a lot of people think auteur theory is bad, but the truth is way, way funnier than they realize. like, my guy, it’s legitimately hilarious. enjoy.
So, over the years, auteur theory discourse rears its ugly head, and a whole lot of people offer an opinion that makes complete and total sense: it sucks when a gigantic project with thousands of people working on it is credited to a sole visionary, when we know that person didn’t make the whole work themselves.
We can easily conjure up images of the artiste (my buddy Phil and I were talking one day, and he suggested using that term to describe this sort of person), the demanding, self-important, egotistical maniac who demands the absurd and impossible, then brags about how important they are to the rest of the world.
Take Elon Musk, a person who was so desperate for being Somebody that he got Tesla to rewrite him into the founding as a “retroactive co-founder,” thanks to a whole lot of lawsuits (and a lot of trying to claim the other guy who did found the company didn’t do anything and the credit to make Tesla a reality did belong to him after all). This is not a guy who engineers cars or does any other meaningful work at any of his companies; this is a guy who yells at other people to do so on his behalf. Beyond raising money — usually by saying things that get him in trouble with the SEC — Musk’s actual competency in any field he’s worked in has yet to be proven, as far as I can tell.
I’ve mentioned my issues with Neil Druckmann before — I think he’s an artiste. In Jason Schreier’s expose on crunch at Naughty Dog for Kotaku, the man’s portrait isn’t exactly a flattering one. Plus there’s the way he talks about his games, whether suggesting that adding a jump makes his games better or suggesting his game is about Important Topics, like hate and shame, feelings he suggests are “unique” to video games, implying he’s literally never read a book or watched a movie in his life, I guess? I mean, really? You think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can’t make you hate Nurse Ratched? The point is: this man isn’t exactly the best and brightest the video game scene has to offer.
Let’s overlook the fact that every Naughty Dog game where you controlled a person until The Last of Us had jumping (at least, that I can think of; Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, and the Uncharted series all had ‘em!). The idea that being able to jump means something important to empathizing with the characters is pretty silly. I know I say that the totality of the experience involves all the mechanics and how much friction there is for the player, but being able to jump won’t make you empathize with a character more — it’s the writing and the performance that generates empathy.
We put jumping in Adios because we didn’t want players to have to think about the movement. I had a lot of pushback, people arguing it would shorten the game to make the character pleasurable to control, or “it doesn’t make sense, he’s an old man,” but hey, I’ve worked on walking sims before. I know that people don’t notice pleasurable movement but they do notice movement that sucks. Other than the one guy who reviewed the game by trying to break the cutscenes by acting as silly as possible, not a single review has complained about the movement at all — something I’d had problems with before, and something I’d seen for reviews of all sorts of walking games. Everyone who makes a walking sim invariably goes “we need to make the movement suck ass” and people go “this game sucks” in the reviews. Make the movement good, and people will like your game more, even if they don’t bring it up in a review, because they’re not thinking about it. We think about roadblocks that trip us up; we don’t think to remark on a path that doesn’t trip us.
But I’m digressing.
The point is, without a doubt, it’s completely, totally, absolutely, indisputably factual that this sort of person exists.
I’m gonna do something I never do in an essay: going to tell you exactly what I want to achieve here. What I see is a world where people think that the self-righteous artiste may be, in some way, valid, and I think that’s bullshit. What I want to do is arm you with the knowledge required to kick this kind of person in the teeth.
I think you’ve got two groups of people: you’ve got one group of people who think there’s an auteur theory that justifies them being assholes; they see this version of auteur theory as aspirational. You’ve got another group of people who think that auteur theory advocates for the former group; that it’s an argument saying “yes, there are people who are like this and it’s good for some reason.”
There’s just one problem.
That’s not auteur theory at all. Auteur theory barely even considers this kind of person — it was, in fact, created because people were arguing for this and the guy who polished it said “hmm, there’s some potential for abuse, so let’s codify auteur theory so it isn’t used to justify those jackasses.
Time and time again, we see people, including absolutely insightful, brilliant, wonderful critics and friends, railing against auteurs and auteur theory.
So… what is it? And why do people get it so, so wrong?
First, hey, this is 27,000 words long, and I’m putting it out there for free. I know this shit’s annoying, but if you don’t support me, I can’t keep writing stuff like this. I could really use your help.
If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:
Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.
What They Say It Is
When someone does not know about a topic, they speak around it.
One thing I’ve noticed about most of the people who claim that they oppose auteur theory is that they never say what it actually is. They talk around it a great deal — they point you in the direction of the artiste and they say “this is bad,” and it is self-evident that the artiste is bad, so people go “oh, auteur theory is probably some kind of justification for artistes,” and that’s about as far as anyone goes.
I am trying to avoid linking anyone because literally some of my favorite people in the world have fallen into this trap. I have fallen into this trap. It’s a very easy thing to fall into, and it’s only because I’ve got like a decade of higher education and then another decade of criticism under my belt that I can try to explain all this stuff. We’re not here to attack anybody. We’re here to gently nudge ’em in the right direction.
I want you to come away from this piece with more things in your arsenal of critical tools. I want you to come away from this as a better collaborator and artist.
Read any essay on the topic of auteurs in games; does a single one actually work to establish what auteur theory is before disassembling that? If you’ve been paying attention these essays, you know our process for compelling argument is to make sure the positions are clearly established before determining whether the thing is right or wrong.
If you read any piece opposing auteur theory, you’re unlikely to actually come away understanding what auteur theory is, which means the piece was a waste of your time; you just heard someone saying “I don’t like jerks,” and, like, yeah. Nobody likes jerks. You came into the essay the same way you left it. We can do better.
People are understandably right to criticize the artiste, but they’re assuming that auteur theory is some kind of justification for the artiste. That isn’t so. In fact, that’s not even what the concept of theory means.
Well, okay, so what does a theory mean?
Well, to answer that question, let’s talk about why people make theories. In doing so, we’ll understand what a theory is.
A Quick Primer
We come up with theories to explain things that exist.
That is to say, if the theory is disproven, the thing does not cease to exist, but instead, we realize our theory — our explanation for what the thing is — was insufficient. For instance, a long time ago, people believed the Sun moved around the Earth, a belief system called “geocentrism,” and now we know that the opposite is true; the Earth moves around the sun. The theory of geocentrism was disproven.
But where did geocentrism come from? What was it endeavoring to explain?
Everyone observed the sun appearing to move across the sky during the day. They assumed that one of two objects was moving around the other, and since the Sun was far away, they assumed, naturally, that the Earth must be a massive fixed point, and the Sun was a small body that circled the Earth.
When geocentrism was disproven, the fact the Sun appeared to travel across the sky was never in question.
A theory, in other words, exists to explain an observed phenomena.
The phenomena does not cease to exist if the explanation is insufficient. The theory and our understanding changes, but the phenomena itself is immutable. Reality is concrete, in that sense.
So, enter a guy who had absolutely zero interest in talking about the self-centered, attention-seeking artiste, Francois Truffaut. A critic turned filmmaker (perhaps best known for The 400 Blows), the Frenchman had noticed something peculiar (a phenomenon) about movies and he wanted to understand them, so he developed a theory, and that theory was not auteur theory, but it would lead us to auteur theory, and it will help us understand how auteur theory came about, so I’m still gonna talk about it.
Truffaut was interested in “psychological realism,” something that had been popping up in movies in the nine years since the end of World War II.
His essay was called…
A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema
Truffaut starts off A Certain Tendency of The French Cinema by going “hey, nerds, I noticed somethin weird about French movies, and I’m French, so I have some Notes. The only reason that I am writing this essay is to discuss this phenomenon, which I’m calling “psychological realism,” and I’m gonna talk about its limitations.”
His first section is basically going “look, there’s a fuckload of French movies made every year, but only a few of them are good enough to be award winning, and since I’m French, and this is the year 1953, and Theodore Sturgeon won’t invent “Sturgeon’s Law (the second part)” for three more years, when he’ll write “ninety-percent of everything is crud” in Venture Science Fiction, I’m going to come up with my own reason why.”
“A long time ago, most French movies were basically just copies of Hollywood. Thanks to a guy named Jacques Prévert (don’t misread that), French cinema took on a life of its own with something called poetic realism, but Adolph Hitler fucked it all up and now we’ve got something called psychological realism.”
Now, I’ve forgotten way too much bullshit over the years, but I do recall that this wasn’t a distinctly French phenomenon. After World War II and the tremendous amount of psychic damage inflicted, soldiers were returning home with something they called “shell shock,” which would later be better understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A whole lot of people started including psychology in their filmmaking, which ranged from characters clumsily explaining psychology, like in Hitchcock’s movie Spellbound, to movies attempting to tell stories using psychological ideas as a lens.
Now, obviously, psychology was in its relative infancy at the time, and the way stories attempt to use science to demystify character behaviors and create drama can come off as silly and nonsensical, while theorists like Freud and Lacan have been largely disproven for anything they said about how people actually function (though they are still used heavily in academia, which seems silly to me, given that their work is literally just a guy going “I bet people are like this” and being completely wrong about it; it’s a bit like saying “well, yes, okay, so even though Plato was wrong and the ether does not exist and there is no “perfect concept” of a chair existing somewhere, we’re still going to pretend that Plato’s “platonic ideal” of a chair exists somewhere, and all ideas of a chair are somehow pulled from this idea floating in the ether. We’re going to pretend that those concepts do exist independent of people, even though that’s factually incorrect. It’s useful theory somehow, even though it’s derived from a guy making shit up.” It’s horse shit).
But, hey, the point is: a lot of people were really into psychology after World War II, and a lot of it was because that war was so goddamn traumatizing that people needed to explain what it had done to them. One of my favorite movies, La Strada, is an attempt at explaining it that nearly broke Federico Fellini, who went on to make 8 1/2, a movie about making La Strada. Another great movie, Come and See, was an attempt by Elem Klimov to communicate the pain of surviving World War II as a youth. He quit making movies after that, said he’d done all it was possible for him to do with film.
These people went through hell, their entire world upended, and they started trying to explain it.
That’s where psychological realism came in.
Truffaut continues by going “look, bro, I’m talking to people who write movies. It’s kinda interesting that people are trying to do more with films than just be commercial, right?”
Rather than asking “are movies art?” he’s going “some movies are commercial and some movies are art. It seems like more art is being made these days, I wonder why?”
I wish games critics would do that, but “are games art?” is a question that people desperate for approval from their parents (like gamers and games journalists who ask this question) ask. It is not a question you ask if you are even remotely serious about making or understanding games, because it’s self-evident. No genuinely good-faith intelligent-ass human being would ever seriously ask “are games art?”
Art is expression.
Look, there’s a whole lot of ideas about what art is from a whole lot of people, and a lot of it has this quasi-mystical quality that art and artists are some sort of magicians who are Above The Rest of Us because they Can Create Things That Make Us Feel… but…
Well, let’s cut through the bullshit.
Art is not magic, and the artist is not special. As an artist, I can speak to this.
For most of human history, art was not considered to be particularly magical. It was, instead, considered to be the work of skilled craftsmen. She’s a blacksmith, I’m a sculptor, we’re the same. That I might sculpt a statue that is then put into a church, for most of human history, did not position me in society as above or below her. We are on equal footing, both artisans in our respective fields.
This idea that art is somehow important in the sense that the artist is special and notable is… well, a relatively modern invention, and it persists for two primary reasons.
The first is something that theorist Walter Benjamin discussed in an essay he wrote called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which can be restated thusly:
“Ya’ll know how fuckin weird it is to stand in the presence of a statue and experience awe? We know, rationally, that the statue has no power, but something about its presence gives us some vibes, y’know?”
Basically, some art has a sense of physical presence that’s difficult to articulate. It’s a kind of magic. That reverence we feel when we see a big statue? Well, back in the olden times, nobody really knew why statues gave them vibes like that, so they assumed gods were inhabiting it. Benjamin referred to this as “cult value,” and his essay is basically “okay but what’s going to happen to art now that the ‘screen’ has been invented? Can movies ‘awe’ us the way that statues can if we can copypaste them?”
(the answer is yes, dude, because statues weren’t magical because they were unique, they were magical because they were Big and our Lizard Brains went “AHH BIG PERSON” and you can repeat the same effect with an IMAX screen)
So people had this gut vibe that art is magical, but that’s just human electrochemical meat computers at work, baybeeeee! Art isn’t actually doing any kind of magic. It’s just a thing we do that hijacks our brains and makes us feel shit — it is, in other words, an act of conscious dreaming.
If dreams are, as theorized, a way for our minds to move memories from short term to long term storage, then art is a way for our conscious mind to process emotions. So of course we feel stuff, and since feelings aren’t concrete, like reason is, it can feel like magic, in the same way that dreams are often attributed a mystical quality.
Art is simply the thing humans make to deal with how we’re feeling. That’s it. That’s all it is. When you’re in love, you write a love song. When you need a puzzle, you write a mystery. When you are angry, maybe you paint. When, like me, you’ve got some PTSD? You make a video game about it.
Which is why a lot of bad art is this very clumsy kind of “a psychologist in a black and white film attempts to explain why some people do bad things and it sounds very silly,” or “a post-apocalyptic game that says ‘revenge is bad’” are all so meaningless. They’re not allowing us to deal with things, they’re too busy trying to teach us a lesson, which isn’t what art is.
Metaphors and similes aren’t art in and of themselves, but art can use them. Fables are ways for children, who don’t have lived experience, to be exposed to real situations that happen and learn lessons. They’re not art, they’re instruction. You can’t make art if you’re focused on teaching someone a valuable lesson — you’re too busy making a lesson to teach.
Art comes about when you, the artist, express what you are experiencing — what you are feeling — and trying to share that feeling with other people. Art is not so much words as what the words do, and it’s colors, shapes, sounds, and everything in between. Words are just an abstraction layer for humans to do human shit.
(an abstraction layer is basically a layer between the message and the subject that takes a complicated thing and simplifies it into something that can be more easily understood)
There’s this idea that humans don’t have; free will because humans have been measured to act before their conscious mind is aware they’re acting; I’d argue that the real person is the unconscious mind — I am not just the me who is conscious, I am also the me who dreams. The nightmares I have, the good dreams, those are as much aspects of who I am and how I experience the world as the conscious decisions I make here.
So a lot of people, especially people who are dumb, attempt to cage every feeling in rational thought, and when they see someone who can reach beyond that, they assume, incorrectly, that the other person is dumber, rather than someone who does not need to reduce their experience down to simplified thought that can be slapped on a billboard somewhere for all to read.
