Is the auteur a dying breed?

Posted by · 11:13 am · July 3rd, 2009

Lars von TrierBy far the boldest, baldest expression of auteur identity I’ve seen in recent times came in the opening credits of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist.” It’s a sequence that consists of precisely two emphatically scrawled title cards — “Lars von Trier” and “Antichrist” — in that order. No actors, no production credits, no “a film by,” nothing. Lars von Trier. Antichrist.

It’s an insistent, slightly tongue-in-cheek declaration of full creative ownership — the film that follows is entirely the product of his own imagination, and all other collaborators are merely at the service of his vision. It may strike some as an arrogant, even hostile, approach, but it drives home the point that he’s one of the few contemporary filmmakers who can legitimately claim the title “auteur” — the term coined by New Wave doyen Francois Truffaut to assert the rise of directorial control in a previously producer-centered artform.

How many directors in the current film lanscape can boast that kind of brand-name power? It’s a question raised by critic Kaleem Aftap in an interesting — and highly debatable — piece in today’s Independent, in which he argues that, in America at least, the notion of auteurism is on the way out:

Films directed by Truffaut himself, Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola (used to be) must-see events. At its height, the draw of the auteur was such that films by the Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni would regularly appear in the top 25 box-office hits of the year. The right director’s name on a poster was enough to sell tickets and what the directors would do next was something to be genuinely excited about. Now barely any film is sold on the director’s name alone.

He continues:

Tarantino is possibly the only American director working today who can open a movie on name alone. Even his cachet has dropped a little with the failure of Grindhouse; no wonder Brad Pitt has been drafted in to get Inglourious Basterds off the ground. It’s a back-up strategy that Scorsese has been using ever since he helped to establish Robert De Niro as box-office dynamite. More recently, Scorsese has called on Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio to get bums on seats. In the same way, Michael Mann cast Tom Cruise in Collateral and now Johnny Depp in Public Enemies, and when he adapted Miami Vice for the big screen, the Oscar- winning Jamie Foxx was called up to support Colin Farrell. It’s a clear sign that across the industry, no studio believes that a director alone can open a movie. Producers are increasingly hedging their bets to minimise their exposure to risk and unsustainable financial losses.

Now there are more than a few holes in Aftab’s argument. For starters, major auteurs have always had a relationship with major stars to some extent — that’s an key part of the power they wield. (One only need look back to how Kubrick subversively manipulated Ryan O’Neal’s macho star persona to convey the emotional remove of “Barry Lyndon” to see how stars and auteurs can be mutually beneficial.)

Moreover, his assertions take us into chicken-and-egg territory of a sort — yes, the all-star cast was integral to the success of “The Departed,” but would Nicholson, DiCaprio, Damon et al have congregated without the auteur allure of Scorsese?

But while I take issue with some of his points, I must agree that, of the filmmaking generations that succeed the Spielbergs and Scorseses, only Tarantino exerts that kind of universal ubiquity — the kind of name that would at least be recognized by non-cinephile teenagers and pensioners alike. And as much as film lovers like us label Paul Thomas Anderson or Michael Mann leading auteurs, the truth is that those names mean little or nothing to the man in the street. (By that token, Tyler Perry has more auteur heft — at least within a very specific demographic.)

Is it an entirely bad thing? Similar to the notion of great ensemble playing, there’s much to be said for films that represent a satisfying synthesis of collaborative talent — a Stephen Frears is no less admirable for his unassertive, versatile directorial aesthetic. And there are still any number of still-vital auteurs — from Pedro Almodovar to Mike Leigh to Todd Haynes — whose films are immediately identifiable as theirs from a hundred paces.

If we’re in an age where their names aren’t quite enough to sell a film to general audiences — and yes, we seem to be long way from the days when a film’s poster could simply proclaim “Cruise Kidman Kubrick” — then that’s the failing (or, dare I say it, the dumbening) of contemporary audiences, not the filmmakers.

Read the rest here.

→ 29 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

29 responses so far

  • 1 7-03-2009 at 11:59 am

    Mark Kratina said...

    Add Robert Redford to the list of directors who could probably sell a film by just his name- I’m pretty sure he had final cut say as well.

    Now…………… probably not.

  • 2 7-03-2009 at 12:05 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Really? Redord’s name sure didn’t do much for “The Milagro Beanfield War.”

    As for now, yeah, “Lions for Lambs” speaks for itself.

  • 3 7-03-2009 at 12:16 pm

    red_wine said...

    I would never call Scorsese an auteur, sure his films have a certain style, but for me(and many other people) writing your own movies is extremely important, it has to be a personal expression. That does leave Hitchcock in a grey area, but I could recognize a Hitchcock film only by looking at the actress’s costume. Besides, for me atleast, Scorsese’s output this decade has been sub-par.

