Repetitive strain

"Auteurs" are now marketed by major studios, but do they do more than repeat themselves?


In the wake of Michael Haneke joining that exclusive group of directors who have twice been awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or prize, it may be an odd time to bemoan the lot of the auteur. (Haneke won first for The White Ribbon and on Sunday for Amour.) But beyond the bubble of the international festival circuit, auteur may have dropped in cultural value, even as (or perhaps because) the usefulness of the director as a commodity is now apparent to the major studios. When a blockbuster is sold using a director’s name to evoke familiarity (“From Michael Bay, the guy who ripped you off last summer…”), is it a bastardisation of the auteurist line pushed originally by André Bazin at Revue de Cinéma, or the perfectly logical co-opting of art by commerce? Marketing departments are surely only taking the credo mapped out by auteurist critics, and wringing out every last dollar.

That’s the commercial branch of auteur theory, and it’s one that has been growing ever since Steven Spielberg’s heyday. But some of the places where auteurs were once welcomed have been pulling down the shutters—or perhaps moving the goalposts is a more appropriate metaphor. In the Guardian this week, Hadley Freeman devoted 1000 words to complaining that Wes Anderson and Tim Burton had, with their latest films, been caught repeating themselves. I can’t comment on Burton’s Dark Shadows, which I haven’t seen, but I feel strongly that Anderson has found new vim and inspiration in Moonrise Kingdom. However, it is not Freeman’s specific argument that I found interesting so much as the general tendency to take traits once celebrated as auteurist (a recognisable voice, a continuity of theme, a discernible visual style, a repertory company of actors) and to use them as a stick to beat those auteurs we find lacking.

It’s a thin line between a director who produces a different meal each time from the same set of ingredients, and one who reheats the leftovers. And it’s a danger, I think, that we can mistake consistency for complacency when we can’t quite express what it is about a film that displeases us. Not admiring Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver or Broken Embraces, I concluded that the filmmaker’s familiar conventions must have inhibited him, reducing to the mechanical what had once been sensual. Why didn’t I feel the same way about the director’s latest movie, The Skin I Live In? It could just as easily have been the case that this one was gripping and dramatically persuasive, while the others were not—and that the qualities of the auteur had borne the brunt of my disapproval in the case of the earlier films, while enhancing my enjoyment in the latter example.

Auteur theory has always had its dissenters, be they critics (Pauline Kael: “Just because a director repeats himself, doesn’t make him talented”), screenwriters (William Goldman, upon first being told about auteur theory, asked: “What’s the punchline?”) or directors themselves (Fred Schepisi: “The word ‘auteur’ just denigrates everyone else’s job”). Even some of those who encouraged auteur theory came to harbour reservations, such as Andrew Sarris, who said : “I think it’s gone too fat now. Every director has to show his wild visual style in order to establish himself and blaze a trail immediately.”

The greatest damage was surely done to the careers of those who were not among the cherished favourites of the original auteurist critics. In Sight & Sound in July 1997, Ginette Vincendeau put into perspective the hypocrisy of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, which included future filmmakers such as Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer. She writes:

“While the craft of popular Hollywood filmmaking was celebrated, that of French mainstream directors (as well as scriptwriters) was derided. The politique des auteurs recognised that for Hawks, Hitchcock or Ford it was possible to inscribe personal themes in films produced within ‘the system’—but within the French ‘system’, no such possibility was acknowledged.”

No need to shed any tears, then, for the auteurs or their supporters: only for those left unfairly in the cold. Perhaps auteur theory isn’t a school of thought so much as a shelter in which critics and audiences can seek sanctuary when necessary, while reserving the right to trash the place and spray-paint its walls whenever the mood takes them.












Michael Haneke winning at Cannes

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.