The Problem with Auteur Theory

Seven SamuraiI recently got the new Criterion Collection version of Seven Samurai. It is a great film—maybe even Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film. It certainly isn’t my favorite, however; Yojimbo is a lot more fun. But it is masterful filmmaking. This latest edition includes a tag-team commentary by five experts: Stephen Prince, David Desser, Tony Rayns, Donald Richie, and Joan Mellen. I am kind of a fan of Prince, and would have been content just to have him for the almost four hour film. But it is very edifying to get all the different input, especially from Joan Mellen. But I want to discuss the commentary from the original release, which is done by Michael Jeck.

At the beginning of the film, the bandits look over the villiage and decide not to attack it until the barley is ripe. They all ride away. Jeck comments, “Now why are they galloping? It was only on the fifteenth viewing that I thought even to ask the question. Of course, because it makes it more exciting. But it took me fifteen viewings because Kurosawa is so subtle and begins in medias res.” Oh my!

This bit sums up the entire commentary. Right off the top, you have to ask: was it really necessary to throw in that Latin phrase? Wouldn’t it have been easier and better to just say that the film starts right in the middle of things? But okay. Film commentaries are generally pretentious endeavors. But it doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest.

What is most troubling in this commentary is that he makes a big deal out our Kurosawa’s decision to have the bandits gallop away. I feel quite certain that he did that because that’s just the way it is always done in movies. Yes, it is exciting. This is why it has been done at least since The Great Train Robbery, back in 1903. It would have been silly if the lead bandit had said, “We will return when the barley is ripe. Now everyone off your horses! They are tired and need to rest!” The reason that Jeck didn’t note why the bandits galloped away until his fifteenth viewing is because it is in no way worthy of note.

And this gets to the heart of what is wrong with Jeck: he accepts the auteur theory. This is the idea that a film is the result of the director’s creative vision. There is much to be said of the theory. In most regards, it is the director who has the final say as to how things are done. But as we learned with our “decider” President George W. Bush, there is a big difference between coming up with your own ideas and just selecting from three that Vice-President Cheney presents to you. This is normally the way that directors work with all of their department heads.

It is true that Kurosawa has a distinctive look to his films. But this is not entirely due to him. It is also thanks to Takashi Matsuyama’s art direction. And the cinematography of Asakazu Nakai. And the amazing costume design in Seven Samurai by Kohei Ezaki. And his many other experts and actors. Certainly, the films have qualities that only Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune would add. Unfortunately, Jeck tells us over and over that this or that was put in the film because Kurosawa wanted it that way. Surely, this is not always true.

There is something to say for Jeck, I suppose. I remember going to see Fargo with a friend and she asked me a telling question afterwards. The film starts with a car driving toward the camera. It dips below the horizon and then back above it because of the changing elevation of the road. She wanted to know if that just happened to be the way the road was or if it was planned that way. I told her it was planned that way. But that is as far as I’m willing to take it. It might have been planned from the start. It might have been the image that the Coen brothers started with. It is also possible it was something improvised by the second unit cameraman. “You know, if we set the camera here, we’ll see the car, then it will disappear, and then we’ll see it again.” The truth is that there are a lot of really creative people who make films, and it is an insult to them to turn directors into gods who come up with every good idea in a film. Just the same, damned little that appears on screen is an accident.

What is most sad about the commentary is that Michael Jeck has a lot of knowledge to offer. He understands Japanese history and so he explains many things that a western viewer would miss. And mostly he is right on about what is important from a film standpoint. But there are only so many times that I can be told that it is windy because Kurosawa wanted it that way rather than it just being windy on the day of shooting.

Afterword

Of course, you should own this version of Seven Samurai. And Yojimbo. And Sanjuro. (Use the links above to buy it from Amazon and you can donate a few nickles to this site.)

Injustice System

Injustice SystemLiberal Viewer posted a great video, Aaron Swartz Tip of Iceberg in Justice System. The point is that what happened to Aaron Swartz happens to thousands of people every day. In Swartz’s case, the federal prosecutors were apparently going to offer him a six-month sentence plea deal. If that’s the case, why were they threatening him with 35 years? Because they can. They lose nothing by piling on ridiculous charges. But they gain lots and lots of leverage, which can lead to the defendant taking a lesser but still unreasonable sentence. Or it can lead to the defendant killing himself.

A young man caught with a quarter ounce of cannabis will likely find that he is charged with “intent to distribute.” That way, he is more likely to just accept the one charge that the prosecution has any chance of proving rather than fighting. The truth is that most plea deals come down to this, “We’re going to drop all the bullshit charges in exchange for the only one we have a case for.” This is not justice. This is just, as Aaron Swartz’s family said, “a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” Or as I call it, the Injustice System.

Here’s the video if you can stand to hear any more of this travesty:

Hooray for Hagel?

Chuck HagelI think it is time again to discuss Chuck Hagel. I’ve been reasonably positive about Obama’s nomination of Hagel for Secretary of Defense. My main problem is just that I don’t like the optics of it: Republican presidents always have Republicans at this post, but this will be Obama’s second of three who are Republicans. As Michael J.W. Stickings has asked, “Is no Democrat good enough?”

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that is the wrong question. The Secretary of Defense is nominated by the president you have, not the president you wish you had. This is who Obama is: a man dedicated to seeming more reasonable than anyone else. It is actually, one of his least admirable qualities. It speaks of a man who cares more about appearances than accomplishments. But I don’t doubt that this is who he is. From the start I thought he was a man with very centrist beliefs. If it were 40 years ago, he would certainly be a Republican.

