Towards less fetishisation of the director

13 April 2011

MP here

Last week I joined the subscribers' bandwagon and congratulated or thanked Sight & Sound magazine, via its Twitter page (here's mine) for including two freebies with its May issue: a sampler CD of the upcoming Tindersticks release of scores for Claire Denis's films, and a promotional supplement from Intellect entitled "Why does film matter?"

In the same issue, Nick James announces in his editorial that as of next month, the magazine will no longer print a comprehensive credits list for every UK film release, instead printing "a more limited credits list based on the creative heads of departments among the crew, and the headline cast of actors playing named parts (no more first or second policemen)".

This seems reasonable enough. As James points out, we live in an information age, where sites like the IMDb provide who did what and when more effectively than any print outlet can. Some might pity readers who still don't have access to the Internet, but during times of cost efficiency, we can't complain too much. For starters, it frees up more pages for wider coverage. And if this was ever going to be done, now might be a better time than ever: in the late 1990s, around 25 films were released in the UK each month; now, it's more than 40.

So you might say this editorial decision was a long time coming; James says the argument leading to it is one that "has flared and sputtered for a few years now". Another argument that has flared and sputtered, however, is that surrounding the magazine's continued and proud investment in the director as author of a film. Since the talk of the moment is on credits revision and questions of how best to use information, page space and whatever else might come under the magazine's running, I decided to send first my kudos to the magazine's Twitter page - whoever operates it - and then my two cents (or 140 characters) on something I've been pondering for some time.

I wrote, if you'll indulge the Tweet-friendly elision: "And while on abt mre selective credits [...] how about a script credit alongside director?" And, as a follow-up: "I mean under the film title but before the actual review itself?"

First, an explanation for anyone unfamiliar with the layout of the monthly section in Sight & Sound in which its writers review the latest UK releases: for each film reviewed, you'll have the title in a bold and larger typeface, and then underneath, before the review itself, are its country or countries of production, its production year, and then its director(s) and principal cast.

Though the scriptwriter is credited in the credits list alongside the review - and will continue to be credited after the revision - I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest a more significant acknowledgement before the review itself has begun.

Before going any further, the reply I received read: "Thanks. But no. The screenplay is not the film."

No, of course it isn't. But in essentialist terms, nor is "the direction". The reply annoyed me. As a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal, fine. But the issue deserves more serious discussion than that (and granted, Twitter isn't the forum to begin it).

Auteurism run amok

I'm already playing devil's advocate here, though. In all honesty, I ultimately treat the director of a film as its author too. I can account for this though. As I noted last week, when I first began watching and discovering films seriously, I would do so by getting to know of their directors: Coppola and Scorsese led me to directors like Kurosawa and Godard, Woody Allen to Bergman and Fellini, and so on. But this wasn't my own doing: that's how it is, it seems - there's already an established cultural notion that the director is the author, in film criticism but also beyond (and because of) it.

So you'll watch the Godfather trilogy, for instance, and make a link between those films and Apocalypse Now, which is on your dad's shelf, because of Francis Ford Coppola's name on each DVD case. Or you'll think, "Martin Scorsese, that guy who made those gangster films with De Niro." I attended several evening film classes on a Friday when I was about 17. The youngest student by far, I suspect everybody there could have told me who directed The Seventh Seal, but none of them would have known its producer.

I was going to change that last example there to fit the argument better, but kept it in to prove my point: the sentence was originally going to read "but none of them would have known its writer". In the case of The Seventh Seal, though, Ingmar Bergman directed the film from his own script. But this is an interesting point in itself: a lot of the directors who make up the canon of great world cinema also script their own films.

It's difficult to say if this is a coincidence, or if it's a symptom of some wider critical fetishisation, or as one member on the idFilm board calls it, "auteurism run amok". At any rate, films whose direction and screenplay credits differ from one another are more common in the classical Hollywood period, and perhaps remain more common in American cinema today than elsewhere in the world.

I don't want to get into who is and who isn't an "auteur", that filmmaker whose authorial stamp is distinctive across a body of different works (more on this in a bit). My point is that once someone starts exploring films on a more serious level, they have little choice but to accept the director as a way to other directors' works. For the most part, scriptwriters and producers don't get a look in.

As I noted to a friend recently, what makes filmmaking unique is that it's a collaborative process, and thus because of that, it can be very difficult to pin down someone's authorial stamp. For my friend, the script is what "makes" the film. I disagree(d): the script is a blueprint, if you like, and as the artist responsible for bringing this "to the screen", the director is the person who shapes what we watch as the final product.

But the director doesn't just "bring the script to life". S/he is responsible for directing actors - staging them within a frame and offering guidance on how best to represent or deliver what was written for the characters they are playing; beyond this, the director directs the cinematographer and the camera operators on how best to frame the actors and action - this incorporates lighting, proximity, angles and so on; before and during production itself, the director must maintain an awareness of how the shots will edit together to create the narrative first laid out in the script - in post-production, the director works with the editor, and it is to her or his discretion how much creative allowance the editor is given.

In turn, of course, each of the key creative elements of a film - and I haven't even listed production and costume designers or sound technicians and visual effects artists - brings to the project their own creative ideas, and with each of them, the director builds a working relationship that goes toward the final work. During production, the director must see both the finer details at work and how they fit into the whole.

