Thursday, January 15, 2009

The ultimate collaborative medium

One benefit of watching bad movies: You find inspiration in the darnedest of places.

Monday, as I lay dying with coughs that were trying to rip apart my rib cage, I watched Over Her Dead Body (quite appropriate) in the dead afternoon heat of a Los Angeles indian summer. Because I'm a person of good manners, I usually watch as much of a film's credits as I can stand, and that was true in this case as well.

But the thing I'm about to discuss came right at the beginning of this particular film's credits. As the words started to crawl up the screen in the style we're all accustomed to, I noticed the word "A film by" floating all by itself. Normally you'd see the name of the director underneath those words, but in this case, there were only a few blank spaces and then the word "Cast," followed by the listing of actors. "Oh great," I thought. "This film is incompetent enough that it even forgot to include the director's name. Either that or Alan Smithee directed it."

But then a curious thing happened: The words "A film by" came to rest and stayed put, while the rest of the collaborators continued to scroll by underneath them. So instead of incompetence, it was the ultimate in magnanimity. The director, Jeff Lowell, had presumably withdrawn his right to have it read "A film by Jeff Lowell" in deference to all the other people who had worked on the project with him. (Or, more cynically, he wanted to pull an Alan Smithee and blame the movie on someone other than himself.)

It got me thinking about something I constantly wrestle with when writing about films: how to assign authorship to them. One writer writes a book. One painter paints a picture. One songwriter writes a song -- and if it's Billy Corgan, then he can also sing and play all the instruments. But a film? It requires hundreds, or in the case of Lord of the Rings, thousands of people.

But when you're writing about a movie, it's extremely helpful to have either a single person to congratulate, or a single person to blame. When a person thinks that The Departed is brilliant, he or she tends to give Martin Scorsese a lot more credit than he probably deserves -- especially in that case, where it was actually a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. Same is true of The Happening -- everything ridiculous about that movie had to be the fault of M. Night Shyamalan.

And this is why there's something called the auteur theory, which I'll let wikipedia explain better than I can if you want to follow the link. While true cineastes would argue that this is subtle and specific notion that applies only to a select few directors, and had a very specific historical place, I'm going to summarize it fairly simply here: It lets us off the hook by saying that for the purposes of criticism, the director is the single author of the films he or she directs.

There's something very funny about this, which is that unless he or she is also the screenwriter, the director usually doesn't do anything that the word "author" would imply he (or she) does. What's really funny is that when you go back to the director's stage origins, his (it was always a "he" back then) primary role was to tell the actors they were saying their lines wrong, and try to convince them of their "motivation" in each scene.

Directors still do that, but we don't think of them that way at all, do we? Yet that's the most basic requirement of the director: literally, to direct the actors.

Except when it comes to Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Oliver Stone, David Lynch -- anyone you can think of who you consider a modern master -- we are much more likely to ascribe them a more abstract role. Namely, we consider them to be the overseers of all the film's content, from its look, to the themes it explores, to its camera angles, and even to its script. In fact, the script is the most easy thing to extricate out and credit to someone else, namely, the screenwriter. But we still say "What Martin Scorsese is trying to say in this scene ..." Really, it's William Monahan, who wrote The Departed, who's saying it. But who even knows who William Monahan is? I may, but that's because I'm a film geek.

It may seem that I am poking holes in the auteur theory, but really, it serves me very well. I'm not sure if it's mere laziness in trying to figure out who I should really credit or blame, or just the constraints of a 300-word review, but I am very comfortable assigning one person with the making or breaking of a film. I'll often mention the screenwriters -- though some films can have upwards of six, and I'd steer clear of those -- and when really relevant, folks like the cinematographer, the makeup artist or the set designer. But even on these occasions, it can be hard to definitively credit the right person. If a shot looks really good, can I be sure I should credit the DP (director of photography), or should I be crediting the director for telling him to shoot from that angle? If the sets look really nice, is it the vision of the set designer, or is the set designer merely interpreting the director's vision?

I don't have a simple answer to this mess. I will say that my favorite films to review are the ones where the director was also the screenwriter -- and if the producer as well, then even better. Then I become a hell of a lot more confident when I point that finger. (Besides, if you wrote, directed and produced a movie, and it's a massive failure, you have only yourself to blame for not instituting some checks and balances.)

There's one thing that's really interesting about all this. The one time I'm not likely to credit the director for doing something is what he's actually there to do: direct the actors. When Mickey Rourke blows me away in The Wrestler, a hell of a lot of credit should be going to Darren Aronofsky, shouldn't it? I mean, even if Rourke's instincts allowed him to play that part to perfection, it was Aronofsky who picked him out of career obscurity and coaxed out of him a performance that should win him an Oscar. Right? Yet I don't feel confident in crediting Aronofsky there. Maybe that's because I can never tell what percentage of a performance is something that the actor would know to give himself -- and what percentage is because his director told him what his motivation was.

