PRACTICAL FILMMAKING vs AUTEUR THEORY

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David Loftus
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Postby David Loftus » Thu Apr 05, 2007 2:29 pm

Hey, I was looking through some Nietzsche quotes for something else this morning, and look what I found:


"There are no facts, only interpretations."



This highlights another debating ploy of Mr. Stevens: denigrating other people's statements as "opinions" while elevating his own as "facts." Not only are both debatable for their content, but also for their supposed status.
War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn't any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone's being worse off. - Karl Kraus

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Postby Josh Olson » Thu Apr 05, 2007 3:21 pm

David,

"I have explained. I will do it again. You never said as much, in so many words (obsession with detail again), but that is the general approach of your posts: Someone offers a general attack on the auteur theory, you respond with an exception or two . . . which certainly proves there are auteurs out there (and almost no one else has disputed that), but is no defense of the auteur theory in toto, as we understand it or as you sometimes characterize it."

Indeed. I once asked Brad to give me a specific, infallible way in which I could determine in any film whether what I was seeing was the specific work of the director. (Or the writer, or the cinematographer.)

The best he came back with was along the lines of, "If you can't describe it in words, it's good direction," which is, of course, inane for about a dozen reasons. (Least of which being that maybe if Brad COULD describe these things in words, he'd be an actual writer, and not just a critic)

In the end, Brad's argument boils down to the fact that an impressionable age, he became enamored of the idea that directors are the authors of their films. Since then, everything he's observed about film is filtered through that belief.

Were he to spend maybe a day actually working in film, he'd understand that his original impression was wrong, and we'd be done with this silliness.

But no, rather than acknowledge that an accomplished professional is more qualifed to explain the workings of the profession than an outside observer, he continues to come back with anecdote after anecdote that, at best, prove that sometimes the director is the key creative figure on a movie. Which, of course, nobody here has ever argued.

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Postby Moderator » Thu Apr 05, 2007 4:39 pm

David wrote:
This highlights another debating ploy of Mr. Stevens: denigrating other people's statements as "opinions" while elevating his own as "facts."


I've suggested this a couple of times as well.

Josh wrote:
Indeed. I once asked Brad to give me a specific, infallible way in which I could determine in any film whether what I was seeing was the specific work of the director. (Or the writer, or the cinematographer.)


This, as a litmus test, is the only solid way of supporting the auteur theory, in my opinion. If the "signature" of a particular director is not identifiable, then the entire concept of auteurism breaks down -- which is a major reason it's not held in favor by many filmmakers or critics these days.

Josh wrote:
... at best, prove that sometimes the director is the key creative figure on a movie. Which, of course, nobody here has ever argued.


And this is true. There are also times when others are the key creative people. It's quite rare that a single person can be that overwhelmingly dominant, however, that theirs is the only creativity in evidence.

I understand why the theory was advanced, but the difficulty in defining it as an actual reality is what has made it historically unsupportable in any meaningful fashion.

[/quote]
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Postby Brad Stevens » Thu Apr 05, 2007 5:09 pm

"The best he came back with was along the lines of, "If you can't describe it in words, it's good direction," which is, of course, inane for about a dozen reasons."

It's not a question of whether or not a scene CAN be described in words - it's a question of whether or not that description is at all adequate as an account of the scene's quality. A VERY different point.

"In the end, Brad's argument boils down to the fact that an impressionable age, he became enamored of the idea that directors are the authors of their films. Since then, everything he's observed about film is filtered through that belief."

In the end, Josh's argument boils down to the fact that an impressionable age, he became enamored of the idea that screenwriters are the authors of their films. Since then, everything he's observed about film is filtered through that belief.

"Were he to spend maybe a day actually working in film, he'd understand that his original impression was wrong, and we'd be done with this silliness."

Yes, that was clearly Robert Altman's problem. He never spent a single day actually working in film, and thus was never able to understand the true nature of the screenwriter's role.

STILL waiting for an explanation about which parts of my Abel Ferrara book you found hagiographic. All of it? Certain sections?

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David Loftus
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Postby David Loftus » Thu Apr 05, 2007 5:36 pm

Brad Stevens wrote:"The best he came back with was along the lines of, "If you can't describe it in words, it's good direction," which is, of course, inane for about a dozen reasons."

It's not a question of whether or not a scene--


Diversion of the argument into a small byway where one may niggle.


Brad Stevens wrote:"In the end, Josh's argument boils down to...


Parroting as a form of disputatious (but contentless) response.


Brad Stevens wrote:""Were he to spend maybe a day actually working in film, he'd understand that his original impression was wrong, and we'd be done with this silliness."

