Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Auteur as Genre: Inside Man

Recently I rewatched Wong Kar Wei's 2046, one of the best of films of 2004 to be widely judged one of the best films of 2005--but that's another story. 2046 was billed as a sequel to In the Mood for Love, which Greencine, slightly tongue-in-cheek, describes as a weepie. 2046 also functions as a sequel to Days of Being Wild and just about any movie Wong has made, with the possible exception of Ashes of Time, which remains unintelligble to me. 2046 is undoubtedly a great film, but at the same my appreciation of it is an extension of my love for Wong's movies, the kind of movies he makes. It is hardly the first Wong Kar Wei movie I would recommend to the unitiated, though it might possibly be his best. That seems like a bit of a dilemma. In recommending a Wong Kar Wei movie, and not recommending what may be his finest movie, I am actually recommending Wong Kar Wei as auteur. If you don't like Wong Kar Wei's movies, I assume you probably won't like 2046. On the other hand, if you enjoy In the Mood for Love for its being a weepie, you might not like 2046 which is more introverted, allegorical and self-consciously cinematic than any of Wong's films that might be labeled as weepies. So who am I to recommend 2046?

Spike Lee's Inside Man inverts the dilemma, i.e. if you like Spike Lee films you may not like Inside Man--though it's certainly not a given that you couldn't like (or dislike) both. I have little patience for the attitude that looks down its nose at auteur films with mass appeal like In the Mood for Love or Amelie, to cite a better known example. But it's a curious phenomenon. It speaks to the emotional connection people make with directors, and perhaps the sense that in being "for the masses," addressed to nobody in particular, a film betrays its meaning as a personal statement.

Reviewers of Spike Lee's Inside Man are calling it a "genre" film. It's also a Spike Lee Joint. Inside Man is the most easily digestible film Spike Lee has ever made, a bonafide "popcorn movie" as John C. Reilly likes to say, and a fine one at that. It has quickly surpassed Malcom X as Lee's highest grossing movie. Yet despite the film's many praiseworthy qualities, I can't agree with Emanuel Levy that it's "the best film Lee has made in his twenty-year career." That honor still belongs to He Got Game, an imperfect, brilliant, absorbing, provocative, deeply moving film in the genre known as "the weepie." (That's only very slightly ironic.)

Oops. I've stumbled into the paradox of auteur theory: no good or bad movies, just good or bad directors, as François Truffaut would have it; yet how do we judge a director if not by the quality of their movies? Auteur theory gives us two dimensions of evaluation to work with: evaluating a work in the context of a director's personal history of works, and evaluating a director by their work. To accomplish the latter, we need other frames of reference. This is self-evidently true of new directors, but it's also an element of the ongoing reception of established auteurs. So we might be, for instance, evaluating a work in the context of generic conventions. This is completely nonproblematic in the case of films without directors, or the films of Alan Smithee. But most films have directors, people with real names and all that goes along with having a name. To the extent we adopt auteur theory in our evaluation of a film, we have to balance frames of reference that may be essentially at odds. In resolving contradictions that may arise, we make choices about what we really want to see at the movies. Is this something we do honestly? Without suppressing anything essential about why we love movies?

Critics use expressions like "Auteur X's contribution to genre Y" to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of auteur and genre. As a metaphor from the flow of waters, the idea of contribution gives the weight of gravity to genre. As a metaphor from political relations, it may be more ambivalent. Does one mean "All films lead to Genre"? When a film is described as a tribute or an homage to another director, genre weighs less heavily, and the value of film as conversation is acknowledged. Indirectly, through genre, Inside Man addresses and pays tribute to the films of Sidney Lumet, among others. And it also pays tribute to Sindey Lumet directly, before any question of genre, or rather in the instant of intertexuality that signals genre and communication between living artists at once. Is this sort of paying tribute more like paying a visit, or paying one's dues?

It would be unduly naive to bypass the significance of paying one's dues. Considerations that inform paying one's dues align with those that serve to institutionalize the power of genre and thus regulate the way films are produced, distributed and marketed. The thought of a director of Spike Lee's stature paying his dues would be inconcievable were it not for two facts (perhaps more closely related than they seem). In the first place, Lee's status is that of an auteur working outside the established industry, or rather at its periphery. In recent years he has struggled to reach a wide enough audience to turn a profit--at least not enough to make movies at a pace he would like. 25th Hour, for instance, was a modest commercial success, although Bamboozled which preceded it and She Hate Me which followed it were not. So there is an edge of necessity in Lee's becoming conversant with a genre that has historically fared better at the box office than "postmodern farce" or what have you.

