Death of the Auteur: Is Highbrow Movie Criticism Democracy’s Lifeblood?

In the American Prospect, Tom Carson yokes together two recent developments – the National Film Registry's choice of Forrest Gump in its annual list of 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" and the Village Voice’s firing of highly regarded critic J. Hoberman after 24 years at the paper – to conclude that the “Yahoos are winning” the Kulturkampf. Carson writes: 

Watching the Voice lobotomize itself over the past decade or so—a process pretty much complete now that he's been canned—has been something I can't help feeling a personal stake in, even though business is business, and I should know better.

Whether or not he'd care for the title, Hoberman, along with The Nation's Stuart Klawans, is the most honorably anti-yahoo movie critic in the country. The art of film is his beat, and that's all there is to it; when it comes to deciding what's consequential and what isn't, compromises with the non-cinephile public's proclivities aren't in the cards...

With Hoberman's departure, the paper has gone from being a shell of its former self to a shell of its former shell—a process most people blame exclusively on finky New Times Media, the Voice's owner since 2005 and the single outfit most responsible for gutting the alternative press in general.

I can sympathize with what Carson, to his credit, admits is a fogey’s lament. During my own salad days in the Big Apple, the Voice’s main attraction was Carson himself, and the weekly generally had more pages but less interesting content than the rival New York Press (speaking of shells of their former husks). And I will say Hoberman (who recently spoke with a fair amount of optimism about the current state of cineastery) has become one of the LA Weekly’s few remaining points of interest, excluding the American Apparel ads. 

But is movie criticism really the frontal lobe of the culture? I am, ahem, an actual Hollywood professional in addition to being an occasional movie writer. (Dig my woolgathering about Night Nurse, The Thing, Mildred Pierce, The Road Warrior and other pictures in Chris Fujiwara’s Little Black Book of Movies, yours for a reasonable $0.93 at Amazon.) I’m tempted to say that film analysis by somebody who’s never made a movie is like a sex column written by a virgin. That isn’t fair of course. 

But I question the idea that the highbrow movie critic is being undone by the ruthlessness of the competitive market or the triumph of conventional wisdom. I think the critic’s job has been obviated by surfeit. It’s just not that hard to find a variety of opinions on any movie. I don’t need to leave the site you’re reading right now to find strong arguments that some year’s Oscar-winner is in fact the worst movie ever made, that Men Behind the Sun is a lost masterpiece, or that you are no better than a blind cave fish if you haven’t seen every movie made in Korea (South Korea! South Korea!) in the last decade. 

Carson is right that there’s a generational element and a political element at work here. I think both of those resolve themselves into the auteur theory, that durable French import which holds that the director is the author of the film. Hoberman was not precisely a prominent auteurist only because by the mid-seventies the theory was universally accepted. (Talk about conventional wisdom!) 

Writers are supposed to hate the auteur theory, but my reason for thinking it is of little value has nothing to do with any confidence in scripts. The problem is that for once the Academy has it right in giving the Best Picture Oscar to the producer. In all but a vanishingly small number of movies, the producer(s) is/are responsible for the largest share of the outcome. 

That doesn’t mean the producer could be called the author in any conventional sense. Sometimes the biggest contribution is made by the editor or the writer or (more rarely than you’d expect) the financier.  In some cases the star has the biggest impact, and that’s true even with the mightiest directors: I’m pretty sure if you took a group of reasonably dedicated movie fans and asked them to categorize a pile of DVD boxes by type of movie, more people would stack The Searchers with John Wayne movies like Hondo and Chisum than with John Ford movies like What Price Glory? and My Darling Clementine. (For my money The Quiet Man is the Ford/Wayne movie that truly could not have been made by anybody else.) The Mission: Impossible pictures have all been helmed by very distinctive directors: Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird. The scripts are by some of the most successful writers in Hollywood. Yet Tom Cruise is the closest thing to an author those movies have. 

It’s a mystery why a bunch of socialist critics came up with a Great Man theory to describe the most collaborative art form outside of North Korean mass-gymnastic exhibitions. What we really need is a death-of-the-auteur theory. Making a movie is such a crap shoot, involving so many parties with conflicting motives, that we should consider it a fluke when something gets made that holds together as well as My Cousin Vinny. An actual masterpiece (whatever your choice of masterpiece may be) has to be considered a heroically improbable event, and one that depends on both the movie itself and the audience’s response to it. 

