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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 12. 1966.

Film criticism — Rex Benson replies to his critics

page 8

Film criticism

Rex Benson replies to his critics

A Barrage Of Criticism, whether favourable or unfavourable, is certainly one of the rewards of writing film reviews. It shows, at least, that people are taking a more than passing interest in the films they see, and are having to analyse their reactions and judgments in order to combat such outrageous opinions as sometimes appear in this column. The recent controversy over Godard and Bergman is a healthy indication of concern about a medium too often regarded as the ugly sister of the arts. Indeed, there hasn't been such a fuss since M. J. White abused the sensibilities of the Establishment by slating Hiroshima Mon Amour in Salient several years ago, and before that we have to go back a decade to the reviews by Ian Rich.

I feel sure that Mr. Robb's problems would all be solved if he purchased a record or tape of the sound-track of Bande à Part. He would then be able to enjoy his wealth of thematic material without the distraction of the pictures. Mr. Boyes appears to want a running debate on Godard, something which I regret I have neither the time nor the space to indulge in. I do feel, however, that his version of the auteur theory of criticism needs to be attacked. His interpretation of the theory is way off beam and would be grossly misleading to anyone interested in this important and influential school of criticism. The quotations below, unless otherwise stated, are taken from a definitive article on the auteur theory written by Andrew Sarris, and appearing in Film Culture No. 27, 1962/3.

Mr. Boyes claims that an auteur "is simply a director who has full control over the making of his film, and of course has something to say in the film." From this definition he concludes that "auteur theorists have erred in applying their theory to American directors." Both the definition and the conclusion are examples of confused thinking, the faulty conclusion arising from the fact that Mr. Boes appears to know nothing whatsoever about the auteur theory.

An auteur, irrespective of whether or not he has complete control over the making of his film, is a " 'metteur en scène' (i.e., director) with an expressive style and an emotionally meaningful personality." (Cahiers du Cinema in English, No. 2, p.80). Andrew Sarris: "... some critics have advised me that the auteur theory only applies to a small number of artists who make personal films, not to the run-of-the-mill Hollywood director who takes whatever assignment is available . . . the first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of the director as a criterion of value .... if a director has no technical competence, no lementary flair for the cinema, he is automaticall cast out from the pantheon of directors. A great director has to be at least a good director."

"The second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characterstics of style which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels. This is an area where American directors are generally superior to foreign directors. Because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of the material. A Cukor who works with all sorts of projects has a more developed abstract style than a Bergman who is free to develop his own scripts. Not that Bergman lacks personality, but his work has declined with the depletion of his ideas largely because his technique never equalled his sensibility."

"The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director's personality and his material. This conception of interior meaning comes close to what Astruc defines as mise-en-scène, but not quite. It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects, nor quite his attitude towards life. It is ambiguous in any literary sense because part of it is embedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in non-cinematic terms. Truffaut has called it the temperature of the director on the set and that is a close approximation of its professional aspect."

"The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualised as three concentric circles, the outer circle as technique, the middle circle personal style, and the inner circle interior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist and an auteur." Sarris lists the following directors as his first 20 auteurs: Ophuls, Renoir, Mizoguchi, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Ford, Welles, Dreyer, Rossellini, Murnau, Griffith, Sternberg, Eisenstein, Stroheim, Bunuel, Bresson, Hawks, Lang, Flahert, Vigo. It will be noticed that this list is somewhat weighted towards American directors (seven) and those film-makers of seniority and established reputation.

The English critic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith comes close to the auteur theory when he postulates a distinction between opaque and transparent cinema. "Transparent" sinema is mostly European in origin (Bergman, Godard et.al.) and arises when the director's intentions and attitudes are made obvious, because of the fact that he has complete control over his material and enjoys a free hand when it comes to selection of themes and scripts, etc. "Opaque" cinema, on the other hand, includes American cinema and the films by directors such as Mizoguchi and Rossellini (c.f. Sarris). It is characterised by a generally commercial background, and in films of this kind the director's style and attitudes can be detected only as a stream running through the totality of his work. Nowell-Smith states that opaque cinema is ultimately the more rewarding, and expresses a preference for what he calls "the dark undercurrents of Hollywood."

