“Hollywood directors don’t produce a film’s meaning any more than McDonald’s managers produce a Big Mac’s taste.”
That’s the opening shot across Hollywood’s bow in “Notes Towards a New Criticism,” a sprawling manifesto by Willie Osterweil, published on the culture blog The New Inquiry. Osterweil’s essay lays a fierce, unwieldy argument for the downgrade of two standard bearers of quality in defining the art of cinema: the film critic and the film director, at least insofar as they are involved with Hollywood.
In a sweeping attack on the commercial practices of contemporary mainstream American cinema, Osterweil denounces the use of the “auteur” label for Hollywood directors as empty branding co-opted by the industry for their own marketing purposes:
“For mainstream entertainment films, the director must be considered little more than a manager… The director is little more than a brand, and his name guarantees a particular image-management style.”
He’s equally contemptuous of film critics whom he sees as complicit in the promulgation of Hollywood crap; simply by virtue of talking about bad movies, whether negatively or otherwise, mainstream critics keep these films on people’s radar as worth talking about. It’s a diabolical feedback loop that Osterweil labels “The Current,” keeping the public endlessly hooked on manufactured hype:
“Film criticism fails to see the intentions and desires of the film industry, the only active subject in major cinema. In doing so, film criticism colludes with the entertainment industry’s massive project of commodifying experience.”
Osterweil’s argument has been making the rounds in certain film blog circles, but the most notable reactions to the piece can be found in its comments section, where a number of lengthy reactions have been left by unamused commenters. One discredits his argument as “tragically full of fallacies;” another as “the worst kind of parochialism.” It gets to the point that the intensity of the vitriol against Osterweil’s piece becomes revealing in itself. One may try to dismiss the article as unoriginal or unpolished, but all the same it remains unsettling; a number of bullets from Osterweil’s shotgun spray have lodged in my memory:
“By considering the product of thousands of film workers’ alienated labor the creative expression of a single director, film criticism champions managers, not the art of cinema. Film criticism must dismiss the concept of auteurs and understand the film as a mass-produced object.”
“For most major film releases, marketing costs a quarter to a third of the production budget; this money goes to establishing a film’s ubiquity and “cultural relevance” while masking its inadequacies, inviting critics to regard it as a window to the psychological state of the American people, and regard themselves as insightful for doing so.”
Seeking clarification for parts of the article I found problematic, I sent Osterweil a series of questions via email. Our exchange follows:
– How would you characterize the responses you’ve received over your piece, and what responses do you have for them?
The piece got reblogged all over the place, and brought a lot of traffic to The New Inquiry, which makes me very happy. But the comments section tells a different story.
First, a large percentage of the criticism said things like: ‘clearly he hasn’t read Adorno’ or ‘but Althusser says…’, basically, that I haven’t read enough books. I remember one commenter said that I was completely ignorant of the ‘field of film studies’. Which is funny to me, because I’ve spent countless hours reading these people, I wrote a highly theoretical undergraduate thesis on Torture Porn, I know how to play that game, but I made a conscious choice not to use any theorists, make reference to other thinkers. This response, this freak out, speaks to a lot of the problems I see in film criticism that led me to write the piece.
I am always shocked by the number of (self-styled) leftists who are devoted to the truism that “there are no new ideas.” And I think it’s very important to some people to tear down anyone who doesn’t produce work that functions with bibliographical exactitude, or even just takes risks. For me, theory is ultimately a political project, and it is most meaningful when it is performative and provocative. A pristine, perfect film theory of shuddering complexity isn’t going to help anyone without the tools to read it, and this sort of thinking is, quite frankly, usually elitist and counter-revolutionary.
Other critiques that I found more compelling said that I over-simplified the difference between art and entertainment, left out the question of aesthetics and built a sort of ‘straw-man’ critic which lumped together academic with newspaper film criticism. I think these are valuable and more or less correct arguments: the piece is styled as a manifesto, and as such I gloss quickly over issues that cannot be so simply dealt with. This was not meant to be the extent of my thought on film. But I did these things consciously, and was not particularly interested in the acceptance of people who already function on that academic plane. There’s a reason I’m not in grad school, and have no intention of ever going.
And I do think it’s important to re-emphasize that my intention with this piece was political. As a political provocation, I think it was quite effective.
– Your piece opens with the assertion: “It’s news to no one that film production has changed radically since 1954, when François Truffaut and the writers at Cahiers du Cinéma created auteur theory. Yet film criticism, both academic and popular, usually maintains that the director is the paramount force behind the production of cinematic meaning.” But the concept of the director-as-artist was as contested back in the 1950s as it is today. Naysayers of auteurism have always pointed to the predominantly collaborative and commercial nature of filmmaking, a condition that has been the case since the onset of mainstream film. So what really has changed between 1954 and today?
In the essay, I address the fact that in 1954, the number of people who worked on an individual film was significantly lower, and I do think that’s key. But the total marketing aparatus, though nascent, was not nearly as high volume or high pitched in the fifties as it is today. This is where the concept of the Film Current is very important. The speed and breadth of preview, critical response, and discussion has become incredible, a veritable ocean of data and noise.
In 1954, films didn’t simultaneously open at midnight on 2,000 screens after six months of escalating advertising attention, films weren’t dependent on a huge first weekend to make them a hit, you couldn’t rent movies and you certainly couldn’t stream them instantly: cinema was a significantly less monolithic national force than it is now.
And thus the economic realities of cinema were less dependent on marketing, on critical discussion (which is, of course, a form of marketing), etc. People are aghast when they see Universal Studios buying the rights to the board game ‘Candyland’, but the fact is, tickets need to be sold on night one, and people know Candyland. And guess what? Talking about how ridiculous it is to make a Candyland movie makes people anticipate the appearance of the Candyland movie: it sells tickets. And producers are not ignorant of that fact.
When a film has to make most of its money more or less instantaneously, and nationally, it needs to be marketable nationally, and to be marketable, it needs to fit into a formula that marketers and producers know how to sell easily to national markets. And that obviously squeezes out any directorial idiosyncracies that are not already established brands.
I agree that in academic film studies, the director has been more consistently challenged as a suspect figure – but even among very thorough and intelligent film critics, conversation about a film will frequently yield the question “Oh, who is it by?” Maybe it’s just shorthand, but it seems to me to be rather widely accepted that the director is the authorial figure of a film, and I think 9 times out of 10 that’s just not true.
– Your piece more or less rejects the claims for art on behalf of Hollywood films – but Truffaut and Cahiers famously championed the artistic value of certain Hollywood films, especially at the expense of established French filmmakers. If Truffaut and the original Cahiers critics were working today, do you think they would react differently to the current crop of Hollywood directors? Would there be anyone they’d embrace the same way they did with Howard Hawks, Frank Tashlin and Alfred Hitchcock?
Yes, Chris Columbus and Michael Bay.
I can’t pretend to speak for the Cahiers critics or recognize trends with the clarity and insight that they did, but more than that, I think the question is compromised by the fact that auteurism has become a bankable concept–stylistic idiosyncracy as a form of branding–so you can get someone like M. Night Shyamalan, who has a relatively aesthetically and structurally consistent body of work. But is it because Shyamalan has a particular vision that he expresses, or is it because he gets paid to make an ‘M Night Shyamalan’ film once every two years? I certainly lean toward the latter. Auteurism is an over-developed and readymade concept, and as such, difficult and somewhat pointless to tease out, cause-and-effect-wise, in individual bodies of work.
The best example of what I’m talking about may be Quentin Tarantino: from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction through Kill Bill to Inglourious Basterds and the atrocious Death Proof, I think you can see him changing from someone with ideas and a particular aesthetic into someone who makes ‘Quentin Tarantino’ films: heavy in arbitrary dialogue, pop reference-filled and self-aware talkies with confused timelines and sudden bursts of outrageous violence. And his self-awareness along the way makes his whole project such a confusing mess: is he parodying himself consciously, or for the cash, or has he really convinced himself that this style is a vision, or what?
– In its initial Cahiers incarnation, the auteur theory had a subversive edge in elevating the work of genre and B-movie directors over the makers of prestige pictures. Your piece implies that this subversive position has been co-opted by the industry, so that any piece of commercial genre trash can be validated as an auteurist work. Taking a historical view, at what point would you say this shift occurred?
If I had to guess, I think the turning point is probably sometime in the late seventies/early eighties, when you have the rise of the cult film, home video, and suddenly people can watch all these low-budget films, and realize that they’re actually pretty awesome, often way better than the trite garbage coming out in theaters. That’s when you start to get midnight movie culture, magazines that glorify ‘trash’ like Fangoria: not to mention the indelible rise of Star Wars and the kind of cotton-candy mega-blockbuster we have today. That’s also when movie studios begin relying more seriously on opening weekend and simultaneous release.
Not to overdo it with Tarantino, but Pulp Fiction is probably the moment at which the transformation is complete: you have this film that’s all about b-movie aesthetics and vulgarity, I mean it’s called Pulp Fiction, for god’s sake, and it gets nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
– One of the respondents to your piece argued “Auteurism, for all its flaws, has played a huge role in giving us the Criterion Collection, the major film festivals, the discipline of film studies, and the very notion that film should be talked about at all..” Even if we were to agree, your piece seems more focused on auteurism as a notion that has been reduced to a marketing brand, and has outlived its usefulness as an aesthetic concept. At this point, should the auteur theory be abandoned altogether?
Capitalism, ‘for all its flaws’, has given humanity many incredible advances, among them cinema, but that doesn’t mean rejecting it requires an act of willful ignorance about the positive things it has provided. Abandoning everything that’s come from auteur theory altogether is an impossible overreaction, but when it comes to critiquing Hollywood cinema, the director should have no privileged place in the discussion. I actually think that the star of the film has a much larger effect on the meaning and experience of a Hollywood film than the director. But of course, that’s really a decision made by the producers…
Again, film production has organized around the concept of the auteur, and as such, especially with smaller budget cinema, the director does partially produce the artistic content. The bigger the budget, the more he just resembles a manager, saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the decisions of various underling artists, whose artistic expression he exploits and styles with his particular brand.
Auteurs still exist, but we treat them as much more common then they are. I’m interested in seeing new directions in popular film criticism, and, as such, would love to see reviews where the director is not even named, the direction not discussed. Because ‘directing’ frequently becomes a nebulous catch all for critics to describe mise-en-scene, cinematography, set design, art design etc etc. On a Hollywood film, there are entire departments of people, dozens of people, behind each of these decisions. The director just calls action. And sometimes not even that; on most major production you have second and even third teams shooting simultaneously in different locations. So I would like to see the director largely removed from the discussion of Hollywood cinema.
– You identify some filmmakers as “auteurs,” such as Catherine Breillat, Wong Kar-wai, and Werner Herzog. These directors by and large operate outside of the Hollywood industrial complex that you criticize. But international art cinema is an industry that produces product in its own right – anyone who visits a film festival market can attest to that – and one that operates under its own “manufactured zeitgeist,” to use one of your terms. Is the arthouse film industry really so different from Hollywood to the point that you endorse applying separate criteria to evaluate their respective films?
That’s a very good point, and the international festival circuit regularly spews up just as much soulless industrial garbage as Hollywood, although it tends to be quirkier and much more belaboredly Auteuristic. But the ‘manufactured zeitgeist’ of the festival circuit is one much more limited to critics, film snobs, and people who work in the film industry: buzz about the next Dardenne Brothers film is never going to penetrate mass-consciousness in the same way that Candyland will. And the fact of the matter is, directors on the international circuit work with smaller crews and smaller amounts of money: this is quite important, although it’s hardly everything.
Of course, star directors of the circuit like Michael Haneke, Herzog or Wong frequently make relatively big budget films, but their artistic independence has been hard won, and they have achieved relative (or, in the case of Herzog, mythical) independence to write and direct whatever film turns them on.
In terms of applying criteria of evaluation, in my piece I basically drew a line between Hollywood and non-Hollywood. It’s obviously not that simple, and the piece originally had about 500 more words on dividing art from entertainment, but I cut it for the sake of length and movement of the piece. The important question is: what are the film’s goals? Does it answer questions or ask them?
I’m not really that interested in dividing and categorizing things into ‘art’ and ‘not art’. I think that the definition of art (as with the definition of most things) is both fluid and changable, and I think the important point is to locate it in such a way that it has use-value, either as a heuristic or a launching point for bigger ideas. I think theory is too bogged down in questions of definition and accuracy, and I think people who write it should be taking many more risks. Other than that, I share The Supreme Court’s rather laissez faire definition, that it used, of course, for obscenity. “I know it when I see it.”
– In the end the “new film criticism” you advocate is in fact “the end of film criticism and the advent of a world where no one requires the mediation of an expert between themselves and aesthetic experience.” I can’t help but feel that this is a utopian wish, if not one that by definition negates your own article. Film criticism, whether or not we call it that, will always exist so long as people desire to express and understand the relative value of cultural works. The best way I can make sense of your statement is if you are advocating for a dismantling of film criticism as a profession, which your article persuasively describes as inured by the influence of the industry. Or am I missing something?
Yes, I want the end of film criticism as a profession. There will always be people who’d rather talk about movies than make them, and I don’t have a problem with that. I am for the end of all professions, because I am for the end of capitalism. We are in a moment of terminal crisis, and though film criticism is a miniscule part of any revolutionary project, we must begin thinking in new directions immediately and everywhere. We must aspire to total, constant creativity of thought and action. I think there are some weaknesses within my piece, and I think it only partially achieved that aspiration. If people think I’m wrong, I’m happy to have them argue against me, but I’d rather they create something new and explosive themselves.
Kevin B. Lee is the Editor of Fandor Keyframe. Follow him on Twitter.
Willie Osterweil is a writer and punk singer based in Brooklyn, NY. When he’s not overseas taking part in revolutions, Willie edits the A/V section for The New Inquiry and fronts the band Vulture Shit.