect studio visions with the works of individuals.

If we think about studios via – to borrow Sarris’s terms – the trees instead of the forest, then we can see how the romanticization of the auteur and the demonization of the studio are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Just as studios can be historicized in terms of the perpetuation of individuality, we can think of film authorship as constructed in similarly.

Where autuerism’s view of studios assumes a complex and individualized mode of self-branding as a vague and unchanging monolith, auteurism’s view of directors simplifies an assembly line of work down to the cult of the individual. Yet Otto Preminger had interviews that gave way to books, magazines, newspaper clippings, and television programs. Welles’s work has inspired retrospectives, volumes of study, continued investigation, and pristine packages of his films for home video viewing. Hitchcock’s renown went into full gear once he branded himself for American television. And all of these filmmakers worked with a company of collaborators on and onscreen, before, during, and after filming, whose efforts served toward what we today recognize as their individual vision.

Beyond every individual in Hollywood lies a system necessary for its making.

So in order to fully comprehend cinema in Bazin’s terms, as “both popular and industrial,” we must also recognize the degree to which auteurism has become (and indeed has long been) directly compatible with the work of movie studios. We must ask why we recognize a coherent style in the films of Justin Lin, why the names of filmmakers fit so well into the language of advertising, and why it’s so easy for an industry already so involved in the creation to celebrity to embrace the expressed individuality of its directors.

It is only beyond autuerism’s own contradictions that we can actually see radical forms of filmmaking for what they are. John Cassavetes – whose spontaneous, improvisatory work made him a paragon for inventive American independent filmmaking – rejected the individual/studio binary wholesale. The director saw his work as not individually his, and he worked entirely outside the studio system. The title of “director,” in this case, referred to his nominal role as instigator and organizer, not as arbiter of vision. Cassavetes’s studio efforts failed not because the powers that be prevented his personal form of expression, but because he sought to recreate filmmaking as a process that includes a polyphony – not a hierarchy – of voices.

His radically democratized vision of filmmaking saw everyone as a contributor, but not in terms of a commercial assembly line. Instead, Cassavetes’s films exercised a collective and communal form of work, a means of making movies whose end result would never have been the same if different people and circumstances had been involved. Cassavetes’s films do not bear the stamp of “Cassavetes,” but of the rigorous and soul-bearing collective labor of art involved.

Sure, Cassavetes had a vision, but it was a vision of the work shared between people, not a vision that presumed an end result. Perhaps if we considered the art of filmmaking outside the rich but limiting legacy of auteurism, we too could think about the possibilities of cinema as an artistic practice and process, not as a signature statement.

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