Yes, that was clearly Robert Altman's problem.


Resort, once again, to an exception as a method of not addressing the main line of the argument.


Brad Stevens wrote:"STILL waiting for an explanation about which parts of my Abel Ferrara book you found hagiographic. All of it? Certain sections?


Diversion of the argument into a detail that has almost nothing to do with the main line of argument as a method of ignoring the other side's points.
War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn't any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone's being worse off. - Karl Kraus

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Postby Josh Olson » Thu Apr 05, 2007 5:49 pm

Steve,

"This, as a litmus test, is the only solid way of supporting the auteur theory, in my opinion. If the "signature" of a particular director is not identifiable, then the entire concept of auteurism breaks down -- which is a major reason it's not held in favor by many filmmakers or critics these days. "

And it goes beyond that. If a particular director has a particular identifiable style, it could very well be that he uses the same DP on every film, and HE designs the visual style of the film. Sure, it's the director's choice to hire that DP, but once again, that puts us square in the realm of me claiming authorship of all the books in my bookcase.

A scene may, indeed, be brilliantly directed, but that doesn't always mean it was the director who supplied that vision. It could well have been on the page. Same, by the way, goes for writing. Movies are full of memorable lines that turn out to have been created by actors.

"We're gonna need a bigger boat" comes to mind. There's a zillion other examples. Is that line an example of great writing? Absolutely. Is Carl Gottleib the "auteur" who gave us that line? Nope. Roy Scheider is.

Brad talked about the shot that could not be described, and yet, somewhere down the line, someone had to describe what they wanted to someone else. The director may have told the DP how to shoot it. Or even if he shot it himself, he had to communicate to someone what he wanted in the shot.

If the director says what he wants the shot to look like, and the end result is one that Brad finds himself at a loss to describe fully, it is proof of the auteur theory. But if the WRITER says what he wants the shot to look like, the fact that the image transcends Brad's ability to communicate it, it's proof of.... um.... the auteur theory again. Somehow.

In other words, when a director lays out the shot, all he has to do is say, "Shoot this," and if the end result is transcendent, he is the author of the film. But a writer has to write a far more detailed and poetic description of the same shot to get the credit from Brad.

It's all very convoluted and very confused. So much easier to live in the real world.

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Postby robochrist » Thu Apr 05, 2007 7:43 pm

In sum, most of that is what I would call the inherent process of the medium.

In MOST cases - and this is sort of the one drawback if you're strictly the writer of the film - if a movie's power came MAINLY from the scrivener the project is almost invariably a COLLABORATION, not the blood-sweat-and-tears of an auteur. For even if it's the writer who got the project off the ground, if he knows NOTHING about shooting a movie he has to, in effect, outsource that task to a director.

Here, of course, you can wind up with so many different playing fields.

If, in MY view, the film's scenes demand the final approval from the writer - who CREATED the concept and/or material to begin with - then I WOULD consider HIM or HER the auteur.

If, as is more often the case, the script is delegated to a director and the latter gives considerable input or is handed a heavy load of the work (for example, he may rewrite some scenes himself), then - obviously - it's a collaboration.

In MOST cases, that's the "scene".

If I look at a movie like the ODD COUPLE from 1968 with Lemmon & Matthau, I consider its writer, Neal Simon, ONE of the STARS of the movie. It's HIS material. Not the director's (Gene Saks). Yet, when it came to the shooting, Saks made many crucial decisions (such as the choice of locations in New York, particularly for Felix's suicide "attempt" at the beginning). I therefore consider it a collaboration. It's staying faithful to Neal Simon's vision while remaining the product of a collaboration.

In short, you may be mainly a writer; but unless YOU helm the entire project from beginning to end...you're not a FILM auteur.

Robert Towne became a film auteur.

William Goldman did NOT.

Scorcese I consider an auteur; yet, even though I like to credit TAXI DRIVER entirely to HIM, I CAN'T. The film was as much Paul Schrader's vision as it was Scorcese's (perhaps MORE, as Schrader was destitute when he wrote the first draft - and I suspect that his mood from the situation got injected into the material, whether consciously or not). It is a collaboration; one of the most masterful I've ever seen. (I've never liked Schrader beyond that, btw).

These are just names that chance through my mind as I type, showing how easy any of us could come up with so many mixed scenarios by which to identify proper due credit.

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Postby Donald Petersen » Thu Apr 05, 2007 8:30 pm

robochrist wrote:These are just names that chance through my mind as I type, showing how easy any of us could come up with so many mixed scenarios by which to identify proper due credit.


