Somebody Stole All Our Auteurs

Jamie Garwood

Talking Pictures alias






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In the programme notes for the NFT last year, Paul Julian Smith ended his notes on the Pedro Almodovar retrospective with the following:
 ‘Bad Education promises to be yet another new departure for a man who some would argue is 
 the last fully-fledged auteur in European film.’
My question or confusion does not arise from European film notion, some of the best work in Europe still comes from those fully established - Almodovar, Medem, Von Trier, Haneke.  And into the mix you can tow the British contingent of Leigh, Loach and Hodges.  It seems the Eastern side of the Atlantic does not have a problem with the idea of the auteur and is still willing to nurture an auteur’s talent (Godard is still producing films) and it is not smirked at.

It is the other side of the pond where the auteur theory was originated by Andrew Sarris who labelled directors at various junctures.  America is suffering from a lack of directors who are happy making what they want to and that which is personal to them.  For some being personal or even political in content means you are labelling yourself independent from the mainstream.  The problem comes when that director has a successful film, and then becomes entrusted with a bigger production with a bigger budget and bigger expectation than his sleeper hit did.  Mark Steven Johnson went from Simon Birch to Daredevil, even though he adapted both stories the level of expectation attached to the Marvel film led to the final result being underwhelming.

Some directors enjoy this gradual rise of cinematic flair, the Coens got better, slower got bigger but were continually appreciated and lauded by critics and fans alike until Intolerable Cruelty.  This was the first film they did not write from treatment to screen.  The reaction was mixed but the box office was their best ever, a mixture of their own fan base plus the bonus of George Clooney being smooth and Catherine Zeta-Jones pouting and all in a comedy.  So what was next for the brothers?  Small town, big ideas, a familiar cast.  No they remade a British comedy classic, with Tom Hanks demanding ‘waffles forthwith’.  Has the slide started or is it happening because their films are high in expectation and so looked forward to?

Tarantino is lucky, he had a six-year hiatus to hide the fact that he steals from any random film he likes.  But can Tarantino be considered an auteur, if nothing is personal in his facsimile films?

Some good directors have come and gone without notice - Cronenberg Spider, Minghella Cold Mountain, Crowe Vanilla Sky and Soderbergh’s last film sandwiched between the Ocean’s films was Full Frontal, a barely seen film that returned him to his indie roots which people hated.  This shaky-cam, convoluted film-within-a-film-within-a-film narrative was not what was expected of an Academy Award winner.

Other directors seem more concerned by other motives.  Scorcese seems hellbent on winning an Oscar, Spielberg is quietly consistent though nowadays not original, Zemeckis seems obsessed by pushing the limits of technology in cinema and the same for Cameron James who has stuck to IMAX cinema since he was ‘King of the World’.

These are all established names, and their names can sell tickets.  Even without Cruise, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds would have broken $100m on its opening weekend.  But where is the new blood coming from, they are either snapped up too quickly, are broken too soon or are overshadowed by the size of their project.

Bryan Singer went from Apt Pupil to X-Men and its sequel, now instead of doing what Burton did and get out of the comic book corner and still pursuing films that adhere to his style and persona, he remains there with him penning his name to the new ‘Superman’ film.  Darren Aronofsky after Requiem for a Dream was all set for Batman Begins, which fell through and he’s stuck looking for projects, his replacement Christopher Nolan is only in his fourth feature, one more than would have been Aronofsky’s haul.  There are of course those who are the doyens of the blockbuster; Emmerich, Sommers and Bay.

Ang Lee who deals with themes of family upheaval, identity and seeking to belong brought all of these to Hulk after working on The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but instead of bringing the life and verve of  Tiger, Dragon to his comic-book film he turned it into an extended session on the sofa.

But has the auteur been replaced by a new type of auteur: the writer-auteur.  Charlie Kauffman, the offbeat, quirky scribe of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation which dealt with the society need to be close to celebrity goes and writes a screenplay that is personal and good-forbid romantic in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  His work appeals to the mainstream while at the same time not.

And what about the women for that matter.  Of course you have Sofia Coppola, who got a head start on a lot of them with the family business.  Kathryn Bigelow unfortunately suffered from the critical mauling of K-19 and has not done anything since.  Where are the young woman coming from?  Again we must come full circle and turn to Europe - Lynne Ramsay, Catherine Breillart for instance.
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