The author theory seems to be greatly misunderstood nowadays. Or maybe it’s not new, I don’t know, but for sure, now, the idea of defending all movies made by a single filmmaker is seen as poor criticism, or as blindness to the possible (unavoidable) faults of an artist; apparently it’s far more relevant to judge every movie on its own basis, and to forget who made it because this knowledge can cloud our judgment. I’m slightly exaggerating, but how many times to we read things like “if you didn’t know this movie was made by X, you would not be so lenient”; well, that’s the point, it is made by X, so why pretend it is not?
Recently, amongst the many articles written about Paul Thomas Anderson latest movie, The Master, we got another good example of this attitude, in a text by Stephanie Zacharek published by the A.V. Club, where she wrote “The idea that certain filmmakers reach a point where respect is their due, rather than something they earn film by film, defies one of the most immediate and visceral pleasures of movie going: the pleasure of seeing for yourself. Plus, isn’t it a lot more boring to march around on a filmmaker’s behalf, trumpeting the significance of intentions and reputations, than it is to wrangle with the actual movies?” But doesn’t wrangling with the movies also imply to consider who actually made them? When Steven Spielberg shows a rising moon giving chase to robots in A.I., are we supposed to forget it’s the same man who gave us the iconic image from E.T., this gentle and heartwarming moon, which also happens to be the logo of his company, Amblin? I haven’t seen Lincoln yet, which will come out in a few days, but I know already that I will love it, as I did with War Horse even though it was Spielberg at its worst. This is not blindness: I can see what’s wrong with the movie, but these flaws are far less interesting than my encounter with the moving thoughts of a true author. Sure, he can faltered from time to time, but being able to follow someone else’s train of thoughts is a fascinating and deeply intimate experience, much more rare and precious than the experience of a good but impersonal movie, so why should we deny ourselves this pleasure? In my mind, some filmmakers undoubtedly have earned their respect: we can’t easily dismiss any movie made by Terrence Malick, to take an example used by Zacharek, because even if To the Wonder is a piece of shit (I don’t know, but I doubt it), it will still be the outcome of a great mind struggling with itself, and there’s nothing boring, or simple, in trying to understand the thought process of an author thinking through images. At worse, it’s infuriating, “how can he fall so low?”, but never boring.
Spielberg certainly is one of these true authors (who also has his share of infuriating moments), and I will try to explain why in my next article, but before stepping inside this great mind, I want to talk briefly about the author theory. A little history course is in order, because it seems even the Wikipedia page can’t be trusted on that matter: contrarily to what it says, the first definition of the Politique des Auteurs appeared in a review by François Truffaut for Les Cahiers du Cinéma in February 1955, titled Ali Baba et la Politique des Auteurs. In it, Truffaut defended a small movie directed by Jacques Becker, Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs, by arguing that a misstep by Becker is still more worthwhile than a good movie made by an average guy. It was the first time someone used the expression politique des auteurs, but we can trace back the idea of the author and the preeminence of the mise en scène still further, in the more well-known article Une certain tendance du cinéma français (A certain tendency in French cinema) by the same Truffaut (in January 1954), in which he opposed the pen of Aurenche and Bost (two filmmakers renowned for their literary scripts) to the camera of Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson. Or further still with his review of Lang’s Big Heat, titled Aimer Fritz Lang, Loving Fritz Lang, or to Alexandre Astruc’s concept of the pen-camera, which was one of the first attempt to define the idea of mise en scène and its importance, by arguing that cinema is similar to writing with a camera. It was a new and important idea, to demonstrate how an individual can articulate a personal vision while working in what was seen primarily as an industry: even if someone like Howard Hawks used a somewhat conventional visual language, he could still incorporate his own ideas into his images, which reflect his perspective on the world. Essentially, the author theory served to prove that there were, indeed, great artists working in cinema; it was probably the most important step for the acknowledgment of cinema as an official art, but this we knew already.