In that respect I’m not sure the hardcore cinephile is all that rare a bird. I enjoy Hoberman’s phrasings and laughed at one of his zingers of yore about how Steven Spielberg’s vision encompasses the world like an infinitely expanding piece of Saran Wrap. (You can always count on these guys for cheap shots at Spielberg.) But a real contrarian would be able to argue that Forrest Gump is in fact a masterpiece, not for the way it flatters conservative boomers with repotted history but for the surreal vision with which it embraces its own artificiality, as Forrest Gump is sent to every Vietnam movie ever made, dashes through a perfectly representative college football film, attends an obvious Hollywood mockup of a sixties protest, and so on, while the audience is let in on the joke through all the wry stock-footage chicanery. 

A good critic might even plug Gump into the series of movies Tom Hanks made in the 1990s that in one way or another revisited the “generation gap” between the Greatest Generation and the Dearest Generation, and resolved most of the old issues in favor of the squares. Tellingly, Hanks did this in some movies as an actor, in others as a director and/or producer, but he deserves at least some author credit for all of them. As motion picture stars from Boris Karloff to David After Dentist can tell you, there are many ways to get your personal stamp on a movie. 

Jesse Walker named Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms as one of his best of 2011, and I dug his comments on zombie films back in the Bush Administration. More recently I raised my monocle in praise of Carson’s book Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter. And for movie criticism so hard and gemlike you might cut yourself on it, check out Reason’s Kurt Loder

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  • Rachel Maddow Creampie||

    Unbreakable is a remake?

  • darius404||

    No, it's a joke poster.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I was more entertained by that joke poster than I was by that movie.

  • Aborted Turd Shake Balloon #23||

    Forrest Gump is the second in the 3-part Philadelphia/Forrest Gump/Apollo 13 trilogy. Once Andy discovers the super powers from AIDS, he becomes Forrest Gump, Savior of America. In Apollo 13, Forrest leads the space battle against the moon as his third incarnation, Captain Jim Lovell, Savior of the Universe!

  • ||

    The Kot-teur theory: If Yaphet Kotto is in a movie, awesomeness will result.

    "Here is Sub Zero...now, plain zero!"

  • ||

    Yessssssssssssssss.

    Kotto should've been cast as a starfleet captain. :)

  • Tman||

    Kotto was best in one of the the all time most under rated movies-

    Midnight Run

    And especially this scene.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xlj9wg9q6f8

  • ||

    He would've been great.

  • Sevo||

    "But is movie criticism really the frontal lobe of the culture?"
    No.

  • darius404||

    It's part of the hind-brain.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    Only in cosmoland.

  • Jesse Walker||

    See, I think the first M:I is very distinctly a De Palma movie, the second is very distinctly a Woo movie (post-Hong Kong Woo, alas), and the third is...well, it's more like a JJ Abrams joint than the other two are, anyway. (I haven't seen the Bird one yet.) Which gets to the real problem I have with auterism: I know it's nonsense but it keeps working for me. (I gather there are people who feel the same way about Tarot.)

  • Hugh Akston||

    The third one is a Brad Bird movie in that it is funny and mostly computer generated.

  • ||

    Really, Tim, it's not so much that the auteur theory is wrong, it's that directors control the look of a film (yes, often in collaboration with the cinematographer) and some directors have a heavier, more distinctive hand than others.

    You can go from the control and distinctive style of a Stanley Kubrick or Dario Argento to the lighter touch but still distinct work of a Steven Spielberg or a Sam Peckinpah all the way down to the non-style style of a Krzysztof Kieślowski.

    Film is a visual medium, and so people "see" the "artist" in the visual aspects of the film, not in the writing or even the actors so much, because the writers are invisible to them and the actors are, well, acting. The world they are inhabiting for the duration of the film is visually prepared for them by the director (yes, and the editor, and the post-production team), but since the director has the final call, it's his/her decision at the end. And I'd note that directors who have more distinctive visual styles get much more auteur credit, because it's like a signature on their film, and people can recognize it.