This is also why most artistes are some of the stupidest motherfuckers alive. At their most intellectual, they’re little more than businessmen. They have a brand — and this, by the by, is why they’re so obsessed with controlling public perception, because to them, being an artist is about the public relations side of things. They want you to put them on a pedestal, so their actions are about doing what they think will get you to do that.
Seriously, I’ve met these people. They all have the same basic idea: they want to be known as artists. What’s important to them is public perception. Real artists — which I hope I am, and I’m trying to be — don’t care so much about how you see them as making their art as truthfully as possible.
One reason I have little interest in adapting other works of fiction unless they really speak to me or the paycheck is really, really good is because… that’s not me, you know? Sure, I am a good enough writer that I can transform my style to suit whoever I’m writing for, but I would prefer to just make my own stuff, my own ideas, and leave other people to make theirs. Art is a way of getting to know the artist — you can’t know me if I’m writing Star Wars to suit Dave Filoni; at that point, I’m just an acolyte of Filoni. I’d rather be me, you know?
This is why some of the best artists I know will make some of the absolutely dumbest, unhinged, horny shit because they want to and the worst artists I know are desperate to imbue all their art with ideas that the audience will notice and credit them for. It is an act of fraud. The artiste is about perception, and they will sabotage their own art and make it worse just so you see them as a great mind.
The thing is: they don’t respect you.
The artiste is fundamentally a manipulator — they assume you are dumber than they are, and that they can trick you into respecting them. The idea of honestly expressing themselves in their work isn’t just something they can’t do, it’s something that would directly conflict with their desire to trick you into respecting them. So they can never be honest, and their work can never truly last. It’s a pointless endeavor.
Being an artist requires a great deal of humility — you have to want to be invisible in your own work. It’s why a good film editor can be said to be an artist, because great editing is hardly noticeable, but elevates the work. Margaret Sixel is every bit the artist as her husband, George Miller. He directed Mad Max: Fury Road, she edited it. Keeping all those shots on center and making sure the action was easy to follow was crucial to making Fury Road work.
She is a craftsman, like any good artist.
An artist giving an interview saying “my work is Important” is a fraud. Importance is something the audience bestows upon you; you cannot set out to make an important work.
The other reason that people think art is an act of magic?
Yup, it’s that bastard!! Capitalism
Let’s play a game! I want you to pretend for a moment that you are a Rich Bastard, and you got here by underpaying your employees. You know the type, right? We’re talking about the shitty boss who tells you that you’re gonna need to work overtime this weekend, isn’t anywhere to be seen, and then texts you from Cabo to say that A) he’s having a great time in Cabo, and B), the office spyware he had installed says you got into the office two minutes late so he’s going to refuse to pay you overtime for working on Saturday.
So if that’s you, and you’ve got someone who you want to perform labor for you so that you make 70% of the money and they make 5% (the other 25% goes to running the company), and you’re a talentless bastard who can’t do it yourself, you’re probably gonna try to underpay people.
Which is where the twitter account “for exposure” comes in.
You see, a lot of people who do not want to pay people for art will show up at your proverbial doorstep to say “you should do all this labor for me… and I’ll pay you in exposure,” which really just means they want you to give them hundreds or even thousands of dollars in exchange for literally nothing. Why would you pay someone to do your job? You could literally make more money by sitting around playing video games all day and not spending time paying them to do work for them. You get nothing out of a “for exposure” detail.
In fact, if you’re a remotely talented artist, and they’re approaching you, there’s no exposure that they can give you that you haven’t already gotten. Like: you already have the exposure required if someone is coming to you to ask you to work for them for free. You are already exposed enough; there is nothing that person can give you that you do not already have. If they want to give you money, well, that’s a different story.
If you’ve never thought about this before, think about it like this.
Let’s say you work 40 hours a week. That means you have, roughly, 160 hours in a month to spend on activities that will allow you to pay for your rent/mortgage, buy groceries, or what have you.
Would you spend those hours doing a whole lot of work from someone who wants to pass the buck to someone else who might pay you for more work later? And let’s be honest: if they aren’t paying you now and are just telling you that it’s for exposure, what makes you think they will later?
(the only exception here would be either quid pro quo work or work with someone you trust intimately to pay you when they can)
If I have to do 40 hours of work to get exposure so someone else comes along and offers me 40 hours of work that I do get paid for, I’ve done 80 hours of work for half the pay. Why would you ever work for exposure? The paid work gives exposure and pay.
So, knowing this, the capitalists introduced this silly idea that goes “well, you see, art is special, and art is magical. You’re not a craftsman, you’re an artist, which means you should work for me for free because you have a higher calling. I get something just by asking for it, you lose your home and starve because I didn’t pay you so you can’t make rent and can’t buy groceries. And if you expect pay for your actual work, you’re not a real artist.”
It’s a shitty attempt at using your own impostor syndrome against you. Remember: what impostor syndrome tells you about yourself is fake. It is not an accurate representation of who you are or where you deserve to be. It is your brain trying to tell you that you aren’t worthy when you are worthy. So someone who is trying to leverage this weakness in your brain is someone you wouldn’t want to be working with anyways.
So, to the capitalists: Bro, why in the fuck would I ever do work for you for free? If I got free time, I’m gonna do that work for me. You could literally be Elon Musk, who can afford, apparently, to drop $44,000,000,000 to massage your ego, and if you’re really telling me that you can’t pay me $450/day to write a story, you can fuck all the way off.
Time is money. My time is money. The fact that my work can make people feel emotions doesn’t mean I have to pretend my time is without value. I ain’t workin’ for free, and I ain’t expectin’ anyone else too either, because I’m not a capitalist jackass.
So, yes, the act of pretending that art is some kind of magic ultimately benefits rich bastards who don’t want to pay, and just want you to give them shit for free, even though they should be trading you cash for your time. They will call you a fraud because they want you to waste your time on their behalf. Anyone who wants you to work for exposure is insulting you and says you matter less as a person than them, and they do it by saying that what you do is so special that you should starve for it.
It’s fucked up.
But that mindset — the idea that a “real” artist is someone who possesses a magical quality — has infected art itself, which is where you get these artistes, people who are obsessed with the image of being an artist over the actual craft of being one.
There are real and fake artists, but it’s not because you have some magical it quality, no. No, it’s not that at all. Instead, the real artist expresses what they are feeling and the fake artist obsesses over their image.
(there is an ‘it’ quality to certain artists — there’s a reason that Rebecca Black, a teen whose parents paid for her to basically have a musical single — isn’t considered an artist the way that, say, Britney Spears is, but that’s a whole other discussion and it mostly comes down to the person’s confidence and ability to understand and reach out to other people)
Now, if you’re careless, you might be wondering “what does any of this have to do with auteur theory?” Well, we’re giving you all of this understanding of what art is and how art behaves because we’re trying to establish the difference between what auteur theory is describing and what an artiste is. Fundamentally, the artiste is not interested in art, they’re interested in the state of being worshipped. Because they’re not interested in art, and therefore not interested in other people, they’re not willing to understand it, a lot like people who say “i oppose auteur theory” but don’t even understand what it is.
You’ve got to understand whatever subject you’re talking about so you avoid becoming, even inadvertently, an asshole.
Back To Truffaut
The next section of Truffaut’s essay builds his argument further; he points out that the idea of adaptation changed under Jean Aurenche and Jean Anouilh. Basically, before them, an adaptation had to follow the text exactly.
One of my favorite short stories is “On The Exactitude of Science,” by Borges, which is about a paragraph long, which basically goes “once upon a time, some guys made the most accurate map ever. That map was a 1:1 scale of the world, so it covered the world. You can still find pieces of it far from civilization. Because it was perfect, it was too big to be useful.”
Now, obviously, the idea of a map you cannot read because it is a perfect copy of the world to the point that it covers the entire world is absurd, but that’s what people used to do when they adapted things.
Humans communicate through mediums, like text, video, or yes, games. Adaptation is a process of changing a work in one medium to another medium. You cannot interact with a book (if you say “but what about ‘choose your own adventure books’ please fuck off, that’s not interaction) in the same way that you can, say, shoot a gun to warn people off in Spec Ops: The Line or choose to shoot that same crowd.
So, to answer the very pointless question “are games art?” I will reply with an equally pointless question: are mammals whales?
Of course not, fucko, whales are mammals, but mammals are not whales.
If you ask “are games art?” you’ve got the order wrong. Art is one of the things that can travel through a medium, and games are a medium. So there are some games that are art, and then there’s Number Maze.
Number Maze was an educational computer program where you learned how to do math. It followed the rules of a game — a literal game, like, “structured play” dictionary definition-ass game — but it’s not art. It’s educational software. It doesn’t exist for the primary purpose of expressing something, it’s a gamified way to teach you how to do math.
Remember, the idea that art is special and magical is horse shit, so don’t take “Number Maze is Not Art” as somehow denigrating Number Maze. An El Camino is not an airplane. This doesn’t make an El Camino somehow lesser of a thing than a North American P-51 Mustang. They’re simply different things. The only way you could see “this is not art” as an insult is if you’re a mark who’s been conned into believing that art is special.
Art can do special things, but hey, finding an engaging way to teach my ADHD-ass childhood self how to do math was pretty special too. Saying is it not art is not demeaning.
You’d have to be an idiot to think that.
“Doc, Doc, Doc, I see your point, but… if that problem is so easily solved, why is the question so persistent?”
Oh that’s easy, it’s because most of the people asking the question have a completely different question they’re actually asking and they won’t be satisfied until someone answers that question instead of the simpler one about whether or not games are art.
What they want to ask is “when will you validate me for being a consumer?”
See, people who misunderstand art and think that art is special want to be validated for consuming that art. Think about the dumb Film Bro stereotypes you’ve heard of who are like “I only watch art films,” as opposed to the actual artists who will literally watch gamera.
I read a great tumblr post by a user named rthko that tackled this very topic.
Let me ask you this: how many “snobs” have you actually met? Because I have met many people who take interest in art history, watch vintage film or films from films from outside the US (which by the way are not all “arthouse” films), or read and cherish historically and culturally significant literature. But I have never met anyone who will treat me like I’m a bad person for watching Mama Mia or just wanting to be entertained once in a while. I have, however, met people who think art history is stupid and pointless and that those who study it deserve to live in poverty, who are xenophobic and dismissive toward any art made outside the US (or western Europe for that matter), or roll their eyes at people who read literature they consider boring because they’ve never given it a try. In fact, most of the people I know who you would consider “snobs” out of projected insecurity are cautious to bring up their interests because they think they’ll be made fun of. Is anti intellectualism “anti elitist?” At times, but it’s the sort of pseudo populism that fits comfortably within contemporary right wing discourse. Have you paid any attention to politics the last decade or so? If you are allergic to culture and new information, fine. Just don’t claim the moral high ground for it.
One of the responses, by tumblr user starfrog, went: “it is reasonable to wish that people would not be mean to me about my ignorance. it would NOT reasonable for me to double-down and claim that it is a Bad Thing to Know Stuff.”
Roger Ebert, who famously declared that games were not art (and was right) approached the same idea in his review of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe:
There’s a learning process that moviegoers go through. They begin in childhood without sophistication or much taste, and for example, like “Gamera’’ more than “Air Force One” because flying turtles are obviously more entertaining than United States presidents. Then they grow older and develop “taste,’’ and prefer “Air Force One,” which is better made and has big stars and a more plausible plot. (Isn’t it more believable, after all, that a president could single-handedly wipe out a planeload of terrorists than that a giant turtle could spit gobs of flame?) Then, if they continue to grow older and wiser, they complete the circle and return to “Gamera’’ again, realizing that while both movies are preposterous, the turtle movie has the charm of utter goofiness — and, in an age of flawless special effects, it is somehow more fun to watch flawed ones.
The people who ask “are games art?” don’t want to hear you say “yes” or “no,” what they want is to be treated the way they think highbrow artists are treated. They’re being conned by the art world (which is really just a front for widespread money laundering), by the phenomenon of thinking art is magic that we’ve just discussed, and the lifestyle that a lot of artists seem to live. What they want is for video games to be treated with the prestige of Hollywood.
Now, there’s a lot of reasons why games won’t be treated like Hollywood, but part of that is because of the reason you think The Oscars Matter, which is to say that a lot of people in Hollywood decided to pat themselves on the back and spend a great deal of money and grandstanding to convince you that The Oscars are Important.
Games have several award ceremonies. I know, because I’ve been on the stage of one, so I can definitely say they exist. Most of them have, well… look at how Josef Fares was dressed when he accepted his. Look at how The Game Awards, arguably the biggest awards show, is mostly just a glorified commercial.
Consider this: Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. Why was he essentially blackballed where people with far less cultural cache aren’t? That’s simple: Hollywood is kayfabe. It’s pretend. What Woody Allen or Roman Polanski do off screen, Hollywood will sweep under the rug, no matter how grotesque. But you do it on front of camera where everybody can see it? Oh, buddy, you better expect there’s a reckoning. If Polanski had slapped someone on camera, he’d be out of Hollywood in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, so he gets a bunch of celebs writing letters asking the government to stop trying to arrest him for child abuse.
Image is what matters, and gamers know they don’t have the same image, but they haven’t quite figured out that to get it, you… gotta pretend. Y’know, like an artiste.
Hollywood’s version of The Game Awards is… well, it’s Nickelodeon’s Kid’s Choice Awards, where people get slimed. If the games industry wanted to be seen as esteemed, they’d have to start pretending they’re artists. Rather than showing commercials, it’d just be a big four hour awards ceremony.
Gamers are drinking Mountain Dew while Hollywood is at least pretending to drink wine.
So gamers declare the direct-to-dvd-tier work of The Last of Us as being on par with Schindler’s List while the series’ own creator admits it isn’t unique enough to stand on its own, asking aloud how to make it unique once the interactivity is removed.
Me, personally, I think it’s all gross, but Hollywood is a lot better at pretending to be important. Game developers don’t really have agents getting them shoots with Annie Liebowitz so they can do puff pieces for Vanity Fair, y’know? It’s an industry founded by a bunch of fuckin’ nerds who want to play LAN parties all night and eat pizza; the obsession with image isn’t an industry-wide con in games. Instead, it’s just something a few would-be artistes here and there attempt to maintain.
So gamers keep demanding to be taken seriously; they want to be seen as sophisticated in a way that doesn’t really exist within this industry and won’t, and even if everyone started wearing suits and ties and pretending gaming had Oscars, it would still all be fake. The idea that you’re somehow a refined mind for consuming only the best works is a con rich people can afford to pull. The rest of us can’t. And what’s more, most of us know it’s bullshit; paying millions of dollars for a painting as a way to commit tax fraud and then pretending this makes you sophisticated is absolutely silly.
