Thoughts On: Ghibli vs. Disney vs. Marvel vs. DC - Redefining Auteurship


Ghibli vs. Disney vs. Marvel vs. DC - Redefining Auteurship

Thoughts On: Studio Ghibli, Disney, Marvel & DC

A exploration of the Auteur Theory in regards to 4 prominent modern-day studios.

Most who are into cinema and its history are quite familiar with the Auteur Theory. The term itself was coined by an American critic, Andrew Sarris. However, the concept underlying Sarris' term is embedded in the writings of André Bazin, who co-founded the famous magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, and who would go onto hire and support the likes of Godard and Truffaut - who were some of the first who consciously acted as auteurs during the French New Wave. The theory itself is a simple one. It assumes that there is one particular driving force, an author, of certain cinematic works. For Truffaut, the likes of Jean Vigo, Orson Welles and Jean Renoir would have been auteurs. They qualify as such for a few particular reasons. Firstly, their works all bear a distinct touch and style. This implies that they, not a studio or collective of people, are steering the ship. And this connects with a second characteristic of the auteur: they write the script and usually put up much of the money for a film - they may even act in it. In addition to this, an auteur generally has a body of work that forms a web of ideas or values, they intentionally create art, not entertainment, they challenge the establishment whilst working on its periphery, they are original, they strive for innovation, they are purely cinematic, they know film history and make use of it, etc.

The context from which this term emerges is very telling. The French New Wave is immersed in political rebellion and counter-culture. There are then Marxist characteristics within the Auteur Theory - but, equally so, contradictions. The Marxist elements of the Auteur Theory of course come from some of its proponents - Godard most particularly. We could, however, characterise the Marxism as Liberalism. Alas, the Auteur Theory is a limb that extends from one of the key believes of the Cahiers du Cinéma writers and the New Wave directors: all film is political. The writers meant this in respect to the institution of cinema, and so suggested that it is a part of a machine of the dominant ideology (capitalism) and so is inevitably going to be propaganda that espouses it. The directors, who were often also critics/writers, additionally meant this in practice: they made films that were heavily political, that criticised society and spoke directly about ideology. The auteur, for these writers and directors, existed outside of the dominant ideology - outside of studios and the mainstream - and in turn had their own political stance to project. This itself has links to Marxism or liberal political theory because the system is oppressive, freedom of expression, etc, etc.

Considering the context of the Auteur Theory, we also have to recognise that cinema to the French critics and filmmakers at the time was just as much about style as it was politics. Truffaut, for example, has famously said that there are 'no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors'. Like Godard, Truffaut seemed to believe that style is everything. As counter-intuitive as this may sound, the New Wave directors saw and used style as political expression. It was how you presented yourself that mattered to the pro-Auteurs. After you made a statement with your style, the subtext - if it matters much at all - can be investigated.

It is here where the Auteur Theory gets cloudier. I personally check out with 'all films are political', but the connection to style and individuality eventually brings out the arrogance of the theory. As many people have suggested, the Auteur Theory largely serves a bunch of young, big-headed guys who wanted to have their name in bigger letters on all the posters, on all the screens and in all the history books. The Auteur Theory allows us to write a strong man history as it occurs; it gratuitously overlooks the dozens, hundreds or thousands of individuals who work together to get a movie made. And herein lies one of the theory's major contradictions: it doesn't seem to be very Marxist or liberal in practice.

Despite the glaring issues and annoying titbits of the Auteur Theory, I quite like the idea. In fact, I think most people like the idea - even if they haven't really thought through it or even heard about it. The Auteur Theory, in the present day, generally boils down to its most basic components: it describes a distinctive style carried across multiple films. The most significant contribution to film and film history that the theory has provided is then a recognition of the writer and director.

Before the 50s and 60s, audiences would go to films made by certain studios and that starred certain actors/actresses. You could trust that certain studios would supply a certain quality of film, and you could also trust that you'd get a chance to stare at your favourite celebrity for at least 90 minutes. In spirit, what the Auteur Theory changed in audiences was the way they read a film as an artistic--cinematic--document. Thinking of a movie as constructed by someone allows you to appreciate what it is that they have done to build a story and a scene; you pay attention to cinematic language and the subtext of a story. When a movie is made by a studio, it is a product of a machine, it is entertainment. (Sometimes ideological propaganda as many like to suggest.) When a movie is made for a star, they can only have a good character or give a good performance. Cinema is more than a mass manufactured product, and films are more than the 'story' we see as we watch a star. Thinking of the director, the writer, the auteur, we recognise an artist making cinema. This revolutionised the way we thought of film - or it at least played apart in such a revolution after the 40s - as weren't  thinking in terms of consumption and adoration, but began deconstructing and understanding how cinema is made. It is unfortunate that so much of film criticism is still obsessed with political readings, but at least there is more than the basic, experiential reviews given in newspapers, magazines and across the internet.

