June 03, 2011

Philosopher’s Comedy, Warrior’s Tears

Great filmmakers have often been, and arguably so, divided into two categories: the auteur (“author”) and the metteur en scene (“scene-setter”). To be classified as an "auteur", film critic Andrew Sarris argues, a director must accomplish three things: technical competence in technique, a personal visual style, and an interior meaning running through the various film “texts” made by him/her. I believe all such auteurs, through the body of their works, become genres by themselves. Fellini, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kurosawa, and lately David Lynch, are not just filmmakers. They are authors, who write on celluloid with their distinctive styles; their movies collectively form ‘genres’, rich and influential, and inimitable. A greater achievement, perhaps, has been made by Alfred Hitchcock. He obviously qualifies as an auteur (going by Sarris’ criteria), but goes beyond by operating within the confines of the ‘suspense’ genre, and often setting rules for it. He relies on telling a story powerfully, without dwelling into intricate and esoteric artistry, profound philosophy, or surrealistic puzzles. And despite numerous well-made suspense films by other filmmakers, no one has been able to match the legendary stature and the popularity of the Master of the genre.

The second category is of the matteur en scene. They do have an aesthetic style detectable in their works, but they do not qualify as authors. I have tried to understand the basis of this classification. Perhaps this term is used for directors whose filmography lacks a thematic, philosophical, or artistic consistency, but they achieve great success by operating within the genre-system and often creating memorable works. So a John Ford film can be a great Western or a great Drama, but the words ‘John Ford’ do not refer to any particular ‘genre’. He might be a great director, but his work lacks an authorial signature. If my understanding is correct, despite a great body of work Steven Spielberg remains a ‘matteur en scene’, but Jim Jarmusch is an ‘auteur’.

This discussion is a reaction to two movies I watched recently – ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ by Ingmar Bergman, and ‘I Live in Fear’ by Akira Kurosawa, two of the greatest auteurs, trying to do something they often don’t. The usually philosophical and dark Bergman presents a romantic comedy, and the creator of epic historical and Samurai stories, Kurosawa, narrates a modern, urban tale of a family torn by its patriarch’s phobia of the nuclear weapons. The former was very good, though its impact on me might not be as that of Bergman’s other works. But the latter was ordinary, suggesting yet again that perhaps Kurosawa can not match the effortless brilliance of his compatriots Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu when it comes to telling extremely personal, sensitive stories involving families and women. Even ‘Ikiru’, which is perhaps Kurosawa’s best attempt at telling a personal and modern story, changes its course and becomes, albeit an excellent, social commentary on modern life and urban corruption.

These two movies make me think further – perhaps the ‘auteurs’ are at their best when they operate within the genres they have created for themselves. And this perhaps is the biggest argument against them. A Billy Wilder might not be an author, but has made some great comedies (‘The Apartment’, ‘Some Like it Hot’), and stays in supreme form while making a Noir like ‘Double Indemnity’. Perhaps not being much of an artist, but a master craftsman enables him to do great work in whatever genre he attempts. As I discover more great makers and movies, this discussion will continue. Watching a comedy by Hitchcock would be a great case study!

P.S. The views expressed in this article are ‘controversy-genic’. However, it must be insisted that the attempt here is not to compare and criticize the great filmmakers mentioned above, but to try to understand the mechanism behind their greatness.


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  4. Not going by the definition of 'author' as given above for a similar yet different discussion here, not long ago, looking at my movie DVD collections fill the rows of my "bookshelf", i wondered if these films are actually the non-traditional modern day forms of books!

    Come to think of it: pamphlets, and then books (hand written, and then printed), used to be the earliest medium for recording, storing and communicating ideas, thoughts and expressions. With changing times and technology, the recording medium has now evolved to, apart from recording printed words on paper, also recording the audio and visual content in a digital medium which was not a possibility some centuries earlier. And, if you look at it, in a way, we do recognise 'E-books' and 'Audio books' as an alternate form of ‘books’, in a form as technology of the times facilitate them!

  5. (...cont)

    Any day i consider Ramanand Sagar to be an 'author' of his televised Ramayana (or for that matter, any film maker, of his film/documentary/tv series etc). It's his interpretation and cinematic authorship of the various literary versions of the epic, expressed in an audio/visual medium, instead of just printed permutation of words. Tuslidas had Ramcharitmanas as his interpretation of Ramyana, expressed in from of a printed book in his time. The DVD/VCD collections, or even computer files of Ramanand Sagar’s epic, in a way, make for different pages/sections of the ‘modern book’ written by him!

    Of course, the above logic is not specific to the stated example, but also applies to any form of expression recorded in any medium (or at least so i think as of now).

    That apart, i haven't given much time to evolve and deal with intricacies and inconsistencies with this idea. It's just that the thought was brewing in my mind for quite some time now, and i though this was a good related place to start wording them down and clear my head.

    P.S. Yes, the blogger should not really count deleted comments as total no of published comments. It tends to build up false expectation on part of the blogger when reviewing the feedbacks on his post.

  6. Agree with your thought, but the best part was the visual description of the DVDs encroaching into your book-shelf that triggered the idea!

    BTW, the word 'blogger' has two different meanings when used twice in your post-script above. Right? :)

  7. Right. didnt notice in the flow that my usage was ambiguous. should have used the capitalised 'Blogger' to avoid confusion for the first instance..