It’s all about image.
What’s any of this got to do with Truffaut?
Well, games are a medium, like prose, sequential art (comics), motion pictures (movies and television), and so on. None of those mediums are art, but art is made within them. A documentary about how to brush your teeth or a video game about learning math is not art, but the documentary Night and Fog is art and the video game Thirty Flights of Loving is art. To say “games are not art” is not to say “Thirty Flights of Loving is not art,” but to say, yes, that mammals are not whales, but whales are mammals.
As you take a work of art from one medium to another, the work must necessarily change in some way, so that it can be suited to this new medium. Now, if the work loses its value when it changes mediums, then we could argue that that work was likely piss to begin with; while it will change its value in some way, that doesn’t necessarily make it less or more, it simply makes it different, suited to the medium it’s being expressed in.
A curious claim comes up about my game Adios from time to time. Some people say “this should not have been a game,” because it does not have points and objectives and choices and things. Other people say “this could only ever have been a game,” because it allows you to embody the shoes of a person in a way no other medium can — it lets you act as he would act. So you have a conversation, you are the one throwing the horse shoes, you are the one shoveling shit (literally), you are the one choosing to say goodbye to your son, and when you select certain dialogue choices (an action that you, the player, must take), those choices disappear, rather than allowing you to make choices that change the plot, we’re approaching games in a different way: you are embodying a person in a way you cannot do if you watch them on a screen.
Personally, I think Adios can be in any medium, but if you turn Adios into a movie or a play, you lose the ability to embody the character, to see their internal monologue as text, to select that text, and watch it disappear from the list of things you want to say. In exchange, you get to see the farmer, and the actor playing him (in a hypothetical movie version; in the game, he’s played by the extraordinary Rick Zieff), and you might see him misting up, might watch him catch something he’s about to say as he says it. It can impact you just as much, even if it is impacting you differently.
Truffaut points out that our understanding of adaptation changed — we went from preserving the text to preserving the spirit, and that’s a salient observation. That’s what adaptation is.
You don’t want to find an actor who looks like the character in a comic; you want to find an actor who feels like the character in the comic.
Truffaut mentions an saying I enjoy — “an honest adaptation is a betrayal.” He explains that when you adapt a work, you know some scenes may not work well on film — as with Borges’ accurate but wholly useless map, the most accurate way to adapt a book would be to make an unwatchable film because you’d just film someone turning the pages of a book. When you transmute the work, Truffaut explains, you know some shit just won’t work, so what you do is come up with equivalent scenes — things that maintain the spirit of the unfilmable, without being filmable. You make a useful map.
Where’s he going with this?
Where am I going with this?
Well, Truffaut is arguing that this is actually all bullshit, that he thinks nothing is unfilmable. I disagree with him on this point, which is why I’ve been making the Borges analogy; adaptation necessitates change, in my experience.
Truffaut says that in adapting Diary of a Country Priest, the writers Aurenche and Bost commit — I shit you not — “blasphemy.” He calls it betrayal. If you think I’ve been harsh by calling people idiots, Truffaut goes all the way in. He calls their adaptation a constant and deliberate determination to be unfaithful to the work. He seems upset that they would disregard what Bernanos was attempting to do with his novel.
In essence, he says they’ve made bad adaptations, and the adaptations are bad because they do not maintain the spirit of the work. To this point, I would agree. He says that these poor adaptations water down the work, they betray it, they do it an injustice.
I’d agree, a bad adaptation does a disservice to the work, because it ensures a good adaptation is less likely to get made without significant determination from people with the kind of power to do that.
Basically, Truffaut is going “man, a bunch of people are making adaptations” (this is in 1953! You think people complaining about how everything’s an adaptation is new?), “but the adaptations kinda suck. They’re basically all about cucks.”
I’m not joking. From the Frenchman’s own mouth:
“…it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the 100 or so French films made each year tell the same story: there is always a victim, usually a cuckold.”
Now, you may be wondering “but didn’t Barthes say that death of the author is important and the author’s intent doesn’t matter?” but to do that, you’d have to forget that Death of the Author was written in 1967 and is actually arguing, well… okay, I’ve had some weird flack on this one before.
For a while, I argued, based on what I’d learned in school, that Barthes’ Death of the Author was arguing that we should disregard the artist when discussing the work. As someone who believes art is expression, I believe the artist is inseparable from the work. If I write a story about a Nazi, I will inevitably draw upon my research on the Nuremburg trials and fascist radicalization to tell the story as best I can. As such, I will portray the Nazi as human as you or I, but because I am repulsed by Nazis and the Nazi mindset, that repulsion will come through in my work. It would be impossible for you to read my work without knowing that I absolutely fuckin’ hate Nazis (which is why, in Waifu Death Squad, when one of the Nazis is kicked so hard their spine goes flying out their backside, it’s extremely funny).
While I have said that the artist seeks not to call attention to themselves in their work, art is communication — the artist is expressing a feeling. It is through the art that you can know the artist. So when I write a fuckin greasy fascist fuck, you’ll know I think he’s a greasy fascist fuck, and I think everyone like him is too. You cannot see the work any other way, unless you work really hard to be wrong about it.
“I get what Doc’s deal is” is something you might say afterwards, but hopefully, in the moment, you’re feeling what I’m feeling. It’s in the reflection afterwards that you realize you know me a little better.
So I’ve never particularly liked Barthes.
Then someone told me no, no, my teachers were all wrong, and what Barthes really meant was that we can discuss art outside the context of the artist; that the artist’s word is not a hard boundary on how we can use art. Essentially, Dr. Dre can use the Halloween theme for Murder Ink on his album 2001 and no one can get mad about it, even if it changes the context. I’m more agreeable to this; as someone with synesthesia, I often find that I repurpose and recontextualize art in order to do interesting things. In fact, I think that’s the entire basis of creativity. But we could do an entire essay on that, so we will. Later.
I don’t know which interpretation people favor, but what I can say is that Barthes says some really stupid fuckhead shit. Most notably, he argues that we cannot know what the author intended.
This is what dumbasses who don’t know how to make art say, and a lot of people have leveraged that specific statement to argue, in essence, that art is meaningless, that art is an Rohrschach Test. The reason they really do it is because they themselves do not understand art or want to understand it — what they want is permission, which they feel Barthes gives them, whether he meant to or not, to say that art is whatever is easiest for them to project onto it, and that people who know more about the art because they’ve, say, worked their asses off to understand it, aren’t actually more expert than they are.
In other words, people use Barthes to justify being intellectually lazy and pretend they matter as much as people who actually give a fuck.
I wouldn’t go to all the work to make Adios if it was fucking meaningless. I was communicating a very specific feeling. I went through hell, I was writing about my PTSD. I was hurting, and I took that hurt and I opened myself up, rendered myself vulnerable, so those of you who had felt it could find some way to work through it. I didn’t do something that terrified me so some fuckhead could decide it meant something else.
Now, some people have taken other things away from Barthes’ essay; Ol’ Roland B is correct in that you cannot control how people will see your work! But I feel he’s done more harm than good, because whatever he meant, people use his essay to justify robbing art of its ability to communicate beyond words. They say “this is actually about this thing I care about,” they use it as a justification for ignorance, or, as Truffaut puts it, blasphemy.
Either way, Barthes published his essay 13 years after Truffaut was arguing that “psychological realism” is neither psychological nor real, it’s just a way to try to sound smart while bastardizing a work to make it what the uncreative screenwriter wants to say. This intellectually lacking, incurious screenwriter can’t come up with ideas on his own, so he changes someone else’s work to communicate in the lowest possible method: he gives the story a message. His message. A message unlike the feelings that the actual artist was trying to express.
Truffaut is an artist, and like all artists, Truffaut is very deliberate in saying what he wants to say with his work; his work is not meaningless, his effort is not nothing. So when Truffaut sees someone robbing an artist of his voice, he gets mad.
Me too, buddy.
I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s relevant, so here you go: a long time ago, an art teacher (and professional portrait painter) of mine, John, an avowed communist (this is relevant), told me about a teacher of his, a non-artist, but an art theorist, who explained how a painting was communicating communist ideas by having a reflection that made no physical sense within the painting itself. There had to be a lesson there, a theme, an idea (as an aside, remember how I said most of our art is emotional?)
Remember when I said artists are craftsmen? Game recognize game. John looked at it and went “it was clear that my teacher was full of shit. I mean, obviously, the reason the artist had done the painting the way he did was because the composition would have been terrible if he’d made an accurate reflection. It’s a much stronger image even if it violates the laws of physics.”
I sat there for a second, unsure what to say. I wanted to reply “well, but you can’t really know that without — “
And then John said, with a twinkle in his eye, “besides, the artist was a right wing dipshit.”
The artist couldn’t have been saying something communist, not if he was a right winger, y’know? John’s teacher, who knew a great deal of theory, but nothing of the craft, just wanted the world to agree with him, so he ignored the art in order to claim the art was doing something it very likely would not have.
I think this is an important topic to be aware of; if you erase the author from their work, not only are you committing an act of profound insult — you are telling someone who has opened themselves up to you to go fuck themselves, that they’re saying something else — but you’re also opening people up to the possibility of… well, bad shit.
When people want to kill sheep, they use a goat to do it. Sheep follow the leader — lemmings don’t, contrary to what Disney would have you believe, but sheep actually do — so the butchers use a goat to lead the sheep to the slaughter pen.
If you go around saying “this guy’s alright, his art’s super communist,” and he’s actually a fascist, you run the risk of being the goat — leading people to the slaughter by telling them everything’s okay. Understanding what art is and what it’s doing is crucial.
The artist is not necessarily authoritative, and Barthes is correct to say this. If someone writes a story that contains fallacious stereotypes because they’ve never questioned those stereotypes, and someone is hurt by them and says as much, the person may say “hey, but I didn’t mean to hurt you, and as the artist, I have sole control over the work’s meaning, so it doesn’t hurt you,” that’s patently, on its face, false. The work did cause hurt — the artist’s intent only goes so far.
So while I believe we must respect intent, we must also understand that intent doesn’t account for the unintended.
(Overall, I think Barthes throws the baby out with the bathwater with a lot of his statements, and I don’t think his text should be taken all that seriously.)
Thirteen years before, Truffaut argued that some level of respect must be afforded the work as it’s adapted, and that people attempting to intellectualize their bastardizing blasphemy should fuck off.
He’s saying “hey, these fuckos don’t really understand or respect what they’re making. They’re so far up their own asses that they’re busy pretending to be intellectuals but all they’re really making is this shit about cucks. The people who make movies that really matter are the ones who are doing more than just this perverse, shitty adaptation for the burgeois.”
He suggests that these people are in their ivory towers, making poor, lazy adaptations of works, pretending to be intellectual and failing at it. He is, in short, speaking to the artistes.
The trouble is that, if you keep on repeating to audiences that they identify with the central characters of films, they will end up believing you; and the day they realise that the roly-poly old cuckold whose misadventures are supposed to prompt sympathy (a little) and laughter (a lot) is not, as they had thought, a cousin or a next-door neighbour, but one of them, that the abject family portrayed is their family, and the religion ridiculed is their religion, they may well feel ungrateful towards a cinema that made such efforts to show them life as it is seen from a fourth-floor fiat in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
In bastardizing art, these fuckboys were no longer making art that spoke to people. Truffaut jokingly bemoans the idea that all these movies have the same few, tired ideas jammed in. Everyone’s got to have a funeral scene, he rightfully complains. His argument is a lot like the ones we get today, where people complain there are too many adaptations or sequels and we’re not getting enough original films.
Look at how excited people are for Avatar after years of Disney literally buying out theatres so no one can compete with Marvel movies (yes, yes, I know, Disney owns Fox now, so Avatar is Disney, but it’s still fresh compared to the relentless onslaught of movies where someone gains tremendous power, whines about it, there’s a villain who’s got some dumb motivation and dies, and then the hero begins their career). Truffaut was arguing against the same kind of lowbrow shit masquerading as high brow.
Real art speaks to people, as an artist like Truffaut well knew. These movies he was railing against were so divorced from reality, he knew the working class would grow to resent it. It was hollow masturbation from idiots who wanted to be seen as intellectuals, people thinking talking about ‘artsy’ shit would make them real artists, kids wishing they were playing at the adults’ table but refusing to grow the fuck up.
“Ah,” you may say, “so this means Truffaut had identified the auteurs not as artistic geniuses, but the people who make relentless sequels and adaptations, placing no care in the works they’re making, but just shitting out the same story over and over and over again?”
No, Truffaut has a different name for them — he calls it the “Tradition of Quality.” What he argued was that there was a different kind of artist, one that was interested in original, vibrant work, a kind of artist who was telling stories that were genuine and resonant.
The artiste was of the Tradition of Quality, brazenly disrespecting everyone to get the acclaim and praise they felt they were owed for bastardizing someone else’s hard work. The Tradition of Quality came from the capitalists, the bourgeois, and paid no attention to the working class. The work was not honest and had no artistic merit, but the Tradition of Quality types demanded acclaim nonetheless.
The person who wanted to make something other than just sequels and remakes?
Truffaut called that type of person the auteur.
Okay But That’s Not Auteur Theory. This Is.
Truffaut inspired Andrew Sarris, an American film critic, to come up with what we know of as auteur theory, and it’s nothing like what you’d expect, if you think auteur theory is a justification for the artiste.
And then one of the worst people in film criticism, Pauline Kael, tried to ruin everything.
Now, hey, I realize that’s a bold, bold claim, but I’m going to back it up, because it’s going to help us understand why so many people misunderstand auteur theory. If Truffaut’s idea of the auteur was simply the person who wanted to make original and interesting work, how did we end up perceiving the auteur as an artiste who selfishly claims credit from everyone else?
So, a brief history of movies: Thomas Alva Edison is all “my company invented cameras and we only rent them so you can’t make your own, and even though I know nothing about art or storytelling I'm gonna tell you what you can and can’t make” so a bunch of people who want to make movies get as far away from New York as possible, by going to California, to start making their own movies.
Once the movies start making money, a bunch of businessmen show up, and they turn Hollywood, California into a formidable movie-making industry. Part of the way they do this is by giving all the credit to the most visible people on the project — the actors. But the businessmen, they want credit too, so they put a big “PRODUCER PRESENTS…” on it, and pretty soon, people start going to the movies because David O. Selznick is presenting it and if that’s the name you remember, you start to think everything David O. Selznick ‘makes’ is gold.