And herein, I think, lies the soul of the controversy. There are as many different scenarios as there are movies that have ever been made, each one in its own unique locus in a broad spectrum that does not just cover a line with "Director as Auteur" at one end, "Screenwriter as Auteur" at the other, and varying levels of collaboration in between. No, as has been mentioned here many times, most films receive a large dollop of creative input from various producers, DPs, production designers, actors, et al, making the spectrum planar, or even a 3-dimensional infinite space...

...and yet, credit must be assigned, and though all guild-signatory films (and the vast majority of non-union flicks, too) give job-appropriate credit where credit is due, the fact remains that directors are routinely given possessory credit (in many instances where it is not earned), and screenwriters are routinely not (even when it IS earned). Directors ALREADY receive a "Directed By" credit, and that is all the credit that the job deserves, unless the director ALSO performed another creditable job, such as writing, editing, etc. In my opinion, NOBODY needs to receive possessory credit. The stop-motion and 8mm movies I made as a kid could have carried a "Film by Donald" credit, since I wrote, designed, shot, and edited them all by my lonesome (I suppose I could have credited Fotomat for the film processing; otherwise it was ALL ME), but nearly no grown-up, professional, artistic film can be made that way... and I still believe that it's the height of oversimplification to assume that The Very Best Films owe their creative life to the vision of just one person.

For what it's worth, I recognize that it's easy to identify a particular movie by calling it "The latest Spielberg movie," but it's just as easy and justifiable to ask someone if he's seen "the new Adam Sandler flick" or if he likes "Charlie Kaufman movies," or if he prefers "the Paul Schrader Cat People over the Val Lewton one," or if he thinks "Carpenter's Thing is a worthy successor to Hawks' (or Hecht's or Nyby's) version."

But formally codifying such artistic possession in the credits is demonstrably wrong, sez I, and this bad habit is a direct result of the formerly wide acceptance of the primacy of the director. The DGA won't voluntarily give it up, and the WGA (with their weaker striking position) can't wrest it away.

If this widespread misapprehension of the creative process weren't institutionalized, methinks writers wouldn't get bent out of shape so much at the mere mention of auteurism. But it costs them money, bargaining power, even social standing (else we wouldn't have the tired old joke about the new-in-town ingenue who was so dumb she thought she could get ahead by sleeping with the writer).

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Postby Douglas Harrison » Fri Apr 06, 2007 3:30 am

Brad Stevens wrote:It's not a question of whether or not a scene CAN be described in words - it's a question of whether or not that description is at all adequate as an account of the scene's quality. A VERY different point.


Actually, the question of whether or not a scene can be described in words serves as the acid test for your notion that the best scenes are not reducible to an adequate written account. For if no scene can be described in a way that conveys essentially the same information you would receive through viewing it, then it is not possible to apply your approach to determining whether the director is responsible for a given scene.

Now, were you to tell me that some scenes can be adequately described, then I would ask how it is possible to determine what is "adequate" without relying on opinion alone. Because relying on opinion to determine whether or not the director is the author of a given scene sounds like a poor method.

D.

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Postby Josh Olson » Fri Apr 06, 2007 3:31 am

Robo,

“In MOST cases - and this is sort of the one drawback if you're strictly the writer of the film - if a movie's power came MAINLY from the scrivener the project is almost invariably a COLLABORATION, not the blood-sweat-and-tears of an auteur. “

There’s a guy who used to sell videos of himself masturbating on eBay. With the exception of his work, ALL movies are collaborations. Every last one of them. If you’re strictly the writer of the film, you collaborate with the other filmmakers. If you’re strictly the director, same thing. If you’re BOTH, you still collaborate. There’s no getting around it.

“Scorcese I consider an auteur; yet, even though I like to credit TAXI DRIVER entirely to HIM, I CAN'T. The film was as much Paul Schrader's vision as it was Scorcese's (perhaps MORE, as Schrader was destitute when he wrote the first draft - and I suspect that his mood from the situation got injected into the material, whether consciously or not). It is a collaboration; one of the most masterful I've ever seen. (I've never liked Schrader beyond that, btw). “

The film was Schrader wrestling with his very personal demons at the time, turning his private pain into art. Scorsese did a brilliant job directing it, but to call it mainly his vision is a sin.

Donald,

“In my opinion, NOBODY needs to receive possessory credit.”

Precisely.

“If this widespread misapprehension of the creative process weren't institutionalized, methinks writers wouldn't get bent out of shape so much at the mere mention of auteurism. But it costs them money, bargaining power, even social standing (else we wouldn't have the tired old joke about the new-in-town ingenue who was so dumb she thought she could get ahead by sleeping with the writer).”