The second fact to consider is the extent to which the set of practices that count as paying one's dues are constituitive of the art form. Insofar as they are constituitive, the ways of paying one's dues, once they are learned, continue to be followed long after one's dues have been paid. Not necessarily, but predictably. Such a scenario of film production, paradoxically, enables a partial erasure of the interpersonal, though it could never amount to a complete erasure. Assigned to an ambivalence often mistaken for artistic license, in part because of the implicitness of such forms as paying ones dues, any itenerary that passes through the byways of the interpersonal may be redirected towards genre.

The dichotomy between genre and auteur seems to be an utter fabrication, yet nevertheless there is a kernel of truth in the equation of genre with big-budget studio productions. It has to do with the concentration of the big studio's production assets, their oligopolization of distribution networks, and their domination of marketing channels. "Genre" for the studios means "tried and true," a formula for making profits from movies that rationalizes the balance of risk and reward. It is the artistic expression of a movie's "demographic." This model suggests that the relationship between financiers and talent is parasitic, but the relationship is more broadly symbiotic, if typically asymmetric in practice. Asymmetries between finance and talent enter through the studio's domination of distribution and marketing networks. In this regard, see editor Gavin Smith's note in the recent issue of Film Comment (Vol. 42, No. 2) on This Film is Not Yet Rated, the documentary exposé of the MPAA ratings system. The basic issue is not censorship, but manipulation of the distribution network by a handful of players.

Also in the recent issue of Film Comment is their annual review of box office returns, featuring a conversation between industry insiders Roger Smith and Donald Wilson. Both agree that the big change in 2005 was the box office success of the "small picture" divisions of the big studios, also called the "specialized divisions." Smith thinks that "the big studio model seems to be broken in a number of ways, and the specialized distributors are the real ray of light in our story: Focus, Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent, etc. These 'small picture' divisions are where studios get to indulge their lingering desire to make what used to be called 'prestige,' i.e. non-genre films." Wilson had an interesting take on the specialty divisions (more anon), but I want to pause a moment to critically examine what Smith means by "prestige." As Smith means it, prestige substitutes for the binary opposite of genre. That's quite a remarkable vision of cultural production in itself. It also points to a fungibility of prestige, the fact that it can be submitted to an economy of substitutions and exchanges. The sentiment of "lingering desire" obscures the nature of the studios' everpresent need to have their brand attached to cinematic prestige. Without getting too deep into Smith's views, its safe to say that from the perspective of the studio executive as he presents it, the cultivation of prestige is a matter of largesse on the part of capital, or at best an ancillary concern. The success of the specialized divisions, however, belies that viewpoint. Evidently the cultivation of prestige is an element of the cycle or process of filmmaking, even in deepest Hollywood.

During the recent Academy Awards ceremony, Owen Wilson, who was paid I believe ten million dollars for his portrayal of Ken Hutchinson in Starsky & Hutch, fresh from the runaway box office success of Wedding Crashers (which is actually very enjoyable), appeared with his brother Luke to present the award for Best Live Action Short. He started off with the following joke:

We're very honored to present "Live Action Short" because our first project together was a thirteen-minute short called "Bottle Rocket."


Thank you. We're incredibly proud of the fact that later on we got five million to expand it into a feature film that grossed almost one million dollars.

Obviously the Wilson brothers are proud of the work they did on Bottle Rocket, and the Academy is proud of the movie too --almost enough to spoil the joke. They value the film even though it was an independent film, and even though director Wes Anderson, with whom the Wilsons have continued to collaborate, works from the margins of the industry. Losing money on such a project may also be a source of pride, a badge of integrity (that can be parlayed into prestige and, given some other factors, liquid capital), because I think anybody who's seen the film will know that its failure to make money does not reflect on its quality, but merely on the difficulty of bringing a new independent film before the public. Bottle Rocket remains a witty and delightful film, an exemplar of what movies are all about. It's the kind of movie the studios need to be about. The question for the studios is can they do things in a small picture way? Can they rationalize the risk involved in stepping outside of "genre"?

Now to rejoin the conversation between Donald Wilson and Roger Smith, here is Wilson's take on the specialized divisions.

Well, the specialized divisions are where the two real sensations of 2005 come from: March of the Penguins and Brokeback Mountain, even though the latter stands to make most of its money in 2006 after the awards-season rush. I think the bird movie cuaght a lot of people off-guard and only works in the hands of a Focus, a Warner, and the like. Most distributors saw Penguins in its initial French version, so they knew it was out there, but the question of finances comes into play. A bunch of identical birds jabbering to each other in French is a complete pass, but if you're Warner, you can afford to take the film, re-cut it, and hire a big-name voiceover. If you're smaller, you need to be really sure it's going to work to make the investment

And further

By comparison, Brokeback came out of Toronto with a head of steam that seemed unstoppable. I suppose it was building before Toronto--ther unit publicity was fabulous. The subject matter sounds like something Strand might put out, but only Focus would be able attract that kind of talent and then steer it into the marketplace with enough money to let the thing breathe. Now everybody's seeing it--and it looks like a shoo-in for Best Picture.