Except, well… the businessmen generally weren’t the ones making the creative decisions. The writers and directors were — the directors more than anybody else.
The Capitalists injected themselves into everything; they turned Hollywood into a monopoly, owning not just the movies, but the theaters and even the popcorn farms. They forced actors into contracts and deals which meant the capitalists could lock the actual talent into bad salaries while the capitalists made all the profits on their laborer’s work. Did the capitalists do anything? No, of course not. They weaseled their way in and made themselves indespensable. Never hire an MBA, folks. Anyways, as you can probably tell, it got bad.
Sarris used Truffaut’s term to ask a question — where Truffaut’s theory was about observing the phenomenon of the fallacies of “psychological realism,” and lazy, paint-by-numbers cinema for bourgeois audiences, Sarris had a bit of a different question, which went something like this: “how can I recognize the artist in their work?”
So, yeah, You’d see Gone With The Wind and you’d hear that it was a David O. Selznick, You think Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack were directors? Nah, but you know the name Warner Brothers. What about Walt Disney? That guy actually did direct and act, but he got to name the company because he was the producer too. MGM wasn’t named after the people who made the movies, it was named after Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer, the executives.
These fellas had a stranglehold on the industry. They owned the theatres. They owned the concessions. They owned the farms that grew the corn that made the concessions. They produced the movies. They even owned the actors.
Growing up, I watched a lot of VHS tapes from the library with Humphrey Bogart on ’em. He was almost always paired up with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Why? Because they were all under contract with Warner. Hollywood Canteen, Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, all Warner.
We call this “vertical integration,” and it’s supposed to be pretty illegal, but after Ronald Reagan’s 1980s deregulation bullshit, it’s starting to come back, and it’s a big part of the reason the world sucks as much as it does. It’s why a cable TV company like Comcast owns Universal. Shouldn’t happen, but, hey, that’s how shit the government is these days. We’re having new problems because the Paramount Decrees were recently reversed.
Under the studio system, actors couldn’t do what they wanted to do — they were stuck to a studio and had to take what they were given. The producers got all the credit.
Well, as early as 1919, a few people in Hollywood had problems with the way the system worked, and they decided to do something about it. Charlie Chaplin was one of the top earners for First National Pictures, but they wouldn’t increase his production budget, so he, Mary Pickford, and a few other actors and directors got together — literally, the artists united — and created United Artists.
The studio system didn’t die right away, but it did start to lose its hold over time, and by the 1950s, it had died out. Thing is, fellas like Sarris had noticed that something funny kept happening.
Some movies had fingerprints all over ’em, and it wasn’t Jack Warner’s, it wasn’t Humphrey Bogart’s, even though he might be the star. Heck, it wasn’t even the screenwriters.
It was the directors.
This discussion was ongoing by 1962, when Sarris wrote his essay. We know it was 1962, because the essay was helpfully titled “Notes on Auteur Theory in 1962.” It had been nine years since Truffaut suggested that the difference between generic shit for the bourgeois was made by people who claimed to be of the Tradition of Quality and the people making movies for the rest of us normal people were called auteurs.
Sarris identified, correctly, that auteur theory was pretty darn vague, as you may have noticed. Truffaut’s more focused on the prevalence of cucks and funerals in French Cinema.
Within the first paragraph, he notes the potential for abuse with the auteur — he recognizes artistes, and points out that others before him, like Ian Cameron, recognized this as well. But he thinks these fellas have got the idea of the theory wrong — nowhere does Truffaut or anyone else suggest that an auteur must be an artiste. Hopefully, I’ve done a good job expressing why I think an artiste is someone who does not respect their craft enough to be an artist. Truffaut certainly didn’t respect the type, and seemed frustrated by the faux-intellectualism. There’s nothing in his essay that argues for the sort of annoying prima donna that people tend to speak about when they whine misguidedly about auteur theory.
I love this bit where he goes “what is a bad director anyways? yeah, bro, that’s basically someone who’s made a lot of bad films lol.” It’s so fuckin, just, simple when he puts it like that.
He gets going with a practical example, suggesting a few directors, indicating that the auteur isn’t just the director (mentioning Joseph Pevney, who he doesn’t seem to think is an auteur, and then saying that a movie would still work if it had a lot of actors, who he refers to as auteurs in their own right) and then going “auteur theory would say the best choice for director would be Orson Welles.”
Okay… that’s… pretty interesting. I like Orson Welles a whole lot, so color me interested, but there’s another reason too. We’ll get to that one when we get to Kael.
Then he launches into the argument that movies don’t actually need directors, pointing out Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, a movie Sarris finds more entertaining than many movies with directors (Sarris and Truffaut are pretty affable writers! Both essays are fun to read), so he’s establishing that, hey, auteur theory doesn’t cover everything. It’s not a grand unified theory of moviemaking.
There’s so much to talk about outside the auteur, y’know? It’s why Sarris says — and I have to think it’s with a wink and a smile, that with any movie, you’re getting a lot more for your money than just “mere art.”
Remember how I said that the real artists know art’s a craft and don’t treat it like it’s some sort of sacred, magical thing? Yup, here’s Sarris, saying that exact same thing. Art is “mere,” in his estimation. He’s having a good time, and as I’m reading this, so am I.
But, crucially, look beyond the ideas and at the rhetorical framework of the essay — look at what he’s actually doing with the essay itself, the muscles coiling beneath the skin:
- Let’s talk about auteur theory.
- Some people have suggested it has potential for abuse (because of the artistes), BUT
- It’s too vague to support abuse in any meaningful way.
- So let’s talk about it and see if we can’t clarify it a bit, maybe removing some of that potential for abuse in the process.
- Okay, so, first, the limitations: directors are NOT the be-all, end-all. Actors are authors of the work too. Direction isn’t even necessary, and there’s a lot to talk about in a movie — a lot of contributions from set dressing to cinematography — that isn’t related to the direction!
That’s right! Sarris isn’t saying “so this is why it’s good that a single person authors the work and is a huge jackass about it,” he’s saying “hmm, some people might do this. We should nip that in the bud.” The man is literally doing the opposite of what the critics think he’s doing!
So, what is auteur theory?
Well, first, Sarris indicates — not as clearly as I’d like, but hey, nobody’s perfect — that an auteur is, point 1: a good director. He says they belong in a pantheon.
Renny Harlin would not be considered an auteur. While distinctive, the movies he’s associated with have gotten him nominated not once, not twice, but six times for the Golden Raspberry for Worst Director. I think that literally makes him the most nominated worst director of all time, but I’m unsure how to check.
But being a good director isn’t enough, though, according to Sarris, because of point 2: one criterion of the director’s value is their distinguishability. So it’s not enough to be technically proficient and at your craft, you also have to be recognizable.
You might say that John Ford is an auteur — if you watch a John Ford film, and you’ve seen a reasonable amount of movies, you can probably recognize his fingerprints all over the movie, no matter what stars are in it, no matter what studio it’s under. You don’t have to know who it is by watching the credits. You can feel it, because his fingerprints are so recognizable.
The third point Sarris argues is this: The director brings a certain quality to their work that can only be communicated in cinematic terms. Truffaut calls it their “temperature” on set. Sarris suggest that it is the soul of the author, not in the religious sense, but in the intangible differences between people. You are you and I am me. If I tell a story and you tell a story, we will tell those stories differently, even if the events within them are the same.
He arranges them like this (my interpretation in parentheses):
- technique (good vs bad quality)
- personal style (how they employ technique)
- interior meaning (their way of communicating their person, their being, their soul, whatever you want to call it, through the medium)
None of this is concrete, of course. Ol’ Andy points out that every director one could call an auteur earned the right to be called an auteur differently. Some had the interior meaning down before the technique, or figured out personal style first, and so there’s no rigid formula here. Likewise, Sarris is quick to argue, it’s not an objective means of ranking directors, because as time changes, our perception of the artists may change as well.
Auteur theory, in other words, is an attempt by Andrew Sarris to take some ideas Truffaut floated — that an author necessarily impacts their work, and we can recognize and understand why they are recognizable, despite Capitalism’s attempts to hide them so Capitalism can underpay them and keep convincing people that real art is so special that the Capitalists shouldn’t have to pay money in exchange for labor.
Then Pauline Kael decided to fuck it all up.
How Not To Be A Film Critic
If you were to ever find yourself in a critic’s association with David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Great Expectations, and Doctor Zhivago, among other things, I would hope you would not find it necessary to browbeat the poor old man to the point of tears for hours in front of your fellow critics, tearing him apart simply because you believed he did not deserve the praise he was warranted.
Pauline Kael did, according to Brownlow’s biography of Lean (starting on page 585). The meeting’s chairman, Richard Schickel, recounts:
In welcoming Lean, I listed his past triumphs, paid tribute to his distinguished career. There followed an interval of polite sparring. Then Pauline Kael launched a burtal critique, and this opened the floodgates. And it was an angry torrent. I pretty much lost control of the meeting, caught between a director I revered and colleagues for whom I had more respect than I do now. Lean did not counterattack; instead, he went into a shell.
David Lean had directed casts of hundreds. He’d been around the block. This was not a shallow man, a man incapable of taking criticism. This was an assault for which no one could have been prepared. It was calculated and it was cruel.
“At some point he said, ‘I don’t understand this. Why are you doing this to me?”
Sandy Lean said “Afterwords, though he talked very little about it, it was clear that he’d been devastating. It was shocking to find himself confronting a roomful of strangers who bore him such malice.”
David Lean himself said it was one of the most horrible experiences he ever had. “I remember saying to Pauline Kael at the end, ‘you won’t be content until you’ve reduced me to making a film in black and white on 16mm.’ And she said ‘we’ll give you color.”
The arrogance! It is a particular cruelty to drag a man in front of your peers, for the sole crime of having been praised by other people (and making Ryan’s Daughter), but that didn’t stop Pauline Kael.
Shickel regretted his part in the meeting (though contends with Lean’s recounting that he did not ask how the man who directed Brief Encounter could make “a piece of bullshit like Ryan’s Daughter” until later in the meeting, as if this somehow softened the cruelty of his words), and says “I did not set the tone of this meeting; Pauline and her pals, and Lean himself, did that.” Kael, for her part, says she regretted the meeting not because of anything she did — she refused to say what she did and claimed she had an oath of secrecy — but was happy to say that she was sorry Lean was offended.
Has “I’m sorry you were offended” ever been anything other than a dodge? Other people who were there put the blame squarely on her.
It was so hurtful that Lean would not make a film for another 14 years.
A critic’s job is to inform or educate. A good critic is, like an artist, deeply personal, communicating their own likes and dislikes, which gives the audience the power to reject or accept their criticisms fairly. You can probably tell I dislike J.K. Rowling and Neil Druckmann, for instance. Rowling’s bigoted against trans people, repeating horrifically offensive things in her own books, using her power to punch down on the powerless. Druckmann gives interviews acting as though adding a jump button makes you more empathetic, doesn’t step in when his fans issue death threats, but will step in when people say “maybe your game doesn’t deserve the Schindler’s List comparisons,” and acts in interviews as though his game will be thought-provoking when all he’s got to say is that violence begets violence… well, I haven’t got a lot of respect for that.
But it’s one thing to write what you think about the things one has said, and entirely another to be Pauline fucking Kael.
What did she think about her job as a critic? Well, here’s an anecdote.
The real rift between Lumet and Kael came on “a very difficult evening” when the two of them got involved in one of those boring conversations about the function of a critic. “There were two other people present,” Lumet recalls, “and she said to them, “My job is to show him’ — pointing to me — “which direction to go in.” I looked at her and said “you’ve got to be kidding.” She said, “No, I’m not.” I said “In other words, you want the creative experience without the creative risk.” And that was it. She’s never written a good word about me since.
This is not a person who is interested in honesty or doing a good job — this is a person who is interested in control and power. You get to know the type after a while. The red flags are obvious. You stay away and you do your best to be as uninteresting as possible, in order to avoid their ire.
Some were not so lucky.
David Denby, one of her acolytes, wrote about Kael in an essay called “My Life as a Paulette,” and the summary in the New Yorker is damning.
Unfortunately, she created conformity among her disciples. She couldn’t remain friends for long with anyone who consistently fought her, and many of her followers acquiesced to her bullying. The group became a cult.
At one point in the piece, Denby describes a meeting the two of them had with acclaimed director Nicholas Ray.
By staying on the offensive and keeping other people off balance, she could not be seen. In 1970, after a screening at the old New Yorker Theater, on upper Broadway, Pauline and I had lunch with the director Nicholas Ray in a Chinese restaurant across the street. In the 1960s, the auterist critics in France and America had taken up the director of They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, and other films. In these celebrations, Ray was the haunted poet of the cinema; later in the 1970s, the young German director Wim Wenders would put Ray in a couple of his movies, drawing on his glamorous mystique. A former actor, Ray was tall and gaunt, with a pile of white hair, a dark patch over one eye, and a guttral voice. For his students at a local university he acted the falling genius with superb displays of disintegrating romantic splendor.
Not exactly a great start, but…
Though only in his late fifties, Ray was ill; he was clearly finished as a Hollywood director, and yet Pauline, vexed by his recent critical deification, went through his films one by one — this movie twenty years earlier had a few good shots, another one had been overpraised, a third was terrible, and so on — and Ray, his face cast down into his shrimp and rice, said hardly a word. What digs at me now is that I said nothing in the restaurant in 1970. I knew perfectly well that the act of telling off Nick Ray was cruelly unnecessary, though Pauline, doing her missionary work of straightening everyone out, had the bit between her teeth and probably couldn’t have been stopped.
At one point, she stopped speaking to Denby altogether, deciding he was an imitator and telling him he’d never be a good critic.
I’ve had imitators before (as both a developer and a critic! it’s very weird, especially since I’m a nobody compared to Kael’s influence and power so I don’t know what anyone would see in me to imitate — because I figure people doing the imitating are shallow, so they’ll look at the influence and power parts rather than the ‘what i’m actually doing, which is trying to be persuasive and helpful’ since they always tend to ignore that part), and while there’s a sense of “maybe go find your own turf” that comes with it, my response has generally been to try to gently nudge people towards being themselves. There’s no joy in reading an essay from a person who is trying to be someone else, but we all try to be someone else when we’re starting out. Heck, when I was starting out, I fashioned myself after an essayist who was an acolyte of Kael’s, and I used to believe — based on what he said — that she was a tremendous critic.
Turns out that was wrong, but hey, I’m myself now, and nobody else writes like me. You should do that too; there ain’t much use in trying to sound like me, because if I tried to tell you exactly how I am the way I am, if you were misguided and wanted to be me, we’d end up doing Borges’ perfect map all over again, and you’d waste an awful lot of time on your path to becoming yourself.
