Auteur Theory: David Lynch

What is an auteur? Well blame the French for this. Cinema critics of the 1950s were tired of the conveyer belt approach that studio directors had taken towards filmmaking. There were no distinguishable characteristics by each director - just formulaic, commercial pap which was churned out time and time again.

Auteur critics wanted a new wave of cinema and argued the camera should be an instrument for art, just as the brush is for the artist. As a instrument, the camera should provide artistic integrity; the auteur should demonstrate technical mastery, a distinguished personality and provoke an interior meaning to their work. As such a group of select auteur directors deemed to meet these standards were born: Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and in recent times Kubrick, Lynch, Tarrantino and Wes Anderson.

This might seem strange to today’s cinema audiences, after all many film lovers could name their favourite director - suggesting that most films have a distinct look and feel. But a director like Stephen Spielberg is not an auteur (debatable) - even though his work is distinct and has repeated themes it arguably does not stir an interior meaning. Also, his work is commercial successful suggesting a popularist approach to filmmaking and a willingness to be influenced by the financial ambitions of the studio. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spielberg films, I’m just playing devils advocate.

An auteur might be a critic’s dream, but what are the limitations? Withstanding artistic integrity and vision in an industry which inherently relies on a team (sometimes an army) of people to produce. Keeping their unique stamp on the finished work without turning out the same old recognisable tricks. And finally, the medium. Producing a cinematic masterpiece is reliant on the theatre – the sound system, the oversized screen, the darkness, and the all-encompassing sensory experience. Once taken into the home, arguably, the film is no longer the work of an auteur.

Critics seem to deem the cinema as the pinnacle and playground of auteur work, and assign only directors to be worthy of this title (not producers or cinematographers) so can TV create auteurs who are producers? Or is this a ‘lesser’ medium not worthy of true, artistic and critical acclaim?

Well, we discussed today how a director like Lynch consistently manages to keep a distinct identity within his work. In an interview he described the film making process as an abstract cloud of ideas. He maintains the vision and everyone working with him subscribes to this - they can makes suggestions (which might be included in the work) but their suggestions only work as part of this wider cloud of ideas which is gently floating through the process with him at the centre. Nice and direct.

As a trans media artist Lynch manages to keep a “lynchian” tone to all his work – it’s always distinctly his whether it’s TV, film or painting. He uses repeated metaphors (red curtains, mystery sinister figures), music (industrial, ambient soundtracks) and a unique directorial style (camera angles, disjointed narrative) to make this stamp.

We watched a 1-minute short Lynch created to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Lumiere Camera. 60 seconds of continuous filming with no edits, no sound (other than a dubbed on soundtrack) Lynch still manages to display extraordinary technical skill, style and authorship. The mark of a genuine auteur – to not have to rely on any one medium or additional people! It was a magical, engaging and eerie piece which even not knowing it was Lynch, you could make an educated guess by the tone and feel.

Sadly we were shown a “making of” clip which had filmed Lynch filming the short. Now, I’m not a fan of behind the scenes sections or even DVD director’s commentary to be honest. I prefer Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” approach to cinema going – I don’t need a director to tell me what their vision was, or how they created it – I don’t want it to influence my experience as ultimately it doesn’t matter what the director intended, it’s what I took away from it that counts.

The strange thing about films, which is unlike authorship in novels, is that with a book you don’t get the back-story – there isn’t an introduction which explains how Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles or what was happening socially at the time to influence him (well sometimes). Good thing too, it’s really got nothing to do with how you interpret the book, the story, the narrative. This is why I like Lynch, he refuses to help out the audience, he doesn’t offer explanation, he doesn’t care if you draw conclusions or flap about in frustration. I watched Mulholland Drive for the first time 2 days ago and it’s still going round and round in my head, that’s why I think it’s an auteur film – anyone got any explanations they want to share, then I’ll pleased to hear what you got from it!

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