Movies aren’t books, though they’re often treated as though they were. If there’s a movie one isn’t familiar with, the question will generally be “what’s it about?” — how much of the plot can you tell me without giving away any crucial story developments? If one wants to delve deeper, reviewers will happily supply comments on character delineation, foreshadowing, symbolism and narrative arc with the understanding that a movie is the final version of a script, and that a script is a kind of play, and that a play, when written down, is a book. If there’s any acknowledgment that film is a unique medium with intrinsic values and elements all its own, it usually comes in the dutiful pronouncement that the visuals are “stunning” and the direction “assured.”
That’s pretty much the continual state of things, though there was a time when it seemed as though it might change. During the ’50s, a group of young French film critics, centered mostly around a periodical called Cahiers du Cinema, responded to the postwar influx of American movies with what would be considered in the States as indiscriminate enthusiasm. Reacting to what they perceived as the sterility of their own country’s dominant tradition of well-mounted, literary-like productions, they found in our B movies and genre flicks fresh and enticing signs of individual expression — not in the often ordinary and even dismal screenplays, but in the films themselves. Spotting recurring visual motifs, themes and attitudes toward the basic materials of the script, they designated the director as the auteur (or author) of the film.
This may all seem rather abstract, but the consequences were very concrete. In America, in the ’50s, it was eccentric to consider directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks or John Ford, let alone lesser lights such as Anthony Mann or Sam Fuller, to be in any sense artists, let alone filmic auteurs. Fine craftsmen, expert entertainers, good filmmakers, maybe.
And the standard for what constituted a good film was a literary one — a good film had a good story. A great film had a good story and a sort of social relevance. In the ’50s and early ’60s, Stanley Kramer, who broached the topics of racism, the Scopes trial, nuclear war and the Nuremberg trial, was considered a great director, despite the fact that his movies were often as flat as pageants, carried along by star power — which led the critic Gavin Lambert to describe Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) as “an all-star concentration camp drama, with special guest victim appearances.”
But as the French approach began to reach America, it effected a shift in critical consciousness which allowed the above-mentioned directors to be taken more seriously (sometimes too seriously). Since many of the Cahiers critics — Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol etc. — became filmmakers, the earliest and most convincing arguments for the auteur theory to get an airing in the States were actual movies. Godard’s Breathless (1959), Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) were meant to be evaluated as films (judged as books they would be deemed sloppy and even incoherent).
During the ’60s and ’70s, then, a great critical re-evaluation took place as a cinematic standard came into play. Hitchcock et al were lifted from the realm of the clever and edged toward the pantheon of the profound — while previously obscure toilers in the twilight world of déclassé entertainment such as Fuller and Edgar G. Ulmer were bought into the light and decreed to be genuine artists, as well as rugged individualists in a world of studio blandness.
Eventually, this radical concept became received wisdom, trickling down from the critical elite upon the humble heads of daily reviewers. By the mid-’70s, anybody who gave a damn about movies could tell you of the rise and fall of Sam Peckinpah and why Stanley Kramer didn’t date very well.
Unfortunately, the idea behind the elevation of the director — that a movie isn’t a book — never really caught on in any widespread way, probably because to many it’s just a very unsatisfying way of looking at things. As a result, you’ll find a haze of cognitive dissonance running through a lot of mainstream reviews.
The director’s importance is a given, but just why is rarely made clear. Scriptwriters are often banished from consideration while their contribution is given bottom-line importance — and often attributed to the director. A writer’s clever script becomes a sign of a director’s playful touch, while another writer’s downbeat ending is further evidence of another director’s penchant for dark realism. (Adaptations are not safe from this sort of thing. One critic remarked how the ending of the movie version of Moby Dick (1956) was yet another example of John Huston’s ironic fatalism.)
Aside from that — aside from the confusion which comes from having general critical consciousness lodged partly in and largely outside the confines of the auteur theory — things are better than they were. Prejudices against genre movies have largely vanished (except for horror films, which are going through a phase of great sucking), once-disposable directors are now hallowed icons (I’m still waiting for them to issue that Sam Fuller stamp) and many directors have effected a rapprochement between film’s singularity and an interesting narrative.
Now if the public could just get over its fetish for plots, the world would be just about perfect.Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org