…It is plausible that our disillusionment with once-revered directors could hasten an end to the auteur worship that has dominated cinema since the 60s. In an age of popular activism, when none of us can claim we cannot see the connection between principles and actions, it may become harder to celebrate blindly the output of a director who derides #MeToo, or dismisses the fact that they have a company linked to an account in a tax haven, as Pedro Almodóvar , named in the Panama Papers along with his brother Agustín, has done. (His response? “My name and my brother’s name are some of the least important names in the Panama Papers. If it was a film, we wouldn’t even be extras.” Hardly the sort of penetrating insight that has made him a world-class dramatist.) Many of our film-making heroes will inevitably fall from grace. But does that mean auteur theory will go down with them?
Auteur is one of those words, like diva and masterpiece, that has been devalued to the point of redundancy. Prolonged misuse has resulted in a situation in which any director with an immediately recognisable style, or a recurring set of themes and concerns, is an auteur.
The word was never supposed to denote a star director. When the Cahiers du Cinéma critics, including such film-makers-in-waiting as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, used the label “auteur” under the influence of Bazin in the mid-50s, they were recognising directors whose ability to bring personality to movies that had not necessarily originated with them, and to make ambitious, expressive work within the limits of the studios, had gone unappreciated until that point – John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles among them. Most of those film-makers had enjoyed success, but the suggestion that their work might also have artistic merit came first from the auteurist critics.
There have been many reasons over the course of the past 70 years to dispute or disparage auteur theory. “Auteur theory just denigrates everyone else’s job,” said Fred Schepisi, the Australian director of Six Degrees of Separation and Roxanne. The British film-maker Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone, The Commitments) said it was “cooked up by a bunch of Frenchmen with an exercise book and a 16mm camera, perpetuated by the people who write about film, and fed by the insatiable vanities of us directors”. And although Sarris died in 2012, he lived long enough to witness the depreciation of ideas he had helped propagate. “Every director has to show his wild visual style in order to establish himself and blaze a trail immediately,” he lamented in 2005.
Now, though, the demise of auteurism may finally be upon us. The revelation that brilliant directors have a darker side, whether it’s Bertolucci’s bullying or Haneke’s intolerance, is nothing new. Like any cliche, the image of the tyrannical film-maker with riding crop, jodhpurs and loudhailer has survived in our cultural currency because it has a strong component of truth. But it is difficult to see how the unquestioning reverence of directors can continue in this new climate of hyperawareness, where the constant drip-feed of discrediting stories proves once and for all that time’s up.
I find it difficult to hold the 1960s or the 1970s in higher esteem than other eras of film and music. Yes, there's a lot of music from that era I enjoy. I still basically enjoy Bob Dylan from that period and Pinkfloyd and The Who. I also love the music of Stevie Wonder. I have a respect for The Beatles as a boy band that transcended the inherent limitations of their initial idiom but I was more into The Rolling Stones. The other thing is that having heard Xenakis and Stockhausen the Fab Four made it both too obvious and not obvious enough (in the sense of the number of fifth Beatles) what a collective and corporate product their work has been. One of the manifestations of an auteur theory in popular music is to insist that either John or Paul was the "real" genius guiding The Beatles. The collective and collaborative activity was what made that band what it was. Take away George Martin as their producer and advisor and we wouldn't be talking about the same Fab Four in a lot of ways.
So if auteur takes a nosedive as it gets rediscovered what abusive jerks many of these men were that's not something I object to. There's something to be said for some of Tolstoy's aspirations that good art should be able to come from decent people. The idea that only monsters can make "great art" shouldn't be something we take seriously, whether we have Christian convictions or not, but particularly for those who do have Christian beliefs. Whoever would be greatest among you must be the servant of all is not going to lend itself to being some Byronic artist hero.
The idea that if the beauty of the experience is great enough we just have to accept that monsters are the architects of that beauty seems to still have some traction with the plastic arts, cinema, literature and music in a way that I'm not sure we see replicated in athletics. Is there anyone in the realm of athletics who would suggest at this point that if you remove all the coaches and medical doctors who assist athletes who are predators or bullies there'd be no sports left? That's not even taking up the question of whether the physical and mental damage to athletics as practiced in the United States may itself be a big part of the problem, I don't want to say that brain injuries in college and professional football is a reason to ban athletics. They're clearly healthy and pro-social activities for a whole lot of people even if I never got into them for a number of reasons.
