Welcome back, my humble students, to the Free Film School right here on CraveOnline. I trust you are well. Seen any good movies lately?
Auteur Theory is, if you’ll recall from a previous Free Film School lecture, the notion that a film’s director is the central driving creative force behind its quality. I have also mentioned in several lectures in the past the notion of ecstatic truth; that is, something in a movie that cannot be faked. Indeed, the notion of ecstatic truth was the primary focus of my two-lecture special on documentary film (Part One was about the documentary form, Part Two was about notable documentary filmmakers). This week’s lecture is going to be a sort-of combination of those two notions, and a brief rumination on the notion of film as autobiography. If argued a certain way, all films could be seen as autobiographies.
Jean-Luc Godard, most documentarians, and this particular film critic are typically drawn to the ecstatic elements of a feature film. To reiterate: If you’re using a camera, then you’re filming something real. The actor may be in costume, wearing makeup, and speaking scripted lines, but at some point you’re looking at a human being. The camera is unforgiving. Godard famously said that every edit was a lie. I wonder how he feels about the abundance of camera-less CGI in the world. But there are two narratives with every movie. There’s the story being told within the film, and there’s the film as an object. Some films are more interesting as storytelling exercises. Others are fascinating object lessons. A great, groundbreaking film will likely be both to some degree.
That notion of ecstatic truth, however, isn’t just limited to what the camera is filming. If you think about it, that someone chose to make a movie about what you’re watching speaks volumes about the film in question. Someone thought to point a camera at that thing, at that actor, at that series of events. Someone thought to animate that sequence, to tell that story. If we’re to subscribe to auteur theory, and accept that what we’re looking at is an auteur’s vision, then, as critics and film students, we should perhaps consider every film as an objective look at its creator. We’re looking at a movie, but we’re also looking into the mind of whoever invented it. This came out of an imagination at some point.
You see, some artists can’t help it. I once got into an argument about the filmmaker David Lynch. A peer of mine complained that Lynch, famous for slow-moving pseudo-surreal nightmares like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, should perhaps make a “normal” movie for once; one that featured a more conventional story and more recognizably human characters. I think they were giving Lynch too much credit, and assumed that he was capable of making a “normal” movie. I think when we look at something like Blue Velvet, we’re seeing Lynch making exactly what he wanted to. WYSIWYG. This is how he sees the world, and this is the film he needed to get out of him. Lynch is a filmmaker who notoriously demands final cut on his movies (and often gets it, Dune notwithstanding), so one can glean that making something “conventional” is out of his wheelhouse.
Every David Lynch film is, in a way, an unadulterated view into Lynch’s brain. We’re not just being told a weird and violent psychosexual story, we’re looking at Lynch’s passions, his interests, his language, his viewpoints. We’re looking at an autobiography.
Lynch is just a good example because he is notably idiosyncratic (indeed, I could have chosen Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, Todd Solondz, David Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, or any director known for their artistic flair and recognizable style). But, if we’re going to assume that a director is indeed the central auteur behind every film, then we have to apply this notion of film as autobiography to every film. Even a forgettable commercial hackjob to be churned soullessly out of the Hollywood machine should be seen as, at some point along the way, the product of a single imagination. Someone had the idea and the passion to make That’s My Boy just as much as someone wanted to make Prometheus. Those films, while differing wildly in both content and quality, are both “visionary” in their own way. We need to assume that what we saw on screen is exactly what the filmmaker wanted to say. It is our job as critics and astute observers to interpret what they meant by their film, and what it means that they would choose to tell that particular story.
Film autobiography may be most easily and readily applied to high-minded talents like the ones listed above, but this notion is, I think, more readily and appropriately applied to the makers of B-movies and smaller genre entertainments. If you look at exploitation movies from the 1970s, you can see that someone was indeed trying to cash in on popular films trends of the time, but, more than that, the filmmakers thought to make, say, a biker movie. Which means they already had an interest in bikers. Which means we’re not just looking at a cheap movie. We’re looking at a passion for bikers. Consider the cinema of Russ Meyer, the master behind Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). His films pretty unanimously featured tough, incredibly busty women getting into both criminal and sexual misadventures. Meyer clearly had a love for his curvy vixens, and was filming them more to fulfill his own fantasies than he was trying to pander to any audience.
Consider also the cinema of John Waters, the playful and filthy Baltimorean behind Pink Flamingos (1972) and A Dirty Shame (2004). His films are colorful rococo explosions of trashy backwater lowlifes. Lowlifes that Waters clearly has an open affection for. He is not mocking his subject. He kind of loves them. We are looking at the genuine interests of a strong mind who convinced actors and crewmen to make this bizarre vision. Both Waters and Meyer will warrant Free Film School lectures of their own someday.
True, most of the films we see will most likely not be the work of a strong-willed auteur. We’re all familiar with the ins and outs of the film business, and most Hollywood films, even if they’re perhaps made by a recognizable filmmaker, will likely be the result of a studio-bound committee of producers and yes-men who are in a constant state of tinkering and re-editing a film they neither wrote nor directed. Yes, most films are mere Studio Product that are made to make a profit, and don’t give a flying fork about vision or purity. I would, however, argue that (according to auteur theory), in every film, even the ones that changed hands several times, there was a spark somewhere, no matter how misguided. Someone during the production of Air Bud Spikes Back had a vision of a dog playing volleyball.
Anything made by another person intended for the consumption of another is essentially an offered handshake. In the case of great art, we’re invited by an author to relate to an imaginary character or be moved by a particular scenario. When the author seems to strike on something that we can relate to directly, we have taken their hand. We have seen the truth of their vision. We “get it.” We have that wonderful cathartic moment when we, as an audience, have been touched by another human being. David Hume once argued that this was the only true form of empathy. That wonderful moment one has while reading fiction of actually living inside the head of another human being. Great films have that power. They can offer not just a story or character, but a hearty and warm handshake.
Even bad films and schlock can still, perhaps, offer that handshake. You don’t need to have experienced true suffering or longed for the infinite to understand the fetishes of a director of nudie flicks. We may want to peer into the cosmos of Terrence Malick, but it can be just as fascinating to look at the patois of Edward D. Wood, Jr.
But all film will essentially be a look into the mind of an auteur. They all came from a creative spark. We should be looking for that spark in every film we see. We may correctly intuit that the “spark” was greed or commercialism. We may see the “spark” in something as simple as a sexual fetish, or as disturbing as a dark nihilism, or as silly as a need to joke, or something relating to childhood nostalgia. Or, perhaps it was a grand, profound and moving optimism, or positive life philosophy. What, in short, drives the film? What is its germ? The evidence is there. As critics, it’s our job to investigate.
We may not be 100% students of auteur theory – the notion has its critics, and I agree that films are necessarily more of a group effort than a single person’s hard work – but if we hold the theory in any regard at all, then we are also going to be readers of autobiographies. We are going to be looking at the ecstatic truth of an unadulterated mind.
Homework for the Week:
Whatever film you watch next, see if you can intuit what the filmmaker is trying to say. Not necessarily through the script, or even through the film’s theme, but through an objective look at the filmmaker’s interests. What, do you think, drove the director to make this? Was it a mere job? Was it something more? Was it a passion? Does the filmmaker have passion for what you’re seeing? What filmmakers do you feel operate from their own interests? How much of their work is dictated by their interests, and how much isn’t? Most importantly: How much of a film’s content or tone was dictated by a filmmaker’s direct decisions, and how much do you think slipped in accidentally? Was it a choice, or just a personality that dictated what you’re seeing? What are some of your favorite movies? How are they autobiographies?