Monday, February 08, 2010

Journey of a Word

A New York Times article last week anointed Steve Jobs as an "auteur":

Apple represents the “auteur model of innovation,” observes John Kao, a consultant to corporations and governments on innovation. In the auteur model, he said, there is a tight connection between the personality of the project leader and what is created. Movies created by powerful directors, he says, are clear examples, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

At Apple, there is a similar link between the ultimate design-team leader, Mr. Jobs, and the products. From computers to smartphones, Apple products are known for being stylish, powerful and pleasing to use. [Apple's "design restraint"] is evident in Mr. Jobs’s personal taste. His black turtleneck, beltless blue jeans and running shoes are a signature look.

How far we've traveled in 50 years. When Truffaut, Godard and other Cahiers du Cinema critics originally formulated their "politique des auteurs," they meant for it to particularly apply to Hollywood filmmakers like Hitchcock, Hawks or Nicholas Ray who managed to imprint their films with a personal vision and stylistic signature while working within an industrial system of production. Crucial to this "politique" was a politics of resistance that was manifested in at least 3 ways:

(1) A select few Hollywood filmmakers resisting (through aesthetic tactics grouped under a sign called "mise-en-scene") the powerful standardizing forces of the Hollywood system.

(2) A corresponding gesture of resistance on the part of the French critics themselves: one aimed at the dominant and respectable homegrown "Tradition of Quality" cinema.

(3) These French critics also combating the notion that Hollywood cinema, because it was a mass-culture product, was not worth taking seriously as art.

In the 1960s, Peter Wollen resituated the notion of the auteur with the help of structuralism. (See the essay "The Auteur Theory" in his book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema.) This move could also be seen as a gesture of resistance -- in this case, against an overly romanticized notion of the auteur with near-mystical powers of individual genius. The auteur, for Wollen, became a site, an "unconscious catalyst," a collection of themes, oppositions and traits that could be read, then inventoried and grouped under a name within quotation marks: "Hitchcock," "Hawks," "Fuller," and so on.

The term went into decline, at least in the formal study of film, in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has seen a resurgence -- in a reconstructed form -- since the 1990s. It was around this time that "independent cinema," as an industry category, began to show sizable commercial promise. In the last 15 years or so, we've seen the industry (first independent, then the mainstream) seize the term and deploy it -- not with any kind of resistance in mind but, plain and simple, as a strategy for product differentiation. Directors -- independent or mainstream, at the multiplex or the film festival, talented or mediocre -- are indiscriminately dubbed "auteurs" in a move that automatically attempts to bestow upon them quality and distinction, a brand identity. Especially when wielded by the industry and the media, the word has been diluted to the point of insubstantiality. It represents little more than the commodification of a set of product attributes in search of a market niche. The original animating values of resistance and critical polemics have slowly disappeared from the word since its appropriation. What does remain vitally useful today (especially for cinephiles) is the reading strategy we call "auteurism."

Your thoughts about the evolution of the word "auteur" over the last few decades, and its usefulness today? I'd love to hear them.

* * *

What was "independent cinema" before it became a commercially lucrative market segment about 15-20 years ago? We can find some answers in the fascinating 100-page catalogue [pdf] that accompanied a month-long, 150-film retrospective Independent America: New Film 1978-1988 at the Museum of the Moving Image in 1988. Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay for the catalogue, "Myths of the new narrative (and a few counter-suggestions)," can be found at his blog. Chief curator David Schwartz writes:

Before the commercial success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Pulp Fiction (and before the rise of home video), independent filmmakers made and showed their films in a world truly apart from Hollywood. To get their work seen, they would travel for months, with their 16mm film prints in tow, to colleges and media arts centers across the country. The commercial success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape marked the beginning of the end of this era. Last year’s big “independent” hit, Juno, was distributed by Fox Searchlight, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., and it made more money than any other Best Picture contender. Juno’s virtues were not in its artistic independence; but precisely the opposite — it was a well-written, well-directed, well-performed, and utterly conventional movie.

Rosenbaum’s essay, and the entire Independent America film series, capture a time when the label “independent” was truly up for grabs, indicating a genuine alternative to mainstream commercial cinema.