It’s better for you to be you — for you to be, in your criticism, the auteur — to write as true to yourself as you can. If you’re insecure, if you’re preoccupied with “but will people see me,” you’ll never be as good as if you focus on being the most you that there is and expressing what matters to you. The artiste is insecure, the artiste worries about controlling your perception. The artist is secure, the artist knows you will see them.
In criticism, I think you must be up front about the you-ness of the work, because you are educating. In a way, we’re speaking, so it’s crucial to be up front. In art, it’s the opposite; our focus is to make our expression as earnest as possible, to be invisible while the audience partakes in the work (the theory term for this is called ‘suture,’ it’s basically the deal made between the audience and the artist to agree the work is real in order to let the audience be receptive to emotion until the credits roll). Art is performance, criticism is dialogue. One requires a suspension of disbelief, the other is about being convincing.
Both require honesty in different ways.
You may be wondering why I’m establishing what a terrible person Kael was. That’s because the ways in which she were terrible are the same traits that led to her trying to convince the world that auteur theory was bad.
Well, just look at her. What is she if not an artiste? She’s clearly someone concerned with making sure you see her more than the criticism itself. She’s not concerned with art, not really. She’s concerned with being above the artist.
“You want the creative experience without the creative risk.”
Hell, Walter Chaw makes an interesting observation, though I’m having a hard time tracking down a source for this since so much of Kael’s stuff is behind paywalls.
Notice that? Who did Kael go after? “The way she went after Sarris’s sexuality during their feud was behond vile.”
Oh yeah, you better believe it. She started out with the essay Circles and Squares.
The Squared Circle
It should tell you something that Kael begins by misrepresenting everything, though the introduction begins in the third person, so I’m unsure if she wrote this specific introduction or an editor did.
“…a policy of focussing criticism primarily upon directors, and specifically upon certain chosen directors whose individuality of style qualified them, in the eyes of the Cahiers “team,” as “auteurs…”
The intro claims that this “galvanized” the folks at Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine in which Truffaut had written his original essay, and “lent some of the impetus which helped Truffaut, Godard, and many other young men break through as film-makers (and aspiring “auteurs”). It goes on to specifically target, among others, Nicholas Ray, the target of Pauline’s abuse described earlier, and then makes a weird suggestion that the theory is meant to supplant… other critical publications, like Sight & Sound or Sequence.
“Pauline Kael,” the introduction states, “offers a resounding negative view.”
For her part, Kael starts off by targeting Sarris himself. She — moronically, I must add — suggests that “internal” meaning is no different than meaning, which is stupid on its face: Sarris makes it clear in his essay that internal meaning comes from the author, and therefore, it’s obvious that the other form of meaning — external meaning — would come from the audience.
(this is why you should never claim your work is important — it is the audience that decides import; all you can do is attempt some form of meaning)
Is she intentionally dense? Her section on Raoul Walsh makes it seem as if she must be. Sarris says “hey, it’s interesting how Walsh repeats themes he seems interested in.” Kael retorts “other people have observed this though, so there’s no reason for you to try to describe what the phenomenon is,” an idea that is, on its face, silly.
A lot of what follows seems to come from that same place of pernicious arrogance that permeated her exchange with Lumet — she takes umbrage with Sarris suggesting auteur theory because she is rankled by the idea that critics could use more critical framework (which sure makes her seem like a useless critic). We have here a critic who insists she’s at the top of the creative pyramid — her job is to tell others what to do. For Sarris to suggest a theoretical framework that would empower critics to understand artists, rather than insist, like an augur, that only they can divine the art in order to control the artist? That seems to cross a line for her. She doesn’t like the power dynamics — she must be in charge, and she’ll do whatever she can to be in charge.
She then uses an argument I often hear from hacks: you don’t need to be a good artisan. Anyone can do it. There are no standards.
This is what people who don’t bother to learn the craft say; they do it as a way of bringing the experts down to their level. They want to be on the top of the power structure pyramid, so they insist everyone else must be beneath them — that expertise, therefore, must have no value.
Recall how Truffaut argued that the problem with non-auteur movies were that they were endless remakes faking artistic value for the purpose of elevating the screenwriters above the material, since they clearly couldn’t make meaningful work on their own?
Kael argues that people who like auteurs are not sophisticated — they “follow the lead of children who also prefer simple action films and westerns and horror films to works that make demands on their understanding.” But then she says kids are even more sophisticated, because she thought a movie the Cahiers folks liked was boring, and says the kids would agree with her.
Basically “if you don’t like what I like, you’re stupid. You need these movies about cuckolds. They matter a lot more than Bad Day at Black Rock.” Again, it’s an argument that’s patently absurd on its face; movies made with hollow intent to make the consumer and creator feel that they are superior people are not superior to works made to be enjoyed by the working class.
She claims all of this based on Sarris’ first of three points. This is no theory, she says, this is just a statement. No shit, Sherlock. Are you stupid, Pauline, or are you deliberately obtuse?
Like, take this stupid fucking passage right here: “…Hitchcock’s uniformity, his mastery of tricks, and his cleverness at getting audiences to respond according to his calculations — the feedback he wants and gets from them — reveal not so much a personal style as a personal theory of audience psychology.”
“His personal philosophy about how to approach art is not in fact his personal philosophy about how to approach art.”
Like, how foolish do you have to be to say something like that? Of course it’s his personal style; what do you think style is? It is the way in which someone thinks the art ought to be made. I think a lot about your psychology when I make games; I make them to keep you engaged. I also put El Camino-like cars in all of them. My philosophy is manifested as my style. Don’t be stupid, Pauline.
She misrepresents the theory, offering an anecdote in which a person tells her that a play she didn’t like was a work of genius because the author is a genius, therefore anything he does is genius. She uses this to say “so see? Auteur theory is bullshit!”
But… auteur theory, as Sarris puts it, is a way of answering the question “why can I recognize this artist?” It does not suggest the artist is or must always be a genius (and Kael cannot stand the idea of any artist being a genius, because her stupid misunderstanding of her job is that she gets to have the purely safe but incredible power of telling artists how to act while risking nothing), it merely suggests a method to understand how an artist can be recognized in their work.
You can always tell a Lean film is a Lean film. Ryan’s Daughter might not have been a work of genius even though Lean clearly is, but it does feel unmistakably like a Lean film. If you watched it, you could tell that this was the man who directed Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, no question.
Most of this essay is a direct attack on Sarris specifically — it’s a warning, an insistence that Sarris know his place, which is below Kael, but above the artists. She meanders, whining about Sarris’ use of a specific word.
Sarris experiences ‘joy’ when he recognizes a pathetic little link between two Raoul Walsh pictures (he never does explain whether the discovery makes him think the pictures are any better).
As a critic, I find this galling. She continues deliberately misframing the argument, pretending — and is is pretending — that auteur theory is about elevating some work above other work. Sarris wanted to know why some work is notable — he did not say “this will be used to elevate a particular individual’s work.” However, Kael, who feels her primacy in the pantheon of the artistic pipeline is being threatened, must assault the position because it grants artists identifiable independence, freeing them from any authority she perceives herself as having.
Because the essay is a threat, she must ruin it for all of you. She does this because she wants you to look to her for authority — which is why she surrounded herself with an army of acolytes like Denby, which she then used to give her numbers so she could abuse people like Nicholas Ray and David Lean.
None of this is about illuminating anything for you, it’s a con, a con to trick you into thinking that auteur theory is a way for snooty bastards to pretend they’re better than other people, even though nothing of the sort is in the theory.
Like a fascist, she claims two contradictory things are true at the same time, one to put down her enemies, another to proclaim how she is superior to them; on one hand, she acts as though auteur theory must be about elevating the artist over anyone else. On the other, she acts as though the only people who ascribe to it like movies meant for children that aren’t snooty at all and they’re no good and you can safely disregard them. It’s why she spends so long whining about his phrase “elan of the soul” acting as if it’s a big snooty word, then claims only immature people like Cahiers du Cinema. Pick one, Pauline, or draw a link between the two. As it is, your argument makes no fucking sense and has no fucking worth. It has no basis in reality.
The entire essay is like this, pointing out things that aren’t flaws or contradictions and pretending they are. She acts as though she’s found a great conspiracy: “Now we can see why there has been so much use of the term “personality” in this aessthetics — a routine, commercial movie can sure use a little “personality.”” Yes, Pauline. Yes. I generally try not to get insulting, but what else can I think of you beyond “she must be a fucking dunce?” Congratulations, you, with all the energy of a right-wing propagandist on True American Patriots 4 Jesus And Trump Dot Com, acting as if the thing the auteurists are saying is somehow a conspiracy you stumbled upon.
They want to know why some people have personality and others do not. Congratulations. They want to understand.
Her essay is a hot, poorly-written mess because she doesn’t really know what she wants, except to tear down Sarris specifically. She turns it into a dumb person’s idea of what criticism should be — a slinging match about whether or not something is good or bad. She acts as though useful words — elan, internal — are meaningless, scoffing at them, then pretends it is her enemies who are stupid, but not her. No, she’s the genius who has sole control of meaning for everyone else.
She is an artiste, but she’s worse — she’s an artiste who doesn’t want to make art at all. She wants the fame for the parasitic work of going “yeah this is good, this is bad,” and bullying the people who actually make the work until they give her ultimate authority. It’s vile.
In Lean’s biography, Shickel says that at the time, critics in the circles he and Kael ran in tended to automatically give some European directors accolades, and he mentions Bergman. Kael mentions Bergman too in a section that begins “I am angry, but am I unjust?” before tearing into Sarris for daring to suggest that Bergman’s skills as a director are not as consistent as his skills as a writer.
Once again, this turns into an argument of quality with Kael — she suggests the auteurists downgrade the writer-directors, but Sarris isn’t saying that, which is Kael is forced to ask “why won’t he just come out and admit his premise disqualifies them?”
It is because his premise does not disqualify them, Pauline.
When you get angry at someone for not saying the thing you want him to be saying that would make him wrong, while ignoring all the things he did say that don’t say at all the things you do, claiming they’re not essential to the essay, when they very clearly are (an auteur is a person who cannot help but bring their vibes and values into a work! that’s the entire point, not something to toss out in your search for a claim that has never been made and won’t be made).
Another bit of her being intentionally obtuse comes when she mentions Howard Hawks; because she’s hung up on the idea of meaning being some form of elevation rather than an identifier of the author’s interests, she acts as though interior meaning is valueless — to her, this is merely good/bad. So she argues, idiotically, that because Howard Hawks has made bad movies, his movies have no consistent internal meaning. That’s obvious horse shit — Hawks always brought himself to his movies, you can recognize a Hawks movie as a Hawks movie. That some of his movies weren’t as good as Bringing Up Baby doesn’t do anything to diminish the idea that maybe Hawks brings a little bit of himself to all of his art. Because it isn’t about fuckin’ quality, it’s about identifiability.
There are jabs throughout — she suggests that her metaphor of ‘circles’ for the 3 points of Sarris’ essay are the circles of hell, and if it kept going, we’d end up at Abbott and Costello (because, again, she keeps trying to argue that anyone who thinks an artist is recognizable in their work is immature but snooty, and while those people exist, I can make a much better argument in another essay later). She suggests that they’re all frauds, nobodies who are just making it all up — that there is no magic divination rod.
Of course there isn’t. We recognize Scorsese through his obsessions — Italian Americans, Catholicism, New York City. We recognize Tarantino in the same way — his fascination with pulp, theatre, African American culture because his stepfather, Curtis Zastoupil, took him to see a bunch of blaxploitation films. We know that Kathryn Bigelow tends to make movies about men in violent situations who are driven, sometimes by duty, other times by obsession, and often to ruin. We can see these things show up in their work; we can see favored shots, actors, and so on.
Like Barthes, Kael is no artist — she’s sitting at the sidelines, going “what they’re doing is not that special. Because I cannot master this craft, you cannot understand it well enough to know things that I don’t.” They always do this; no artist has ever seriously suggested you cannot know an artist through their work. Only the ignorant say something like that. Of course you can tell what an artist is thinking — it’s right there on the page.
But, of course, Kael’s true motives become clear in the next section of her essay. “Outside the Circles, or, What Is A Film Critic?”
“The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be.”
This is wrong, but it’s how Kael says a critic ought to be, and it lines up with her claim that her job is to tell artists how to express themselves.
A critic’s job is to educate — to tell people what is happening. It’s a bad reviewer who says “I didn’t like this game much, I wish it was a visual novel instead of a first person shooter.” That is not seeing potential that others missed — that is cowardice, a fear of confronting what is, a desire to, well, be creative without the risk. No one will tell you that your idea is bad if you say “this game should have had a different story,” but they will if you tell a story they don’t like. Easier that way.
Kael makes it abundantly clear when she says “I do not understand what goes on in the mind of a critic who thinks a theory is what his confreres need because they are not “great” critics.”
Well, Pauline, Sarris didn’t say that shit. What Sarris did was ask “why the fuck can I recognize these fellas? Building of Truffaut, I think they have some commonalities. That’s pretty neat.”
Kael reminds me of those high school-aged commenters online who get really mad at you when you suggest a framework, like the guy who became furious with me when I said “writing exercise: you can tell a zombie story, but without biker gangs, slavers, cannibals, or cults that think zombies are a judgment from god.” The obvious nature of the prompt is to get people to start coming up with all sorts of new ideas outside the confines of the classics. You can’t compete with Dawn of the Dead; its primacy is assured. What you can do is tell your own zombie story that doesn’t have a mall or biker gangs, though. Get that ship out of dry dock — finally make your way out to sea so you can actually begin sailing.
But the guy got furious because his perspective was so small that the idea of telling a new story scared him. He wanted to be lazy — to rely on other people’s story beats. He wanted to be a hack; encouraging him (and I wasn’t even talking to him, he didn’t even follow me on social media so I have no idea how he found my writing prompt) to grow threatened his complacency, just as Sarris threatened Kael’s.
Kael, instead, suggests that because people may be interested in the technical qualities of art — which she had little understanding of, meaning they had qualifications that she did not — they aren’t really good critics, like her, the person who knows a lot less than fuckin Peter Bogdanovich.
Huh. I’m getting a theme here. Joseph Mankiewicz (brother of Herman Mankiewicz)… Peter Bogdanovich… what do they have in common… why would Pauline Kael mention them… I wonder…
Are we going somewhere with this?
Oh yeah. These dots connect, baby.
