Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Auteurism

I've had a couple of different trains of thought running through my head lately; let me draw them together in this post under the broad, common theme of auteurism.

The subject of Adrian's new column at Filmkrant is the screenwriter/auteur debate. He recounts an exchange between Josh Olson and Brad Stevens. Olson wants to remind everyone that even though Cronenberg might get the credit for the two much-talked-about sex scenes in A History of Violence, he (Olson) is the one who scripted them word by word. Adrian writes:

Stevens fires back with an impeccable cinephilic example. The opening scene of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière (2003) is so rich and complex on the level of its sounds and images, gestures and spaces, light-values and rhythms, that it could never have been entirely 'foreseen' or described in a script. Stevens does not mention Hou's close longtime script collaborator, celebrated Taiwanese novelist Chu Tien-wen, but his point is solid. However, it sends Olson and his LA-based comrades into apoplectic fits: it's a critic's fantasy! Auteurist nonsense that can only believed by eggheads who have never made a film! Give the greatest directors in the world a blank page, and see if they are so great then!

As Steven Maras argues in his forthcoming Wallflower Press book on screenwriting, this rage rests on the metaphor-idea that, while the writer is the true creator, and the script functions as an architectural blueprint, the director is merely the person who 'executes' the script, or builds the house to prior specifications. What auteurism - in its most enlightened form - is about is not the god-like primacy of the director on set, but the 'holistic', integrated, organic conception of a film, from first idea to final post-production. Hou guides this process from the start; while Cronenberg imposes his vision on projects that he does not always initiate. But cinema is the weaving of many different 'writings', from the written to the filmic - not the primacy of any one over all the others.

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The above piece sparked an interesting discussion in the comments to the previous post (scroll down about three-quarters of the way). I thought we might continue and extend it, either here or in the previous thread. Let me offer a few remarks in response to that discussion.

In my view, auteurism is not an account of how films are made. It is instead one among many ways we, as viewers, choose to read a film. In other words, it is one particular lens through which films can be viewed: by foregrounding the 'marks' of expression belonging to one person, the auteur, most frequently the director.

The first widespread use of the term in France in the '50s occurred in a very specific historical and political context. Cahiers du Cinema critics used their politique des auteurs to champion those filmmakers working in the Hollywood system who managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production. Thus, the CdC critics chose to read Hollywood films—and this was a political choice they were making—in a way that focused on the 'identifying marks of expression' made by an auteur like Nicholas Ray or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks.

Since then, the term 'auteur' has found use in a looser, broader fashion, but I don't see it as objectively claiming (as a 'theory' might) that the contributions of the director trump those of the screenwriter, the stars, the cinematographer, etc. In fact, the term 'auteur theory'—first used by Andrew Sarris when the politique made its trans-Atlantic crossing in the early '60s—is misleading since auteurism is not a theory at all, but instead a certain mode and manner of reading films.

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Dana Polan has a fascinating essay called "Auteur Desire" which was published at Screening the Past in 2001. He explains the double meaning of the essay's title:

On the one hand, in auteur theory, there is a drive to outline the desire of the director, his or her (but usually his) recourse to filmmaking as a way to express personal vision. The concern in auteur studies to pinpoint the primary obsessions and thematic preoccupations of this or that creator is thus an attempt to outline the director's desire. On the other hand, there is also desire for the director - the obsession of the cinephile or the film scholar to understand films as having an originary instance in the person who signs them. Here, it is important to look less at what the director wants than what the analyzing auteurist wants - namely, to classify and give distinction to films according to their directors and to master their corpuses. [...]

[There is a] belief in conventional auteurism that it is precisely because the pressures of the system so weigh down on the auteur that he/she (but usually he in the canons of such criticism) is forced to creativity as a veritable survival tactic.

Polan makes a distinction between 'classic', Cahiers/Sarris auteurism and contemporary auteurism. The former was frequently mystificatory, believing that "personal artistic expression emerged in mysterious ways from ineffable deep wells of creativity," while the latter involves closer attention to the encounter between the auteur and the resources of filmmaking, and

a greater concreteness and detail in the examination of just what the work of the director involves. Gunning, for example, is explicit in his understanding of Lang not as a romantic genius drawing inspiration intuitively from hidden depths of insight but as a veritable pragmatist who directly labors on the materials of the world.

Likewise, the historical poetics of David Bordwell focuses attention on the immediate craft of the filmmaker - how he/she works in precise material ways with the tools and materials of his/her trade.

There are precursors to these contemporary approaches: for example, the mise-en-scène criticism of Movie magazine and V.F. Perkins, and Manny Farber's close attention to the myriad 'surface' details of a film—what Polan calls "an auteurism of energetics rather than metaphysics or thematics."

He also proposes this interesting idea:

[I]t might not be too extreme to suggest that in the auteur theory, the real auteurs turn out to be the auteurists rather than the directors they study. Faced with the vast anonymity and ordinariness of the mass of films that have ever been made - and in contrast to the anonymous, ordinary manner in which many people see films (the LA times reports that many average spectators go to the multiplex not having a specific film title in mind and choose once they confront the array of offerings) - the auteurist quests to have his personal vision of cinema emerge from obscurity. He struggles to impose his vision on a system of indifference...

