The Auteur Theory Film Studies Essay
-The auteur theory, if defined as the ultimate foundation for a filmmaker’s vision, can be a rather unstable remark for one to give. Who in the beginning of film history declared that a director must adhere to a specific genre with a specific style? It seems, like anything else, that the reasoning behind this theory is for a person to find a way to make sense of it all. However, one could argue that a filmmaker has reasoning behind why they have chosen their career path in the first place, or what kind of themes they want to express to the public.
No matter what the genre or screenplay, a filmmaker can become a true auteur if they “exhibit the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, and the same visual style and tempo” (Wollen 73). In this essay, I will argue that Andrew Sarris’s definition of film auteurism, along with Jim Kitses and Peter Wollen redefinition of its traditional and structuralist conceptions, are displayed in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (along with his other films) as an example of the filmmaker’s auteurism.
Andrew Sarris assesses a filmmaker’s auteurism under three pieces of criteria: technical competence, personality evident through oeuvre (director as stylist), and beauty of interior meanings of films. Technical competence, as a notion of value, surfaces the idea that “a badly directed or undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of values, but one can make interesting conversation about the subject, the script, the acting, the color, the photography, the editing, the music, the costumes, etc” (Sarris 69). In an interview with CNN, Shyamalan insists that The Happening is “the best B movie you will ever see, that's it. That's what this is.”
With this information, Shyamalan lays out the foundation of the film’s technical competence in relation to his past films. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water were assumingly created to the best of Shyamalan’s artistic abilities. Shyamalan premeditated The Happening with the notion that it would not be displayed as one of his ideal aesthetic pieces of cinema. It has been widely known that Shyamalan has had direct influences from science-fiction shows like The Twilight Zone, therefore audiences should be able to suspend moments of realism because, premeditatedly, bizarre and unexplained scenes are going to occur. It’s going to test your patience, imagination, and social pressure, meaning that it almost dares you to laugh at inexplicable moments of dialogue and scenarios, and while it would be easy to write them off as bad filmmaking, if more effort is put into discover what’s really happening or what’s trying to be displayed (Shyamalan’s B-movie approach), the stronger the payoff will be.
For example, the scene where Mark Wahlberg is talking to a plastic plant, pretty funny right? Sure, if you look at it from the standpoint that it’s just Mark Wahlberg talking to a plastic plant. But if you think about it abstractly, the scene is completely appropriate to the film’s narrative. After evacuating New York City, being dropped off in a random town in Pennsylvania, then running from an attacking environmental force that’s never fully explained, isn’t it crazy enough to think that after all this, a person might begin to lose a sense of normalcy? Why not talk to the plant? It can’t hurt to try new approaches to a specific scenario in order to figure out what could be happening, no matter how crazy it makes you look from an outside perspective.
Sarris’s film auteur definition extends even further, to the filmmaker’s personality and its visible evidence throughout oeuvre (director as stylist). “A director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels” (Sarris 69). With The Happening, there is clear evidence of Shyamalan’s personality. Since The Sixth Sense, he has been become known as the master of suspense. He never sells himself out to violence. Instead, he uses it as a tool to build towards a much more apocalyptic fear.
The Happening is never explored from a large-scale angle like War of the Worlds, but rather the larger event that is taking place simultaneously merely peeks from the corners of the screen. Any filmmaker can physically blow things up so long as they have a decent budget. Instead, Shyamalan blows up our imagination. According to Sarris, the auteur theory must have a director with a specific style.
Going along with Sarris’s quote, the way Shyamalan uses violence in the film fits his personal and socially known filmmaking vision. For example, the scene where multiple bodies hang from hoses on trees is incredibly and meaningfully staged. As a passing car witnesses this, could you imagine sitting in that car and be thinking: What in the hell happened here that caused people to end up like this? It’s so much scarier with scenes like this to leave the actual act of violence to the imagination because the imagination has no limits. That’s what makes this all the more horrifying. Shyamalan could have taken the lazy way out by going all Saw on us, producing over the top gore that has no purpose to the story. There’s a difference between horror and violence, and instead, Shyamalan seems to grasp this concept and use violence to enhance the story. He has shown this in every single one of his movies, even with The Happening’s limitless R-rating.