By far, the best argument that I’ve heard in favor of Hagel comes from committed discontent Eric Alterman, Hooray for Hagel. I am in agreement with him. There is nothing that makes me want Hagel confirmed as much as the neoconservative push against him. The idea that Hagel will not be a lackey of Israel and won’t push for war with Iran makes him perhaps more compelling than most Democrats.

Alterman’s case is summed up well at the end:

What these hysterics may actually indicate is a genuine fear on the part of the neocons and conservative professional Jews that they are about to be exposed as generals without armies, demanding fealty to policies opposed by the vast majority of American Jews for whom they profess to speak. How marvelous, then, that Barack Obama finally decided there was one time he’d rather fight than switch.

What he’s getting at here is that the United States is a very pro-Israel country. But the neocons take this to another level—a level that is actually bad for Israel. And it is certainly not what American Jews, much less Americans generally, want.

So I say let’s go. It would have been nice if Obama had picked someone else, but he didn’t. And it is likely that Hagel is more liberal than any Democrat that Obama would have nominated. As Secretary of Defense, Hagel could do much good. So “Hooray for Hagel,” indeed.

David Brooks’ Little Brain

David BrooksThere was a flurry of writing on Friday about David Brooks’ column, The Next Four Years. Jonathan Chait sums up the column well, David Brooks Now Totally Pathological. And Ezra Klein asks, Is the Republican Party Obama’s fault? Answer: no, but a lot of Republicans want to think so.

They are both referring to the second half of Brooks’ column where he speculates about what Democrats are really thinking. You see, they are going to propose modest bills like Hurricane Sandy relief. The Republicans will respond as wackos—but not because they really are wackos. That’s what makes the Democratic plan so cunning: by proposing reasonable policies they are making the Republicans seem unreasonable just because the Republicans are devoted to unreasonable policies. I swear, I am not exaggerating; he gives no reason at all for why the Republicans must act crazy; I guess we are supposed to think it is a Pavlovian response: Republicans just can’t help it.

He continues on. The Democratic Party will push “wedge issues.” Wedge issues like—Wait for it!—President Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform. The other one that Brooks mentions is gun law reform like requiring universe background checks. Traditionally, a wedge issue is one that greatly divides people. You know, things like abortion. These two issues don’t even divide the Republicans. The only thing they divide is the Republican elite from the rest of the nation. Man oh man, are those Democrats cunning!

Of course, the New York Times has editorial standards. So Brooks can’t come out and say that Democrats are thinking or saying these things. Instead, he piles on the weasel words:

I know there is little chance that today’s partisan players are going to adopt this kind of incremental goo-goo approach. It’s more likely that today’s majority party is going to adopt a different strategy, which you might call Kill the Wounded. It’s more likely that today’s Democrats are going to tell themselves something like this

I’ve highlighted the weasel words. If you take them out, you’re left with: I’m making this up. But check out that first sentence. It contradicts his whole argument! He claims that the Democrats are not going to do anything big. They are going to do little things and this will make the Republicans look bad because they are even against the smallest reforms. Brooks can’t have it both ways, but he does try.

Look back at Obama’s first term. He did everything to get the Republicans to compromise and they would not yield one inch. Okay, Brooks claims that was because these were big proposals that the Republicans hated. Except that when McCain was running for president they didn’t hate the exact healthcare bill that Obama passed. But okay, politics is politics. What exactly makes Brooks think proposing little incremental bills will cause the Republicans to act any differently. Anyway, isn’t requiring universal background checks on gun purchases an incremental reform? I mean, 60% of all gun purchases get background checks now. All universal background checks requires is closing one loophole.

So Brooks is doing nothing more than following a long tradition of conservative writing that involves pretending that liberals say or think something and then complaining about it. But I actually find the first part of his column even more offensive. It is here that he talks around what he really believes. He claims, “I am an earnest, good-government type.” But he also says, “Polarization is too deep. Special interests are too strong.” What “special interests” could he be talking about? Certainly not the rich who managed to keep the Estate Tax hobbled. Certainly not military companies that get billions in government contracts. No, he’s thinking more along the lines of the labor unions and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and, you know, that evil AARP.

He also calls the Fiscal Cliff deal a “fiasco.” I’m none too happy with that deal, but I don’t see how it was a fiasco. Brooks thinks it was one because it didn’t end in gutting Social Security and Medicare. But I think Brooks should cheer up: Obama seems determined to do just that.

As with all “reasonable” Republicans, I don’t understand why Brooks is a Republican if he really holds the opinions he implies. And that’s why I think he is anything but reasonable. But if you dig down deep into his work, what you find is a guy that is mostly a social liberal. It is on economic issues that he is conservative. This is due to an embarrassing debate he had as a young man with Milton Friedman. According to Brooks, he was a liberal then. But Friedman managed to shoot down all of his arguments. This says much more about Brooks’ intellectual skills than it says about anything else. And so he’s left being a media lackey for conservative ideas that he understands no better than liberal ideas he long ago repudiated.

Afterword

It is possible that by providing these easy votes for Republicans, the Democratic Party is doing them a favor. It allows the more reasonable Republicans to vote sensibly. Hopefully, these politicians would be rewarded by the public with re-election while the unreasonable ones would lose. Brooks does not consider this.