    I would say PTA is the greatest auteur working today along with the others you mentioned. But what with the general trend towards a ever-widening cleft between critics and audiences(Transformers 2 being the most stinging example), auteurs opening movies on their own is something we might never see again. I know Up & Star Trek were both critical as well as commercial hits, but the appetite for critically-acclaimed auteurish dramas would be considerably lesser than critically-acclaimed blockbusters.

    Allen was great once but his movies today are woeful compared to the late 70’s and the 80’s.

    There are still some auteurs today, Wai, Hou, etc but they can only thrive on critical acclaim and approval from film lovers of a more serious disposition.

  • 4 7-03-2009 at 12:19 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    A similar argument is made about the death of the movie star. Will Smith aside, are they really worth the $20 mil they demand anymore. And the reason that star and director names aren’t what they used to be is simple to me. Sequels, remakes, adaptations.

    Moviegoers have always gravitated towards what’s familiar and what’s comfortable. Anything with a built in fanbase. Used to be that the only thing providing that familiarity was the actor or director involved. Yes, there have been sequels for decades but not like today. And TV remakes, reboots, video game adaptations etc. There’s dozens of ways for audiences to feel comfortable with the choice of spending $10 and actors and directors are merely one of them.

  • 5 7-03-2009 at 12:20 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I don’t think you need to write your own films to be considered an auteur. Can anyone deny that every frame of every Michael Bay film isn’t definitively stamped with his signature and voice?

  • 6 7-03-2009 at 12:21 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Red_Wine: Scorsese actually has co-writing credit on a couple of his films. But the definition of an auteur is, as you say, nebulous. It’s certainly not as simple as: writer-director = auteur.

  • 7 7-03-2009 at 12:22 pm

    James D. said...

    Clint Eastwood, perhaps?

  • 8 7-03-2009 at 12:22 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I believe the advent of the summer blockbuster more or less killed the auteur. People became less interested in story or style and more interested in more of the same every year (hell, every weekend) during summer. Popular cinema simply changed and for some reason people also developed an unhealthy aversion against foreign subtitled films, or is this something that has always been a barrier?

  • 9 7-03-2009 at 12:23 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    As much as I admire Clint, I wouldn’t see him as an auteur. He’s simply an extremely versatile director.

  • 10 7-03-2009 at 12:38 pm

    red_wine said...

    Guy: Yes I know writer-director isn’t auteur. But it does take away from it. Scorsese is a more like a director-for-hire, he does have some pet projects but he doesn’t originate the idea on all of his projects. An auteur(the director as an artist like author or painter), I would like to believe, wants to say/express something or present a certain idea before his audience. And off late, he’s been doing pretty regular stuff, nothing wrong with it though.

    James: Eastwood is perhaps the other American director who has touched greatness this decade besides PTA. Baring perhaps his last 2 films, he has become a really gentle, sober director of dramas dealing with very human concerns. Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima(both of which I love) have demonstrated this quality.

  • 11 7-03-2009 at 12:42 pm

    James D. said...

    I don’t like Eastwood, but I think he fits the build.

    Sorry, but PTA doesn’t cut it when you consider box office. I run to all of his films, but I am not representative of the majority by any stretch.

  • 12 7-03-2009 at 1:41 pm

    Billyboy said...

    Woody Allen is one of the greatest american auteurs par excellence.

    You experience his style since the opening credits. He writes and shoots whatever he feels like doing– from screwball comedies, to moral thrillers, to German expressionist parodies, etc.

    His name doesn’t sell in America -actually they try their best to avoid it- but in the rest of the world (specially Europe and South America) its still an event to catch the latest “Woody Allen film”

  • 13 7-03-2009 at 1:51 pm

    James D. said...

    True Billyboy, but in his seventies now, he fits the term “dying breed”. Time is coming where it is very difficult to tell a director. None of the Best Pictures nominees this year seemed to have any flair, even Milk. The five directors all could have made those movies.

  • 14 7-03-2009 at 2:04 pm

    Kyle Leaman said...

    “If we’re in an age where their names aren’t quite enough to sell a film to general audiences — then that’s the failing (or, dare I say it, the dumbening) of contemporary audiences, not the filmmakers.”

    So because people don’t make blockbusters out of Lars Von Triers (and the other autuers like him) films, the audiences are dumbening? Its that what you are meaning to say?

  • 15 7-03-2009 at 2:12 pm

    Patryk said...

    Darren Aronofsky.

  • 16 7-03-2009 at 2:24 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Interesting discussion. I think Fincher has to be added to the list, looking at a few minutes of his film you can 100% tell it is him.

    I may even add del Toro but lately you can tell his films by the characters and detail not as much the style.

    I do think Tarantino is def still an aueter today.

    Bay is definetly an auteur, sad but true.

  • 17 7-03-2009 at 2:35 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    @ Guy:

    Do you think Milagro even gets made if Redford isn’t attached to it? The man won Best Director on his first film, directed two classic American films in A River Runs Through It and Quiz Show within two years of each other.

    By the time The Horse Whisperer came out in 1998, he was one of a handful of directors who had final cut say on his films.

