With a slew of remakes and sequels dominating theaters, modern cinema is seemingly devoid of originality.
Many films could escape this fate, but they lack the creative drive necessary for a unique voice — they lack auteurship.
The auteur theory suggests that a film’s originality, in large part, stems from the director, the driving creative force behind a film, giving the work a specific style that makes it distinct and easily identifiable. In essence, the auteur theory suggests that the director holds the key to the overall creative vision of a work, bringing the film a specific artistic identity.
When audiences see little more than reboots and adaptations, they can’t help but wonder if auteurship is alive and well or if today’s cinema will forever be condemned to the modern day directorial vision where Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2) rules supreme.
Auteurship is still an active presence in today’s world of cinema, but it is indeed in a state of crisis. Many of the most popular filmmakers struggle to strike a balance between films that have little more to offer than extreme action and special effects — or, dare I say it, Channing Tatum in the lead role — and works that are artistic simply for the sake of being different.
Take Michael Bay for instance: Bay’s films are recognizable on the basis of their impressive special effects and editing, but what do his films really have to say beyond that? The Transformers trilogy and the Bad Boys films clearly have Bay’s stamp on them, but he can hardly be considered an auteur simply because his works are identifiable.
Auteurship is about creating specific artistic identity and carrying that identity through one’s films to convey meaning, something beyond showing off the talents of your effects team.
Mind you, this is not to rag on action films. Paul Greengrass created a specific niche for himself as a director with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, providing a refreshing take on the chase thriller, with their dark aesthetic and heightened sense of corruption.
But Tony Gilroy simply regurgitated much of the same with this summer’s The Bourne Legacy, offering little more than a tired take on the action-adventure series rather than lending his own vision to the film.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are directors who try to say too much and could afford to back off their excessive use of style — cue Terrence Malick, Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino. Many of these directors use style as a tool to create their individual aesthetic, but when taken too far, their strong, style-obsessed vision can actually weigh their films down in the process, making viewers wonder how much is too much.
Specifically, Malick was scrutinized for the ambiguous message that was muddled between the beautiful cinematography of last summer’s Tree of Life. Meanwhile, Burton has proven his cinematic style to be a one-trick pony limited to a quirky yet gothic palette, and — it pains me to say this — Tarantino is often just a mere pastiche of previous, outlandish, stylistic works.
To their credit, Malick’s film was well received at film festivals, such as Cannes, Burton has his own niche following and Tarantino has accrued attention for his standout screenwriting. And though their messages can get lost in translation, these directors are at the very least trying to convey a personal sense of style.
But what filmgoers really need is a happy medium between the “too much” and “not enough” scenarios that populate today’s film scene. They need films that provoke thought and use style as a means of enhancement and not just for the purpose of grabbing attention. Simply put, filmgoers need more Alexander Paynes, Christopher Nolans and Alfred Hitchcocks.
Spike Lee and David Cronenberg, whose Red Hook Summer and Cosmopolis, respectively, are currently in theaters, serve as prime examples of auteurship’s potential to flourish. It isn’t all bad news people — these are directors with a personal sense of style and message they want to express.
Lee’s work typically reflects vibrant, urban life, while Cronenberg is known as an originator of dystopian horror. Both of their films are just starting their runs in theaters, and although they have both received mediocre reviews, they clearly represent a unique point of view, an individual aesthetic.
It’s too soon to tell how these films rank on the auteur theory scale as both films are just beginning their expansion, but at the very least they have something to say, a specific style to express, and that’s exactly what modern films need to continue to do.
I admit the pleasures of a mindless thriller like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and I was a big fan of Tree of Life and other art house films, although I recognize their excessive use of style. But it is not enough to settle for the extreme ends of the spectrum.
A balance must be struck between marketability and outlandishly artsy cinema, and that starts with a unique yet poignant creative vision — it starts with auteurship.
C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication. Her column “Keepin’ it Reel” runs Wednesdays.