What we get at in this section is what really scares Kael — the idea that there are things a critic may have to know rather than just watching a lot of movies and talking about them; Kael is like a proto-Youtube critic, someone with no grounding in reality but a whole lot of Opinions about things. The existence of things she might have to learn, like auteur theory, threatens her ability to be intellectually lazy. This is a person who wants to demand and control, and who repeatedly did that to people she perceived as better than her, not a person who approaches art with the humility that allows her to learn. This is about tearing other people down so she doesn’t have to admit she can improve as a critic.
A common criticism I’ve received from people who are intellectually lazy is that my work is “trying to be objective.” No matter how many weasel words I use to make it clear my words are my opinion and no one else’s — that I am aware of my own fallibility — I still encounter people who go “you think your work is so objective and more important than everyone else’s.” Man, I’m a persuasive essayist; my job is to develop a convincing argument. When people say things like “why didn’t you argue against your own argument, it’s not very fair for you to present your side only,” like no shit, Sherlock, I did my best to be so comprehensive because I’m trying to build a watertight case!
I try to take into account every single possible argument I can think of against my own and then I make sure to account for them. The only reason there’s little wiggle room for people who disagree with what I have to say is because I’m thorough — but it is entirely possible that I am wrong, that people can disagree, and that they will. I am simply doing my best to make a robust argument, rather than a house of cards.
So when Kael strolls in and suggests that Sarris is demanding objective standards when he very clearly isn’t, I see that same level of intellectual incuriousness. It’s a person who’s mad Sarris was thorough, so she wants him to be tilting at windmills. If she claims he’s trying to be objective, then some of you will believe her, and she gains acolytes who will disagree with what she told them Sarris said, rather than what Sarris said. There is no objectivity in his argument; his essay, 1962, even makes it clear this is the case — he talks about how there is no fixed ranking of creators and there never can be. Stars wax and wane.
As someone who objects to simplicity, objective formulas and the like, I find it profoundly funny that Kael tries to brand Sarris and the people who agree with him as people who demand that. They clearly do not — Truffaut was arguing against the formula of including cucks in an attempt to be artsy, for fuck’s sake.
Kael claims that auteurists are “united by fanaticism in a ludicrous cause.” She suggests it “distorts experience,” but has made no argument of the same. All of this lacks precision. It’s vague. It’s about discounting something that would require her to actually consider that human beings make art and that it is therefore a skill that can be learned, that the greatest art is in that juxtaposition of technical craft and personal interest.
Her reasoning for why people might be interested in auteur theory is insulting, not just because she completely fails to really get at what Sarris is saying, instead throwing out everything that would show he’s saying the exact opposite of what she says, but because she’s assuming the French see simplistic American movies and enjoy them so they must be coming up with a reason to make them more intellectual, steroetyping the French in the process. “I am too far from the English scene to guess at motives…” and then suggests Americans must like it because it’s a form of social commentary (how? she does not make a compelling argument). Then she’s back to beating on Sarris — this time saying the theory is his.
The auteur theory, silly as it is, can nevertheless be a dangerous theory, not only because it constricts the experience of the critics who employ it, but because it offers nothing but commercial goals to the young artists who may be trying to do something in film.
While Truffaut argues that movies should speak to real people, rather than the bougies, Sarris makes no such claim. No one does. The version of auteur theory that Kael is railing against does not exist in anyone’s essay but hers. She threw out the actual essay to put something she could diminish in its place. This creation is hers entirely, and she declares it “anti-art,” a term people have used to describe me when I discuss theory that no artist would blink an eye at.
“What if there were no rules and we just kind of winged it and made it all up. What do you mean some people actually think about things like composition and color theory? I don’t know what that is, and I don’t want to have to learn, so you’re the ivory tower person, you’re not as deep a thinker as me, so you are trying too hard, and you’re restricting what we can do.”
Frameworks empower us; they give us freedom because they give us structure. Ever been in an unproductive meeting? They’re unstructured. An unproductive organization? Unstructured. Read a bad essay? Unstructured. My essays may meander, but at least I know where I’m going.
But Kael and her lot aren’t. They just want to wing it, make things up as they go along. To them, anything that might improve a critic’s ability to be a critic is a threat, because it means they have to do work — just like how I did research for this essay and had to cut some stuff I remembered but couldn’t source. Shit takes work. You do the best you can. You don’t just run on vibes; you work on craft. Of course someone who’s intellectually lazy would find the idea of craft of any sort, especially in her line of work, existentially offensive.
Of course a narcissist like Kael would refer to auteurism as a narcisstic fantasy. Trust me, I’d know; I’ve been diagnosed as a victim of narcissistic abuse, and one of the most common traits is that narcissists — like the one who told me God tells him things — will call anyone else a narcissist, especially if the narcissist believes that any other person minding their own business poses a threat to their own import.
Read her essays — that’s Kael in a nutshell. Think about what Lumet said. Look at how she had to distort and twist Sarris because her entire essay, the sole goal of it, is to say “I shouldn’t have to change or grow in any way. It’s YOU who’s the fool, you who’s a danger, you who’s a piece of shit for wanting to be better at your craft. How dare you. Let me stay on top.”
Of course, like the anti-auteurist narcissistis, she loudly proclaimed she was doing it because she was protecting people from the danger of credit-stealing narcissists everywhere. Because that’s exactly the person she was. It was, as it always is, projection.
But for a narcissist like Kael, it wasn’t enough.
…But to use the conventional schoolbook explanations for greatness, and pretend that it’s profound, is to miss what makes it such an American triumph — that it manages to create something aesthetically exciting and durable out of the playfulness of American muckraking satire.
Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane was perhaps the height of her disingenuity. In an essay that attempts to play the part of the neutral, above-it-all, Kael rips into Citizen Kane, in an essay that might as well just have said “oh yeah, it’s good alright — good at being shit.”
Now, over the years, I’ve heard people go “ehnh, was Citizen Kane really that good?” A lot of the people who do this are either people who went in hearing that it accomplished a great deal and mistakenly assume it will be the most enjoyable movie they’ve ever seen are a lot like people who go in expecting Moby Dick to be a rip-roaring ride the first time they read it. That there’s a chapter dedicated entirely to the color white somewhat baffles them. How is this good pacing? How is it good storytelling? Why is it a masterpiece if it does something so obviously wrong?
Kael describes Kane as “a cooked-up story that didn’t relate to anything that mattered.”
But it’s worth noting that the first person she cites is Truffaut, who said that Kane was “probably the one that has started the largest of filmmakers on their careers.”
Remember when I said Kael didn’t really know how movies work? In Raising Kane, she claims, falsely, but in keeping with every hack and online commenter who wanted the importance of a critic without the discipline, that “it is difficult to explain what makes any great work great, and particularly difficult with movies.”
No it isn’t, greatness is a mix of technical proficiency, internal meaning, and… wait that’s just auteur theory. Huh. So let’s add one more thing: great works last. Which is why you can never call a movie an “instant classic.” If you encounter a movie that feels like an instant classic, you can generally look into it and start to understand what’s happening.
Why is Fury Road a masterpiece? Well, I recall, around the time the movie came out, someone was livetweeting the Q&A with director George Miller, and Miller was asked what his inspiration for the movie was. He said it was the book “The Parade’s Gone By,” another book by Brownlow (who also wrote the David Lean biography we mentioned above! yes, I knew we’d get here! I threw that shit before I walked in the room!), which I am lucky enough to own and have read.
It’s more of a recording of the time — Brownlow tracking down silent film era stars before they passed on, as they were beginning to die when he was writing it — but it does a wonderful job of discussing film techniques and anecdotes from the time. It’s easy to see, after reading it, how it influenced Fury Road.
There are two ways people are influenced. Uncreative people tend to be influenced directly. You watch The Walking Dead or read Y: The Last Man, so you put a scene directly from those into your work, and then you go “my work is Important” even though you were just copying from someone else. Creative people are more likely to go “hmm, I’d do it differently,” or “oh, I thought the story was going this way, but it didn’t,” or “okay, so the reason they were doing this was because they were trying to achieve a specific thing; I will try to achieve that myself.” It’s never about just copying — it’s true inspiration. Miller, a genius in his own right, took inspiration from the book; you will not find the plot for Fury Road there.
So here’s Kael, taking down a person that Sarris, Truffaut, and Bogdanovich — I told you we’d be getting back to this — all praise and respect. Kael seems to have issues with each of them; they’re all critics in her field, and they think criticism could stand some structure. The basis of her entire argument — her willful and deliberate misinterpretation of Sarris’ point — seems to be “no one must try to add to the body of criticism; any attempt at theory or rhetorical frameworks is bad, because it’s a tool I won’t use and others might.”
How is this anything other than a desire to be the preeminent critic by tearing down anyone who might work differently than she does? There’s no helpfulness here, no education. There is only demagoguery.
Orson Welles is a force of nature. Always has been. His movies are so clearly his, even when they’re butchered — as the Lady from Shanghai was — by producers. The man dominated a room; he couldn’t help it, he was charismatic beyond belief, and a remarkable talent to boot. People loved working with him, they loved learning from him. What people like William Randolph Hearst didn’t like was that he spoke truth to power; Citizen Kane is a beautiful skewering of an empty muckraker like Hearst.
Word was, Welles was so much trouble for people in Hollywood because he had no respect for the capitalists that they sent him to Argentina to try to ruin New Hollywood (Argentine’s film industry threatened to overtake Hollywood; ultimately, the Capitalists got America to declare Argentina a friend to the axis so the United States would stop sending them the film stock it made so the Capitalists up here could use it all up and stop the Argentinians from making movies). Instead, he made friends there. When Hollywood abandoned him, Welles made movies all around the world.
Of course Kael hated him; just by the force of his charismatic personality, and the fact that his movies were so recognizably his, that he was such a clear case study for auteur theory.
She spends a lot of her essay talking about how Kane was nearly killed when Louis B Mayer (yes, the Capitalist producer from MGM) offered more than the production costs to have the film, a work that could definitely be considered anticapitalist, destroyed. Hearst, a capitalist himself, wanted it that way. He did not want anyone punching up at him.
(this next bit is from Raising Kane, and while I don’t like the essay, this is a pretty good summation of the movie at the time)
By the time “Citizen Kane” got into Warners’ theatres, the picture had acquired such an odd reputation that people seemed to distrust it, and it didn’t do very well. It was subsequently withdrawn from circulation, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of R.K.O., and until the late fifties, when it was reissued and began to play in the art houses and to attract a new audience, it was seen only in pirated versions in 16 mm.
Even after Mayer had succeeded in destroying the picture commercially, he went on planning vengeance on Schaefer for refusing his offer. Stockholders in R.K.O. began to hear that the company wasn’t prospering because Schaefer was anti-Semitic and was therefore having trouble getting proper distribution for R.K.O. pictures. Schaefer says that Mayer wanted to get control of R.K.O. and that the rumor was created to drive down the price of the stock — that Mayer hoped to scare out Floyd Odlum, a major stockholder, and buy his shares.
Instead, Odlum, who had opposed Nelson Rockefeller’s choice of Schaefer to run the company, bought enough of Sarnoff’s stock to have a controlling interest, and by mid-1942 Schaefer was finished at R.K.O. Two weeks after he left, Welles’ unit was evicted from its offices on the lot and given a few hours to move out, and the R.K.O. employees who had worked with Welles were punished with degrading assignments on B pictures. Mayer’s friendship with Hearst was not ruffled. A few years later, when Mayer left his wife of forty years, he rented Marion Davies’ Beverly Hills mansion. Eventually, he was one of Hearst’s honorary pallbearers. “Citizen Kane” didn’t actually lose money, but in Hollywood bookkeeping it wasn’t a big enough moneymaker to balance the scandal.
In 2009, when Michael Thomsen argued that Metroid Prime was gaming’s Citizen Kane, a lot of gamers got this mistaken idea that Citizen Kane was some sort of perfect movie that released to massive critical and cultural acclaim; this isn’t accurate. It was the auteurists who rediscovered it, and the auteurists who used it as an example to say “see? see how, despite everything, Welles shines through? How you can see this is a movie with Welles’ fingerprints all over it?”
Like any classic — Moby Dick, Blade Runner, you name it — Citizen Kane didn’t really get the acclaim it deserved until much later. It’s a brilliant film, a wonderful satire, rich with sharp dialogue and beautiful characterization. Its shot structure is fascinating; when people now say they don’t see why it’s so great, they’re exhibiting the Seinfeld effect. You’ve seen everything it inspired, so you forget that it’s the source, and being the source is what made it great.
Kael should have known better than to do what she did, which was lie through her teeth.
“…this particular kind of journalist’s sense of what would be a scandal as well as a great subject, and the ability to write it, belonged not to Welles but to his now almost forgotten associated Herman J . Mankiewicz.”
This lie would form the foundation of her anti-auteurist work.
How do we know it’s a lie? Well…
The essay keeps going.
I have hit ctrl+a on the text of this article, and right this second, it’s 23,671 words long. Raising Kane is 26,214, give or take, and it ends, ominously, with “this is the first part of a two-part article.”
Kael argued, essentially, that the posterboy for auteurism was a fraud, that he’d made it all up, stole his work from other people, because she wanted people to believe that auteurs were fake and auteurism couldn’t be believed. She did it because she hated Sarris and she wanted to be the critic who told the artists what to do; fellas like Welles wouldn’t do that. So she had to go for character assassination, turning him into a repugnant narcissist who stole work from others and claimed that was true.
She accomplished this… by being a repugnant narcissist who stole work from others.
First, there’s the fact that most of the research for her article was stolen, without credit, from a professor named Howard Suber, promising to pay and credit him, and paying him a mere $375 in the end. He was not quoted, but most of her quotes appear to be his. According to the article, it turned out her material was almost entirely from Suber. Because of her power as a writer for the New Yorker and his as a mere assistant professor, it seemed that he had no recourse, but to make matters worse, the woman who stole work from others to pass it off as her own was asked when she was coming back to UCLA, and she said “not until Howard Suber apologizes.”
Even the “nofilmschool” account I linked above makes some handwavey boogeyman statements about how the auteur label devalues the role of other people who worked on the film… immediately after pointing out that Mankiewicz got equal credit with Welles.
It’s weird, isn’t it? People keep going “well, stealing credit is wrong” when they don’t have to; Welles didn’t do it, but the article, in trying to softball it, acts as though he did, leaving the readers with the impression that Welles somehow did something wrong.
