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What is Auteur Theory? Auteurs and Flying Pirate Ships

Who caught J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 this summer? It’s a well-paced blockbuster with just the right touch of nostalgia. In addition to recalling the days of The Goonies, Super 8 evokes some of my own childhood memories, not the least of which involves a younger me akin to Charles Kaznyk. Charles is an aspiring filmmaker, a big boy with bigger ideas, ever ready to put himself and his amateur crew on the line for that perfect shot. His dedication to his craft is inspiring; he’s even willing to sacrifice his best friend’s prized model train to simulate an epic train wreck.

I can’t count the number of times that I roped my younger brothers into shooting films with me in Uganda. More numerous still are those instances in which I selflessly directed them through taking hits for the team: “When Owen pours the water out of the buckets, you’ll need to look up, Josh. Up so that it hits you in the face and you’re soaked. It’ll look great. Just trust me.” The degree to which such scenes were ingenious methods of abusing my brothers is open for debate, but regardless, I can relate to Charles’ obsession with story. His integrity of vision is more backbreaking than was my own at his age; a boy no more than thirteen years old already has a handle on visual storytelling, as evidenced by The Case, the full movie that Charles and his friends work on throughout Super 8. It plays during the end credits and is for me the highlight of Abrams’ film.

…“Abrams’ film”. Is Super 8 Abrams’ film? Is The Case Charles’? Is The Annihilator – the first feature I directed growing up, now locked in a vault with similarly embarrassing childhood endeavors, thank God – my own? Or does each film belong to the respective teams that produced it? More specifically, who is “the author” of a movie? Who’s voice and sensibility does the finished product most reflect: the writer’s, the director’s, the cinematographer’s, or someone else’s? Why does it matter?

In the mid-1900s, filmmakers in France broke with the conservative paradigm to produce works that challenged classical conventions of the cinema. Many of these iconoclastic “New Wave” directors – François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette – wrote for the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, where they explored the groundwork of what American film critic Andrew Sarris has termed “the auteur theory”. The auteur theory is almost as slippery a term as mise-en-scène, but for the most part, critics agree that it holds the director as the primary author of a film. According to the auteur theory, then, the director’s personal creative vision is what most shapes the finished product. “The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualized as three concentric circles,” Sarris writes in 1962’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory”. “The outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur.”

Surely, films of the New Wave reflect their directors’ respective sensibilities, just as many films of today bear directors’ signatures. Who but Peter Jackson could have helmed The Lord of the Rings? Who but Charlie Kaufman could have dreamed up Synecdoche, New York? And we can’t forget good Charles Kaznyk, whose love of zombie movies and the occult shores up The Case (just as my love of espionage and high adventure underwrites my first real foray into film).

It is interesting to note, however, that both Jackson and Kaufman – as well as participants in the New Wave – played a part in writing their respective films. In fact, Abrams wrote Super 8, although it certainly bears Spielberg’s stamp of sentimentality. Where does the line between “writer” and “director” – and for that matter, between “director” and the rest of his crew’s creative leads – break down? Film is inherently a collaborative medium. As singular as it is, where would Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s trilogy be without Alan Lee’s and John Howe’s inspired illustrations? Without the hundreds of other people who brought the story to the screen? It took only one man to write the book.

Neil Gaiman, one of my all-time favorite writers, has something interesting to say on this subject. During an interview with MTV about adapting Stardust, Gaiman discusses the relationship between the page and film: “Everybody loves pirates. And I like the idea of a flying pirate ship. I thought it would be a wonderful thing for Charles Vess to draw, so I had Tristan and Yvaine in the clouds and rescued by the flying ship. It was the work of a few seconds. Ten years later, I’m at Pinewood Studios, and I’m walking around a life-sized flying ship! I felt so guilty. I wasn’t saying how great it was; I was going, ‘I am so sorry I made it up!’ Because it didn’t cost me anything, just the price of whatever tea I was drinking and some ink. And now seventy people have spent two months working to build this thing and you can dance on the deck.”

Unarguably, a film is the product of many minds. For my part at this point in time, I’m not prepared to attribute “auteurship” of such a collaborative product solely to the director. While I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate David Kipen’s writer-centric “Schreibner theory”, I do think that our industry on the whole – because there are exceptional exceptions – would benefit from some sober reflection and humble reconsideration of how we (1) esteem other creative leads, (2) treat and interact with screenwriters throughout the production process, and (3) present ourselves to the public. Perhaps it is time for us to challenge the challenge of the New Wave vanguard, help Charles off his high horse, and usher in a new period of iconoclasm. I have some ideas, but that’s a discussion for a later time.

…What do you think?

By Michael Koehler


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One Response to What is Auteur Theory? Auteurs and Flying Pirate Ships

  1. david kipen July 19, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    I wouldn’t hesitate to advocate David Kipen’s writer-centric “schreiber theory,” Michael, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

    All finest,

    David Kipen
    Libros Schmibros (A lending library/used bookshop for Boyle Heights)
    2000 E. 1st St. Los Angeles, CA 90033

    The Depression-era WPA Guides to LA and SF are back in print, with new introductions by yet another underemployed writer:
    http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520268838

    “Los Angeles is like your brain. You only ever use 20% of it. But imagine if we used it all.”

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