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This brings me to a notion that I have long wondered about: why is it that seasoned, intelligent auteurists don't always agree on the value of a particular film or filmmaker? In the light of "auteur desire," the answer is not difficult to see. If each auteurist brings to and imposes his/her desire upon a film or filmmaker, and no two people share the exact same configuration of desires (assuming that the desires of a person are influenced by his/her 'subjectivity', which is historically shaped by the accumulated set of cultural experiences that person, or 'subject', has had), each person would, naturally, have a different and unique encounter with a particular artwork. This makes disagreements both a matter of course and perfectly understandable.

Dan Sallitt, in a thread from the a_film_by archives, offers interesting insights on disagreements about the value of artworks:

When we disagree about the value of an artist or a work of art, we wonder how intelligent observers can be so far apart, not only in their opinions, but also in their perceptions. One possible model for disagreement is that one person has a wiser perspective on the topic at hand, and that the other person simply has grabbed hold of the wrong end of it. In most cases, this model is deeply inadequate from any objective perspective: it doesn't account at all for the great coherence and thoughtfulness that we often see on both sides, even when the positions are plainly mutually exclusive. But, in our hearts of hearts, this is the theory that we usually hold when we are one of the parties to the disagreement: our own position seems so coherent that we suspect the wisdom or the motives of the other party. Once in a while life presents us with an example of a disagreement where one side is clearly better supported than the other, and these occasional instances give us hope that maybe all of our opponents are similarly misled.

What occurred to me this morning is that maybe we underestimate: a) the incredible amount of data available in even the simplest work of art; and b) the mind's ability to find strong, coherent patterns in even a small collection of data. So, for instance, I come to Kubrick with a particular heightened aversion to a certain acting style which is connected to a certain personality trait. I identify this element, am ticked off by it, and calibrate my perceptive apparatus so that I start picking up any other element with some aspect in common. Because there is so much data in a movie, I have no trouble finding lots of support for my initial aversion, and in discarding the occasional data point that doesn't fit what I'm looking for. Within minutes, voila! I have constructed a coherent Kubrick-pattern that I call a sensibility. Meanwhile, other observers, without the same baseline aversion that I have, not only construct a different Kubrick-pattern, but also lack a slot in their Kubrick-pattern to help them identify the traits that look obvious to me.

pic: The train animations from Hou's Café Lumière.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Nicole Brenez on Experimental Cinema

Fergus Daly's documentary on avant-garde cinema, Experimental Conversations (2006), prominently features Nicole Brenez. I have transcribed all her comments, and am presenting them below in the order in which they appear in the documentary. Let me add that Brenez's fiery, polemical text is enhanced by seeing/hearing her speak--she is clear and incisive, and her manner patient, assured, even playful. She seems a model of a good teacher; I wish I could attend one of her classes. The above YouTube clip from the movie features her and Philippe Grandrieux. I first learned about Experimental Conversations through Mubarak's post from a few months ago; the post features yet another clip from the video. -- Girish.

An experimental cinema considers cinema not in terms of its uses or conventions but rather its powers.

Experimental cinema involves the entire field of the passions. The so-called standard cinema standardizes the emotions, sensation, perception, and belief. In that cinema you don’t find anything except what you’ve known and felt already. Of course you can love this in the same way you love the same stories, read every evening, read by the same voice, your mother’s. Faced with this considerable restriction of sensible and emotional experience, experimental cinema re-opens the entire field of experience.

An image in avant-garde cinema is something irreducible to one conception. It’s the exploration of all possible conceptions which don’t pre-exist the exploration itself. For example, the industrial cinema falls within Hegel’s formula ‘art is what decorates our internal and external environments’. This ‘impoverished’ conception of art is precisely what the dominant cinema insists on, that it be a psychic and social ornament, what’s called a ‘diversion’, a conception not reprehensible per se but which is a problem because it’s imperialistic because it occupies the entire field of images. Avant-garde cinema explores every other conception of the image.

An oeuvre can be called great if the artist invents his/her own conception of the image according great power, strong symbolic properties, to the image.

Experimental cinema implies the field, the site, of a critical questioning of the world in general, of experience in the political, ethnological, anthropological and metaphysical senses.

Experimental cinema is the field of investigation of the very modalities of our apprehension and in particular modes of vision. The horizon in which this research is inscribed was sketched out by a minor character in Godard’s La Chinoise who posed this very beautiful question: ‘what if reality hasn’t yet been seen by anyone?’

The fundamental problem at stake in experimental cinema and all the practices it implies is to ceaselessly pose the question: What use is it to make an image or not make one? And an inevitable question follows: ‘What is art?’

Experimental cinema stands against the history of dominant images; we can cite Jonas Mekas’ sublime formula: ‘Hollywood cinema is merely a reservoir of material for artists to use later.’ Therefore experimental cinema is a major speculative initiative since its task is also to criticize, change, parody and destroy the dominant images, or to complete them, to reveal what they hide and falsify. This is one of the great undertakings of what’s known as the cinema of ‘found footage’.