    Bagger Vance, unfortunately, dragged his stock down a bit. Lions for Lambs had disaster written all over it: Tom Cruise, more Iraq war narrative, and the fact that he hadn’t directed in 7 years.

    Redford belongs with the big boys, though, there is no doubt in my mind.

  • 18 7-03-2009 at 3:08 pm

    RichardA said...

    Stil Whitman is still alive…I hope he makes a movie soon, though.

  • 19 7-03-2009 at 3:14 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kyle: Von Trier isn’t the best example, since a number of his films are overtly audience-aggressive. But yeah, I think mass audiences — not to mention distributors — are getting less adventurous by the year.

    I mean, as the article says, Antonioni films actually generated significant box-office returns in the 1960s. Is there any remote equivalent to such a situation today?

    It may be a snobbish perspective, but I’m afraid that’s where I stand.

  • 20 7-03-2009 at 3:20 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Guillermo Del Toro?

  • 21 7-03-2009 at 5:13 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Woody Allen for sure, and Socrsese — my God look at the manner in which he made “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” his own, and remade “The Departed” with his own personal style, thereby making it his own — PT Anderson is the hope of the future — a brilliant director who astounding vision — I quite like Sofia Coppola as well, her gentle cinematic poetry is infectious — the last great era of the director was the seventies, and though we have many fine directors working right now, things are not what they once were — Eastwood? Maybe, as much as I like his work, I am on the fence with that one — Spielberg’s films make money but should that count him out? Over the last fifteen years I can think of no other American director who has taken the risks he has with his art. Todd Haynes? Aronofsky? Wes Anderson? Alexander Payne?

  • 22 7-03-2009 at 5:14 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Sorry…Scorsese…how dare I…

  • 23 7-03-2009 at 11:38 pm

    Dan said...

    There are really very few directors who can get people in theaters by their name alone, no matter the material, without the help of reviews or actors. Very few:

    Steven Spielberg
    Peter Jackson
    Tim Burton
    James Cameron

    That’s it. And I think it’s safe to call the first three of these ‘auteurs.’

  • 24 7-04-2009 at 1:43 am

    Glenn said...

    I always pine for days when movies could be advertises as “THE LATEST MASTERPIECE FROM INGMAR BERGMAN” or something instead of the nondescript advertising they do now.

    But, you are right. Movies aren’t sold on directors. They’re sold on actors a lot of the time, which is bad since actors don’t sell movies apart from some in the upper hemisphere (Smith etc). No, movies are just like the music business now. People don’t have anywhere near as much brand loyalty anymore (outside of Pixar). By and large, people won’t go see a movie purely because it’s directed by a certain person. They will go if, quite simply, it looks interesting.

    “Eastwood is perhaps the other American director who has touched greatness this decade besides PTA. ”

    That’s ridiculous.

  • 25 7-04-2009 at 3:17 am

    Chris said...

    Auteurs that can sell their films only by their names? Well, as a European I can tell that Woody Allen, and Pedro Almodóvar definitely match that criterium. Others might be Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood and Guy Richie.

  • 26 7-04-2009 at 6:03 am

    Kyle Leaman said...

    “By and large, people won’t go see a movie purely because it’s directed by a certain person. They will go if, quite simply, it looks interesting.”

    Isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we look down on people for going to see “whatever horror/romantic comedy/action film that happens to come out” even if it doesn’t look interesting?

    I see about 100 films a year, but most people only have the time for maybe at most 10-20 a year. When you get to go to the movies once a month or two, why should anyone say, “Well that movie looks really interesting over there, but I have to go see the new Woody Allen movie because he’s an auteur.

  • 27 7-04-2009 at 6:12 am

    Kyle Leaman said...

    Guy, I don’t know about Antonioni and the context of the Italian audiences, but I know that if I only saw 10-20 movies a year (like most of the mass audiences) it most certainly wouldn’t be many of the auteurs on the lists above. As much as I enjoy their movies, I also enjoy a great time at the movies with a good action film, horror, film, comedy film, etc. Sometimes the most interesting film out there may be one by an auteur, but by and large they are difficult to engage and take a lot of work to interact with. As busy and stressful as the lives of “mass audiences” are, I don’t blame them for picking easy escapism.

  • 28 7-04-2009 at 6:45 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kyle: Fair points all round. For the record, Aftab is talking about global box-office with relation to Anonioni, not merely Italian audiences, which is what I find so remarkable.

    As for the escapism argument, I love well-crafted mainstream genre fare too. Any film-lover worth his salt should. But I still think that doesn’t excuse the success of such vapid films as “Transformers” and its ilk.

    James Rocchi summed it up so beautifully recently that I really can’t improve on it: “I can’t shut my brain off and have fun, anymore than I could rip out my tongue and enjoy a meal, because my brain is where I feel fun.”

  • 29 7-05-2009 at 5:30 pm

    Kate said...

    What about Tim Burton?

    I think he is, with Tarantino, the last “auteurs” of american cinema.