    But if the writing in a movie is strong enough to be "recognizable", this can be overcome. Do people go watch a David Mamet-written movie and go "that's David Mamet?" Do you even know who directed Glengarry Glen Ross without looking it up? I had to. Because it's not a James Foley film, really; it's a David Mamet film.

    In general, though, the auteur theory isn't going away because the director is in charge, and so he/she gets credit for it, good or bad. If a company has an amazingly profitable year, who gets the credit? The CEO. The director is the CEO of a movie. And that's what people see; the guy in charge, and not the other people working and collaborating under the scenes.

  • ||

    But if the writing in a movie is strong enough to be "recognizable", this can be overcome. Do people go watch a David Mamet-written movie and go "that's David Mamet?" Do you even know who directed Glengarry Glen Ross without looking it up? I had to. Because it's not a James Foley film, really; it's a David Mamet film.

    Yep. And who fits the bill these days? Charlie Kaufman? That's it, really. (Of course there's the handful of writer-directors -- Woody Allen et al. -- where it all blends together.) But the dearth of exceptions definitely proves your rule.

  • ||

    I hasten to add that the Cavanaughesque stamp in "Home Run Showdown" was inescapable, of course.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I hasten to add that the Cavanaughesque stamp in "Home Run Showdown" was inescapable, of course.

    I can't wait until the porn parody version of Home Run Showdown.

  • Paul ||

    A friend of mine who was on the fringes of the movie business (shorter: unemployed actor) once said, "there's a reason they don't release the director's cut" Boy was he right.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    But if the writing in a movie is strong enough to be "recognizable", this can be overcome. Do people go watch a David Mamet-written movie and go "that's David Mamet?" Do you even know who directed Glengarry Glen Ross without looking it up? I had to. Because it's not a James Foley film, really; it's a David Mamet film.

    I see Star Wars and think, this is a John Williams film.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    John Williams and Industrial Light & Magic.

  • Dekedin||

    Ok, from someone who knows nothing about the entertainment industry... Why are the directors usually in charge of a film while in TV, it's always the producers?

  • ||

    I don't know that that's actually the case. TV is generally episodic, often with an assortment of directors involved. So across the course of a series, the "producer" is the lone consistent figure, and thus more apt to be associated with a given program.

    The term "showrunner" has emerged to account for a producer whose creative vision guides a series' overall ethos.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Why are the directors usually in charge of a film while in TV, it's always the producers?

    The director's job description in American TV is more restricted, for one thing. In a live program (or a Letterman-style program that's taped like a live show) it's almost a different job altogether.

    But even setting that aside, the producer is there all the time, while the director just helms a particular episode. (Or several particular episodes. But usually not all of them.) So except under special circumstances (e.g., an anthology show with a lot of celebrity guest directors) the producer is going to be in a better position to impose his vision.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Oh, wait. Tom just said that.

  • ||

    Bah, we're both Tar Heels; it's all good.

  • robc||

    Fuck you both then.

    Im hoping for an NCAA hammer on the foosball program.

  • Apatheist||

    Yeah "showrunner" is who is in charge of a series (good ones anyways). They may the producer or head writer or director or some combination.

  • Sevo||

    Dekedin|2.2.12 @ 10:20PM|#
    "Ok, from someone who knows nothing about the entertainment industry... Why are the directors usually in charge of a film while in TV, it's always the producers?"

    As someone equally ignorant of the process, who cares?

  • Village Voice fan||

    It's becoming clearer and clearer why the Oscars need a playoff.

  • SIV||

    Watching the Voice lobotomize itself over the past decade or so

    It would be generous to say the VV didn't complete a crude rusty table knife transorbital by about two decades ago. It was a fantastic read from the early 70s to the mid 1980s.

  • killazontherun||

    Weird, but I had a dream last night where I was watching an episode where House got a lobotomy (declared insane for freestyle climbing the outer hospital wall), and the attendant nurse Captain Janeway, looking Nurse Mildred Ratched like, spread his medulla folds out, and wrapped it in plastic wrap. It looked like a delicious extra tender pork loin cooked rare and slathered in cocktail sauce. It ended with an interior shot of his skull from where they left a little opening between his eyes.

