Simon Wood

Hollywood may be aware of auteur theory, but it has yet to sanction it as a proper means of creating capital.

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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