Because the Auteur Theory played a part in audiences actually engaging film as a created piece of art, its meaning has transformed a little. I find this to be particularly true in myself. Though I have known the greater details of this theory, I have so often conceptualised of the term as simply meaning 'distinct style'. And when auteur means distinct style, a director or writer who may even be working within a system can very easily be an auteur. What's more, an actress/actor, or even a studio itself, can be an auteur of sorts. For example, I've always watched films with Marilyn Monroe in them as Monroe pictures. However, I don't just see Monroe as a star, instead, a creative force. So, whilst she may not have directed and written the movies she starred in, her movies are bound together by a subtext and style of the archetype she came to embody. In one sense, she was typecast like John Wayne, Hugh Grant or Samuel L. Jackson were/are. However, whilst there is an inherent cheapness in the idea of typecasting, having an actor or actress serve one specific kind of role often means that a team of writers, directors and more will form a film around that person. This will mean the cinematic language and subtext of the story too - maybe even the values and politics the actor holds. (For example, a Seth Rogan movie is probably going to be pro-weed - and dumb.)

If the typecast actor or actress can be an auteur, then so can a studio in my view. The French filmmakers and writers of the 50s and 60s recognised this themselves - they just despised the fact, and so separated what they were doing from what the studios were doing (having a style) even though it boils down to a pretty similar phenomena. Studios have certain politics and values. These are often bound to money and the dominant ideology of the time, true. However, most films - even those of the auteur - want to make money, it is just something we have to put up with and look past to some degree if we're going to engage cinema seriously. (Maybe Godard doesn't want to always make money with his films, otherwise he'd have given up 40 years ago; he's still rich though.) What's more, just because an ideology is dominant, it doesn't mean that it is completely corrupt. The revolutionaries would, of course, have you believe differently, but when we watch a Disney film from the 40s or 50s, the ideology of the time rings through, and as much as we like to think of the 40s and 50s as oppressive and backwards (which they really were in certain respects, there's no need to deny this), Disney films from the 40s and 50s aren't entirely corrupt. I have made this argument in quite some detail in the Disney Series.

So, if we were to update the terms and conditions of auteurship, I think there is great value in taking the old ideas of a studio's film or an actresses' picture and turning them on their elbow. If the studio or actress/actor spearheads the construction of a piece of art and thus dictates cinematic language and narrative meaning, then let us consider them auteurs of sorts. I will save the detailed exploration of auteur actors/actresses such as Monroe, Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, The Marx Brothers, Samuel L. Jackson, John Wayne, etc. for another time. What I want to do today is take a brief look at four modern studios, to see how they are auteurs and how they aren't auteurs.

We will start with a great example of an auteur studio: Studio Ghibli. Ghibli has a style that is centred around the auteurship of Hayao Miyazaki and, to a lesser degree, Isao Takahata. These are the main figures of the studio who have directed, produced and written the bulk of the studio's filmography. It seems that the core filmic philosophies of Miyazaki and Takahata have combined to form the Ghibli style displayed in masterpieces such as Princess Mononoke, The Tale Of Princess Kaguya and Spirited Away. Miyazaki in particular has built a collective of artists and a body of films contributed by 6 different directors and 7 different writers that all seem cohesive and continuous. There are the likes of My Neighbours The Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya that are stylistically differentiated from the core Ghibli films - Pom Poko, Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro, etc - but, they retain a Ghibli tone through an approach to story.

What is most important when it comes to auteur studios is not necessarily that each film feels as if it was made by the one person, just that there is one central aesthetic hub that ensures all stories have similar sensibilities, qualities and characteristics. Ghibli with their rounded female characters, their focus on young love, on aviation, nature, responsibility, hard work and self-sacrifice exude a distinctly Ghibli aesthetic. And I think this is part of the reason why we think of Ghibli films as 'Ghibli films'. Studio Ghibli is not a logo or brand like Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple or Google. There is meaning behind the symbol and the name; it is not a facade, it is not just a style, it is not just a company. For all that Nike, Coco-Cola, Apple and Google will try to sell you on, for the good they may have done, for the the impact that they've had on culture, they will never build a name anything like that of Ghibli. On one hand we have manufacturers, a collective of craftsmen, and some of them produce commodities of great value (more Apple and Google, much less Nike and Coca-Cola). On the other hand, we have a collective of artists. The arts and the crafts are quite separate under these circumstances, as is the difference between a name and a brand. Ghibli is the name of an auteur studio, it is not a brand.

When we come to Disney, we find ourselves in a bit of trouble considering the last few sentences. Disney is, in part, a brand. There is no looking past this. However, much like Studio Ghibli, the cinematic side of Disney and Pixar (let's please not talk about television) represents a collective of artists. And, again, like Ghibli, Disney has a distinct aesthetic and approach to storytelling.