  • ||

    Yeah well. The thing is, all the best movies were directed by Stanley Kubrick

  • AlmightyJB||

    You mean all of the best non-porn movies.

  • A Serious Man||

    I can't watch the movie A.I.: Artifical Intelligence without sadly thinking what it could have been if Kubrick had directed it instead of Spielberg.

    And my favorite Kubrick film is 2001, followed closely by Paths of Glory and Barry Lyndon.

  • killazontherun||

    The ending is retardation on steroids. I refuse to believe that Kubrick would have went with that fairy tale crap.

  • PantsFan||

    which ending? there were several.

  • A Serious Man||

    The one you saw in theaters, where Spielberg mercilessly indulges in his habit of force-feeding the audience some sentimental horse manuere, in this case resurrecting Haley Joel Osmont and letting him spend one more day with his 'mom' from the past.

    If Kubrick had done it the movie would have been darker, stranger, and much more awesome and satisfying.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Maybe Ridley Scott should have directed.

  • ||

    I always felt it should have ended with the kid staring at the blue fairy underwater. The nonsense that happened later was just unneeded in every way.

    Not everything has a happy ending Steve.

  • ||

    I've always argued the same position as Pain on where it should have ended, but I don't think of AI as having a happy ending. The prospect of the robot having such a yawning pit of howling need inside that it would be fine with his "mother" being resurrected to live for a single day just so it can suckle comfort from her is not an act of love, but of destructive addiction.

  • SIV||

    I slow-danced with A. I. star Ashley Scott at a friend's wedding reception.Unfortunately, that was as far as I got. I can't dislike any movie or TV show she appears in.

  • ||

    Barry Lyndon is absolutely one of my favorite movies.

    Haven't watched it in awhile. Must add to list.

  • killazontherun||

    You can always count on these guys for cheap shots at Spielberg.

    That is why the emperor never signals a thumbs down their way. Put Spielberg's face beside Oprah's busting out of a pair pantsuit thighs as things I can do without.

  • sciencebzzt||

    Critics of any kind are failures in their respective fields. Film critics are failed writers/directors; art critics are failed artists; music critics are failed musicians... and so on. They tried to be actual creators, and it didn't work for them, so they try to make themselves somehow better than the actual creators by expressing an opinion about the creations. By pointing out why something is good or bad or this or that, they're implying that they have some unique understanding of the medium, that they're better than the artist, even when they praise a work, they say it with an air of detached superiority. Critics are the original hipsters, too cool for school; by judging everything, they can still pretend that they're somehow involved in the creative process, but in reality they're still just failures contributing nothing.

  • Jesse Walker||

    So I take it you're a failed critic, then.

  • ||

    Critics of any kind are failures in their respective fields. Film critics are failed writers/directors; art critics are failed artists; music critics are failed musicians... and so on.

    This kind of thing is always so goofy.

    Critics are just fans. Good critics are just fans who are knowledgeable and engaged, possess solid critical thinking skills, and can communicate well.

    I know a few arts critics. None of them are "failed" anythings in the fields they cover -- any more than the pundit who opines on city hall is a "failed" politician. They're just people who enjoy a given art form and are good at thinking and talking about it.

    What's the deal -- were you in a bar band that got dissed by the local alt-weekly rag or something?

  • Ted S.||

    It never ceases to amaze me that the screenwriter of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls went on to become one of America's most popular film critics.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    I think Jolly Roger's a pretty good critic, and I suspect his Russ Meyer collaborations (do yourself a favor one day and venture into the other Ebert/Meyer movies) helped that. What I like about him is that he usually doesn't waste a lot of time contextualizing or deducing and mostly focuses his attention on what actually got made.

    Then again, maybe that's just mastery of New Criticism. Or is that Post-New Criticism? Or Pre-Structuralism? How about Merseyside? Can we have a Merseyside theory of criticism?

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    I don't think this is the case, and as indicated in the post I think critics get better if they spend the effort to make something in the field they're discussing. Failure in that effort is not a reflection of the critic's judgment because failure is the probable result of every human endeavor.

    See my reference to Ebert in a comment somewhere above or below. That he has some understanding of the process makes him a sharper observer; probably a more empathetic observer too, though he's willing to disembowel a picture. ("This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.")

