the article opens with Kierkegaard:
I call these sketches Shadowgraphs, partly by the designation to remind you at once that they derive from the darker side of life, partly because like other shadowgraphs they are not directly visible. When I take a shadowgraph in my hand, it makes no impression on me, and gives me no clear conception of it. Only when I hold it up opposite the wall, and now look not directly at it, but at that which appears on the wall, am I able to see it. So also with the picture which does not become perceptible until I see through the external. This external is perhaps quite unobtrusive but not until I look through it, do I discover that inner picture which I desire to show you, an inner picture too delicately drawn to be outwardly visible, woven as it is of the tenderest moods of the soul. Kierkegaard, Either/Or
When we practice the auteur theory – which is to say simply that we summarise and critique an individual film based on its stylistic value as compared to other films of the same auteur – we look for the language of the author – are we really ‘rationalising leaden clinkers into golden nuggets’? My opinion: NO. The language of film is hidden beneath or better yet, encoded in, a films apparent ‘entertainment’ or ‘dramatic’ value. An auteur who is praised must have work worthy of praising – a masterpiece here and there. For William Friedkin we might cite The Exorcist, The French Connection or Kiler Joe. For Michael Mann you cannot go past Heat. Both of these auteur’s have films which were critically rejected during their time at the box office.
Take Miami Vice by Michael Mann for instance. The reaction to this film by and large by the critics was negative. To quote David and Margaret from At The Movies:
The real problem is that this is a nothing plot, we’ve seen it many times before, Mann’s inclusion of a couple of extended sex scenes that are not really so sexy is just a diversion.
Colin Farrell is developing into a deeply uninteresting actor, not that Mann’s screenplay gives any of the actors much opportunity for subtlety or depth.
There’s a lot of jargon. And the end result is that the plot, such as it is, verges on the incomprehensible.
Viewing Miami Vice however in reference to other texts – a more postmodern view – the film can be read as a masterpiece of style. Genre conventions are another viewpoint through which to analyse this film. Though Margaret describes this film as ‘unsexy’ I would have to disagree and assert that this is a romantic film first and foremost in which some action takes place. The final battle that draws us through to the end of the third act is predicated on vengeance for one lover and the rescue of another; duel couplings, just as in the romantic musical genre. Looking at this film through the filter of a Goddard-infused reading one can see the level of pop/fashion/media culture being coded into this film. It is plot-lite precisely to foreground fashion, fast cars, epic Caribbean skyscapes and rock music. The themes are universal: daring, vengeance, love, forbidden love, and eventually existential choices to not live happily ever after on part of Sonny (Colin Farrell).
This does not constitute a ‘see-it-or-you-don’t’ shortcut to scholarship, as Sarris’ critics would determine, but a reasonable A-iconoclastic look at what is described as the language of film; that is film form, convention and style and how these elements might relate to each other and imbue a sense of a human personality talking to us from the screen. We might ask this disembodied, coded voice ‘what do you see in relationships between people?’ or ‘how does one deal with injustice amongst the many?’, or ‘is there a place for honour and trust in contemporary society?’ This is not a shortcut to thinking but a love for film and style as it lights up the screen at 24 frames (I would hope). For structuralism and linguistics and the death of the author – these avenues of scholarship are fine, but taken in isolation can suck the life out of the most exciting form of human expression – that form that comes to us from innovation in technology, from the division of labor and the pursuit of an individual and collective landscape of dreams and desires.
Sarris hits on two interesting, dovetailing points: He says of the French critics that some had succumbed to a European-orientated (rationalist) pragmatism where intention was more nearly equal to talent in critical relevance (sounds familiar – the contemporary Australian film industry). He goes on to summarise that Truffaut had seen the writing on the wall: he and his colleagues had ‘discovered auteurs’ whilst their successors have ‘invented’ them.
This is an interesting lens through which to view the shift from the studio system to the more politically active, independent film making of the post-classical, 1970’s-on period. In the classical era the movies assumed that audiences were autonomous in their own right – that they did not need to be enlightened. Take one of John Ford’s westerns which assumes a level of respect and sentimentality for the formation of civilisation in the wilderness of the American frontier. Or perhaps a Lubitsch comedy in which it was famed that Lubitsch had an unspoken understanding with his audience and innuendo and the unseen canoodling behind closed doors was poetry. The auteur was found in the expression of style within the confines of a rigid, but practical, narrative form. The post-classical era sees auteur’s inventing themselves and what reigns here is not the value of the aesthetic expression as it erupts from a set of conventions and structures but political message and activist agenda – intention more nearly equal to talent. This immediately starts to evolve an ‘in-group’ as with any politically orientated movement – their successors had invented them.
Ultimately Bazin reasons for us with his charisma and gusto:
“How can one review an Anthony Mann western if it were not an expression of the genre’s conventions?”