Monday, March 28, 2011

Confession of an Auteurist


When I heard that Elizabeth Taylor had died last week, the first thought that popped into my mind was this none-too-flattering realization: Other than faint memories of seeing clips of her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and in her Oscar-winning turn in Butterfield 8 on PBS, I don't think I've actually seen a film she was in from start to finish—unless her guest voice appearances on two episodes of The Simpsons count. And a result of that grievous oversight, her death didn't really hit me with the same emotional force that it seemed to do with many others, cinephiles or otherwise. I did post something on my Twitter feed acknowledging her death, but to be completely honest, it was half-hearted—an objective acknowledgment of a fact—at best.

The more I thought about this (lack of) feeling, the more I began to reflect on this fact about my cinephilia: When it comes to the movies, for the most part I find myself valuing directors far more than I do actors. When Eric Rohmer died last year, that had a marked emotional effect on me mostly because I do find a lot of value in his Six Moral Tales; by contrast, the deaths of actors like, say, Tony Curtis or Patricia Neal last year barely made a dent on me.

Part of it, I'm sure, has to do with my relative unfamiliarity with each actor's respective body of work (regarding Curtis, I've only seen him in Winchester '73, Some Like It Hot and Spartacus; with Neal—only The Fountainhead, to be completely honest); if I had seen more of their work and thus formed a certain attachment with them, maybe I would have felt a greater sense of loss upon their deaths. On a deeper level, though, the truth is: When it comes to the films I choose to watch, I almost always choose based on who directed a given picture; rarely do the actors in a certain film sway my decisions. (Cary Grant is perhaps the one exception to that rule that I can think of—with Robert Mitchum running him close.) Maybe it's the result of being raised on a partial diet of Andrew Sarris—whose classic book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1962-1968 first introduced the auteur theory to many in America—as well as recently reading film books like Richard Brody's Jean-Luc Godard critical biography or the Farber on Film collection (famous film critic Manny Farber often seemed to think in terms of directors as well), but, true to the line of thinking first proposed by François Truffaut in his famous essay "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema"—that, to summarize it roughly, the best film directors are ones who manage to put a distinct personal stamp, whether visually, thematically or otherwise, on whatever films they make, even if it's mere Hollywood studio product—I've always thought of films in terms of the directors overseeing them, not so much in terms of the cast and crew collaborating with a director to realize his/her vision. There have been instances where I've devoted a block of time to going through the certain director's entire body of work in one shot; I have rarely thought of doing anything like that for an actor or actress (unless, in the case of someone like Jerry Lewis, that actor also directed a fair amount of films; or unless an actor/actress like, say, Anna Karina, was so closely tied to a director that it would be difficult for me to avoid seeing that actor/actress's work if he/she was in a lot of it).

Maybe, in a sense, as a member of a film audience, I think of actors in films the same way Alfred Hitchcock famously approached actors in the films he directed: as "cattle." Sometimes an actor may transcend script and direction and form a considerable imprint in my consciousness; this is especially true in a star vehicle like, say, Jamie Foxx's virtuoso Ray Charles impersonation in Ray (when many people think of that film, I have a feeling most of them think of it as Jamie Foxx's film, not as director Taylor Hackford's). Honestly, though, much of the time I judge actors on the basis of how they're serving a director's vision.

I know filmmaking itself is very much a collaborative art, so, in that sense, as friends of mine who have actually made films have relayed to me, the auteur theory has always had its holes. Nevertheless, I guess my own tendency, in keeping with Truffaut's and that of the rest of the Cahiers du cinéma cohorts at that time (including Godard), is to look at films through the lens of the director-as-author. Apparently, that has had the effect of cutting off my ability to form many of the kinds of attachments to actors/stars that others are able to do.

Does anyone else have this problem? Is this in fact a problem, at all?

Thoughts and comments on this are welcome, as always, dear readers! 


Mark Pfeiffer said...

I think it would make a difference if the actors and actresses in question had prominent careers when you were coming of age as a cinephile. You don't have a strong attachment because you haven't lived with their work. Maybe the death of Paul Newman made more of an impact because he was still active when you were deep into movies?

For instance, I don't know that I've seen a single Elizabeth Taylor movie, which is mainly due to her career (or the most notable portion) being over before I was born.

As for your other point, I pay attention to the director, but I also pick older films based on the performers in them. My one order from Warner Archives hinged on actors/actresses than directors, in fact.

Kenji Fujishima said...

I think it would make a difference if the actors and actresses in question had prominent careers when you were coming of age as a cinephile. You don't have a strong attachment because you haven't lived with their work.

Yeah, that could be it, too. Though I'm not sure Paul Newman's death inspired much deep sadness in me either, though I knew that it was surely momentous.

Matthew Dessem said...

First things first: see Sweet Smell of Success immediately if not sooner, and see what Tony Curtis can do.

Second: Screenwriters, screenwriters, screenwriters.

Third: Screenwriters.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Yeah, that's a good point, Matthew; in most cases, there wouldn't actually be a film in the first place without a script. Still, it is the director, with the help of his/her cast and crew, that realizes the script on the screen...

Matthew Dessem said...

That's also true of drama, and yet Hamlet is Shakespeare's work, not Branagh or Olivier or Burbage's.

Not to say directors can't be auteurs, but if your version of auteur theory doesn't account for the fact that a Kaufman or Chayefsky or Schrader screenplay (or Sorkin, for that matter) is recognizably theirs no matter who directs it, something's wrong with your theory.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Yeah, there are always exceptions to the theory of director-as-author. Charlie Kaufman would probably be a recent addition to the company of screenwriters you cite above.