23 avril 2010

Auteurist v. Cinephile (Dan Sallitt)

Dan Sallitt makes a timely addition to the ongoing debate around "bygone auteurism" : Auteurist backsliding

I couldn't be happier to see root auteurism fighting back and claiming ground. Even defying American positivism to introduce a dose of "negative energy" in the CareBear condition of the PC reviewer! This was all too beautiful to be true.
Unfortunately, by the end of the fifth paragraph, the guilt was too strong, and the American populism in "American auteurism" rushed back to the rescue and burst this introspective examination. If the split personality seems to enjoy a durable osmosis in French auteurists, the American Superego (of intellectual criticism) can never totally overcome the empire of the subjective Id (guilty repressed entertainment)...
Yet, Sallitt still manages to conclude his post with a hopeful kickback from the Superego.

But all this inner conflict is a lot simpler than that. At least from my point of view. A lot of the irreconcilable struggle he faces stems from a displacement of terminology causing artificial tensions that should never exist.

There are three profiles at play here : the auteurist, the filmgoer, and one unnamed (the cinephile).
First, the definition of "auteurist" is slightly overstated. This alone generates most of the pathology observed in the usage of the English word "auteurism". When he says "the auteurist" he means "the cinephile", almost every time. As if "auteurism" was an activity (watching movies) rather than a specific discipline (a school of thought).

"There are as many variations on the auteurist aesthetic as there are auteurists"
Clearly, here he means cinephile, as "auteurism" doesn't preclude any particular aesthetic confession. Auteurists might champion different auteurs, or disagree on who gets called "auteurs"... but it doesn't split the discipline itself (auteur-oriented film studies). Either you're auteurist or you're not. When critics fight over "auteurism" as an aesthetical trophee, they misinterpretate what "author" means. The evaluation of auteurs, is not part of auteurism, it comes from the larger discipline called art criticism. It's the critic in the auteurist who wants to evaluate. The auteurist's role is limited to find the personal stylistic signature. In theory, to the pure auteurist (who is not critic), every auteurs are equal; there is no preferences possible amongst artists who express their genuine inner style. Auteurists could eventually judge the amount of honesty and truth in each auteur's tentative expression... but it would not be an artistic or emotional ranking. If we have a ranking amongst auteurs, it's because critics assessed it, critics well versed in auteurism.
Les Jeunes Turcs were all at once, cinephiles, critics, auteurists, and filmmakers, which explains why a hasty conflation of their deeds might be confusing. What their cinephile side was responsible for in their journalistic oeuvre was not on the same level as what their auteurist, or filmmaker side did. They did certains things out of pure passion (fandom preferences), others for cold theory (critical assessments). This is not a proper "split personality" as much as it is the result of a rich personality acknowledging the fact that the human mind is not one-sided, one-dimensional but operates on several level at the same time, without causing conflicts or the crash of the system. We deal with objective and subjective judgements on daily basis, if only when saying how good the food served was. You can choose to be honest, or to be affable, it won't split your personality. In society you may play-pretend. In criticism, you shall admit which side made the judgement, and qualify that evaluation, whether it was motivated by cinephile love or by examinable analysis.

Bad auteurism creeps in when critics abuse of rhetorics to cover up and self-justify a subjective preference by constructing a seemingly rationalised argumentation.
That's why a fallacious argument in intellectual communities is harder to dispute (and more important to dispute) than the clueless fanboy who will claim a widely-recognised masterpiece is just bad.

