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


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

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. 

For more mashups like these, click the "crap shoot" link in the text.

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