Let’s be clear: he didn’t. In Alan Jacobs’ 2019 article Raising Kael: On Pauline Kael’s Controversial Criticism of Citizen Kane, we get this excerpt:
There are also a number of factual errors in the essays, which suggests that William Shawn allowed the entire 50,000 words to bypass the fact-checking for which the New Yorker was then so famous. Perhaps that is one reason why, when the Library of America recently published a collection of Kael’s writing on film, they omitted the single most famous piece she ever wrote.
Who opposed her at the time? If you guessed Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich, you’d be right.
Was there more to it than that? Was Kael not just angry at her own stupid misunderstanding of auteur theory, but of being found out? Well, no. She wrote Raising Kane in 1971 and she wrote Circles and Squares in 1963. Sorry, I couldn’t resist pulling your leg. No, I think what we see here is an escalation — a person who had tried, desperately, to ruin competing critics (the artiste sees the world as a zero sum game and everyone becomes competition) ultimately escalating, fabricating “evidence” in an attempt to ruin a man who made such a great case for auteur theory, the search for understanding why some artists are recognizable.
Sarris describes her efforts in his own piece for The Village Voice: “…it just grew and grew into a 50,000-word digression from “Kane” itself into the life and times and loves and hates and love-hates of Pauline Kael.”
Sarris is immediately clear and crisp — after wasting my time reading Raising Kane, it’s nice to remember what an actual good writer putting an argument together looks like.
How much of the final script of “Citizen Kane” was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and how much by Orson Welles? I don’t know, and I don’t think Miss Kael, Mr. Bogdanovich, and Mr. Higham do either. Undoubtedly, there will be affidavits aplenty from all sides, but literary collaboration, like marriage, is a largely unwitnessed interpenetration of psyches. Miss Kael demonstrates conclusively that Mankiewicz could have written the entire script unaided, but she cannot possibly know where and when and how and from whom and from what derived all his ideas.
Luckily for us, we do.
As it turns out, some versions of the script were found at the Museum of Modern Art, and according to The Smithsonian:
Analyzing two overlooked copies of a Kane “corrections script” unearthed in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the University of Michigan, the journalist-turned-historian Harlan Lebo found that Welles revised the script extensively, even crafting pivotal scenes from scratch — such as when the aging Kane muses, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Lebo also saw notes by Welles’ assistant, Kathryn Trosper Popper, who recorded the director’s and writer’s reactions to changes in the screenplay (“Welles: Loves it. Mank: It stinks!”). Lebo’s documentary evidence, to say nothing of his independence, give his account the edge.
Hell, even Nofilmschool gets in on this:
There were five additional drafts to Kane that were being worked on while the movie was shooting. Witnesses said they saw Welles rewriting in real-time as scenes would happen, and that he and Mank would frequently talk to one another to rebreak new scenes.
There are even a few instances of Welles writing his own drafts alone, while Mank was off working on other movies.
Why fake it? Why lie about this? No one’s really sure, and Kael didn’t say, but it sure matches up with everything Kael said and did throughout her war against Sarris and the auteurists. The targets of her ire, their love for Welles… like, it seems pretty clear. Even the structure of her argument, that tried-and-true tactic of narcissists, claiming someone capable stole something to discredit them, all falls from the same playbook.
The two men got the credit because they both wrote the movie. Welles deserves the acclaim he got. So did Mank. Pretending either did less in order to fuck over one of them is a discredit not to one, but to both members of the partnership.
All of this is to say that hey, I know how people can get there, thinking that auteurism is actually bad — they got it from Kael, a rampant, abusive narcissist who lied, cheated, and stole. Her most famous work ever was something she stole from Suber. Her criticisms are hollow and hold little way. She wanted to be an artist without the risk — as a result, she never made anything worth caring about.
Her obsession with her relation to other people — her need to be seen as better than them — is why she can never be truly great. As her myth fades — as more people come to learn just what kind of a person she was, from her victims and witnesses, her star will fade.
The only way to last is to make your own shit. The only way to make shit that matters is to make what matters to you. The only way to really be an artist? Honestly? Well… you’d do what artists have done since the beginning of time; you put yourself into your communication — which is what art is. Put yourself into it; don’t make it because you want people to respect you, don’t make it because you want people to give you acclaim. Make it because it is you. Be vulnerable. Be honest. Make what matters to you.
This world isn’t a zero sum game. This world isn’t a place for you or me or anyone else to tear anyone down. If there’s one thing I love to see, it’s when someone who isn’t me makes deeply personal art; when I consume art, I want to know the artist. I connect with them, on a human level, through what they made. There are no competitors; just a lot of humans expressing their feelings in ways only they can. Why be jealous when we could be in awe of each other? Why not celebrate the beauty of the artist, as Bogdanovich, a great filmmaker in his own right, did with Orson Welles?
Okay, okay, but I get the sense that some of you might want more. You might be saying “well, sure, but there’s got to be a better way to credit people, right?”
So let’s talk about that. Let’s actually talk about how credits work before we wrap this up.
(I actually wrote most of this stuff that follows first, let the draft sit for nearly a year, and then wrote all the above. Now I’m polishing the below).
Do We Need Structure? Well…
Some things we know to be true to the point that questioning them is a waste of time. An example of this is that the earth is round; you know the sort of person who tries to sound smart after being shut down? Like, they tell you “well, the earth is really flat,” and when you say “no, no, we have science that proves it’s round,” and they go “right but I think the question is important,” and you’re getting annoyed because the question is so foundationally wrong that it literally cannot be important? Is the Earth round or flat? It’s round. We have mountains of evidence to support that, and none to support that it’s flat. Move on.
Just having an idea does not make it important. A thought only has value because of the implications of that thought being explored; if a thought leads to a dead end, retreading ground that is well-trod, having nothing new to offer or say, it is worthless. And yet, time and time again, flat-earthers, the particular sort of flat-earthers who mistakenly believe, with a sort of low-key insistence, that what they have to say (which has already been said, better, elsewhere, and repeatedly disproven) is important, will insist on repeating what we already know to be false, wasting our time and killing our brain cells with their dumb bullshit.
Some things we know to be true, and we know them so well that we know challenging them is a waste of time. One of these things we know to be true is this: too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.
The purpose of this idiom is simple: time and time again, we have discovered that the larger the committee, the less focused a project becomes. When everyone is offering their input on how something ought to be, especially without regard for qualification and skill, the end result ends up being a confused mess of ideas.
Take a building, for instance. The architect designs, the builders build. The foreman’s job is to ensure the builders are building to specifications. You don’t necessarily need the drywall hanger’s opinion on the way the building withstands winds at one hundred storeys up; he’s a drywall hanger, his job is to hang drywall. Some might suggest that anyone, no matter where they are in the organizational structure, may have some relevant expertise or ‘good ideas’ to offer, but while there is always the chance of this, the drywall guy’s opinions on whether or not a skyscraper can withstand an 80 mile an hour gust are probably not as useful as someone who has specialized in the genre.
I know there are people who will take this and object; they’ll say “hey, you’re not respecting the drywall guy enough,” but they’re trying to distract us; you shouldn’t trust a computer programmer to give you a cancer diagnosis over a trained oncologist’s, and you likely wouldn’t trust your lawyer to figure out why your car won’t start, or your mechanic to explain to a jury why you are being framed for murder. Being good at one thing doesn’t make you good at everything, and it isn’t disrespectful to say that someone being an expert in one field isn’t necessarily an expert in another.
We know this! No one is so stupid that they don’t! It is so culturally understood that there are idioms about it, like the idea of too many people having input on the broth ruining it. But people bring it up, suddenly, when group projects are concerned, because everybody’s a critic (another idiom) and everybody has ideas about what does and does not work. For an organization to function, though, you need focus.
Focus is the key to everything. While we would love to take every single person’s input on every single task at hand, while we would love to hear every single suggestion there is, the fact is, some people are experts in herpetology and not structural engineering, and knowing a lot about taking care of lizards doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have relevant knowledge about making a bridge. It is not disrespectful to say that not everyone’s opinions on a subject carries equal weight.
It’s a problem we’re encountering more and more on the internet; a college freshman with some opinions about a video game and zero life or media experience isn’t going to be able to tell you with any insight why anything works or how it functions.
I know because I was that college freshman. I used to think Heat was a bad movie, because I was a sheltered kid who grew up not knowing anything and didn’t really get drama. I watched the movie, most of it flew over my head, and I didn’t get it.
I became the person I am today — award-winning game designer, consultant, and critic — through a great deal of hard work. I developed my practical and theoretical expertise. If you haven’t, then I have good news: you can too. There was a time in my life where I was like “I can’t come up with a joke on demand! I can never write comedy!” Yeah, well, I figured out how to write comedy in the fifteen years since.
If you’ve worked on a team, you ought to know this by now. I might be a great writer, but I’m not a great programmer, which is why I routinely ask my programmers if things are possible when laying out the game’s proverbial blueprints. Art is a collaborative process, but that doesn’t mean that it can ship if it’s by committee.
One thing we know about games is that, time and time again, the biggest failures come from indecision. When teams work hard trying to make something, and then one of the managers comes in, overrides another manager, and says “no, no, no, start over, make something different,” the morale plummets, the team has to crunch, and the game, more often than not, suffers for it. We know this. We know this for a fact. Indecision does not make for good games, only decisiveness does.
We also know for a fact that “by-committee” creative processes rarely, if ever, work because of the indecision! The more people you add, the more directions a project is pulled in — by committee planning means more people to negotiate, which means less overall decision. How’s that phrase go? A man cannot serve two masters?
Here’s another creative on the problem, which a twitter pal sent to me today.
Now me, I’ve approached it from this angle: look at every creative you’ve ever seen sell out. What do they all have in common? Well, before you discovered them, they were making art they cared about. You go find a musician you love and you look at his first album and he’s rapping about the things he cares about, right? But then fast forward a few years, he’s getting rich and famous, and his albums start being about defending himself — I’m still relevant, I’m not a sellout, but also everyone loves me because I’m “out the country, but the blueberry still connect.”
So many artists go through this process: they write what they care about, then they start caring about other things, which causes people who fell in love with their original work to stop caring about them.
There’s a particularly vicious element of this cycle where the fans hear “thank you, we couldn’t have made it without you” and think this is a ticket to the seat at the creative table. The fans then insist you must do what they want, so you, as the artist, do that, and then the fans abandon you, because “you’ve changed.” They don’t realize you’re giving them what they want — they loved you when you had no idea they existed and made what you cared about; they loved you for who you were, and their misguided attempts at changing you into what they think they wanted only resulted in you serving too many masters.
This truth is known: too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.
This Bit Is Very Important
When talking about power dynamics, if we argue for the necessity that someone must be “in charge,” it can sound like we’re saying other people don’t matter as much as people, and that’s… not really the case. We are not attempting to devalue anyone here while discussing responsibility, labor, and stuff like that.
But it can be so easy to sound like that, right? Like, if I write a manuscript, and then I take it to the mail store, and some guy mails it to my publisher, it is still my manuscript; while I couldn’t have mailed it to the publisher without the employee at the mail store, his presence fundamentally had minimal bearing on the script itself.
We are not dehumanizing him or devaluing him in any way at all in this process. The people who make art but aren’t in charge are not lesser people for it. I’m in the special thanks of Disco Elysium, which was immensely generous of the team, but I don’t go around taking credit for the creation of the game (I do love telling people “go look at the credits” when they’ve asked me if I’ve heard of the game, though, because it’s just extremely funny to see people’s reactions, their eyes bug out and they look at me like “what the fuck” and then I clarify all I did was some feedback and light editing suggestions on the Day 1 section of the demo they sent to some of us a year before release); my role was that I played the game and offered some light feedback, some of which was taken and some of which was probably discarded.
I have no inflated self-importance here; I have no need to take credit for the game’s success and all the gratitude in the world for crediting me just because I corrected a couple typoes. In fact, when I interviewed with them earlier this year, I told them my exact reasoning for wanting to work with them: I’m a writer. There’s very little I can give to anyone; the most I can give back as thanks for that credit is writing, and I would like to give them my best.
So I am speaking about this coming from a perspective of someone who has been both a director on a project and not. I worked for three months writing some 50+ audio logs for Hardspace: Shipbreaker, as well as a bunch of background material and stuff. Ask me about it and I’ll tell you that that’s way more Elliot Hudson’s game (and that he was wonderful to work with, as was everyone I worked with at Blackbird) than mine. In fact, I literally did that two days ago (I wrote this sentence today, I wrote the sentence above nearly a year ago). Sure, I had an impact on the game and its world, but I don’t feel any kind of frustration when the team gives interviews and does not credit me. I know my part on the project and I’m content with it. I do not need more credit than I received.
This is all to say that when I talk about the role someone ‘in charge’ has over someone who is not ‘in charge,’ I am not devaluing anybody on the team, because I’ve been that person before. In my analogy about architects and drywall, if the fine folks at Blackbird are the architects, then I am the drywall guy; I’m not dissing the drywall guy, I’m simply discussing the pragmatic realities of development — sure, I think they did listen to me when I offered a suggestion about navigating with six degrees of freedom in zero-g flight, but they didn’t have to, and I happen to have had a long career in consulting on video game design, so in that case, I was a drywall guy who happened to have a background in architecture offering an off-handed note. If they’d disregarded me, I wouldn’t have been offended — I know this because I’m pretty sure I recall a couple suggestions that weren’t adopted, and it literally doesn’t bother me because I’m the drywall guy, they’re the architects. I know my role in making the game ship, and what is needed from me is writing, not design feedback.
If a mother shouts “that’s my son!” when her child scores a goal at a kid’s soccer match, we don’t assume she’s discounting the father. We know what we means; so why would anyone be mad at you for saying “that’s my game” when, say, Hideo Kojima actually directed it? Yoji Shinkawa can say Death Stranding is his game too. Everyone who worked on it can.
What I’m saying is, even if you’re in charge of people, you still have to respect them; when we say “kathy has final say on this, bob does not,” we’re not saying kathy is a better person than bob, we’re literally just describing what their task and responsibility is; there is no reflection on the character of either. Power doesn’t make you better or worse than other people; acknowledging that someone is in possession of authority is not a moral judgement on them as a human being. It is not disrespectful to me if you were to say “it’s not your job to design Hardspace,” because it literally was not my job, I have no authority there, and I don’t want any authority there. My job was to make sure that the game lived up to what Elliot and Trey and everyone else asked me for; they’re the clients, I’m the contractor. My job is to deliver what they ask for.
Most artists will literally tell you when you commission art from them, how many feedback cycles you work with. I’ve had some artists who will be like “i will send you one sketch, you will give me any and all corrections then, and then i will deliver the final work; additional feedback will cost $X,” and others who are like “yeah i want you to be really happy so how about you add me on discord and I’ll literally just update you every day on where I’m at and get your takes?” I had a guy not long ago tell me that he gets to pick the pose, so I asked him if I could pick the facial expression.
