The Problem with Auteurism

The idea of the movie director as author (or, “Auteurism”) is something that has been bothering me for some time. Yes, I know that Pauline Kael already said her piece on it, along with multiple other smartasses who mock moviebuff fawning over the likes of Speilberg, Johnnie To, Miyazaki, Brad Bird, Guillermo Del Toro, Spike Lee and even Ava Duvernay (and yes, I am guilty of this). Me? Well, my issues with auteurism come from both studying the process of moviemaking and from actual moviemaking experience.

A while back in 2008, after the housing market lost it’s shit, I attempted to make a documentary of my English professor in college and tried to enter it into a film festival called Campus Moviefest. The objective was relatively simple: make a movie within a 5 minute time limit. Not being confident in my ability to tell a story with my own screenplay, I decided to make a short biographical documentary of my college professor using a DV camera, a borrowed white Macbook with iMovie, and a musical track made by an online friend of mine from FurAffinity (don’t ask).

The problem? Well, I finished the work, even made an animated sequence in Pencil with a dancing cartoon bird character I made…but I forgot to get people’s signatures so the footage could be cleared. See, every entrant was given a series of papers to sign, both for themselves and for the people who participated in the project. I signed some for myself, but I forgot to get signatures for the people I took footage of, having recorded some video of some classmates as, “B Footage” to be used during the interview sections. Long story short, my movie did not qualify, but I was invited to the finalist ceremony (which I did not attend due to anxiety and guilt). My movie can’t even be found on the website itself (this is me linking to the place and year the contest was held. Neither my team, which consisted only of myself, or my entry was listed).

So, there’s that. A bad experience because I didn’t check every single box, making it all legal. So, that’s lesson one for moviemaking: always have a paper trial. E-mails, contracts, whatever, just get stuff in WRITING that proves you are working with people fair and square. But there is a second, silent lesson: moviemaking is like trying to manage the current of a raging river. In other words, just because you are the director doesn’t mean you are responsible for everything that happens. There are too many variables to account for in order for you to claim credit for it all, and even if you do manage to control every variable (like making an independent animated short), you are standing on the shoulders of giants. Did you, the movie director, invent composition? What about blocking, editing, mise en scene or slow-mo? Is the production design beautiful (or ugly) thanks to you? Do your actors not breathe unless you tell them to? Exactly. Yet despite all of this, we prostrate ourselves before ordinary people, because somehow our bicameral minds need a god, a paternal figure, to soften the horror of being alone, both with our own potential and with a universe that will destroy us at any moment.

Ok, so this may be a bit too…philosophical, and filled with jargon only moviebuffs/moviemakers can understand. I think my objections to Auteurism would be best served with an analogy about building a house (yes, this is inspired by a programmer’s rant about PHP)

Say you decide that you want your very own house, but you don’t want to buy an existing one. No, you want to BUILD one. So you hire some people to build it, giving them loads of money so they can work.

But hold on, you want to do some RADICAL things with this house. So you tell the lead contractor that you want the floors to be made of yellow sponge cake and the walls to be made of crushed graham crackers, honey and Fleshlights. “Ok”, says the contractor, thinking that it’s outrageous, but hey. You have the money, so you make the rules.

Then you say that you want the plumbing to be built out of 24-karat gold, lined with blood diamonds sprayed with perfume. “Ok”, says the contractor, now thinking that you have gone mad, but doing it anyway because fuck it, they’re getting paid, and since you’re the one barking orders, you’re the engine that makes this thing happen in the first place (pay no attention to the tax cuts, investors and actual architects who make this all possible).

On and on it goes. Somehow, despite all physics, logic, labor laws and human decency, this house is not only still standing but is all the rage in the press. People give congrats, you get interviews, and you get gushing biographies written about you and your genius. But the contractor? Little to no credit given to them. Oh, and they were paid just enough for them to, “make a living”, but not enough to be as comfortable as you are.

Then said contractor gets injured, loses their job, finds that their retirement fund amounts to jack shit, and finally becomes homeless, because they could not adjust to a world where unions and workers are being shortchanged all in the name of visionaries like you and the corporations that hire them.

You give the contractor a dollar to help them out, but the police swarms and arrests them for robbery. Soon, the ever-reliable media conglomerates frame you as the would-be victim of some lazy, violent and possibly mentally ill person who will never amount to anything, much less a visionary genius like you who pulled yourself up by your bootstraps.

That’s Auteurism.

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