Disney is one of the oldest auteur studios, and thus is has many different epochs; Pre-Classical Disney 1923-1938, Classical Disney, 1939-1959, New Disney, 1961-1988, Renaissance Disney, 1989-1999, Digital Disney, 2000-2009, Modern Disney, 2010-Present. (This can all be disputed as the titles and dates are largely just my opinion.) In each of these epochs, Disney shifted their style, approach and aesthetic slightly. However, I believe that there is a string all the way through the history of Disney, certainly from Classical Disney to present, that unifies their complete body of work. From 1939 onwards, Disney have told deeply archetypal stories about building and sustaining a family. Pixar, another auteur studio, have followed in Disney footsteps by subverting archetypes slightly and creating worlds to tell stories about the dissolution of a traditional family and the building of an unconventional one.

What Disney, a little like Pixar, do as auteurs is tell the stories we have always yearned to hear. And this is something that the radical filmmakers of the 50s and 60s overlook - which is part of what makes them so significant. But, whilst Truffaut and Godard didn't care about retelling the stories we've told for centuries and millennia, I think this is what Disney do best as an auteur studio; they understand what has meaning and how exactly to preserve that in short, accessible narratives. Disney play a part in preserving the folklore, mythology and archetypes that humans have collectively constructed. I don't think they preserve everything worth preserving, and I don't think enough studios are doing what Disney has done for so long - which we shall come to - but, this is the role that Disney serve as an auteur studio. The cynical will suggest that Disney have contrived a formula that sells. However, by recognising the role that Disney has played in the construction of their greatest stories - Dumbo, Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast, Lion King, Wreck-It Ralph, Moana, etc. - we can step past the surface-level recognition of archetype and pattern and begin to analyse what it is that Disney are doing to capture the imagination of so many millions - billions even.

Moving on, we come to muddier grounds: Marvel. I kind of like Marvel movies. Kind of. Many are certainly good fun, but I have yet to be struck by a Marvel movie as much more than entertainment (maybe Black Panther). What Marvel do well is build a continuous narrative in a cohesive, multi-faceted world. In such, we can see and feel the worlds of Thor, Ironman, Spiderman, The Guardians of The Galaxy, Hulk and so on merge pretty smoothly - despite the fact that each character and their world is ridiculously different. This, in my books, distinguishes Marvel as an auteur studio.

Even as an auteur studio, Marvel are lacking a few things. The first is a visual style that works - most of the films are aesthetically flat. Second, the sensibilities need to be fine-tuned. Following on from Ironman, Marvel found their way with the mix between comedy, action and adventure. However, whilst the comedic sensibilities are quite good, their approach to narrative meaning is incredibly lacklustre. Unlike Disney, Marvel don't really know how to tell great stories we want to hear. They're almost there, and they have so many characters that bring them to such a door step. However, Marvel movies don't seem to hold up too well as you analyse story. What's more, you don't ever really feel the story exude from Marvel movies; you feel the characters, well, their mythologised stature.

Marvel don't seem to be working too hard on telling better stories - stories with meaning and weight. Black Panther was a great leap in this direction, however. Maybe we'll see more of this. But, what Marvel have instead been working on for the past few years is exporting their auteurship. This is both a good and a bad thing. It is bad because the studio are merely becoming a brand and a logo that own a body of intellectual property. On the other hand, as Marvel give their directors more of a voice - as we have seen in Thor: Ragnarok - as well as their actors - as we have seen in the Ironman movies most particularly - their movies are getting better. How much Marvel can lay claim to this is up for debate, but the works of the studio are improving.

What Marvel ultimately serve to be is a precarious example of an auteur studio. We certainly call and recognise Marvel movies as 'Marvel movies'. But, the name isn't such a strong one.

Lastly, we come to DC. A shit-show. I don't mind Man of Steel or Suicide Squad, but these aren't worth talking much about. The only worth that has come from DC intellectual property is sold under the name of Christopher Nolan. Slap a big DC logo on the front and you have garbage. The only time in which they've properly capitalised on a character as Marvel do has been with Wonder Woman. Beyond this... there really isn't much to be said about DC.

The lesson DC indirectly provide is one we will close on. If a studio can understand themselves as an auteur, like Ghibli, Pixar and Disney do pretty well, then they open themselves up to the light of film criticism. When a director/writer puts their name on a movie, they are asking you to pay attention to their style, cinematic language and narrative meaning. When a studio puts their logo up on the screen, they better do the same. If you want to say you created something, you better make sure you've created something worth considering created. If you slap your name on anything you own, you are a brand. You may ensure a certain quality or predictability, but an auteur brings aesthetic, style, meaning, sensibility to the fore; they create art that dares you to confront and deconstruct it.

With that said, what do you think of our redefinition of 'auteur'? Does is make sense? Is there a good reason for this? Is there more to be said?

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