A look at the "Critics' Ratings" in Film Culture (Nos. 26 and 27) reveals the way in which the auteur theory works in practice. The films Mr. Arkadin, The Chapman Report, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hatari, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Advise and Consent, Merrill's Marauders, Shoot the Piano Player, Two Weeks in Another Town, Bachelor Flat, and Jules and Jim are rated highly, while low ratings are assigned to Through a Glass Darkly, A Taste of Honey, Lolita, Long Day's Journey Into Night, A Kind of Loving, Requiem For A Heavyweight, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Respectively, Welles, Cukor, Aldrich, Hawks, Ford, Preminger, Samuel Fuller, Truffaut, Minelli and Tashlin are directors regarded as auteurs or at least interesting stylists, while Bergman, Richardson, Kubrick, Lumet. Schlesinger, Nelson and Frankenheimer have yet to make the grade.

It is interesting to note by way of comparison that the consusus of critical opinion does not entirely accord with the conclusions of the Film Culture contributors. Several of the low-rated films have been highly praised in other circles. I would personally rate Requiem and The Manchurian Candidate very high indeed, although the others are dubious prospects, especially the two British "new wave" films. On the other hand, the Cukor, Ford and Minelli pictures have received their share of abuse. Robert Aldrich is a more interesting case. His film, and its companion piece, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, are quite ghastly in comparison with his earlier, taut masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or even that thoroughly enjoyable western Vera Cruz. The auteur theorists, however, specifically deny the decline of "aging giants like Renoir and Chaplin," and they would be most reluctant to admit that Aldrich's work had stagnated—once an auteur always an auteur, more or less.

Mr. Boyes can hardly claim that auteur critics err in applying their theory to the American cinema. The issues two and three of Cahiers du Cinema in English carry a series of French "10 best" lists for 1965. One critic, Patrick Brion, names exclusively American films, while a perusal of the other lists reveals such unlikely titles as West of Montana, Viva Las Vegas, The Disorderly Orderly, The Sons of Katie Elder, Shock Corridor and Gun Hawk. Even more significant is the composite analysis of the Cahiers lists. The 30 films include 10 by American directors, 13 from France, three from Italy, and one each from Britain, Sweden, USSR and Brazil. High on the list are Godard, Jerry Lewis, Visconti, Fuller, Bergman, Rouch, Rossen and Pasolini. It seems that the error has been committed not by the auteur critics in applying their theory, but by Mr. Boyes in his formulation of it.

Jaques Rivette, former critic for Cahiers and presently a film-maker (e.g. Paris Nous Appartient), has expressed what might be called the "Cahiers" view in an interview published in Sight and Sound: "At that time (1950), in Europe at least, the American cinema was not so much under-estimated as actually despised. It was a kind of critical duty to attack it, and everyone ran down Hollywood commercialism, Hollywood banality, Hollywood imbecility. It seemed to us —to Truffaut, Godard, myself—that this American cinema was in fact a good deal more intelligent, and even more intellectual, than European cinema, which was always being held up as an example to it. We felt that all kinds of directors, not only the recognised "Hollywood intellectuals" like Mankiewiez, but the so-called commercial movie-makers like Hawks and Hitchcock, were producing films much more intelligent than those made in Europe by our Autant-Laras, Delannoys and De Sicas. It may have been a subtler kind of intelligence, because it expressed itself through style and behavious rather than through all the usual outward signs."

The validity of the auteur theory of film criticism is certainly debatable, but its importance is not. It represents a kind of intellectual systemisation of practices common to nearly all critics and film buffs—the habit of being predisposed or otherwise towards certain directors. Let the hallowed name appear in the credits (Bergman for some people, Welles for myself) and our critical faculties are immediately softened. Such a procedure is potentially dangerous in that it may lead to an aesthetic cult of personality, but it does provide a convient base from which to work. As for the politique des auteurs, Penelope Houston has perhaps best summed up its role (S. & S., Autumn, 1963): "What Cahiers du Cinema did, almost 10 years ago, was to take over a whole new territory in the name of a principle. They broke down the old snobbish barrier between the 'art' cinema of creative effort and individuality (mostly European directors: a few American exceptions such as Chaplin, Welles, etc.) and the 'commercial' outsiders. . . . They chose to ignore a good deal of the actual practice of Hollywood: in particular, they showed a quite startling ignorance of the role of the producer. But the job they did was so valuable, and at the time so necessary, that it marks a kind of watershed in critical attitudes."