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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era