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 The director, Jeff Lowell, had presumably withdrawn his right to have it read "A film by Jeff Lowell" in deference to all the other people who had worked on the project with him.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.