I'm just thinking lately that the proposal that if we tried to get rid of all the art made by monsters we'd have no art left as formulated by an Mbird contributor doesn't seem to hold water within the realm of the arts and that one of the ways to highlight this is to ask whether this line of assertion (not to say argument) holds up if we apply it to athletics or to dance. If every choreographer treated his or her muse the way Roman Polanski treated someone wouldn't that give us reason to doubt the virtue of choreography?
The idea that for the sake of something beautiful or ostensibly life-changing you just have to accept that we're all monsters doesn't fit anything about how in Christ, new creation as I understand it. I didn't spend half a decade meticulously chronicling the peak and demise of Mars Hill Church on the assumption that because we're all monsters, what can you do? The idea that we even lie about our lying or that everyone, including you, is a bigot is the kind of gambit that seems it is only possible to take up in bad faith in every sense of that phrase. Now maybe monsters would say everyone is a monster. What do you think? That, deep down, everyone is as bad as you? Doesn't Batman say something like that to The Joker in The Dark Knight? So if we want to insist that "everyone" is a "monster", congratulations, The Joker says stuff like that. Way to affirm the metaphysical claims about the human race of one of the more famous villains of the last twenty years of film.
I've written about the subject before, but I believe there's a world of difference between saying each of us has a capacity to be a monster and that each of us actually is a monster. I mean, I'm a Calvinist, yes, and I'm even able to understand prelapsarianism as distinct from infralapsarianism but even I don't think it's an honest account of the human condition to say "we're ALL monsters". That makes a hash of some doctrine colloquially known as common grace. The Bible tells us stories about those who do not know the Lord who, nevertheless, show they can have less broken moral compasses than those who did call on the name of the Lord at different stages in their lives. If all the Christians in the early churches Paul visited were living up to what they were taught we'd have fewer epistles. But needing reminders and spurs to love God and neighbor is not the same thing as being told "we're all monsters". That's not even what Paul was ultimately driving at saying he was chief of sinners.
What about photographers? If we're told that if we remove all the art made by monsters we'll have no art left, what passes muster as art great enough for which monsters get to be monsters? I don't recall Margaret Bourke-White being in anyone's pantheon of photographers among most people I've met but I respect her work and legacy as a photojournalist. I don't recall that her work involved her treating people in a way that has come up in allegations made against someone like Bruce Weber or Terry Richardson.
Not to say that either of these photographers make what would probably be regarded a "great art". Richardson's whole catalog, at least among those I know who have done any work in the fashion and modeling industry, is ... well, some would say his idea of art inherently involves harassment and assault. But Woody Allen is considered higher brow, I guess, than a Richardson. Photographers for fashion magazines are below the film auteur.
On the whole I think we need a lower view of what the arts are and what they can do. This is not just because I'm dubious about variants of Western art religion but also because I believe that kind of art religion is partly why monsters were given a wide berth. Many of these men (and some women, I suppose, too) are given the task of re-enchanting the world through art in our largely disenchanted world. Even if many might say Ivan Karamazov's polemic against God is potent what if the religion is not Christianity but the Western art religion of cinema or dance or literature or athletics or whatever civic religion is embraced as a substitute for a more traditional religion? What if it's the DNC or GOP? What if it's film? Is the "heaven" of art re-enchanting the world, so often just for the length that we're observing the art, worth the sacrifice of one small child praying, "dear, kind God?" To say that if we remove all the monsters we will have no art left is to say in response to Ivan's Grand Inquisitor that, yes, the sacrifice of one child is worth it for the art because what else is there for the human condition? The assumption has to be there's just nothing else for it because if we're all monsters there's nothing else we can do.
Even as a Calvinist who has a pretty grim view of the overall human condition I still have to say "no" to that.
It's one of those kinds of topics I can't not think about because, as I mentioned before, I didn't spend half a decade blogging about Mars Hill on the assumption that the whole lot of us humans can only be liars, bigots and monsters because a couple of people say stuff like "we even lie about our lying"; "everyone is a hypocrite" or "yes, we're ALL monsters." Not even a Calvinist really has to say that, even if plenty of stupid and lazy people would say it does. I don't assume every Catholic priest abuses kids, even if I am a Protestant for a few reasons I won't waste your time delineating.
If anything I would say the post Weinstein #metoo era is showing that Hollywood is the last place on earth that has any business looking down on priests or athletics leaders for how they prey upon women and children (and men, though that may not be quite as prominent overall). I just don't see that the argument stands for film but it seems more strange if we try to ay that it could apply to a Paterno or a Sandunsky. It applies to neither but perhaps by looking at how strange and disagreeable the assertion looks in athletics can help illuminate why I believe it's so unpersuasive when applied to the arts. No sane person could, would or should say that every coach is a Sandunsky or that every sports team doctor is a Nassar.