If you’ve spent any time in a classroom – or read through various periods in film criticism and theory – then you know that condescension and takedowns have always gone hand-in-hand with great film criticism. Each new essay in a magazine or publication encouraged a variety of responses; some, like Pauline Kael’s famous attack on Andrew Sarris’s defense of auteur theory, even form a kind of elegance in their vitriol. It may not be the most levelheaded way to move a discussion forward – and it probably did nothing for their respective readerships other than make them more defensive of Sarris and Kael – but there is a sporting pleasure in a film critic on the offensive.
Then again, I’ve always preferred baseball as a non-contact sport. Maybe that’s why I spent so much time last night struggling with how to respond to Bob Chipman’s piece on the death of the auteur in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Chipman’s article is certainly a divisive piece – intentionally so – and that makes engaging with it a tricky prospect. It would certainly be a worthwhile to argue against an overly reductive view of film production – one that has burrowed itself far too deep into our collective understanding of what it means to be a director – but Chipman is too fast to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The back half of the essay takes on an almost anti-intellectual bent; Chipman describes people who would analyze cinema through the lens of auteur theory as “fawning film-school” students and handicaps their ability to appreciate craftsmanship outside of the broadest possible theories. Many people who might otherwise engage in the discussion will push back against the rhetoric being used.
And that’s a shame, because the core idea that we need to rethink our relationship with auteur theory is an excellent point of departure for how we think about the studio-driven blockbuster. If we choose to set aside some of the polarizing ideas in the article’s foreground – the sensationalized conflict between two major motion picture companies and the introduction of a producer-based movement of authorship – then we are free to focus on the ways in which film criticism limits its own potential as an intellectual pursuit. And, perhaps even more importantly, we can address ways to move this conversation forward without polarizing our audience.
If you’re unfamiliar with the history of auteur theory, I would strongly recommend reading this 2010 piece by our own Landon Palmer to brush up on the basics. This is a history that Chipman acknowledges in his article; the politique des auteurs forms an important link between the classic studio system and the modern era of independent cinema. One could even write a vulgarized historiography of film theory that parallels the arguments being made in Chipman’s piece: a group of very smart people realized they favored very mainstream, non-nationalistic cinema and concocted a theory that gave it some intellectual clout. Without a confluence of events that included film’s legitimization as an educational subject and the evolution of director as author, the modern wave of filmmakers that Chipman mentions would never be given – or seize – the opportunity to make films that adhered to no one’s sense of style but their own.
But it is also important to acknowledge that many filmmakers we take for granted as geniuses did not form this reputation in a vacuum. It was the auteur crowd who elevated them to cinema’s pantheon and the next generation of filmmakers who cemented their influence. The reputation of filmmakers like Hitchcock gained a great deal of power via their influence on contemporary filmmakers; in the years predating home video, where audiences were only able to see the films that were being shown at their local theaters, many of these reputations were constructed by the few and accepted by the many. And to suggest that modern audiences overemphasize the place of auteur theory in cinema is to say that many audiences are unfamiliar with the ways in which film history is written. Which, it would seem to me, is precisely the sort of misunderstanding that we as film critics should be doing our best to fix.
The good news is that contemporary film culture has perhaps an embarrassment of tools at its disposal to address this. While you might not think of it quite in these terms, every major film site now has a blend of practitioners, historians, and theorists publishing new articles every single day. Voices who previously would have been unheard – or relegated to niche magazines and newsletters – are now offering their opinions on the collaborative process of filmmaking. One possible approach to change people’s minds about auteur theory isn’t to vilify a piece of antiquity; it’s to put those people who may not fit into auteur theory’s unwieldy boundaries in the front-and-center and let them talk about their contributions to the trade. It’s a lot more difficult to speak to a director’s individual vision when you know how much time, energy, and pride went into executing a team effort.
And that often requires taking a blended approach to blockbuster films. It isn’t reasonable to think that a billion-dollar feature like Age of Ultron could be made by one really powerful personality; nor would we capture the full extent of the process by only focusing on either production or reception. The most important point regarding auteur theory may not be its role as a be-all, end-all source of authorial intent, but rather, as a historical link between old Hollywood and the new one. The idea that production companies such as Marvel and Disney are reverting to a more traditional model – one that has been bandied about with increased frequency over the past year – presents us with a unique opportunity to speak to film from both the historical and production standpoint. How do filmmakers reconcile their notions of autonomy with the house style of their respective studios? What are historical indicators that we can use to compare the old model with the new one? If we really care about updating our thinking on auteur theory, these are the types of questions we should ask.
It is also important to remember that this kind of dialogue will never happen if people feel they’ve been backed into an ideological corner. Auteur theory may be the film theory equivalent of Freudian analysis – a debunked-yet-entertaining way to analyze films – but everything you write will fall on deaf ears if you use one part of film analysis to generalize about someone’s fandom or film literacy. I’ve written before on the role of education in mainstream film criticism; scoring points with your core audience at the expense of mainstream audiences is a surefire way to ensure that nobody will be listening when you have something important to convey. Winning arguments is easy. Changing people’s minds is hard. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can get into the business of creating a smarter audience.
Related Topics: Marvel