Sometime last year I came across a copy of Syd Field’s Definitive Guide to Screenwriting in a university bookshop. Apart from the ridiculous assertion that any analysis of artistic method could be exhaustive, it was especially notable for advocating a process that emphasizes marketability over imagination. Screenwriting, by Field’s logic, is a ‘get rich eventually’ scheme.
The position is unsurprising. American cinema has always lived predominantly off of mass product, a situation that renders even mediocre films diamonds amongst an ever-increasing rough. As an industry, the process works with the mechanical rigidity of a production line. Screenwriting is just the first step in a procession that veers and maneuvers through producers, directors, cinematographers, actors and editors. Field would have us believe that there is no room in the heavily unionized Hollywood structure for personality: The film’s the thing.
Little surprise, then, that Welles and Malick rank below Spielberg and Scorsese in the American imagination, or that art films teeter frequently between cries of pretension and outright bewilderment. Hollywood may be aware of auteur theory, but it has yet to sanction it as a proper means of creating capital. Studio movies are made to make money and/or win awards and then make money. If they’re good, great. If not, no hassle.
The production method is as uniquely American as the films that result. Europe and Asia may produce crowd-pleasing fare, but rarely with the methodical cynicism that permeates so obviously beneath the surface of Soul Plane or Guess Who. These films, put simply, can never be rationalized as art or endeavor.
Yet, like all systems, Hollywood has its cracks and sometimes, through luck or stubbornness, it allows an auteur in the mould of the Europeans (or faux-European American independents) to emerge within the contrasting surroundings. The reasons are varied but almost always end at the bottom line. Hollywood would never woo Jia Zhang-Ke, but it could make a case for Johnny To, if focus group scores were kind. Likewise, while independents in the vein of David Gordon Green and Guy Maddin seem destined to lives of cosmopolitan obscurity, those whose themes are more mainstream, but no less consistent or forceful, may stumble into wide release and never look back.
They might not scale the heights of critical acclaim achieved by more traditional masters, but ‘LAuteurs’ stand as proof that commercialism and quality are not mutually exclusive. Syd Field may beg to differ but a singular vision, and not a watertight process, is the greatest asset a work of art can claim. Here are four directors who prove that multiplexes need not always be unrewarding for the discerning filmgoer:
Peyton Reed: Hampered, in theory, by not writing his own material, Reed nonetheless possesses the keenest generic eye in Hollywood. His first two features, Bring it On and Down With Love at first appear rote; emphasized by overt motifs and ridiculous narrative, the films fit comfortably within teen and romantic comedy stereotypes. Yet they retain a vivacity and self-consciousness that allows both to, not only entertain, but also comment on the conventions of genre and formula.
Reed’s personal tone is easily missed, wedded, as it is, to the prevailing ideology of Hollywood. In most films, the car wash scene in Bring it On would be extraneous. Instead, in the film it serves as a knowing satirical and self-fulfilling commentary on they hypocrisy of mainstream titillation. Likewise, Down with Love commits itself to its inspiration so totally it becomes difficult to draw the line between sincerity and homage. Reed’s films play like all-encompassing in-jokes: brilliant if you get them and just as good if you don’t.
David O. Russell: Penning and directing his three major studio efforts thus far, Russell has gained a reputation for being both an idiosyncratic and relevant filmmaker. His mise en scene is accessible to casual filmgoers (along with his casting) but he retains enough innovation to maintain a continuing sense of auteurship. While quirky deadpan has become the style of late, his films (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, I ‘Heart’ Huckabees) are best viewed as a contemporary take on classic screwball, complete with passionately interested characters and an ever-escalating momentum.
It is with this bittersweet tone that Russell underlines his sense of control over the medium. While his previous three efforts had ostensibly varied styles, the camera placing, use of music and preference for frenzied conversation maintain a beating and recognizable pulse throughout his studio oeuvre. With this attitude, he comfortably fits Truffaut’s criteria of consistency across genres and, as such, the output is always exciting and worth anticipating.
Jean-Francois Richet: An anarchist in Hollywood. Richet may have been a hired gun on his debut American film, Assault on Precinct 13, but the precision in that project serves as a logical continuation of his French films. Assault brews with disenchantment for both the state (in the form of the wrongly incarcerated) and its first line of defense (the corrupt cops who ignore and twist the law). Whereas John Carpenter’s original chose to paint the mob as the villains, the 2005 edition unequivocally places anti-social behavior and violence at the foot of an intrusive and selfishly narcissistic state.
Crack City, Richet’s militant second film, was banned in France and labeled a public danger. The social commentary is subdued in Assault but it remains a prominent force throughout the narrative, most potently in the atmospheric style and the notion of civilians rising to defend themselves. That Richet felt comfortable in transplanting these themes to Hollywood is admirable yet unusual. John Woo was never able to comfortably mesh his Hong Kong aesthetic with the demands of commercial American filmmaking, while other European imports Wolfgang Petersen and Lasse Hallström (among others) reverted to classical Hollywood formula as soon as they hit US soil. Richet, if nothing else, deserves credit for not sacrificing his original thesis.
Wes Anderson: A given maybe, but Anderson’s relationship with Disney/Buena Vista has endured for three films, middling box office, and very little Oscar success. The studio clearly and somewhat unusually has nevertheless continued to not only back him, but consistently shown faith in his vision. Anderson films are clearly borne of their maker; the art direction and framing devices ensures that he can never be mistaken for anyone else. Yet they are unlikely to ever truly find prominence amongst theatergoers. Caught between multiplexes and art houses, the relationship between major studio and filmmaker is one of faith and promise.
Simply put, it is ignorant to suggest that Hollywood is the antithesis of good filmmaking. While it’s patently clear that the inherent structures treat art as capital and prioritize black ink, the sheer volume of films produced annually ensures that, at the very least, a handful will be worthwhile. That this is the case and that, despite prevailing images to the contrary, LAuteurs (albeit using a modified model) exist at peace within the system, is a promising fact. Let us not forget that the theory and consequent New Wave was initially created in similar circumstances by French critics turned filmmakers. That particular horizon may today seem unreachable, but even one or two steps would make a huge difference. And at least they’d represent a step away from Syd Field.