The idea of a cinematic author doesn’t apply strictly to Hollywood, but personally I find it more interesting when we use it with someone like Spielberg or Hawks, because it’s quite obvious that Robert Bresson, for example, or more recently Belà Tarr are working within their own visual language, but it’s not so true for Spielberg, who use basically the same language as his more conventional colleagues in Hollywood. Cinema is an industrial art, and the most overtly industrial branch of this media, classical cinema, or Hollywood, has found more or less one way to guarantee this accessibility so important from a mercantile standpoint: the use of an extremely conventional and repetitive language, easily understandable and identifiable for all. But as we can see when cinema becomes art inside this industry, these conventions have nothing intrinsically impersonal: it is possible to express our individuality from within an apparently indifferent mass without directly antagonizing it, and this possibility of being who we are while living inside the crowd seems like a more essential testimony for our time than the marginal putting his difference on display. It’s not to say that Spielberg is a better filmmaker than Bresson, or Tarr or any other art house director, but it seems futile and redundant to declare them authors since their idiosyncrasies are self-evident – then again, it’s not true for all art house directors, conventions exist outside of Hollywood too, they’re just different, but even the most conformist art house director is still working outside of the patently industrial part of cinema.
Anyway, this Politic was more than a theory: in the words of Antoine de Baecque, a French critic and cinema historian, it was “an intimate approach of cinema by an act of love”. To brandish a filmmaker as an author was the equivalent of a love declaration, and since the real discourse of a movie isn’t its content but its mise en scène, or the manner in which the artist presents the world, you know you will love a priori all movies made by this author since his style will necessarily be present even in his worst films. Today, this idea of love has evaporated, at least from mainstream journalism (I don’t see anyone still clinging to this notion except the Cahiers, even if they have refined and redefined the original politic). And maybe that’s why we don’t accept easily this idea that some minor movies from an exceptional author are still better, or at least more fulfilling, than a good, or even an excellent movie from a competent journeyman without vision. When you love a filmmaker, you may prefer one movie to another but you will always admire all of them because each of these movies represents a moment in the development of an author’s thoughts, and what may seem at first glance as a shallow or futile detour may reveal itself later as a necessary step towards a new and brilliant idea. When you follow an author, you follow the development of his mind, and like I argue last time with Citizen Kane, the process itself is more important than where it leads: to admire an author is to admire how he thinks, or how he sees the world, and this thought process, this vision, will be present even when it wanders in the most erroneous way. So, sure, one movie produced during one of these drifting moments may appear trivial, and you may want to boo it in a festival’s screening, but if you look at the whole instead of this isolated fraction, then you may see something else entirely. It’s not blind love, surely I’m not arguing it’s sufficient to say: “it’s Malick, therefore it’s good”. A good critic still has to describe how it is a typical Malick's film, how it is a misstep, and more importantly how it is a meaningful misstep and what it says about Malick and his other movies. It’s not always obvious or easy at first, we may only understand a couple of movies later why this error was necessary, but it’s always possible to see how it fits with what came before, and how it’s an extension or a retreat from past ideas.
And this is what I want to demonstrate with Spielberg: he has been blamed for creating the Hollywood we know now, with these infantile blockbusters driven by a simple sense of wonder, detached from a reality that they’re trying to make us forget. These accusations do hold up for a part of his career, but at least since Jurassic Park, Spielberg has been trying to make responsible fictions, and most of his movies since then are strongly opposed to this form of escapism. His movies revolves around wonder, but for him this naïve outlook of life has been shattered by adulthood, and the last part of his career cast a different light on his first movies: it would be too simplistic to state that they were driven by an innocent wonderment, because Spielberg is always coming from the angle of an adult whose own sense of awe has vanished, and thus he oscillates between movies trying to evacuate an awful reality while trying to recover this lost childhood and movies where wonder just isn’t possible anymore because we need to see this awfulness for what it is, but these two extremes are always present, even when he’s nearly going for pure escapism, and anyway they need each other to be meaningful because Spielberg creates a dialogue between them, between, to take an example I used above, E.T. and A.I., or Color Purple and Amistad, or Close Encounter of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds. We can’t judge an individual moment from his career because it would neglect the importance of this dialogue: we have to take his movies as a whole, follow them in their detour, their moments of stagnation, their hesitations until they come to a moment of illumination, that would not be felt as revelatory and moving if we didn’t trace back the author’s trajectory up to that point.
That’s what I’ll try to do next time: follow Spielberg’s thoughts until War of the Worlds, his absolute masterpiece and great moment of enlightenment.