Since the dawn of the cinema, there has always been a tension between genre and auteur film. Genre films are entertainment films produced for mass consumption; auteur films are films that are “authored” – that is, they are art works created by artistically-inclined film directors, meant for a smaller, more discerning audience. (We’ll be focusing on auteur cinema in two weeks, when we see Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty).
This tension between genre and auteur is productive. It forces film directors to be creative in how they evoke, and vary, genre conventions. The authors of your textbook put it this way:
Genres thrive when filmmakers find ways to modify the conventions. So, while audiences carry a set of expectations with them whenever they attend a genre film, for most audiences, one of these expectations is that the film will surprise them by upsetting some of their expectations. For most critics, the most pronounced criterion for evaluating a film is how much originality it injects into the formula without totally abandoning the conventions of the genre. (401)
In class, I explained this by way of the “Craft/Art Continuum,” with “convention” (fidelity to genre conventions) at one end, and invention (creative variation upon conventions). The reason I call it the “Craft/Art” continuum is that directors on the “convention” end would be more likely to designate themselves as craftspeople, whereas directors on the “invention” end would more likely call themselves artists.
Most Hollywood films fall somewhere along the continuum, some closer to more formulaic conventional films, and others to more experimental inventional films. The conventional films might make more money, but generally it’s the inventional films that win most of the Oscars at the Academy Awards.
The problem with this model is that many people (particularly critics) don’t see it as a continuum, but rather as a scale from bad to good. That is, they view conventional films as bad films, or not-as-good-as art films. Conversely, many people view inventional films as the crème de la crème of the cinema, and their very lack of popularity testifies to their high art aspirations.
It is these prejudices that cause film critics like Eileen Jones to wail and gnash their teeth. In a review (and attack upon) the independent film Escape From Tomorrow, she writes:
The tendency of American filmmakers to overvalue “art” in its most spurious forms, and undervalue the demanding craft of making excellent entertainment—which, ironically, will get you to art faster than most approaches. . . . It’s a fallacy that’s heavily featured in discussions of what ails American cinema, the suggestion that you can have either an art film or a popular commercial movie, but not both on the same reel (or in the same digital encoding), because the two categories are mutually exclusive.
Jones takes the side of the popular commercial movie, or what she also calls genre film. She writes:
Every generation of jackass critics trots out the same platitudes about how films designed to make money by attracting mass audiences are insufficiently heartfelt, artistic, risk-taking, and personal, and are, therefore, bad. That critical party line has been consistent for a century now, and wrong for a century. Wrong, because the majority of great American films have emerged from the crucible of commercial entertainment, from the harrowing process of trying to make something effective and mass-marketable, on time and under budget.
American genre films, according to Jones, are incredibly creative in how they are produced. Not so creative are American independent films, which have taken on the worst qualities of European art films:
Europeans seem comfortable with exercises in strenuous profundity, but we Americans have a long and honorable tradition of queasiness about artistic pretension. “Craft” is the right endeavor for us. It suggests working-class construction, deft ability, professionalism, and a certain mental sharpness – slyness, even.
Jones expresses her problems with the continuum I described above:
Popular genre stuff is generally shoved to one end of the spectrum and independent/art film to the other, impoverishing both forms. The result? Increasingly, genre film is debased, carelessly recycled formula product marketed to the stupidest teenagers. Art and independent film is equally debased, carelessly recycled “meaningful” clichés and empty formal exercises marketed to the most ossified critics and other pompous gits.
Tell us what you really think, Ms. Jones!
Jones, in the end, does not reject artistic, “inventional” films out of hand: she argues that demonizing genre film and sanctifying art film impoverishes both. She proposes, instead, that genre and art film work together.
The question, now, is where does Michael Curtiz fit into this picture? Even though he won an Academy Award for Best Director (for Casablanca), Curtiz is rarely if ever described as a great director or an auteur.
Jones mentions him in her review. She cites the French film critic Andre Bazin to urge independent film auteurs to
consider “the genius of the system,” i.e. the Hollywood studio system, which, though it ground out a lot of crap, also produced many highly effective films that could by no stretch of the imagination be considered “art” made by “auteurs,” director/author figures with unique, personal, visionary oeuvres. Bazin’s example of an effective non-auteur was Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian-born transplant who worked on assignment at Warner Brothers for many years and made an awful lot of fantastically memorable films in all sorts of genres.
Curtiz made “vivid, lively movies, with no directorial ‘signature’ style, propelled by the narrative drive of genre.”
Bazin was actually one of the godfathers of auteur theory, and we will look more at him and his influence when we consider auteur film. But, as Jones points out, Bazin was very appreciative of “the genius of the [Hollywood, genre] system.”
Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell note that “the auteur policy drew a distinction between workmanlike directors – metteurs en scene – who produced well-crafted films and true auteurs who were able to create art: Michael Curtiz was placed in the first category, and Nicholas Ray in the second” (26).