Precisely, again.

In the distant, removed, and entirely academic world people like Brad live in, none of this shit matters. They don’t make movies, don’t understand much about them, and don’t have to deal with people who do. What he’s not getting is he’s not living in that arid world right now. You simply do not walk into a writer’s home - as this is, essentially - and start bleating about the auteur theory and then whine when you get properly bitch-slapped for being an ignorant SOB.

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Postby Brad Stevens » Fri Apr 06, 2007 4:02 am

Douglas Harrison wrote:
Brad Stevens wrote:It's not a question of whether or not a scene CAN be described in words - it's a question of whether or not that description is at all adequate as an account of the scene's quality. A VERY different point.


Actually, the question of whether or not a scene can be described in words serves as the acid test for your notion that the best scenes are not reducible to an adequate written account. For if no scene can be described in a way that conveys essentially the same information you would receive through viewing it, then it is not possible to apply your approach to determining whether the director is responsible for a given scene.

Now, were you to tell me that some scenes can be adequately described, then I would ask how it is possible to determine what is "adequate" without relying on opinion alone. Because relying on opinion to determine whether or not the director is the author of a given scene sounds like a poor method.

D.


As I said, I believe that the baptism sequence from THE GODFATHER can be described on paper with perfect accuracy, in a way that would convey to anyone who hadn't seen the film all of the scene's essentials. I would also argue that a scene from GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS could be described on paper with perfect accuracy, and that one might actually be better off simply reading Mamet's screenplay. Neither of these claims could be made about any film which achieved genuine greatness.

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Postby Brad Stevens » Fri Apr 06, 2007 4:12 am

"Brad talked about the shot that could not be described, and yet, somewhere down the line, someone had to describe what they wanted to someone else. The director may have told the DP how to shoot it. Or even if he shot it himself, he had to communicate to someone what he wanted in the shot.

If the director says what he wants the shot to look like, and the end result is one that Brad finds himself at a loss to describe fully, it is proof of the auteur theory. But if the WRITER says what he wants the shot to look like, the fact that the image transcends Brad's ability to communicate it, it's proof of.... um.... the auteur theory again. Somehow."

A director, unlike a screenwriter, has to have the ability to think on her feet, to be constantly responding to a fluid situation. It is possible for a film to simply be shot exactly as laid down on paper by a screenwriter, but it would not be possible for that film to have any vitality - at best, you might get the mock-vitality of the Coen brothers. Why do you think that Howard Hawks was one of the first directors to be hailed as an auteur when the theory was first proposed in the 1950s? It's because his films had a vitality which could not have existed had Hawks done nothing except mechanically work from a blueprint.

And this is the reason why the films of Hawks and Renoir and McCarey still seem so alive to us today, so full of life and energy, whereas those films which non-auteurists used to admire - the films of William Wyler, George Stevens and Stanley Kramer - now come across as little more than museum pieces.

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Postby Brad Stevens » Fri Apr 06, 2007 4:15 am

Response to David Loftus:

"Diversion of the argument into a small byway where one may niggle."

White.

"Parroting as a form of disputatious (but contentless) response."

White.

"Resort, once again, to an exception as a method of not addressing the main line of the argument."

WHITE.

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Postby Brad Stevens » Fri Apr 06, 2007 4:32 am

"There’s a guy who used to sell videos of himself masturbating on eBay. With the exception of his work, ALL movies are collaborations."

ALL movies? How about Norman McLaren's? Why choose the most idiotic example possible to bolster your argument?

"The film was Schrader wrestling with his very personal demons at the time, turning his private pain into art. Scorsese did a brilliant job directing it, but to call it mainly his vision is a sin."

TAXI DRIVER seems to me another good example of a director presenting a critique of the assumptions his screenwriter was making. Does anyone watch that film's coda without experiencing a sense of disturbance - a sense that it functions mid-way between irony and incoherence (and thus suggests that Scorsese cannot share Schrader's unambiguous approval of Travis' redemption)? Yet read Schrader's screenplay, and the scene doesn't feel like that at all - indeed, it comes across as the natural climax to the preceding narrative.

"In the distant, removed, and entirely academic world people like Brad live in, none of this shit matters. They don’t make movies, don’t understand much about them, and don’t have to deal with people who do. What he’s not getting is he’s not living in that arid world right now. You simply do not walk into a writer’s home - as this is, essentially - and start bleating about the auteur theory and then whine when you get properly bitch-slapped for being an ignorant SOB."