I guess there's no real answer. I will say this -- as long as I've given it my best shot at selecting the right person to credit, I hope the recipients of my praise (or the objects of my scorn) will know enough to share.

Just like Jeff Lowell did.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

For as many people work on a movie, there is always one singular creative vision that guides it. The director, the producer or the studio executives overseeing the film.

In all of the movies you listed, the director is the author. Mickey Rourke is all over talking about how Aronofsky pushed him during the film.

Don Handsome said...

It seems to me that film directors should be given credit because they serve as the boss and presumably have creative control over the processes that drive a film's production. The reputation of a boss should rise or fall based on the way they manage their staff to create a product. Like all bosses there are good ones and bad ones and I think that one calling card of a good boss is his or her ability to give credit where its due. So while I have no problem with directors getting the credit for good movies (or the scorn for failures) I do have a problem when directors act like they are solely responsible. From my outsider vantage point, it appears that the directors I know (or care about as “directors”) are very quick to spread credit and defer to at least the higher profile staff members that helped to create a film: I remember hearing Jonathon Demme talk exultingly about cinematographer Tak Fujimoto listing him as a key to his own success as a film maker; while David Lynch uses his actors as set pieces, he is quick to go to bat for their work (witness the Laura Dern for Best Actress Campaign a couple years ago); Scorsese and Schoonmaker have collaborated as director and editor for about 30 years…etc. My thought is that by recognizing the director, you are recognizing the entire legion of folks who helped create the director’s work. When recognition is doled out by a director, it should be noted and respected. Thus Jeff Lowell’s deference to his entire staff as being responsible for the film is a very nice compliment (although I’m willing to bet that he knew that no one would walk away from that movie saying ‘wow, I really enjoyed Lyle Maves’ Over Her Dead Body’), one that exceeds that most recognition doled out by directors. Still, Mr. Lowell is not yet of the ilk of the directors listed above so his compliment somehow it means less (at least to me…possibly not to Lyle Maves).

As a related side note: I wanted to comment about the Alan Smithee phenomenon. I used to like the idea of Alan Smithee because I think I liked to fill in the story of ‘what happened’ in my imagination. I once thought of Alan Smithee-ing as a maverick move that would be the trade mark of a person with a strong sense of independence. But now (after I’ve had a couple bosses very willing to take credit for work of their staff or us out for ideas that didn’t fly) I resent Alan Smithee. The way I understand the phenomenon is that a director can opt out and not be credited for a film when he or she believes that their creative control of the film has been lost (surely this is over simplifying things). When a director does this, what do all those people who work on the film think of it? The Lyle Maves of the world don’t get to hide their names do they? Can a set plasterer who doesn’t agree with the director’s decisions on plastering remove their name off of a movie (maybe this is a bad question, because the answer is probably “probably”)? Had Aronofsky directed Rourke into acting Randy the Ram in a manner that the actor though to be ineffectual or neutering, could Mickey have used a fake name for his work? Would his face have to be blurred?

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Don...I think the Alan Smithee thing is kind of ridiculous. I think that the general moviegoing public doesn't care and that anyone who's a movie fan or in the industry knows who made the movie.

Also, in my experience the people who work on bad movies are pretty much aware that their movie is bad.

Vancetastic said...

I agree with all of what you both said. However, I'm also in the business of shades of gray, which is why I pose many of the (often rhetorical) questions I pose. Also, you have to think of it a little bit this way -- I'm looking at things strictly as a film critic, or trying to. (That may be my new mission statement -- Learn how a film critic thinks about films!) If I'm seeing The Wrestler before it's been released and haven't heard a thing the relationship between Rourke and Aronofsky -- well maybe that means I had my head in the sand. But assuming not, how do I know who to credit? Logically, there would be a line somewhere. Let's take someone who is indisputably a good actor every time she appears on screen: Meryl Streep. Clearly, Streep has worked with good directors and bad directors, yet her own instincts always make her exceptional. When do you decide to give her director extra credit, and when do you decide to give Streep all the credit? Is it based solely on your own personal biases about a particular director and his/her skill level?

Also, let it not be said that I don't fully subscribe to the auteur theory. I provide examples in my own blog, listing the director's name in parentheses for my "most recently viewed" and "most recently revisited" sections.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

I know that as a critic you want to shut out the business of film and concentrate on the film itself. And while the director is usually the ultimate creative vision on a movie, he or she isn't the only one. HOWEVER, the director is the carpenter that gets to work with all of the great tools to build a film. Yes Meryl Streep is a great actress, but it's the director who is going to forge a relationship with her and guide her in order to help shape his vision. (Yes, I just called Meryl Streep a tool).

Each director works differently, some favor actors some favor action (I'm looking at you Michael Bay). But I think as a critic looking a movie blindly, the director is the one you're talking about.