Sarris’s third and final piece of criteria for assessing a director’s auteurism is the beauty of the interior meaning behind a film. “Sometimes a great deal of corn must be husked to yield a few kernels of internal meaning” (Sarris 71). The post 9/11 atmosphere in our society still looms in the back of everyone’s mind. Shyamalan, instead of abusing this fear, induces it into interpersonal paranoia. The strangeness of each scene allows multiple scenarios of fear. The vibes coming off each character suggests that the events in The Happening are terrorist attacks. Why? Because it’s the first thing that enters everyone’s mind. The media has us so convinced that an act of terrorism is the only possible explanation of an attack on American soil that it has become the epitome of mass cultural fear.
The standardization of mass culture (in this case, the media of mass culture) dictates the audience’s reactions, telling them how to think and feel. Clement Greenberg, an American art critic of the 20th century argues that the “Kitsch” (German word meaning mass culture) associated in filmmaking has become extremely easy to notice. For example, a clichéd horror scene consists of objects jumping onto the screen after moments of eerie noises or silence (The Prom Night example). Formulaically, it’s the feeling that someone is going to jump out and scream a standardized horror clichéd line like “boo!” or “gotcha!” Shyamalan on the other hand, takes this persona and reverses it. Instead of forcing the audience into feeling a specific reaction, he allows them to think for themselves.
Jim Kitses and Peter Wollen redefine the traditionalists and structuralist conceptions of auteurism in a simplistic manner that remains to this day, arguably, as an odyssey. Kitses claims that genre is to filmmaker as language is to speaker. The very foundation of meaning for an artist to work with is the roots in which they display the most comfort. Kitses explains that the meanings, characters, stories, and imagery come from the structure of the genre and the present culture in which the filmmaker is working within.
Applying this to Shyamalan’s personal authorship, both Kitses and Wollen express their theories: “In my view the term (auteur theory) describes a basic principle and a method, no more and no less” (Kitses 89) and “exhibit the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, and the same visual style and tempo” (Wollen 73). Shyamalan, in almost all of his films tackles big social themes, being mostly end of the world scenarios (Signs, The Happening) and/or socially known fears (The Village, The Sixth Sense).
In Signs, Shyamalan takes a basic principle (an alien invasion towards planet earth) and applies his own basic method to it (the event is seen through the eyes of an American family trying to survive it). By adding his own layers of substance to Kitses’s basic principle and method, Shyamalan ultimately creates his own personal authorship. Signs has the same basic principle as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, but each director has their own vision towards it. Both Signs and War of the Worlds are about an alien invasion towards planet earth in which an American family tries to survive it, but unlike Spielberg, Shyamalan doesn’t physically blow up the world, he enforces the imagination on the viewer and only implies physical destruction. Roger Ebert’s review of Signs furthers this argument:
“I will not even say whether aliens appear in the movie, because whether they do or not is beside the point. The purpose of the film is to evoke pure emotion through the use of skilled acting and direction, and particularly through the soundtrack. It is not just what we hear that is frightening. It is the way Shyamalan has us listening intensely when there is nothing to be heard. I cannot think of a movie where silence is scarier, and inaction is more disturbing” (Roger Ebert).
Kitses and Wollen have very similar opinions in the basic elements of the auteur. Kitses expresses that it involves a basic principle and a method, where Wollen argues that it exhibits the same thematic preoccupations. However, the process of getting the film to a concrete medium is where the two differ. Kitses compares genre to filmmaker as language is to speaker. When a speaker speaks a language, they may say it on their own terms, with different tones, dialects, expressions, emotions, speed, etc. therefore in translation to cinema, a filmmaker may express a genre their own way without the interference of an outside medium.
While that it very much the case in many situations, the auteur must also face several realities, most evidently the wants and desires of the film’s financier (in other words, the studio) and the potential incidents that could destroy a film’s credibility. “The director does not have full control of his work. This explains why the auteur theory involves a kind of decipherment, decryptment. A great many features of films analysed have to be dismissed as indecipherable because of noise from the producer, the cameraman or even the actors” (Wollen 77).