Though, apparently, Josh has no problem in asserting that all critics (presumably including Walter Benjamin) are, by definition, inferior to all artists (presumably including Harold Robbins). And when somebody who makes their living writing criticism assures Josh that he has no idea what he is talking about, Josh points out that he wrote a few essays in school! It would be hilarious if it wasn't true.

STILL waiting for you to explain which parts of my Abel Ferrara book you thought were hagiographic!

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Postby robochrist » Fri Apr 06, 2007 5:53 am

Josh,

At the risk of masturbating WITH you...

NO.

You made an error with me in our first discussion (glancing at Bunuel, Coppola, and Wiler), and on this one point (bearing in mind, I've agreed with most of your comments here) we obviously disagree.

Given MY context about the medium.

I delineated it before: If I come up with a story, if I develop my script and even storyboard key scenes, if I - I - get the financing, if I control every decision made on what began as my vision and I intend to see to the end as my vision...and I DO so...I AM an auteur - EVEN if at some point in the course of the project I bring YOU on board to work with me. Because, while I may approve or disapprove of ideas you contribute, I may later alter them or discard them or rearrange them according to their compatibility with my own themes (adding to the fact that I'd hired you to begin with BECAUSE you had some ideas compatible with my own). You get your writer's credit. But it's MY film, since you ultimately and by every legal right, have NOTHING to say about my final choices in the material (this is what happened with Steinbeck when Hitchcock brought him in; Hitch took the script home when it was finished and personally rewrote most of the dialogue).

Again, this in MY mind, is a relative issue: the medium is, indeed, inherently collaborative. You don't have to tell me that (knock it off with the condescending tone, incidentally); I therefore give specific context to those few whom I consider auteurs. Those who originate their projects and whose body of work are linked by common themes and a common recognizable style.

Again, I'll say (and, incidentally, Harlan and I agree on this point - although he hates the word auteur and I'll basically give him that) I make these distinctions between the likes of Scorcese, Hitchcock, Bunuel, Wilder, Lang, Kubrick, Eisenstein, Fellini, Kurosawa, Coppola, and so on and 90% of the hired hands among those asshole colleagues of yours cranking out shit that breaks every scale made in decades past.

Having made my late night rant, while you've contributed many constructive comments here, on this point of preference in the rhetoric we absolutely part: If I get my own project going, and later I bring you in on it for a time, you'll get your writer's credit...but it's still MY film. Hey - if I'm the one bankrolling this thing (or through my own company) - you fucking BET I'm gonna call it a film BY Robo! And if YOU had something to say about it under such conditions I'd tell you flake off. In this relative context, that to me is what defines the role of a film auteur. The guy who tells YOU to flake off.

(Before closing, a quickie about the printed page versus the language of film: often you CAN'T capture the power of a scene on paper as you see it on film because the two forms are radically different; as Kubrick said once, ideally, a script should be a lousy read because it's just a blueprint. The organic nature of how scenes evolve goes on where the printed page stops. In turn, the experience of the printed page at its best cannot be captured on film: my mind goes back to a post of Steve's in the Pavilion about Harlan's words in the original script version of CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER. The incredibly imagery of those words evoked feelings I NEVER felt while viewing the episode; it was a subjective power that, at its optimal, belonged in HIS medium. Likewise, I could say Puzo's novel THE GODFATHER did utterly NOTHING for me compared to the visual/structural passages of the film; ITS optimal subjective power worked best in the LATTER medium. You use the right language for the right medium or you lose half the playing field in doing the material proper justice. To me, they really AREN'T interchangeable; something will get lost in the translation going ONE way or the other. The trick is to know which material fits best in which medium. I'm apprehensive about WATCHMEN being adapted; unless it's a miniseries, I almost guarantee what made it great will be completely gone in the compressed format of a theatrical release)

A final example of the way in which I'm defining a film auteur (it's so late, I don't know what I'm typing anymore): Harlan once brought up the subject of King's THE SHINING. Well, the movie was KUBRICK'S The Shining, not King's. That is, it was the director's voice and version and interpretation of the material. Even though the director brought in many to contribute to the work, he was the one who organized the ideas, strung together the themes that meant something to him personally, and presented an almost subliminal story that the novel itself could never capture (as was pathetically, laughably, and condescendingly attempted by King himself in that shitty tv movie version a few years ago).

So, there's your auteur, Josh.

Masturbate away. In fact, set up a camera with a shutter release and upload jpegs. I'd say it's the kinda hit you NEED at this point.

NOW...I'm gonna crash! If I realized I just said something I shouldn't have in this semi-coma state, I guess I'll know tomorrow.


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