What defines experimental cinema, whether it has political, scientific or aesthetic concerns, are a certain number of values: freedom of thought, critical awareness, therefore intellectual, economic, political independence, and an independent mode of existence.

Bresson said it 40 years ago: ‘a great film gives us an elevated notion of cinematography’, an elevated idea of forms is inseparable from the idea that cinema leaves a trace in the world, whether it’s a faithful trace or a contradictory one matters little, it’s a trace which alters our grasp of the world. An example from French cinema is Philippe Grandrieux, who in Sombre and La Vie Nouvelle, works in a significant way with colour and light to a degree that brings him into conflict with his technicians because they’re obliged to make camera movements or lighting set-ups which seem unimaginable to them technically, but which, when realized by Grandrieux, doing his own framing and camera movements, are shown to be extraordinary enrichments of the palette of optical possibilities. They didn’t know what the cinema could do until Grandrieux did it. For example, in terms of texture, he invents new possibilities for haze and blur in Sombre, furthered in La Vie Nouvelle, as well as his work with black in La Vie Nouvelle. It’s one of the greatest films of the present, because it’s about the responsibility of images as images, not bearing themes but as images themselves in a catastrophic world. An image can save the world and not merely diagnose it, you have to see La Vie Nouvelle to appreciate what’s at stake.

In the middle of the 20th century, around 1951, it became clear that the film industry had reduced a potentially limitless apparatus to a single standardized practice and therefore that it was urgent to rediscover other practices, other movements, other logics than that which was producing images for commercial consumption. Therefore for example you see the reintegration of the idea of artisanship in the cinema, bypassing the integrated industrial chain in favor of directly intervening with the hands, the filmmaker’s hands, giving rise to all the practices of painting on film, scratching, direct intervention, etc.

There have been three great decades: the 1890s when all films were beautiful, the 1920s for the unsurpassed invention of montage, the 1970s because of the formal beauty that triumphed.

One of the most precious to me because least recognized paths taken by experimental film is the demand for pure and radical mimesis, descriptive investigation, simple description, the violence of pure analogy, of a pure recording. There are many versions of this, for example the field of scientific film, supreme from a figural viewpoint, Marey’s films, or those of Lucien Bull, continued today by Alexis Martinet, Professor Berthier and many others.

The idea that art will redeem, I find this idea very beautiful, very problematic, you find it in all the sublime thinkers who are references for us on a day-to-day basis, Benjamin, Deleuze, and Godard, who revives them in cinema. Bizarrely, I prefer Adorno’s totally despairing belief [laughs] that art has no mission. Because, for whatever reason that makes us hold on to this idea of mission — it can be a sublime reason like Schiller’s belief that art can, in certain ways, teach us to emancipate ourselves — I prefer to think that an oeuvre doesn’t fix a mission for itself, but that it exists, breaks things open, introduces disorder into what was believed to be an ineluctable political and in particular ideological order, art as catastrophe in fact. [laughs]

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-- From the archives: I collected several Nicole Brenez links in this post from a year ago. Also, I just noticed that Steven Shaviro twittered: "Nicole Brenez's ABEL FERRARA is the most beautiful book ever written on a single filmmaker. It gives Ferrara the respect & love he deserves." (Steve--I'd love to read a post by you about this book!)

-- Fergus Daly on Experimental Conversations, from the programme notes of the 2006 Cork film festival.

-- David Hudson's terrific, detailed Berlinale post.

-- A series of Robert Bresson posts continues at The Art of Memory.

-- At Film Journey, Robert Koehler reports from the Guadalajara film festival.

-- At Contrechamp, Sandrine Marques's top 10 films of 2007.

-- Film blog discovery of the week: A.P. at the Movies. Check out this detailed post on D.W. Griffith's staging practices at Biograph.

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Dennis Lim on Manoel de Oliveira in the NYT:

The cultural critic Edward Said, in his writings on “late style,” identified two versions of “artistic lateness.” One produces crowning glories, models of “harmony and resolution” in which a lifetime of knowledge and mastery are serenely evident. The other is an altogether more restless sensibility, the province of artists who go anything but gently into that good night, turning out works of “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.”

Mr. Oliveira, force of nature that he is, represents both kinds of lateness, often in a single film. In this, as in so many other respects, he is his own special case. What are we to make of an artist who hit his stride in his 70s, and for whom “late style” is in effect the primary style? [...]

“I think of film as a synthesis of all art forms,” Mr. Oliveira wrote. “And I try to balance the four fundamental pillars of film: image, word, sound and music.” [...]

But he would be the first to caution against making too much of his longevity. “Nature is very capricious and gives to some what it takes from others,” he said. “I see myself being more admired for my age than for my films, which, being good or bad, will always be my responsibility. But I am not responsible for my age.”

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A week of criss-crossing travel. I've just arrived in Cocoa Beach, Florida, to present a paper at an engineering systems conference. I'll return home to Buffalo for a day to teach my classes mid-week, then fly down to New York City for the "Responsibilities of Criticism" seminar/conference featuring Nicole Brenez, Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum. If I can manage to take some notes, I will try to post them here.