Tuesday, March 9, 2010
The Rise of the Hack Auteur
The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):
Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel
As Andrew Sarris initially wrote about the infamous Auteur Theory in his must-have 1968 tome (a dog-eared copy of which I still, some 40 years later, continually refer to) The American Cinema: “Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much about theory as an attitude, a table of values that convert film history into directorial autobiography. The auteur critic is obsessed with wholeness of art and the artist. He looks at film as a whole, the director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining individually, must cohere meaningfully. This meaningful coherence is more likely when the director dominates the proceedings with skill and purpose.” In other words kiddies, his original concept (borrowed from a batch of smarty-pants French cinemaphiles), was that the film director, at his or his best, despite the multiple layers of intellectual and technical collaborators, and, despite the often strangling tentacles of popular art as commerce, is essentially an author, given to repeated themes, a few central preoccupations, typically expressing them with an idiosyncratic visual (and largely repeated) language, and is, no doubt about it, the author of his completed filmic work.
Of course, back then, Sarris found himself in a much publicized and dissected skirmish between those who found his essential theory either enriching, woefully overblown and wrongheaded, or at the least, intriguing. While in some, small, largely academic circles the debate may still simmer on, by and large it’s a theory long accepted by the vast majority of film nitcrits, cultural pundits, and the not-so-unwashed film going public. In fact today, every other whiz-bang filmmaker or box office boffo director gets bagged and tagged as an auteur, and many of them feel no qualms in unabashedly self-applying the description onto themselves. During a recent yakety-yak session, a knowledgeable acquaintance proposed new theories that of the contempo Hack Auteur, quantifying those very directors whose monikers alone manage to convey commercial gossamer, artistic weight and industry power. Yet, the theory goes, upon closer inspection, most of these directors, all of them replete with the multiple abilities to render a cinematic tale with gusto, to translate the literal into the visual, and to project that air of directorial arrogance and self-righteousness that signifies to some auteur-worthiness; under the critical microscope they seem filmmakers without the needed extra dollop of an acute vision, devoid of truly original and interlocking themes or imagery ,and without any unifying sense of the type of authorial voice that can penetrate through Hollywood’s ever standing layers of commercialism, artistic compromise, or restrictions of genre.
Who exactly makes us such a line up? As an early (and suddenly fervid) promulgator of the theory, I take great pleasure in listing those, both veterans and newcomers, which seem to be part of The Rise of the Hack Auteur. Let’s include McQ (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation) Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon, Transformers), Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump), and last but certainly not least, brothers Tony (Top Gun, True Romance, Man on Fire) and Ridley Scott. And, lest we forget (but he would never let us) the self-proclaimed King of the World, James Cameron (The Terminator, True Lies, Titanic).
Avatar, Cameron‘s latest; besides being a 300 million dollar, technotastic 3-D, superfragalistic CGI, phantasmagoric waterfall of modernistic special effects and sci-fi in-yer-face world making, is also the self-declarative big screen war whoop of a self-proclaimed artiste out to top himself. Despite its occasional spellbinding moments and its undeniable visual treats Avatar still remains the very evident work of that species we have dubbed The Hack Auteur.
Cloaked in the aura of industry buzz (“Groundbreaking!”), and undeniably coated by the ever inviting elements of a scrumptious, old-fashioned (but new-fangled) spectacle Avatar has been minting return monies and prompting all sorts of deep and thoughtful analyses, yet it continually traffics in the obvious, and is; in the final sense, such a funky potpourri of over-elevated green styled strum and drag.
Set in 2154, with the usually ruggedly handsome white male savior figure (Sam Worthington, a soldier without the use of his legs) at its center, it hammers back and forth from the black-hatted military and corporate (doubled evil, see?) world where the soldier boy is part of an avatar experiment and thus safely ensconced on a peeping-tom space station, to the alien moon of Pandora, the home to the Na’vi, an indigenous multiple-clanned people who (you got it) are at one with their environs, transcendentally bonding with both bountiful plant life and the savage beasties. Initially sent forth as both military scout and scientific sample-provider he (uh-huh) falls in love with a lithe (albeit blue-skinned) superwoman native gal (Zoe Saldana) and winds up trading sides and leading the natives (i.e. Vietnamese, Afghans, Native Americans,) in a rebel battle.
Cameron fails to get much emotional worth out of the effects versions of Worthington or Saldana, despite the Rube Goldbergian contraption of color, noise, and acid-inspired whirligig of sensory plug-ins that envelope their so-called acting. Chief baddies Stephen Lang (military) and Giovanni Ribisi (corporate) bluster and ham their way badly through the whole lengthy shebang, with only a robust Sigourney Weaver avoiding caricature until a cliché silent screen-style death scene.
Excess and extravagance, however finely-honed, do not make a picture great, or a filmmaker triumphant. Trippy and bold, Avatar is an amusing, even occasionally entertaining ride, and an obvious crowd pleaser. Ultimately it is never all that cohesive or layered, nor even that thought-provoking. (science=good, military=bad, cooperate interlopers=real bad, primitive natives=real good). An empty sensory delight, much like the continual onslaught of kicked-back-into-your-eyes onscreen 3-D debris that Cameron keeps pumping things up with, it’s without true cinematic complexity, just another big screen mechanized coloring book with a whole lotta shaking goin’ on. Pure Hack Auteur nirvana.