While I am the client, I try to weigh all sorts of things — the pressures on them, when I need the art by, what would make me happy versus what is just a pointless nitpick, that kind of thing. The end goal is to make sure the artist is proud of their work, feels respected, and — this is key, for reasons we’ll get to later — wants to work with me again in the future.
Now, on my next game, codenamed Waifu Death Squad, I received art from a character artist (whose name I’m keeping secret until we get funded and can start showing art), but the guy had changed some details from the description I told him I was looking for, including hair color, build, and hair style.
I told him what I liked and what I didn’t — for instance, he’d changed her hair color to white, and I reminded him that we already had some twins with white hair, so part of the reason I was pushing for a different hair color was because I’m trying to ensure she is visually distinct from them. The hair style he’d picked was fantastic, and honestly a great choice, but I’d specified the other hair style for a specific character reason.
He replied “oh, I thought based on another element she was this sort of person, so I went with hair style to match,” so we talked a bit about who she is as a person and why, and as a result he changed the hair style back to what I was hoping for, because he learned details about the character’s personality that made it clear why I really wanted a particular hair style for her. But we’re gonna try to bring that hair style alternative back for another character later, because it’s a great idea.
I do this a lot on my projects; my goal, as the game’s director, is to give it focus, and my job is to be decisive in getting there. What my responsibility is is to help direct everyone towards one creative goal, which means occasionally popping in to get people back on track. I need the drywall guy to be 100% dedicated to drywall, I need the window guy to be 100% dedicated to windows.
When working on Adios 2, I have a writer’s room of two other people (and hopefully more), including Phil, a long time trusted collaborator of mine, and Kevin, a more recent acquaintance, but a good one. Often, especially early on, they have come up with suggestions that don’t quite fit, not because they’re incompetent (they’re some of the best writers out there), but because it is my job to view the entire picture and shape the project, which means sometimes I haven’t communicated everything I need, and other times, they’re just acclimating. That’s super normal. These guys kick ass — I’d bring them onto any story I write from here on out, no question. But early on, before everyone is on the same page, there’s always a bit of “will this idea work?” and we sit there and think about it and I have to tell them why my gut says yes or no.
If something doesn’t work, I tell them why I don’t think it works and we gently massage the ideas into something we like; sometimes that means killing your darlings, but I’m a professional writer, I’ve worked with editors — killing darlings happens all the time, and it’s a necessary and important process of being a writer. These guys get it, so it’s no skin off their nose…
…and yet… If I see them coming up with an idea that makes them particularly happy, then I try to see if we can make it work even if the value in doing so is not immediately apparent. Ultimately, I’m trying to make everyone happy. A long time ago, I was in a painful place and I realized that that I was unhappy, and I didn’t have to remain in a situation that made me unhappy. It seemed so laughably simple, even though, at the time, things had gotten so bad that I was planning to end my own life. Then I realized that, hey, I don’t have to feel unhappy. I can leave. As infamous twitter account dasharezone would say “if it sucks, hit da bricks.” I hit the bricks.
I’ll make all the damn compromises I want on a project if it means my team is happy, but I’ll only do it when I think those changes make the project better. If I’m a success, I’ll be one because people had a good time working with me and they were proud of the end result; I’ve seen people suggest bad ideas — hell, I’ve suggested bad ideas — that ultimately caused them to be disappointed in themselves. When I say no, it’s not because I’m better than anyone on the team, it’s because my entire job is to make sure the suggestions work, and I must, as a necessity, reject the suggestions that do not.
My job is to keep us focused.
It’s also about giving people the room to bring their best to the work, which means that I’m coaxing the brilliance out of brilliant people, reducing their burdens (I’m doing a job I hate right now which involves telling big people with bags that got dollar signs on ’em that my team can absolutely make this game. I would rather be writing, but I must do this so that everyone else can focus on programming and things and just put their hands out every two weeks and get a paycheck)
With the character the artist and I were working on, some things have changed from the initial pitch, and they’re things I’m okay with changing. A collaborator was working on another project on his own that shared some similar details with things on ours; he asked me if we wouldn’t mind changing some stuff on Waifu Death Squad to avoid overlap, and I obliged him because I respect him and would like to avoid stepping on his creative toes if I can. To me, respect is crucial; a project without respect is a project with dysfunction, and my job is to keep things focused and keep people on track, disrespect is not a job requirement and is, in fact, a detriment — I would be failing in my duties as a game director if I didn’t respect my team.
So, all of this is to say that in any kind of team dynamic role, from client/contractor to boss/employee and everything in between, we are not allowing for disrespect, and simply identifying that someone has a responsibility that another does not is not encouraging as such. Good? Good.
It can be difficult to balance “what people want” with “what the end result needs to be.” Like, I like putting “utes,” specifically slightly off-brand Chevy El Caminos, in everything I do; a good director, working on a video game set in outer space, might say “hey, Doc, I know you like El Caminos, but it doesn’t make sense for our game,” and can communicate that gently. I might be a little disappointed my El Camino streak gets broken, but ultimately the game is better for it. When I first pitched Adios, I remember some people replying thinking that this was some sort of comedy — that the farmer was some kind of Emmett Kelly clown, and how funny the game sounded. My job was to help ensure our team understand that Adios was a melancholy game; we now have the overwhelmingly positive reviews to show us that our approach to melancholy was a success.
Sometimes, a leader will have to disappoint his team — Adios can’t be a comedy, I can’t put an El Camino in everything. Your job is to remain focused and decisive, not merely incorporating fifty different people’s ideas into one project, pulling it in five hundred directions. You have to be able to know when to say yes or no to your collaborators. It sucks, but that’s literally the point of being a director — establishing and maintaining the project’s direction. It can’t go off course, and that’s what happens when too many people have a say on your creative vision; once you get above five or six people is when the game starts to suffer.
Only a few people need to have the entire game in their heads — a guy programming the rope physics for a year doesn’t need to know the plot reveal that a character has faked her death in order to exact revenge on the protagonist.
If the intro to this part of the article is “too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth,” then the current question has been “so what is a single cook’s job?” and the answer is “to create a healthy work environment where the rest of the kitchen staff flourishes while simultaneously ensuring that the broth is a good fuckin broth through decisiveness and focus.”
That’s what a director does. They make sure the project gets made. Their job is to hold the vision and to direct people towards accomplishing that goal. They’re the architect and the foreman all at once. They’re responsible for everyone on the team; their chief goal is to make sure the project gets out the door and that the team is healthy doing it. They are, in other words, an organizing force. It is in this organization that their presence becomes known.
I don’t think you could miss for a second that Yoji Shinkawa worked on the games he worked on. Masahiro Ito is immediately recognizable. Will Wright is obsessed with toys and simulation. Sarah Schachner’s soundtracks are so different than Jesper Kyd’s, and I think you can notice that by listening to his Assassin’s Creed 2 work (2009) and her Assassin’s Creed Valhalla work (2020). As Sarris said — auteurs aren’t just directors, they’re actors too; every artist is recognizable in their work. Kael couldn’t see that — to defeat Sarris, to remain complacent, she tried to transform it into an argument about quality, and she had no qualms to try to get there.
Let’s Bring It To A Close
All metaphors are imperfect, because, like a perfect map, if they were completely accurate, they would be useless. So here’s a metaphor, and it’s imperfect, but I think it gets the idea across:
If I have a kid and you have a kid, I am going to be happy for you that you had a kid, but I’m gonna love my kid, the way a parent should, you know? It’s an imperfect metaphor because obviously the way we love entertainment media is different than the way we love people, but you get the idea, right? The thing that came from me is always going to be more personal to me, as a creator, who is expressing myself, than the thing that came from you.
So when an artiste comes along and is like “look at me look at me look at me pretend no one but me made this it’s all my idea” it just seems futile? Like, I am fiercely in love with my ideas. Other people’s ideas are wonderful, but those ideas are theirs. I’ve offered plenty of feedback to people on their games; I’m always grateful for a special thanks, because it does help me get work, but like… I have no need to claim possession over their work. Throughout my essays over the years, I’ve tried to be profusely thankful for my collaborators, making sure to both credit them and never to speak for them.
I want to make art so that people know me; there is no use in being an artiste. I don’t understand it; the idea is alien. If I came up with an idea, then understanding it is a way to get to know me; there is no point in being like “oh yeah uh actually i’m the reason they made Jurassic Park” or something. I would never in a million years come up with Jurassic Park. If you sought to know me through a work I didn’t make, you would never really get to know me at all. I don’t see the point in it.
As an artiste, they no longer see you, the person, they see you as the performance you give. And maybe that’s the problem with the artiste — since they don’t care about art as an actual expression of the self, they just crib whatever they can because, at least in the short term, they think they can get a quick buck out of it.
Me, I think a lot about dying. I’m disabled, I live alone, life is hard, and I’m really struggling. This week, I made the decision to stop receiving medical care I desperately need to deal with severe hip pain because I can’t afford it. I don’t have a lot of time left, not without significant monetary intervention or medical advancements. I don’t have time to waste on other people’s work.
I want to be understood. Before I die, before I check out, I want people to know I was here. To do that, I need to make art that communicates some aspect of myself. What good would being an artiste be? I live alone; I would just be more lonely if people thought I was someone other than my true self.
A couple years ago, at PAX, I talked to someone who told me, darkly, “no one knows the real me.” I looked up at him from my wheelchair, and I said “that’s not true. I know you. I know exactly who you are, man.” He looked… scared. This was the person who’d told me not to talk about my disability because it would “lower your profile.” He was so alone because he’d constructed a fake person for everyone to like; to keep the brand up, he’d have to keep pretending to be someone he wasn’t. He’d have to deny his true self to anyone, which meant that no matter how many people thought they knew him, no one really could.
It must be a lonely life not to be known for who you are, to want to be acknowledged, but to hate being seen. What’s the point of people knowing you if all they know is a facade? Nothing Kael wrote has value because it was fraudulent — why waste time on that? What do you gain? What’s the value? What’s the point?
I’d rather just support other people making what they want to make, and enthusiastically consume their work when they’re ready to share it. I love their work because their work is an extension of their self. I love it as a means of connecting with them on a level deeper than words. I do not love it in the same way that I love my own ideas, where the feelings gush out like a million Niagara falls at once.
An auteur is a person who is genuine; they are seen, as Truffaut and Sarris demonstrated, because they are genuine; they cut out all the bullshit and tell the things they care about. People respond to that honesty. The artiste can never be loved, because the artiste is arrogant, thinking everyone can be manipulated into loving them, which means that they look down on the rest of us, thinking everyone is stupid enough to be conned. The artiste is unable to act with any openness, because they’re building an image on what they think imaginary rubes want, and if they become themselves, their house of cards falls. It seems way simpler to just do what you’re doing and if people aren’t into that, then whatever. The people who are into it will love you. The real you.
I’m Garrick “Doc” Burford. I prefer to go by Doc, I hate to go by Garrick. This is the name I picked for myself. I picked it because I volunteered on a B-29 named Doc once. Every story I’ve ever written is about things I’ve felt, things I’ve been through, no matter how obliquely, but I can’t stop coming up with ideas. Every day, I’ve got a million, probably due to under-treated ADHD and synesthesia. I love technique because I love execution. I want to tell stories that stick with you. I’m directing a game now called Waifu Death Squad Zero. We’re being smart and working hard at setting up the smaller game to feed into the really big Fire Emblem-like called Waifu Death Squad as well.
All these games come from a lot of places, but at their core, they come from a character I created for a forum RP back in about 2006 or 2007. I’m not going to say his name, because you’ll get there when you play the game. There was all the forum drama you’d expect and then some. I must’ve designed dozens of RPs without ever realizing I was a game designer, rules, abilites, all that shit. Probably got some of ’em saved on an archival hard drive somewhere.
Back then, I was getting sick and no one knew what was going on, and my living situation was so tenuous that I ended up living in a trailer. I was going to therapy and had to keep it secret. Things were tough, and I created this character to sort of… work through what I was going through.
I’m 34 now. I’ve been through more stuff. I hurt. A lot. Where I’m living right now… it’s not really a good place to be in, but I can’t get a dog or anything to offset that. As I was working on Waifu Death Squad, I wanted a customizable player character, but I kept running into some “how we’re building the game” vs “how customization happens” thing (basically, we can’t afford cutscenes so we’re doing 2d images, and it’d be ridiculous to do a ton of work to customize the character). I realized, eventually, that the character I wanted to write was the one from when I was 17, 18, 19 or so. I’d kind of left him by the wayside as my illness progressed. I’m telling his story now, at age 34, nearly twice the age I was then.
I realized after a while that this story was really his story — if I’d made him then to process a lot of difficult things, I needed him now to help me process more, just like every other game I’ve made. It’s not therapy, not really; it’s an expression, an expression of what I’m feeling.
I think, like my other work, people will see me; they’ll get it, and it’ll stick with them. I’ve been lucky enough to be told that Adios, my most recent game, helped people through personal drama, depression, anxiety, lots of things. I think it’s because I don’t set out to make games that do that; what I set out to do is make games that say what I’m feeling. The people who feel the same things I do see it and they respond to it. They say “wow, this is real. I’m valid.”
I hate it when I see a tweet that says “you are loved,” or “if you’re feeling suicidal, call a number.” It’s a person just kinda imitating kindness without being kind; a truly kind person would reach out to friends they know are struggling, make sure their needs are met, help them when they’re down. I think if I were an artiste, the hollow proclamation that “you are loved” would be in my games, and everyone would know it’s fake. I think if I focus on telling you how I am feeling, then those of you who are feeling the same will find work that, hopefully, helps you as much as creating it helped me.
I’m going to do something else I never do, and I’m going to tell you who this piece is for. It’s for you, the artiste. What are you doing, man? Don’t you see this hollow pursuit will take you nowhere? You want so much to be seen, but how can you be if you spend all your time focusing on building your profile, making social media numbers grow up, whatever. You’re gonna die one day, just like me; what will you leave behind? Whose lives will you enrich? What memories will you leave?
What I hope to leave behind is work that speaks to the people who need to hear it, not by sacrificing my own creative authenticity, but by leaning into it.
No point in being an artiste. You’re wasting every remarkable talent you have. You have a gift. Use it. Leave this world better than you found it. Show them who you are; make the things that matter to you. And help others do the same.
In other words, Be an auteur.
(Incredibly funny this all happened because a Frenchman thought movies had too many cucks, remakes, and adaptations though.)
If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:
Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.