"A strong auteurist position is necessarily based on the conviction that the system, though it has money to buy craft and talent and the freedom to deploy them to best effect, is highly likely to produce a mediocre product unless a good director intervenes."
Yes!!! I'm happy to hear this.
There are some who think there is artistic genius in the industrial entertainment business which purpose is to keep producing safe, consensual stories containing stars with predictible audience responses (by repeating successful formulae ad nauseum and abandonning for ever attempts that failed once) ... and there are auteurists. I don't think that by giving artistic credit to "the system" by any stretch of the imagination is going to benefit the great art of cinema. Although that's probably why there is a misunderstanding on what "the system" actually corresponds to, and what cinema is supposed to be. Everybody says cinema is BOTH an art and an industry. This is unquestionable. But there are many ways to watch cinema, and to talk about it. If all you seek in movies is maximum laughters, maximum emotions, maximum entertainment and awe, short of which you'll be bored, it's unlikely you'll ever see "art" in anything you watch, even if you happen to see an art-film. However, if you pretend to seek art in cinema, then popular success, entertainment value, means of production, star system, personal pleasure, whether you find them or not in your individual relation to the film, shouldn't influence in any way your aesthetic appreciation of the artistic merits achieved by the filmmaker. It's not because you're a human like everyone else in the audience, that the movie triggers emotions in you on cue, that you get sucked in on a subjective level, that it is impossible for an auteurist to extract ART and only art in this industry. It takes self-control, critical thinking, experience and practice obviously, but that's why critic is not a job any audience member can do... it takes efforts.

"So, in theory, auteurism is at odds with a general, all-purpose love of movies."
Why? Indeed, auteurism is a discipline of aesthetic studies that doesn't depend on gut-feelings. Love is the realm of cinephiles. Auteurist preferences and cinephiles preferences aren't based on the same criteria. But I don't see why love would interfer with the integrity of an auteurist judgement. You can be both cinephile and auteurist at the same time, in the theatre or when you write an article. Whether what you write comes from your cinephile side or from your intellect is your conscious choice.
You may love your own children and still be severe, demanding, critical with them for educational purpose, for moral guidance, by honesty, or simply out of love. Are you capable to deny a kid's greed for candy, because there are higher purposes than the immediate satisfaction of physical craving? It's not because your gut desires it badly that it's Good for you in absolute terms. This is not a negation of love, this is not a split personality. You just need to make 2 rooms in your brains for the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle, and your psyche will be ambivalent but stable and above all... reasonable.
Auteurists can perfectly indulge unlimited passion for movies, but when it comes down to write about it seriously, it is critical to clearly define whether it's your guts speaking about emotions or your brains speaking about reflection. Can you figure whether the film you're watching only matters to your personal enjoyment or if it bears wider importance to your work? Well, it implies knowing the distinction between autobiography and exegesis...

Sallitt apologetically calls this resistance to the system a "negative energy". This is so full of repressed guilt and disconfort with a challenge to authority. This subjective term already establishes "positivity" as "supporting the system that feeds you". Why would a critic conceive the opposition to a norm in a negative way?
First, there is no need to feel guilty about movie-love, about screen-fascination, about feeling entertained by spectacle. This is only a source of conflict if you feel guilty about this type of pleasure. Film studies never negate or exclude such pleasure as an experiential intake, however film studies discriminate such feelings when used as evidence or arguments. There is no inner conflict of personality between enjoying badly crafted films and enduring complex masterpieces, unless the clash is located in your values (i.e. mismatching satisfaction with aesthetics and vice versa).
Pleasure only inhibits intellectual appreciation if you give it more importance than it deserves, if you allow pleasure to compete with aesthetics on equal level. Again, you may love your wife infinitely more than Albert Einstein, but readily admit that she is not the best nuclear physicist that ever existed. It won't offend anybody. There is no possible competition between objective evaluation and emotional price. Saying a film is enjoyable and saying a film is aesthetically superior are two distinct propositions.
The split personality is only pathological when both sides try to compete on the same level, and alternate at the dominant position of control.

One of the major problem in film culture is people thinking that art and industry are one and the same, are on the same level or are easily interchangeable.

I was quite disturbed to hear Emmanuel Burdeau, rédacteur en chef des Cahiers, declared a few years ago, he didn't consider himself a cinéphile. It was a shock, and it became a revelation the more I thought about it. I thought "cinephile" was the holy Grail, that every filmgoer strived to attain this coveted level of ultimate dedication to cinema. But it kind of makes sense for Burdeau in particular and for critics in general to dissociate their role from the distinct condition of a cinephile. (Well, root cinephilia is a heavy heritage in France... some of the original cinephiles are still alive, and they make sure to remind us that it was a whole different world back then)
It doesn't mean critics don't love films, it doesn't mean critics don't watch as many films as cinéphiles. It's a matter of perception of the act of film watching, and what you personally draw from it.