  • PantsFan||

  • Anacreon||

    I thought Forrest Gump was awful, one of my list of terrible movies that won Oscars. Add to that:

    Titanic
    American Beauty

    Left the last one and didn't return. The first two I left for a bit, had a beer across the street, returned for the rest of the movie and didn't feel like I had missed a moment. Yechh.

  • A Serious Man||

    The only Oscar Forrest Gump should have gotten was for Gary Sinise, and maybe whatever it earned in the technical and visual effects categories.

    It was NOT better than The Shawshank Redemption or Pulp Fiction which it beat out that year.

  • robc||

    I said it last month, Oscars should have a 25 year waiting period.

    They should be giving out the awards for 1987 this year.

    I dont think Fatal Attraction gets nominated anymore (it didnt win anyway). Full Metal Jacket probably gets the nomination instead. I would like to think that The Princess Bride would be nominated too, but probably not.

  • Ted S.||

    Going My Way (1944) is the biggest bad choice, if only because there were so many other good pictures in 1944 to win the various Oscars:

    Double Indemnity for Best Picture;
    Clifton Webb in Laura for Supporting Actor;
    Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat for Director;
    I don't particularly like the hagiography of Wilson, but Alexander Knox would have been a good choice for Best Actor that year. Even Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity would have been a good choice, and he didn't get nominated thanks to the Barry Fitzgerald nomination in both Actor and Supporting Actor. (The rules were changed as a result of this.)

  • mr simple||

    I'm sorry that you're not smart enough to understand the awesomeness that is American Beauty.

  • Paul ||

    Tim. I'm almost misty-eyed. You're now officially the only other person other than my father I've ever known to use the term "woolgathering".

  • Ted S.||

    I was more impressed to see him give a shout out to Night Nurse, a wonderfully shocking little movie. If you haven't watched pre-Codes, this is a good one to start with.

  • Fogerty||

    Yah, I spent some time with the Mudville 9, watching it from the bench.
    I took some lumps when the Mighty Case struck out.

  • Sum Gai||

    Canonnball Run 2 was underrated.

  • ||

    That was a total ripoff of Gumball Rally

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    (For my money The Quiet Man is the Ford/Wayne movie that truly could not have been made by anybody else.)

    For my money it should not have been made by anybody.

  • Ted S.||

    I hate most of Hollywood's movies about Ireland. I find Hollywood to have an incredibly doe-eyed view of Southern Ireland.

    By the same token, I found it so refreshing to see I See a Dark Stranger, to see that somebody could make movies that weren't unrelentingly pro-Southern Irish and anti-English.

  • ||

    Longest fight scene until They Live.

  • ||

    I thought Hoberman lost his job because Armond White outed him as racist.

  • ¢||

    What we really need is a death-of-the-auteur theory.

    I don't know what stuff you're reading.

    For about thirty years, Serious Criticism (of as little Seriousness as the Voice's, even) has treated directors as only de facto/rhetorically responsible for movies, and really only for their socially objectionable qualities, their racism, sexism, conservatism, castration anxiety, etc. A nerd-denunciation needs a nerd. The denunciation is inevitably surrounded by "Of course we all reject auteurism and no one person is responsible for a complex collaborative..."-type disclaimers. And then comes the "but...," of course, but it's a but.

    In theory, in Theory, the auteur is long dead. But Serious Criticism is, just like the Total Dipshit Criticism it pretends it totally isn't, about imputing motive and parceling blame, so someone's gettin' blamed—if for nothing else, for embodying (or failing to resist embodying) an impersonal responsibility-entity like the Culture, Hollywood, patriarchy, etc.

    Unless there's someone way nerdier around, the director's getting the wedgie. Not because he's responsible, but because we all know he's a creep.

  • ||

    I personally find it disgusting that people still secretly endorse autism.

  • ||

    I am, ahem, an actual Hollywood professional in addition to being an occasional movie writer.

    (read: I was once an extra in a Steven Seagal movie).

  • Russ 2000||

    t’s a mystery why a bunch of socialist critics came up with a Great Man theory to describe the most collaborative art form

    Isn't that what socialists do? They are a top-down, "TOP MEN!!" bunch after all. I guess I just don't see the mystery.

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