Audiences and critics can become subconsciously superstitious if one is not careful to consider the fact that films undergo realistic challenges like anything else. Shyamalan has experienced these heartaches just like any other filmmaker. In The Sixth Sense, his favorite scene (an alternate ending with an extended version of Bruce Willis’s wedding video speech) was cut from the film due to a studio decision. In Signs, Shyamalan was disappointed with his cinematographer’s (Tak Fujimoto) visual representation of the aliens.
Furthermore, one must insist that Kitses wrote his analysis on the auteur theory before the Internet world affected the cinema. For example, the definitive twist in Shyamalan’s The Village was leaked online before its theatrical release date, ultimately allowing the entire world to access the film’s signature plot twist. This not only directly contributed to the film’s box-office disappointment, but also its initial critical failure, which discouraged the meaning of Shyamalan’s message. One could argue that The Sixth Sense would have suffered the same fate of The Village had the Internet been a primary resource and if the film’s ending was leaked online before its theatrical release in 1999.
The structure of a movie is premeditated by an auteur, but a film’s outcome may have an end that does not justify the means. In a perfect filmmaking world, Kitses’s theory would reign supreme on the idea that genre is to filmmaker as language is to speaker, but Wollen understands that things can happen beyond the control of an auteur. “It simply means that it is inaccessible to criticism. We can merely record our momentary and subjective impressions” (Wollen 77).
Perhaps this is why Shyamalan’s films are becoming more appreciated as time goes on. One example of this is Unbreakable, which was initially a critical and box-office disappointment (in relation to The Sixth Sense) upon its release date in August of 2000, but over the years a cult following on DVD and VHS has sparked rumors of a potential sequel.
Sarris, Kitses, and Wollen’s theories are visible in today's mainstream discussions. Shyamalan’s statement in the CNN interview stating, “The Happening is the best B-movie ever” is filled with Sarris’s ideas of technical competence in the criteria for a film’s auteurism. Wollen is seen in Roger Ebert’s reviews on both Shyamalan’s Signs and The Happening. Ebert states in his Signs review that “in a time when Hollywood mistakes volume for action, Shyamalan makes quiet films. In a time when incessant action is a style, he persuades us to play close attention to the smallest nuances” (Roger Ebert). Every Shyamalan film since The Sixth Sense has had a summer release date. The filmmaker has an off-rhythmic beat in a year of Hollywood releases. “M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" is a movie that I find oddly touching. It is no doubt too thoughtful for the summer action season, but I appreciate the quietly realistic way Shyamalan finds to tell a story about the possible death of man” (Roger Ebert).
Personal taste aside, a theatrical release of a Shyamalan movie is always a movie event. In many ways, we know what to expect from his films. First and foremost (in accordance to mainstream logic), his box-office numbers are usually very successful (Lady in the Water is his only film that failed to produce a profit in its theatrical run). A “Time Magazine” interview has Shyamalan defending his financial success. "Except for Pixar, I have made the four most successful original movies in a row of all time” (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village). “If you're not betting on me, then nobody should get money. I've made profit a mathematical certainty. I'm the safest bet you got."
Behind his films financial successes are their other obvious components. The science-fiction genre is a must, his release dates are similar (they’ve ranged no further in the summer season than June through August), and his characters all embody the struggles of interpersonal and emotional growth. Through this mainstream discussion, an auteur (in this case, Shyamalan) “exhibits the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, and the same visual style and tempo” (Wollen 73).
Shyamalan, whether or not many believe he has lost his touch, is still a prime example of film auteurism. When watching one of his films, you always know you are watching a Shyamalan movie. It is clear with his setting (every one of his films is set in Philadelphia,) his vision (large scale events shown through a small-scale,) and his themes (the power of love, the fear of violence, and the importance of the imagination). His technical competence, personal evident throughout oeuvre, and internal meeting are all elements in his personal authorship in American cinema. Like anything else, only time has any real ability to create an understanding, in this case behind the man who was once called “The Next Spielberg,” the elements of his film auteurism, and the theorists who have timelessly argued the notion of the term’s infinitely interpreted foundation.
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