That's why I like when Sallitt says
"People who are turned off by routine cinema product usually take up a different profession."
This is probably a natural selection that divides film culture early on. The more cinephile-oriented filmgoers turn towards promotion (cinematheque, conservation, programation, distibution, production, or biased reviewing). The less cinephiles turn toward (Academe or objective criticism).

15 commentaires:

Dan Sallitt a dit…

HarryTuttle: thanks for the attention! My feeling is that auteurism in practice was more than mere director studies - which have been around since the beginning of film criticism, after all. The new film movements in the 50s and 60s were at least partly based on a new aesthetic, inspired by (but not identical to) Bazin's ideas.

I didn't mean to sound too apologetic about negative energy. Ideally our love of film remains in charge; but we need to be a little rebellious if we want to have original thoughts.

I am not personally too tormented by divisions in my personality - but then I have a strong superego that ruthlessly suppresses pleasures I can't justify. "It was cold-blooded murder, but I can live with it," as Tom Doniphan said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well, gravity existed before Newton too...
All depends when you date the birth of film criticism.
The "7th art" wasn't widely recognized, academically acceptable only decades after 1895.
The artistic genius of silent cinema was not discovered and theorized at the time of the films' premières.
Méliès, Keaton, Chaplin, Griffith, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Kurosawa... might have had enough popular success to be allowed to continue making more films by the industry, but were not singled out from the crowd of commercial directors of their time.

In pictorial art, there wouldn't be a reviewer writing about a painting without calling the painter an artist. Cinema is different precisely because there is no consensus about the art status of films (even today!). That's why art critics writing about cinema are called "auteurists". The standard "reviewers" are a whole different bunch.

This split personality is not particular to you. I've seen this everywhere. Journalists, writers, academics, TV anchors, average joe... This fusion of reason and guts is so pervasive in American culture in general. I guess that's not something you can see when you bath in it.

Dan Sallitt a dit…

But directors were singled out as artists long before Cahiers. Chaplin, Griffith, Stroheim, Eisenstein, Lubitsch, and many others received career analysis by earlier film scholars. If you call that writing “auteurism,” then you need a new name for the distinctive post-Bazin school of thought that blossomed in the 50s and 60s.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Long before 1950?? Many?? By who?
Cinema didn't have art critics at that point because it was not recognized as an art equivalent to Theatre or Literature. Canudo, Delluc tried, but it was a minority, and it took a long time before their contemporaries accepted that new norm.

When we define auterism today, with 20/20 hindsight, it doesn't matter if Cahiers was the origin or not. Truffaut doesn't hold the exclusive patent. What matters is that there was a Before and an After "Cinema as a one-artist Art". There is no auteurism and "neo-auteurism" or "second generation auteurism". Either it was an auteurist career assessment, or it wasn't (a filmography compilation by the same director).

Dan Sallitt a dit…

Film writers had embraced the idea of film as art well before 1950. (I mean, Arnheim's famous Film as Art was written in 1931.) The 20s and 30s saw the rise of many influential schools of thought about film art: Eisensteinian theory, Pure Cinema/French avant-garde/Slavko Vorkapitch, the Grierson/Rotha British documentary school. Many of these ideas still have power today (perhaps not the documentary ideal, which may have been permanently corroded by literary criticism); and Bazin's importance, if not his value, is largely due to his opposition to these theories and his creation of a new model for film as art.

HarryTuttle a dit…

OK. Film theory defining cinema ontologically is not auteurism, film theory about an aesthetic movement is not auteurism, film theory defining a film genre is not auteurism. Why would any of these be called "auteurism"? I didn't say "film theory" didn't exist before 1950.
The "film as Art" is the necessary condition to proceed towards anything like auteurism, but it is not enough alone.
Auteur-centric film studies of an œuvre is a different discipline.

Videogames aren't an art yet (if ever) because they are considered like a commercial entertainment product only, like cinema at its origin. People who want to make them an art didn't win over the intellectual community yet, like cinema in the silent era. That's why it's impossible to talk about videogame auteurism, so far. The pre-condition hasn't been met. But it doesn't stop critics from trying, and since it's not an art, nobody takes them seriously. No Art : no artists : no auteurs : no auteurists.