It isn't a science, and there'll never be a go-to template. Beyond this, though, I told my friend that a bad director will struggle to bring the best out of a good script, whereas a good director can transform a mediocre page into a thrilling screen experience. Because, to quote @SightSoundMag, "The screenplay is not the film". Right?

Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro

Resisting the fetish

A week ago I posted a short editorial on Taxi Driver at Front Row Reviews. There, I argued that "perhaps more than any other film of its kind from that period, Taxi Driver resists and also encourages theories surrounding auteurism. It’s referred to as 'a Martin Scorsese film', of course, but it is equally that of script-writer Paul Schrader, or even its star, Robert De Niro." As omnipresent as anything else in the film is Bernard Herrmann's score; film scholars with a particular interest in music could very well argue his contribution "makes" the film. As I wrote later in the same piece, "Critics and scholars forget that auteurship doesn’t have to be the fetishisation of the director-as-author."

That editorial at FFR was posted after my initial Tweet to Sight & Sound, but before I received their reply. Since then, though, I've written reviews for three films I saw at the cinema last week: Limitless, The Silent House and Essential Killing. Consciously, I refrained from referring to any of these films as belonging to their director. So with Limitless you read "director Neil Burger and scriptwriter Leslie Dixon seem aware of the film's own limitations"; with The Silent House, I acknowledge Gustavo Hernández as director, but only as a way of contextualising his editorial credit; and with Essential Killing, I only referenced its director in the post-article blog tags - too many reviews I've read of the film introduce it as "Jerzy Skolimowski's latest film", when it is just as much Vincent Gallo's. (Or is it?)

This type of thing should be a discretionary matter. If I found it quite easy to discuss Essential Killing without referring to its director (many have gone the other way entirely, of course, interpreting its themes of exile in a foreign land as reflective of Skolimowski's own career), I would be pushed to revise my thoughts on Cave of Forgotten Dreams without retaining a constant reference to that film's biggest drawback: the presence of Werner Herzog himself.

Some directors are synonymous with their own films: David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock have directorial styles distinct enough to merit adjectives: "Lynchian" and "Hitchcockian" become ways of describing films that resemble their own. Citizen Kane, which to many is the best film of all time, is very much Orson Welles's film - though we should be respectful enough to include Joseph Mankiewicz's script and Gregg Toland's cinematography in any serious discussion of the film.

Two contemporary British directors are interesting in that their films don't have an obvious thematic or genre focus: Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom. What reaches almost silly proportions is the lengths to which critics go to make this their discussion point; my review of Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me last year is as good an example as any. Criticism of this kind begins to sound embarrassing after a while. In the case of that film, introducing it as the product of "an anti-auteur" isn't in any way necessary with regard to understanding the film - it barely even contextualises it.

At any rate, three reviews posted over one weekend on a blog that doesn't get much traffic aren't going to get much attention, never mind change the face of film criticism. I did it more than anything to see if I could. And I could; in fact, in the case of Limitless, I felt quite a bit better in making certain observations about it, having credited its strengths and weaknesses to its writer as much as its director before doing so.

For what it's worth, though, I remain a directors' man. The idFilm board has a thread index to many directors, in which members rate and rank the works they've seen, and I like anyone else on there will revise any list after seeing a film to add to it.

Returning to Sight & Sound, though, I would still like to see a compromise of sorts. For starters, the extent of its investment in directors is not only outdated, but faciliates further conservatism: of the 12 directors whose portraits have featured on the front cover of the magazine since January 2009, Sofia Coppola is the only female. (You can search further back yourself.)

Acknowledging the scriptwriter alongside (or after!) the director would announce a shift, for sure. But the shift would, I think, be a healthy one. At present, scriptwriters are listed after directors and producers in the magazine's comprehensive credits list; I don't see this changing with more selective listings.

A large part of why an author is credited at all, in Sight & Sound and elsewhere, is so a reader can cross-reference it, whether mentally or via some other source (depending on familiarity of name). But the Internet has made such cross-referencing simple. Not only are the IMDb's credits lists fully functional self-referring databases, but people can type "Peter Greenaway" and see which films he directed (and which films he wrote!) in a matter of seconds, literally. (I haven't picked up my Time Out Film Guide for reference purposes in years.)

Click on eleven of Greenaway's films and you'll see Michael Nyman scored them. That's the guy who did the music for The Piano (1993), the film written (and directed!) by Jane Campion and starring Holly Hunter, the voice of Elastigirl in The Incredibles (2004), a movie that naturally spawned a video game of the same title, but in that instance Elastigirl was voiced by Elizabeth Daily, who also played Tommy in the TV series Rugrats from 1991-2002 as well as the 2003 film Rugrats Go Wild and its associated video game Rugrats Go Wild!, which added an exclamation mark to the film's title.

Print media cannot link up databases for readers in the same way the Internet does for its users, even if their information is sourced in a similar way before print. In some ways, then, it seems futile or redundant to suggest a screenplay credit with a direction credit. But in other ways it doesn't: if the direction credit is a kind of authorial acknowledgement, then I think we might all benefit from a culture more invested in the source from which the director is shaping their material - the script. The script isn't the film, as I've conceded; but the film is much, much more than the director.


I've followed up on this post with a briefer entry, in which I discuss a particular example of director fetishisation: A brief, further example of the director fetish.

I also posted a short editorial to Front Row Reviews in light of the this post and its follow-up: Rooting for the undersold, or championing the cinematographer.