Posted by David Kalat on April 28, 2012
I knew I was likely to provoke some disagreement a couple of weeks ago when I presented my defense of the Pollock cut of Metropolis. I never claimed it was a better movie than the longer restored cut—and I certainly never suggested it should supplant that version in the marketplace. I have a wife and two children and I love them all equally, yet differently—I don’t see why admiring one version of a movie would preclude being able to appreciate a different version of the same movie for different reasons.
But I didn’t just say I liked the Pollock Metropolis—I said it had a colorable claim on being the “definitive” version. And that set some commenters to their keyboards to set me straight.
The thing is, I don’t entirely disagree—but I think the entire issue turns on the question of what your starting assumptions are. The commenters who most eloquently articulated the position that the restored Metropolis is the only one that can plausibly called definitive rested their position on the starting assumption that the position of authority derives from an author, namely Fritz Lang.
And so many times in the last few weeks I’ve been tempted to add my own reply to the thread—usually I had these impulses late at night. I’ve managed to never drunk dial anyone, so I’m trying to avoid drunk-blogging. But tonight, I’ve decided that instead of posting a comment, I’ll monopolize the entire bully pulpit of the blog and try to revisit this idea.
Because I absolutely disagree that the author of a movie is its director.
For one thing, the notion that the director is the central creative force on a movie set is a bit of an anachronistic holdover from the silent era, when scenarios were loosely devised and not always even written down, and directors really did call the shots. But as Hollywood became industrialized, the roles of screenwriter and producer rose in prominence and significance.
Producers are the ones who choose the directors, more often than not. In many cases, the key creative decisions that we tend to ascribe to directors are actually the producer’s work. There are certain producers whose personal stamp suffuses their films to a far greater degree than any of the directors who work for them—an Alfred Hitchcock film produced by David O. Selznick is more recognizably of a piece with Selznick’s oevre than with Hitchcock’s, and what does that say?
Screenwriters are famously undervalued, yes, but the contribution a script makes to a film is enormous. There are a handful of directors who write their own scripts or collaborate tightly with a small cadre of recurring writers to the extent that they express their own personalities and ideas into the screenplays of their movies, but they are a minority.
Those writer-directors may be worthy of being called auteurs, but here’s my problem with that line of thinking: if we want to parcel out a subset of filmmakers who are auteurs, and a larger pool of journeymen, and say then argue about who falls into which camp, we’re just playing an academic game. We’re not really saying anything meaningful about how the films get made or how they get experienced–all we’re doing is idealizing how we’d like them to be made or experienced.
We’d rather eat the sausage than genuinely witness it being made.
For example: I’d argue Preston Sturges is an auteur. He was a writer and a director, with a coherent and consistent sensibility, who worked with a small pool of recurring collaborators and who expressed a recognizable style. And I’d say Mitchell Leisen is not an auteur—you won’t find many people trying to argue otherwise. But is there that huge of a gulf between enjoying The Lady Eve versus enjoying Hands Across the Table? Is the difference so enormous, so unbridgeable, that they do not deserve to be spoken of in the same sentence, and no right-thinking person would ever consider them similar?
The vast majority of movies that you have seen, that you will ever see, that are shown on TCM, that are beloved as classics, and that get talked about on forums like this are collaborations between multiple artistic forces, of which the director is but one. Unless we want to start to pretending that certain auteurist films don’t deserve to be talked about in the same way as the rest of movie culture, the fact we are left with is that very nearly everything you will ever enjoy is a product of compromise, of collaboration, of cooperation, of mixed visions and overlapping agendas.
Conversational convenience traditionally shortcuts this by singling out the director as the fella whose name we will accept as the author. It’s easier to speak of Buster Keaton’s The General than to stop and list off Clyde Bruckman, Al Boasberg, Fred Gabourie, Joe Schenck, and and and… We’d go collectively mad if this was how film writers wrote, so we accept the simplification for arguments’ sake. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the simplification fits reality.
Let’s take Metropolis as a case study—not just because it’s where this conversation started but because Fritz Lang was so keen to be accepted as a solo auteur. He slapped his name ostentatiously onto his films, like an artist signing his canvas, publicly battled his producers, castigated and marginalized his collaborators.
But you can’t tell a coherent story of Lang’s cinema without talking about his collaborators. His domineering silent era work was created with screenwriter Thea von Harbou—and the sudden divergence of style and content that precipitates upon her departure has to signal something about her significance. Lang’s Hollywood era work is all over the map—an inconsistency driven by his screenwriters. Lang with Nunnally Johnson and Joan Bennett is a different artist than a Lang with Charles Morrow and Dana Andrews.
I’m not critiquing Lang—I would think my history has proven that I am absolutely in love with this man. What I’m trying to get at is that saying that the definitive vote on what Lang’s movies are (or should be) can’t be Lang’s vote. Not his alone.
Think about it this way: why are we here, week after week, talking about old movies? We didn’t just encounter a movie as a casual time filler and move on with our lives—we absorbed that movie, remembered it, maybe watched it repeatedly, learned about it, and then bothered to gather in a forum with like-minded people to jibber-jabber about it, decades after it was made. This doesn’t just happen—it is the sign of some special connection.
Not every movie makes this connection. And not every viewer does either. Those of us who congregate here do so because we are special viewers who met special movies and experienced something magical in that intersection. It is a kind of love. And this means that those movies that matter, they matter because of the viewers who love them. The movies cannot possibly be worthy without an audience.
(I can get up here on my digital soapbox and try as hard as I want to promote certain lost and unloved movie detritus, but I’ll never succeed in changing more than a few viewpoints. Just ‘cause I say Popeye rocks, or Neighbors is acceptable entertainment, doesn’t mean anyone else is going to like it—it isn’t a great movie in a vacuum, it can only be great by consensus)
And I feel very strongly that this relationship gives us, the viewers, some authorial rights.
For example, Star Wars. The movie now called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope originally played as just plain ole Star Wars, and that’s how I saw it, in 1977, when I was a kid. And it completely changed my life. I started reading screenplays and studying how movies were made, I started paying attention to the names in credits, I started tinkering with homemade Super 8 movies and handcrafted special effects. I started collecting movies in different formats, and finding venues in which to share that passion. I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for that movie.
And I cannot ever see it again. It has been taken from me and replaced with a simulacrum. George Lucas is someone who probably deserves to be called an auteur—he has certainly had a singularly dominant role in the creation of the Star Wars empire. And as “author” of that movie, he has changed it to suit his tastes—to bring it closer to what he would consider definitive. He has that right—morally and legally, it is absolutely his domain to revise Star Wars as much as he wants. If he wakes up tomorrow and decides that not only should Greedo shoot first, maybe Greedo should be the only speaking part in the film and the whole story should be about Greedo’s character arc, then so be it.
But Star Wars, the 1977 Star Wars, isn’t George Lucas’ movie, it’s mine. It’s my memory, it’s my childhood, it’s the currency with which I spoke with my friends Beth Trilling and David Lesseps and Steve Rutherford. It’s something I shared with my late mother, when she took me to the drive-in with a car full of candy. It’s the movie I had on Super 8 and showed to my 3rd grade class at Brentwood Elementary.
When George Lucas takes the movie and changes it, he isn’t just changing his movie, he’s changing mine.
The movies we celebrate here at TCM online and Movie Morlocks are ours. They belong to us as much as we belong to them. That’s what I mean by “definitive.” The definitive version of any given movie is the one that defines that part of me devoted to caring about it.
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