[15 February 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Arising out of discussions of film criticism in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Auteur theory has had a substantial effect on how authority is viewed in filmmaking. Auteur theory suggests that, despite being collaborative efforts, the creative “signature” of a film can be attributed to the director. It is the director’s vision that determines the characteristics and sensibilities of a film, and thus, a kind of authority akin to “authorship” can be attributed to that singular individual.
With the Hollywood studio system breaking down and a group of “New Wave” directors in Europe being credited as visionaries guiding their works, the discussion arose at an interesting time for filmmaking, when the notion of a collective entity being responsible for film was being replaced by a sense of the importance of a unique artistry in the medium. While the theory has its detractors, it’s hard not to notice that film critics have pretty much tacitly accepted this sense of who is responsible for a film’s success or failure as a work of art. Critics rarely suggest that the screenwriter or cinematographer (or any of the rest of the crew for that matter) is the “author” of a film. Instead, we hear of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
As video games have begun to grow up and media critics have begun to take gaming more seriously as a potential art form, a similar tacit acceptance of the notion of the auteur has often defined discussions of “important games”. While some exceptions might exist (Infinity Ward is credited for the Modern Warfare games rather than one individual), a slew of names have emerged around the most innovative and seminal games of this decade and the two prior ones: The Sims is Will Wright; Metal Gear Solid belongs to Hideo Kojima; Jordan Mechner is responsible for bringing us the Prince of Persia. That’s just naming a few.
Who has the right to claim authorship for a collectively constructed work is certainly an interesting debate (especially in a medium where the audience has a hand in shaping the stories—be it through making choices in games or by creating player generated content). However, one of the interesting consequences of promoting the notions of auteur theory is the way that the auteur very often gains or cultivates a celebrity by being the creator of a work of art and how that persona is shaped by and shapes an understanding of that work.
There are a number of American directors that have managed to establish a celebrity persona through wit and wackiness, like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, but the most obvious success in American film at creating a public persona that reflects the sensibilities of his work is Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s cultivation of a public persona can be largely attributed to a presence that many other “serious” directors might consider something to avoid: he appeared on the small screen. With Hitchcock serving as host to Alfred Hitchcock Presents through the ‘50s and early’ 60s, the director was able not only to make himself a recognizable face (and body) to the American public, but he was also able to carefully craft a sense of who and what he was all about. Dry wit, gallows humor, and just overall weirdness all assigned qualities of the director’s films to the man himself and vice versa as he served as host to the strange vignettes that framed individual episodes.
One of Hitchcock’s signatures is his weird sense of humor. Consider the strange interlude in The Birds where Tippi Hedren drives with a pair of lovebirds in a cage on the seat next to her and the birds tip ridiculously in tandem as she makes sharp turns in the car. It’s the sort of thing that would amuse the weird eccentric that the audience had seen for years on television. Likewise, Hitchcock’s bizarre and entrancing trailer for Frenzy in which the director appears floating corpse-like in the Thames before introducing the subject matter of the upcoming film is marvelously weird and whimsical despite the sinister subject matter of the film. That very whimsy mixed with horror marks the actual sensibilities of the film itself, which despite containing one of the more agonizing rape-murder sequences in film, also contains some of the funniest and most whimsical moments of Hitchcock’s career in the scenes peppered throughout the movie involving a detective’s struggles to maintain his composure in the face of his wife’s horrendous cooking.
In a post entitled “Look at the Camera and Smile: No More Heroes and the New Wave,” Michael Abbot proposed that Suda 51 is an auteur very much in line with French New Wave sensibilities (The Brainy Gamer.com, 3 February 2008). Abbot’s observations are very apt regarding those parallels, and I don’t disagree that exploring this parallel is a potentially fruitful one. However, while Suda 51’s name is certainly nowhere near as pervasive in American households as Hitchcock’s, his sense of “auteurship” does contain interesting parallels with Hitchcock’s specific efforts at public identity as well as those of the New Wave movement.
Like Hitchcock, Suda has cultivated a very bizarre persona to match with the sensibilities of his games. While Suda eschews the buttoned down elegance of the British born auteur, such a buttoned down appearance would fly in the face of he and his development company Grasshopper Manufacture, Inc.‘s pervasive motto, “Punk’s not dead”. This is not to distance him from the kind of persona creation of an Alfred Hitchcock, but merely to observe that it is necessary for the details of Suda’s unique identity and concerns in his games to map to the specific eccentricities of this artist.
Thus, Suda’s public persona is one manufactured within the kind of punk sensibility of a Johnny Rotten. If Johnny Rotten was infamous for flinging his own snot at his audience (or simply eating it during an interview), Suda is content to film a dev diary for No More Heroes perched on a toilet in a bathroom stall. Oh, and his head also explodes while he is chatting on the commode.
Like Hitchcock’s gallows humor, which tests our sensibilities about the dignity and gravitas with which we treat death and murder, Suda likes to test the boundaries of taste and decorum as well as question video game player’s appetites for violence. Suda questions the gravity of artistry as he describes his artistic technique using the toilet as metaphor: “I basically work like a bathroom toilet. I consume everything I see, everything I eat, and whatever I do. And then, when I take a shit, everything comes out perfect.” He then welcomes us to his toilet via the surrogate of the woman behind him and his “real” head blows up, not in a geyser of blood and cash (as characters’ heads do in his games) but in an ironic reversal of the “realism” of his games in a fountain of pixels. Even while questioning artistic gravitas, he sounds like artist types that we are familiar with by acting decadent and even obscene. Think Hitchcock or even Salvador Dali showing up to a lecture in a diving bell.
As I have written previously in “The Mask of the Deviant: Understanding Our Role in Killer 7” (PopMatters 10 July 2009), questioning the relative value of pixels in representing violence and death is one of Suda’s dominant interests: “Indeed, the very real non-existence of enemies in games [like Killer 7] is what makes games pleasurable to play. Because these worlds are illusions, little solipsistic universes where there are no consequences for really terrible behaviors like becoming a killer, we can take unmitigated pleasure in obliterating monsters that represent terror and evil.” Thus, Suda brings his thematic interests in asking why we derive pleasure from pixelated violence into the “real world” of his public persona in moments like the above video.
Video game critics have spent the last few years in search of “the Citizen Kane of video games” in an effort to legitimize video games as an art. Perhaps we need to begin considering that the ethos necessary to deem something artistic often times has as much to do with the persona of the artist as the product that he or she creates. What both Hitchcock and Suda have managed to do by crafting their public personae is to cease acting like artisans and craftsman and begin acting more like our conception of ‘artist’. Doing so requires an embrace of the archetype of the auteur, blending a sense of the work into a sense of who they are as artists and grafting a sense of themselves into the art itself.