Friday, December 14, 2012

The Euvoluntarity of Auteur Theory

A film auteur is characterized by a certain style or a assortment of techniques.The audience can get a feel for who the director is, even without prior knowledge. A reasonable short list of auteurs I might be able to recognize are (in no particular order) are: Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Verhoven, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Yasujiro Ozu, John Waters, Mel Brooks... you get the idea. I would be willing to parse a list like this into two broad types: settlers and trappers.

In the American expansion westward, fur trappers were of a different ilk than the wagon trains that eventually brought urbanization to the prairies. They may have been just as adventurous and interesting as anyone else, but the trappers didn't fundamentally alter the landscape. A trapper auteur develops a distinct style, but other directors typically don't lift his artistic conventions or technique. Tim Burton is a trapper exemplar. He uses a few particular cinematographic conventions, but he didn't invent the Dutch angle any more than he invented the overhead shot or Danny Elfman for that matter. He's off in his own corner of the art landscape, creating very popular, sometimes good films and doing quite well for both himself and Johnny Depp.

Contrast Burton with one of the chief settlers of the 20th Century: Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock created and codified so many film tropes, it would be bonkers for me to try to list them all. Some of the more enduring marks he's left on cinema are reaction shots (seriously, watch Rear Window again, and see just how much of it is Jimmy Stewart agog), the frantic jump cut (the infamous shower scene in Psycho looks mundane to today's audiences, but at the time, it was quite disorienting) and set blocking (this one is probably pretty debatable, but I'd argue that few directors were as skilled at using scenery as metaphor, before or since).

As a naive audience member, I might have trouble discerning between settlers like Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles and trappers like John Huston or Billy Wilder at the time I pay for my ticket and plop my butt in the plastic bucket seat in a smelly theater. Now, if it turns out that I'm watching a movie made by a trapper, the euvoluntarity of my purchase can be determined right after the credits roll (absent any fridge logic, of course). I can check my experience against my expectations and decide if I regret my decision to buy a ticket. No fuss, no muss. Settlers are different, in that by watching Star Wars: A New Hope for the fifteenth time in the theater, I'm contributing to a film culture that scavenges from Lucas (or if we're lucky, from Kershner, but let's not get our hopes up). In the long run, this may or may not be euvoluntary.

It may still be too early to call this one, but I have a hunch that a modern trapper/settler duo is Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. Both of them make mindless, forgettable, fantastically popular cinematic junk food. Yet, it seems as if the aesthetic of Bay that's creeping into the studio films these days. Compare shots from Transformers to those in the latest raft of Marvel properties. You may notice some similarities. Or just take another auteur, Christopher Nolan: contrast the visual style of Following or Memento to his Batman trilogy or Inception. Nolan retains his penchant for audience deception, but smears on a bunch of soaring establishing shots, slo-mo pyro, and breathless, low-angle/hard fill shots for dialog delivery. Emmerich and his shotgun approach to film have thankfully remained his and his alone (for now).

So how about that long-term regret? This is one of the frustrating things about really getting at regret: we don't actually know what the real counterfactual is. We might be able to guess what film would look like today had Winsor McKay ended up having more business acumen than Walt Disney, but such a guess is pretty speculative, moreso as time marches on. I might (and I do) grumble about the shameful quality of children's entertainment, but who's to say what might have survived without the grotesque bowdlerization of the past couple hundred years? Sanitized stories sell and are presumably euvoluntary as a point transaction, so we've got a question isomorphic to the one Matt Zwolinski asked in his LearnLiberty video linked a few posts down: can a series of euvoluntary transactions lead to an undesirable cultural landscape?

Or am I just a snob, and it really is the case that Michael Bay's oeuvre honestly represents the next logical step in the progression of art? Is there time consistency in regret?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?