That is, Michael Curtiz was a craftsman, and Nicholas Ray an artist.
David Denby, at The New Yorker, agrees that Curtiz was not an artist, or an auteur. Denby writes: “The auteurs of ‘Casablanca’ are Hal Wallis and the long-ago big studios themselves – their atmosphere and talents, with corruptions and generosities all mixed together – what André Bazin called ‘the genius of the system.'”
C. Jerry Kutner adds:
Michael Curtiz . . . is considered by many to be one of the quintessential Hollywood directors – he is, after all, the man who directed Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Yet in auteurist circles he is given short shrift. Andrew Sarris [leading proponent of auteur cinema in the United States], for example, calls Casablanca “the happiest of happy accidents, and the most decisive exception to the auteur theory.”
But Kutner thinks Curtiz the craftsman is also an auteur:
To be considered an auteur, a director must have either a consistently recognizable visual style or recognizable themes – preferably both. There is a recognizable Curtiz visual style, a kind of von-Sternbergian expressionism, but it is mainly visible in his horror films, film noirs, or quasi-noirs [like Casablanca].
The “recognizable” theme appearing and re-appearing in Curtiz’s films, according to Kutner, is the “rebel-in-spite-of-himself” (and “rebel-in-spite-of-herself”).
The Italian post-structuralist semiotician Umberto Eco would not necessarily agree that Michael Curtiz is a great art director, but he does think Casablanca is a great film – almost in spite of itself.
In an influential essay on Casablanca, Eco writes:
According to traditional standards in aesthetics, Casablanca is not a work of art, if such an expression still has a meaning. . . . Nevertheless, it is a great example of cinematic discourse, a palimpsest for future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research into textual strategies. Moreover, it has become a cult movie. (462)
A “cult movie,” according to Eco, is not the same thing as a profound work of art: “A cult movie . . . must display some organic imperfections” (462). Eco adds that “in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole” (463).
To reiterate, to be a cult object a film must be “unhinged,” that is be “a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness” (463).
Then Eco puts it into the terms of semiotics (the study of the structure of language and texts). For Eco, a cult film is a
living example of living textuality. It’s address must suspect it is not true that works are created by their authors. Works are created by works, texts are created by texts, all together they speak to each other independently of the intention of their authors. (463)
Thus, Casablanca is a text without an author. It is, instead, a mash-up of genres – what Eco calls “archetypes.” I discussed this genre hybridity in another blog entry; here I will only note that it is the surplus of genres that makes Casablanca a cult movie for Eco. He writes:
When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion. (469)
Eco adds: “Casablanca became a cult movie because it is not one movie. It is ‘movies.’ And this is the reason it works, in defiance of any aesthetic theory” (469). Casablanca is not one genre; it is “genre.”
But, again, for Eco this is all part of the author-less “happy accident” that was Casablanca.
Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed in a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire that had stood the test of time. When only a few of these formulas are used, the result is simply kitsch. But when the repertoire of stock formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architectural like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia [a famous modernist cathedral in Barcelona, Spain]: the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius. (465)
Note that Eco does mention “authors” in this passage, and associates them with a “stroke of genius.” So maybe Curtiz is an auteur after all?
What I’d like to suggest is that Curtiz can be considered the author/auteur of Casablanca, particularly because he had to cobble together a film from many disparate, even contradictory, elements. Casablanca is an art film because it is a genre mash-up, and, because it is so prolific (if not promiscuous) in its sampling of genre.
With Casablanca, the master of genre film created a masterpiece of genre film that calls attention to itself as genre film. It is self-reflexive (or self-referential, or self-aware) in that regard. Usually, that alone would be enough to qualify Curtiz as an auteur.
In the end, however, it is future generations of critics and viewers who will decide whether Curtiz was or was not an auteur. But then, it’s quite possible that that determination will be overturned by critics and viewers who come even later. The fact of the matter is, the standards of cinematic art morph over time. Some are jettisoned from the pantheon of great directors, replaced by others, but the pantheon is never fixed.
And there are some contributing factors – such as the role ideology and social context have to play in determining whether a film is a great work of art, or needs to be – that we have not yet considered. That is what we will take on next in this course, in the next two weeks.
University of Maryland
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David Denby. “Everybody Comes to Rick’s: ‘Casablanca’ on the Big Screen.” The New Yorker. March 19, 2012.
Umberto Eco. “Casablanca: Cult movies and intertextual collage.” October 29, 2013. (Anthology text and text editor unknown).
Eileen Jones. “America Can Make Great Movies – But We Fall on Our Faces When We Try to Make Snobby ‘Art’ Films.” AlterNet. October 18, 2013.
Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell. “Authorship.” A Dictionary of Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
C. Jerry Kutner. “Michael Curtiz – Auteur Without a Theme?” Bright Lights Film Journal. February 7, 2013.