Not quite a shoo-in as it turned out. (I believe labor issues stemming from filming in Alberta were decisive in Brokeback's disappointment on Oscar night. Not that Canadian Teamsters didn't benefit greatly from the film, but Canadian Teamsters have less of say in the Academy than the members of the Film and Television Action Committee and its associated unions.)

Is Inside Man evidence of a dramatic shift in the way movies are produced, a sign that the big studios have taken notice of the specialized divisions and are now welcoming prestigious independent directors (back) into the fold? I don't think so. Of course Inside Man is a big financial success for Spike Lee, and it will enable him to secure funding to make the kinds of movies he wants for a few years more at least. But the studios have a rocky history in dealing with auteurs, even in recent years. For every success story there are several failures, for every lavished director a dozen equally worthy directors whose work is ignored by the industry power brokers, and dozens more who effectively quit working. I think that the dominant attitude among the most powerful executives remains cynical towards any possibility of authentic communication between filmmakers and viewers. Given the big studios' dominance of bottlenecks in the film distribution system, this attitude will ensure that any tradition of supporting auteurs remains on unsure footing.

Inside Man is a box office success for Lee, but is it also a genuine artistic success, or has it come at some cost? Does it depart from what is signified by a Spike Lee Joint? In a surprise twist, The Numbers puts Inside Man in the genre Breaking the Fourth Wall. Breaking the fourth wall has been a consistent feature of Spike Lee films since She's Gotta Have It, but in varied permutations and, I think, with increasing subtlety. For instance in 25th Hour Monty's (Ed Norton's) angry confrontation with his own reflection in a mirror sets up a montage sequence that functions to break the fourth wall--but there's a disconnect between faces staring directly into the camera and the voiceover narration, though both in their way are attempting to speak directly to the audience about a reality "outside" the film. It won't be a spoiler to say that Inside Man doesn't end with Denzel Washington yelling "Wake Up! Wake Up!"-- Laurence Fishburne's impassioned call at the end of School Daze, which has cropped up once or twice in other Spike Lee movies. In fact the ending to Inside Man is deceptively sleepy. But breaking the fourth wall frames the movie throughout, most obviously through Clive Owen's narration, which is parallel with the series of hostage interviews. More subversively, the fourth wall is broken in the way the child's ultraviolent video game is presented as a sort of play within the play. (I don't exactly recall all the angles on that scene, but it would be interesting to see it again and compare the angles on the safe deposit box scene and some others. For some reason Hitchcock's The Wrong Man sticks in my brain.) Clive Owen's commentary, meant for us in the audience, is delivered sotto voce, as are many statments in the film that may be taken as clues to the unfolding of the story, or as the director's indirect means of talking directly to viewers.

Inside Man. It's Spike Lee--with a twist.

posted by Fido the Yak at 4:30 AM.


Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Interesting take .. I must put myself firmly in the camp of people who love Spike but didn't care much at all for Inside Man .. now, perhaps, I know why

April 05, 2006 1:05 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Me, I don't dislike it, but I'm still making up my mind about it.

Nice blog you have there, btw.

April 07, 2006 1:05 PM  
Blogger Mental Meanderings said...

I liked Inside Man. It was a film that neither condesended to me nor was gratuitous in its storytelling. Something that Spike Lee (like most other directors today) is always successful in doing.

What intrigued me most was a happenstance. I watched Inside Man and the Libertine on the same weekend. These are two good but very different films that use somewhat similar storytelling devices. In particular the opening and closing narrations. It was somewhat disconcerting to see Johnny Depp and Clive Owen in sync.

I loaned my brother a copy of 2046 and he commented afterwards that it was a French film disguised as a Chinese film.

April 13, 2006 8:23 AM  
Blogger Mental Meanderings said...

I nned to make an editorial comment. I left the word not our of the second sentence of the comment above. It somewhat changes the meaning of the sentence.


April 13, 2006 8:25 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hi, Ryan. Glad you meandered by.

Do you know that also lent me (actually Mrs. Yak) a copy of 2046? We bought our own copy when it was released in the US.

I was thinking 2046 is pretty French, a movie Gilles Deleuze would make if Deleuze made movies. 2047 is of course already a significant date in the history of Hong Kong--but I'm not quite sure how to read the film as a political allegory.

Haven't seen The Libertine. Since you say it's good, we'll have to check it out.

See you in New Orleans. We'll have to get together over some barbeque and talk movies.

April 13, 2006 8:18 PM  
Blogger Mental Meanderings said...

yes I did loan your wife 2046, though I am loathe to refer to her as Mrs. Yak. I will see you in New Orleans. Am looking forward to it.

April 17, 2006 7:47 AM  

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