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In defence of the modern auteur

It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve been truly excited about film.

It’s melodramatic, I know. For a while, it felt like cinema lost touch with what made it special. With reboot after reboot, saga after saga (see: my colleague’s excellent piece on this), I’d forgotten what it felt like to be thrilled by the prospect of a truly original film.

But it wasn’t that they weren’t being made – it was just that I’d stopped taking the time to see them. Over the last few years we’ve been slapped around the face by so many tired old show-ponies that we forgot about little Shetland in the corner, who seems shy but can actually do a backflip.

This, however, feels like it might just be on the move. The auteur is something that, on first glance, I might not associate with modern film. If you asked me to name one, my brain would immediately jump back in time; Tarkovsky, Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola. I’d regress to that snotty film student part of my brain, and sneer, ‘They don’t exist anymore’.

That would make me not only a dick, but a liar.

Like that theory that suggests doing an automated job opens up your brain for better use, maybe trying to sit through some of the recently released crap allowed me to see what was really out there, beyond the billboards.

Ugh, no one appreciates independent film anymore,’ the dumb part of my brain might say.

Wrong!’ I counter. ‘Wrong indeed! Moonlight won Best Picture!

‘It’s all the same tired old genre-stuff,’ I might retort.

Wrong again! I raise you Get Out, which redefined what a horror-thriller could be.’

But like, no one has a style any more, or whatever.’

Oh, my girl,’ I’d reply, ‘what about Sofia Coppola? Edgar Wright? Tarantino? Wes Anderson?

The auteur may not have the same badly pressed shirts or a broken pair of spectacles and an old film camera around their neck, but they’re still there. They, like everything, have evolved with the times. In same cases, they’ve had to tweak themselves to be more appealing to a mass market– production companies don’t green-light movies on good grace alone, after all. Take Edgar Wright, for example. After you saw Shaun of the Dead, you could probably identify one of Wright’s films in your sleep, but his flourishes are never overtly extravagant. If you never saw the credits, you’d still know Baby Driver was his the second you saw the quick-cut action montage and a spike through a chest.

I suppose it’s also something to do with transient nature of interest – for a time, it was the signature move of the person that calls themselves an ‘artist’, regardless of profession, to talk to you about the Sundance movers and shakers over a plastic cup of cheap merlot. But it’s changed, and now I can hold full conversations with people about how desperate I am to see William Oldroyd’s debut, Lady Macbeth. Maybe it’s something to do with Netflix and Amazon Prime, and the fact that these films are now freely available for everyone to consume. No longer must we trek to a tiny, dusty cinema in Shoreditch (although you should still definitely do that, support your local businesses) to see these movies – they’re open to all.

And the creatives themselves are making art more accessible, too. Justin Kurzel’s mindblowing retelling of Macbeth is a prime example of this. It had all the feel of an independent film; the perfectly barren Scottish wilderness, an eerie whine that seems to permeate the entire thing, some perfectly colourised shots that contrast an overall desaturation in peak moments. But in having Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the lead roles (along with some British up-and-comers, in true independent fashion), the film got a marketability that never once compromised the vision of the piece. Kurzel hit a home run on this one, because he demonstrated adeptly that not only does independent film have the ability to hit mainstream success, but independent film about Shakespeare could be what people discuss on a Monday morning.

The auteur is firmly back in vogue, if you look hard enough. But it’s not always blue skies for the auteur who tries to make their mark on Hollywood. Kong: Skull Island, for example, was fronted by indie director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. The film was a commercial success, but there was a feeling amongst some that the just wasn’t as special as it could have been, given that it was put into fresh hands, filmed through fresh eyes. Maybe that’s the nature of the franchise – the film had to be palatable enough to tie itself into a Godzilla crossover, so it wasn’t given the chance to be as different as it could have been.

We should here make a distinction between franchise culture and a big budget: while the necessity for a franchise film to ‘fit’ into a timeline can suck the flair out of a movie in an instant, money doesn’t always mean the same thing. A blockbuster can be crap in the same way that an $5000 indie shot-on-my-mum’s-camcorder-for-effect flick can be crap. If the heart of the film doesn’t come from the burning vision of the director, the writer, the whatever – the auteur – and instead relies on gimmicks and accessories, then it’s a sunken ship.

That’s why the huge-scale work of, say, Christopher Nolan, always feels like it’s got a central vision at its heart. A director can read a scene with a mind-bending stunt and pass it on to the CGI team, or they can do what Nolan did with Inception – which is to build a giant rotating hallway in an airship hanger so that you can watch it happen onscreen. Regardless of how good CGI gets, you’ll never get the viscerality of watching a stunt like that play out. It takes someone who is capable of visualising and executing something like that to make it happen; it takes an auteur. If a film isn’t a director’s baby, if they don’t nurture it to its full potential, it shows, regardless of scale.

When you think about it, it’s exciting to see how kaleidoscopic the concept of the auteur has become. Whether they’ve got no budget or nothing but budget, whether it’s a film that’s black and white and silent or a rip-roaring celebration of technicolour, the malleability of the auteur, and their ability to turn to their hand and their heart to a film, is something that’s well worth believing in.

And so that’s why we should we have no need to despair – we’ve not been abandoned! When all of the trailers seem to tell you not to bother, remember that creativity is alive and well. Whether it be the big-boy blockbusters of Mr. Tarantino, who throws more blood on a camera than a surgeon’s endoscope, or the equally popular but far more sedate work of Wes Anderson, whose films contain more lilac and mint green than the cardigan section of Marks and Spencer. The auteur walks among us; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but my god, we’ve got to appreciate the beauty of them continuing to try.

Words by Jess Ennis

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