'No, that’s God. He just thinks He’s Stanley Kubrick,' is the punch line to an oft-repeated joke about the legendary filmmaker’s notorious omnipotence on-set. Über-fastidious in his style, commanding creative carte blanche and with organisational powers to rival a military general, Kubrick is the epitome of Director as God, the all-powerful and all-knowing movie genius who bends the celluloid cosmos to his will.
'To make a film is to create an entire universe,' is how Ingmar Bergman once described the art of directing. Kubrick’s most famous film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a stellar example. In this spectacular two-and-a-half-hour lightshow, we journey from the dawn of man to the final frontier, explore the secrets of creation and watch celestial orbs align in glorious symphony under Kubrick’s supremely confident baton.
|Miracle of creation: The finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)|
2001 is quintessential auteurism: the belief that certain directors are the chief creative force behind any film, artists who overcome the crass commercialism of the system to impose their own personal vision on a movie, in much the same way a painter or novelist is the sole author of their work. This is a very sexy theory. Auteurism gives film the kudos of high art, so we speak of directors like they’re Picasso or Tolstoy, which in turn generates head-nodding, chin-stroking approval from audiences eager to be sprinkled by the stardust of artistic sophistication.
Yet it creates a false divide too, between these supposedly ‘artistic’ movies – where An Important Director Has Something To Say - and ‘commercial’ ones, which purely entertain. This is a sad elitism that neglects so many great filmmakers whose talents lie not in single-mindedness of vision, but in their ability to coax the very best from actors, writers, editors and cinematographers.
No one knows what Michael Curtiz stood for as an artist, yet that didn’t stop him from helming Casablanca to near-universal adoration. The same goes for Victor Fleming, who wrestled the double-headed hydra of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind in one single year. And Steven Spielberg even, who made the yin and yang of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in a similar time span.
Such versatile craftsmen aren’t auteurs. Unlike Kubrick, I’m unsure who Spielberg is and what he stands for as an artist. But like Fleming and Curtiz, he’s some kind of magician, a conjurer of great cinematic spells who marshals and manipulates the talents of those around him, before stepping back behind the curtain, revealing nothing about himself except his supreme ability to put on a show. And isn’t that an art in itself?
|If ever a Wiz there was: Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939)|
Art as magic show, and the question of whether authorship really matters, are the central themes of F for Fake, a 1973 film essay by Orson Welles. In the film’s pivotal scene, Welles describes the French Gothic cathedral at Chartres as the ultimate example of collaborative art: ‘the premier work of man in the western world, but one without a signature.’ The people who made it are anonymous, Welles says, now part of what he calls ‘the universal ash’. ‘Maybe a man’s name,’ he concludes, ‘doesn’t matter that much.’
A work of art is a work of art, regardless of who made it. If it’s truly successful, it will transcend its creators to speak afresh to future generations in different ways, in the same way 2001 and The Wizard of Oz still resonate today. These two movies sit poles apart on the artistic-commercial spectrum, but this spectrum is an artificial construct anyway, one that says more about our needs as viewers than the intentions of those behind the camera.
|A con in the can? The opening credits of F for Fake (1973)|
In his landmark essay The Death of the Author, written the year before 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, French academic Roland Barthes argued the true creator of a text isn’t the author but the reader. 'There is no other time than that of the utterance,' he wrote, 'and every text is eternally written here and now... the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination.'
Put simply, art has no meaning other than the ones we as viewers ascribe it. For every film we watch, we are active participants rather than passive observers, creating and fashioning our own personal interpretations from the material before us. After I watch The Wizard of Oz with my daughter, we recreate the movie around the house, cinematic authors shaping our own version of Barthes’s eternally written here and now. ‘Home’ and ‘courage’ are all in our minds I tell her, so as long as she imagines she’s wearing her ruby slippers, there really is nothing to fear.
|No signature required: Chartres Cathedral at night-time|
Movie-going is ultimately subjective: what you make of it is the only thing that matters. Centuries from now, when today’s directors have long since dissolved into the universal ash, it’s the one thing about the art form that will remain truly divine. Much like Chartres Cathedral, cinema stands tall as a grand, collective experience in the dark, illuminated from within by the ceaseless, glowing candles of everyone’s unique, creative light.
This article originally appeared in the November-December edition of Electrolyte, the magazine for and by fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.