January 28, 2010

With James Cameron’s Avatar shouldering aside George Lucas’s original Star Wars and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight for second place on the all time movie box office rankings (behind only Cameron’s own Titanic), it’s a good time to note one of the odder twists in the evolution of popular film culture: the rise of the self-proclaimed do-it-all writer-director-producer.

Of the last thirty Best Picture nominees (2003-2008), ten had directors who also took screenwriting credits (including George Clooney for Good Night and Good Luck). And of the top 30 box office hits of all time”€”a list dominated by recent films due to inflation”€”the director has also served double-duty as a screenwriter on 16.

The growing allure of the writer-director extends even to Lucas and Cameron, both of whom seem more intrigued by technological innovation than by fine-tuning dialogue. Lucas is notoriously tin-eared, while Cameron abstains from originality in plot and dialogue to”€”as he explains it”€”avoid confusing the audience.

After triumphing as the sole writer-director on the original Star Wars in 1977, Lucas took a public role for his 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back more like hypomanic producer David O. Selznick’s on 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Lucas handed the screenwriting credits to old-timer Leigh Brackett and young gun Lawrence Kasdan, and the directing credit to Irvin Kershner. Is it surprising that The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the best of the five follow-ups?
Indeed, when Lucas returned in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, he took sole credits for both writing and directing. And it showed.

Still, The Phantom Menace made plenty of money. People like the idea of the embattled genius coming back after 16 years away (or 12 years in Cameron’s case) with his deeply personal revelation. Ironically, a variant of the auteur theory”€”that dauntingly intellectual Parisian rewrite of Hollywood history intended to establish the primacy of the director as the “€œauthor”€ of the film at the expense of the actors, screenwriter, producer, and the rest of the crew”€”is becoming the standard way to make crowd-pleasing popcorn movies. The public adores identifying with megalomaniac filmmakers.

“€œBesides, saying “€œI like John Ford Westerns”€ sounds more sophisticated than saying “€œI like John Wayne Westerns,”€ even though they are more or less the same movies.”€

This is not to say that old time directors such as Howard Hawks never rewrote scripts. They were, though, more reluctant to insist upon a writer’s credit. Back then, directing was seen as a fun, fulfilling, well-paid job that introduced you to lots of beautiful women. Securing your place in artistic history by insisting upon your authorship was less of a priority.

The young French critics, such as Francois Truffaut, who in the 1950s put forward the auteur theory extolling pre-WWII Hollywood directors had pressing career concerns. They wanted to direct, but the French film industry was then dominated by screenwriters. Moreover, the older generation of French intellectuals, such as Sartre, were pro-Soviet, so the (short-lived) pro-American bias of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd brought them welcome notoriety. (Eventually, General De Gaulle returned to power and gave them the money to make their New Wave movies.)

This Parisian innovation of organizing Hollywood history around directors caught on in film schools and in Hollywood, where the auteur theory was less adopted than adapted. Insiders know perfectly well that no matter how talented the director, a film can”€™t get started until somebody does the typing, and that a film can”€™t get made until somebody arranges the financing. Hence, the trend has been less for the director to gain at the expense of writers and producers than for individual men (and they are almost always men) to try to take on at least part of all the major behind-the-scenes roles so as to fully stamp their authorship on films.

I noticed its advantages in 1984, when I tried to explain to friends that I was looking forward to the upcoming baseball movie The Natural because its cinematographer Caleb Deschanel had done outstanding work on Black Stallion and The Right Stuff. I soon learned, though, that virtually nobody could keep track of anybody besides stars and directors. Describing The Natural to casual movie fans as “€œa Robert Redford movie”€ or to intense fans as “€œa Barry Levinson movie (you know, the guy who did Diner?)”€ worked, while references to cinematographers just led to blank expressions all around. Tracking anybody beyond stars and directors was just too much to keep in mind.

Besides, saying “€œI like John Ford Westerns”€ sounds more sophisticated than saying “€œI like John Wayne Westerns,”€ even though they are more or less the same movies.
The auteur theory is popular because it is less scholarly than it is Romantic, an aid to hero-worship. It personalizes the vastly complicated business of making movies into one man’s struggle for self-expression. In this way, it’s similar to the 1960s and 1970s Cult of Authenticity that worshipped Baby Boom singer-songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, for writing their own material.

Sure, the 1956 version of I”€™ve Got You Under My Skin is a finer piece of popular art than any Neil Young recording, but exactly which middle-aged pro’s work of art is it? Singer Frank Sinatra’s? Songwriter Cole Porter’s? Arranger Nelson Riddle’s? In contrast, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush (“€œFlying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun”€) is lousier on every objective dimension, but Baby Boomers loved it because you can be sure that, whatever it means, Neil really meant it.

And, sure, nobody much cared about Lucas’s leaden line in The Phantom Menace, “€œThe taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.”€ But at least you knew George cared about it.


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