Bazin and Truffaut opposed each-others too. Being auteurist doesn't mean being either Hitchcockian or Hawksian, or Hitchcocko-Hawksian... it doesn't depend on which directors they picked, if they are in the pantheon approved by Bazin, or by les Jeunes Turcs, if they are working in Hollywood or in "Festival films".

Auteur-centric film studies is auteur-centric film studies. Plainly and simply.

In the 50ies, Cahiers attached an exclusive list to auteurism, Positif attached another list, Sarris attached another list... but it's not about who your favourite directors are, or who you think are the best.

Today we don't define auteurism from anybody's favourites list, but from the common objective modus-operandi all these guys used (appropriately so). Well that's my perception at least.

Dan Sallitt a dit…

Well, I would take Positif out, at least!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Positif is not auteurist enough to you?

Dan Sallitt a dit…

They were the loudest anti-Cahiers voice, and some of them are still fighting that war. But it all depends on one's definition of auteurism...

HarryTuttle a dit…

But anti-Cahiers doesn't mean anti-auteurs. It was Kurosawa v. Mizoguchi... clearly there is no loser there auteur-wise.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Didn't you say in your last blog post you wanted to rehabilitate Duvivier and Gremillon, against Truffaut's article? You consider that revival anti-auteurist because it's anti-Cahiers?

Dan Sallitt a dit…

Just for the record, it was Clouzot and Gremillon: I haven't yet signed on to the Duvivier rehabilitation program. And that's exactly the subject I was discussing in that post. I think of auteurism as a group of affiliated, historically specific, canon-making movements: the politique, Sarris/Archer auteur theory, Robin Wood's Leavis-inspired work, Movie magazine in the UK. Tastes and distastes differ both within these movements and among them; but they share some underlying philosophical ideas, and the heroes and villains of the movements line up moderately well. If my tastes start to deviate too wildly from these consensus positions, then it's a good idea for me to think about whether I've begun to work from a different aesthetic. Of course, canon-making is no means an exact science, and I'm not ready to turn in my auteurist card because of a few aberrant tastes.

HarryTuttle a dit…

OK. It's your interpretation. Do as you please.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Elisa Pezzotta : "A new, ‘specialized’ critique was born. At its basis there was film analysis meant as a discussion of the mise-en-scène, of the stylistic and thematic patterns which cross an auteur’s body of work. Cinematographic techniques were emphasized above subject matter.
There are several scholars who claim that the first film analyses were carried out by the Young Turks. For example, Jaques Aumont and Michel Marie argue that the politique des auteurs, which was centred on film analysis, offered a new method of interpretation (1996). And both Raymond Bellour and Roger Odin cite Truffaut’s essay ‘Un trousseau de fausses clefs’ (1954) about Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock 1943) as one of the first examples of film analysis (Bellour 1984; Odin 1988). Similarly, David Bordwell claims: “The Cahiers critics were among the first to undertake quasi-literary interpretations of film style - by no means a common practice before the 1950s” (1997).
Through the attention paid at style, the new method of film analysis inaugurated by the Young Turks can be considered at the base not only of a lot of subsequent methods of analysis, but also of close analysis." (Film Analysis: A Comparison Among Criticism, Interpretation and Close Analysis; Wide Screen; June 2010)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Mike Grost (26 Sept 2006) : "No one in the Partisan Review tradition ever embraced auteurist concepts. There were no book length director studies, no detailed lists of great directors of the kind found in French film magazines in the 1950's, Movie Magazine in Britain, Andrew Sarris' "The American Cinema" or Roud's dictionary. As far as I know, no auteurist writer was ever sponsored by the Partisan Reviewers in their magazines, or heavily endorsed in their book reviews. The auteurist interest in visual style and film form was largely not discussed in the works of the Partisan Review tradition.
In other words, for Americans whose view of culture centered around reading the Partisan Review school writers, auteurist ideas, and writings hardly existed. They were marginalized and invisible. To date, many educated, "intellectual" Americans have no idea what camera movement is, and they have never seen a film history that discusses Edgar G. Ulmer or Kenji Mizoguchi."