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.

Show Hide image

Here I Am marks a departure from Jonathan Safran Foer's usual style

Safran Foer is as known for his character as for his works. What a shame, when Here I Am is such a mature, multilayered novel.

Why is it that some novelists attract a certain kind of fame? They are marked out from the crowd as representative of something (it hardly matters what that something is) and examined and analysed and discussed. Generally, writers make poor fodder for gossip columns, but, on occasion, that is where they find themselves, and it can be all too easy to forget why we cared about them in the first place.

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those writers. Since his debut, Everything Is Illuminated, published 14 years ago when he was 25, his person has been as much an object of  scrutiny as his books. Which is a shame, as the books are remarkable in their own right. They haven’t always succeeded completely (his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is sabotaged by its mannered intellectual fireworks), but then very good novelists need to fail if, finally, they are to become great novelists. In 2010, through the London-based Visual Editions, Foer (who has a fascination with the collage artist Joseph Cornell) published Tree of Codes, a wonderful book that cut out pieces of text from Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create both a new text and a work of art. He has ranged beyond fiction, too, producing Eating Animals – about how we decide what we eat and the moral underpinnings of those choices – and, with Nathan Englander, a New American Haggadah. Here I Am, his first novel in 11 years, may not be the work that converts the sceptics, but it is terrific.

Its opening might lead the reader to believe that Foer is setting off on the path of dystopian fiction: but that’s not the way this story goes. “When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home.” Perhaps it’s not quite as eye-popping as Anthony Burgess’s opener to Earthly Powers – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me” – but it is arresting nonetheless. And while the political landscape of the Middle East has a role to play, that is not the true focus of Here I Am. Instead, Foer shifts quickly to Isaac Bloch’s grandson Jacob, who is a writer, and his wife, Julia, an architect. It is the distillation and dissolution of their marriage, the way they think about it, the effect this has on their three sons, Sam, Max and Benjy, which are the heart of the book.

As for the destruction of Israel, Foer gets to that about halfway through this long narrative. The über-manly Tamir, a cousin of Jacob’s, lives there but comes to visit Jacob and his family in the United States. While he is staying, a huge earthquake strikes Israel; the destruction caused by the quake provokes war in the Middle East. Watching the horror on television, Tamir says to Jacob: “You need to come home.” But Jacob thinks he is home – in Washington, where he lives. To Tamir, “home” for Jews, however secular, must always be Israel. The war forces Jacob to test this proposition against his personal beliefs.

Foer juxtaposes news bulletins of start­ling drama – as when “Israel declares war ‘against all of those seeking to destroy the Jewish state’” – with Jacob’s navel-gazing anxiety over the role he ought to play in that war. Jacob insists to Tamir that the earthquake is a geological, not a political catastrophe. “Nothing is not political,” Tamir replies, quite correctly. Jacob’s solipsism is annoying, but surely that’s the point. His quest is to understand where he belongs – in what family, in which set of people – and whether any of those ideas has any meaning in the abstract, or whether it is only the details of each individual relationship which finally make up a life.

In his previous novels, Foer poured his energy into language, his characters serving his powers of creation rather than the other way round. This time Foer – coming up to 40, a father-of-two, now separated from his own wife – has shifted his focus to a hyperreal observation of the minutiae of family life which is truthful and often heartbreaking. The pleasure of Here I Am lies in being allowed to see what is usually invisible, the tiny moments of life that go unremarked upon because they are unremarkable. At Jacob and Julia’s wedding, Jacob’s mother had wished for the couple to know each other “in sickness and in sickness”. Life is not spectacular; there is only wonder in the ordinary. “Don’t seek or expect miracles,” she told them. “There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it.”

Foer expresses that presence by demonstrating that the smallest moments have significance, if the person experiencing that moment is truly present. Along the way, he builds something that is both structurally bold and emotionally complex – and often extremely funny (Sam’s discovery of masturbation leaves Portnoy in the dust).

“Here I am,” says Abraham to God before God asks for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. “I’m ready,” says Jacob at the very end of this mature novel: simple words to express a multilayered and satisfying journey. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood