Typing Faster

July 5, 2009

Mumblecore and the Death of the Auteur

Filed under: Stuff I Like, the biz — petertypingfaster @ 1:30 pm

Good article in The Independent today on the death of the great American film directors.

It’s now been well over a decade since Tarantino became the last American director to be celebrated as an auteur, a director whose films had to be watched no matter what they were about or who was in them. Since the release of Pulp Fiction in 1994, several American directors have threatened to become box-office stars after the manner of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg, but while Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) have received plaudits (and occasional brickbats), none are household names, and none command guaranteed box-office.

At a time when talking robots and student wizards dominate the screens, it’s apparent that directors, or more specifically auteurs, are becoming increasingly irrelevant when choices are made about which film audiences want to see. Studios have become more adept at marketing franchises (think of all the endless superheroes and High School Musicals), or rebooting old television shows and movies in a way that has ensured that the director of the films goes pretty much unnoticed.

I’m not sure I buy into the idea that the death of the director as auteur is all that new. The ’70s were undoubtedly a golden age of American film, and marked the true rise of the great American auteurs. Kubrick, Coppola, Polanski, Altman, Spielberg, Lucas. These were the guys who reinvigorated a moribund studio system and shot some of the first modern blockbusters. People were definitely going to see their films based on their names.

But then they bought into their own hype.

One my favorite books about the film industry is Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. It does a great job of chronicling the rise and fall of the ’70s auteur.

One of my favorite quotes about the book comes from Tim Appelo (and last I checked should still be on that Amazon page I linked to):

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls…builds the case that Hollywood was revived by wild ones who then betrayed their own dreams, slit their own throats, and destroyed an art form by producing that mindless, inhuman modern behemoth, the blockbuster.

In other words, they were brought down by their own success. That and a good dose of their own crazy.

The blockbuster killed the auteur.

And if you think about that, it makes a lot of sense. Why is a blockbuster a blockbuster? A blockbuster shows something that a lot of people want to see. People are going to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in droves because it has big, exploding robots, and that’s what people want to see.

It’s high concept. It’s easy to sell. It doesn’t need a name director to sell it. That’s what the robots are for.

So should we be surprised then that the only current auteur is Judd Apatow? Look at his movies. For the most part they all closely adhere to a very traditional RomCom formula, with a slight guy-centric twist. They’re not particularly high concept, at least not in an “Oh My God Exploding Robots” kind of way. What they are is Apatow’s version of a romantic comedy. Like any other auteur, he’s taken a rigid formula and infused it with his own essence. You can tell when you’re watching a Judd Apatow movie.

Which brings me to the Mumblecore movement.

It seems to me that Mumblecore (or the Mumblecorps) is a natural progression in the world of film auteurs. At its heart, Mumblecore is…

…characterized by ultra-low budget production (often employing digital video cameras), a focus on personal relationships between twenty-somethings, improvised scripts, and non-professional actors.

Pretty much as far away as you can get from giant exploding robots. The thing that the small, intimate scale of these films allow though is for the director to really make their mark on it. Look at a film like Me and You and Everyone We Know. Could that film have been made by anyone other than Miranda July? Doubtful.

What I’m trying to get at is the fact that American auteurs are alive and well, they’re just focusing on a different type of film, one which allows them to fully express themselves and be, well, auteurs.

Of course that isn’t really the point of the original article. In that regard the whole “Death of the Auteur” question is quite misleading. What we should be asking is why have audiences forsaken indie film in favor of blockbusters?

That’s a question that I, unfortunately, don’t have an answer for.



  1. I appreciate what the article is saying, but I don’t think it’s necessarily because of a lack of auteurs. It’s just the film industry suffering from the same media shift that has already affected the music industry and newspapers. There are still plenty of exciting filmmakers whose body of work would define them as auteurs, according to the original tenets of Francois Truffaut and Andrew Sarris.

    What about Zack Snyder? He’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but his films are highly visual, fairly unique and do very well at the box office.

    Wes Anderson has never had a box office hit, but he has enough of a committed following that his films don’t lose money, much in the way Woody Allen continues to work. Other filmmakers have even adopted his style.

    There are also an increasing number of documentary auteurs, who can get a project financed solely by their involvement in the film.

    Comment by Jason — July 8, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

  2. Hey Peter

    Think I have to take exception with the premise that the American Auteur is dead, as well, but from a different (and probably less popular) angle.

    If the idea is that the failure of the Andersons et al. to make huge box office signals that death, then it seems that BO has become the marker of success. Debatable, but okay, I’ll go with it. But if that is the case, then there are several auteurs — i.e., directors with a singular style and total control over the final product — with huge hits right now.

    Michael Bay. Brett Ratner. Chris Nolan.

    Of course, I get why they never seem to make those lists (well, maybe Nolan, but not lately) — the movies aren’t “serious” or whatever enough to count. But going by the original premise, don’t see why Bay doesn’t count. Love him or hate him, he’s the king of hollywood, and his movies are like nobody else’s.

    Comment by Adam Barken — July 20, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    • You know it’s interesting, I’d never thought of Michael Bay as an auteur, but he definitely fits a lot of the requirements to be one. He has box office draw, a distinct directing style, and while people may not go to see his movies based solely on his name, they definitely know the name. I’d hesitate to classify Bay as an auteur because, in my opinion at least, anyone could direct his movies. I have a hard time seeing “2001” without Kubrick, or “The Godfather” without Coppola.

      I think part of the problem with making any argument along these lines is that the word auteur has become a little dated. Back in the ’70s these guys were gods, getting studios to pay for their movies based solely on their names. Those days are long, long gone. Just look at the way Sony canned Steven Soderbergh’s “Moneyball,” despite its relatively modest budget and star attachments.

      I’m not sure if the American auteur is dead or dying, but it certainly seems to me that the balance of power has shifted back towards the studios. Thus we see the artistically driven, risk taking indie directors being driven further and further to the fringes (ie. the Mumblecore movement).

      At the end of the day I think it’s time we just retired the whole auteur theory of cinema anyway. Get rid of the possessive “a film by” credit and just celebrate the fact that making any film or tv program takes a village, not an individual.

      Who needs fucking auteurs anyway?

      Comment by petertypingfaster — July 20, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

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