Friday 27 November 2020


A Swedish radio program about economics recently did an episode about the pandemic's threat to cinemas. With them either being closed, or only allowed to take a small number of visitors, and with hardly any new big releases, they are in danger of going out of business permanently, both small independent cinemas and large international chains. The issue was approached from several angles but, inevitably, towards the end of the program the show's host asked the head of the Swedish Film Institute: "Are cinemas necessary? Can we not just see this as a change regarding the spaces where we consume films. Instead of going to the cinema we just stay at home."

This is not a question any other art form would have to deal with. "Are museums necessary? People can watch any art they want on the internet after all." is not something a journalist would ask, or "Are theatres necessary? People can watch plays on streaming services at home after all." Or, for that matter, "Are churches, mosques and temples necessary? People can still worship in their homes after all." Or "Are restaurants necessary? People can still eat food at home after all."

The obvious answers are that doing it together with strangers in a communal setting is a different experience from doing it at home alone, and would you want to live in a world where cities were empty of people, there was no place to go for fun or experiences, and everybody was just at home? That would be like living in a permanent state of quarantine, and the way society is evolving, it seems many would not mind. "Well, it is just so convenient to do it at home." they say, without giving any thoughts to what it might mean for society at large if we all did it.

This is partly a question about democracy. A healthy democracy needs responsible citizens who mingle and meet each other, friends and strangers, in common activities, whether sports, art, religion, festivals, or whatever it might be, and a democracy in which we all stay at home may not remain a democracy for very long. This does not mean that we should abandon the current lockdowns in the name of "freedom" or whatever; the pandemic is a mortal threat. I am talking about a longer time frame.

Talking specifically about films and cinemas, how and where you watch something has an important influence over the experience. It is not just the story of the film that matters. Watching a film at home, or at a small cinema, or a large IMAX screen, or on a plane, or projected on the wall of a countryside barn, or in a drive-in; all these various experiences will be qualitatively different from each other and will to some extent determine your relationship with the film you are watching.

Another aspect is that if a film is made with the explicit intention of being shown at the cinema, this will usually influence how it is made: how it is shot, staged, blocked, edited, paced, and designed, even acted. If you do not watch it in a cinema, you will not get the intended experience. That is just an unavoidable aspect of the art form. And if something is made with the intention of it being shown on TV screens or tablets, this too will influence how it is made, and the experience of watching it will yet again be different. The argument is not that one thing is better or worse, but that it is different, and that it is to misunderstand cinema itself to think that it does not matter where and how you watch something. (Common ideas of what it means that something is "cinematic" remains unsatisfying and flawed.)

But unlike the situation with the cinemas, many still seem to be conscious of the downsides when other kinds of public venues are closed down. That is why the suggested questions I provided above are hardly ever asked. But cinema is different. I have written about this before, the strange fact that the cinema, and cinemas, are being held in such low regard by so many, including those who claim to like it and enjoy it. There seems to be something inherent in the art form itself which puts it in the position where it is not considered proper art. The widespread belief that a film adapted from a book is always, by default, inferior is part of this disregard of cinema as art. A book and a film are two distinct things and not easy to compare unless you only consider the script; judging the film on how much its story departs from its source material, which is somewhat like judging Picasso as a painter based on how closely his paintings resemble the objects he has depicted. But how would you compare the acting or the camera movements in a film with the novel the film is based on? It is also the case that a large number of films, maybe even the majority, are adaptations of novels and short stories, yet most of these novels and short stories are long forgotten because they were not particularly good, whereas the films based upon them often are. It is safe to assume that those who think that the book is always better than the film have not given the issue much thought, but only think so because they for some reason believe that literature is self-evidently superior to cinema.


These days companies, journalists, critics, scholars, and ordinary viewers, refer to films and series as "content" and those who watch it as "consumers". It was perhaps inevitable, as this mindset has been with us for decades without necessarily expressed so bluntly and by so many. If you refer to something as "content" you are degrading and diminishing it, and, by extension, you are also doing the same to those who watch it, including yourself. When the accountants at Disney refer to whatever they offer as "content to satisfy consumer demand" they are no different from McDonald's. If you are fine with the monolithic position Disney has over moving images, it suggests that you would also be fine if McDonald's had a similar dominating position within the world of food; that if you went out to eat on the town, 90% of all available restaurants served only Big Macs and McFeasts. But if that thought scares you, then you should also be scared of the reality that is Disney's current hold over the world of films.

I am worried about the future of cinemas, and of cinema itself. The threat is threefold: the immediate risks of cinemas all over the world going under; the dominance of Disney; and the disregard for cinema as an art form that so many of its producers have, as do much of the audience, including critics and academics. But I will continue to defend it, and to delight in it.

The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich 1971)

The radio show host I quoted in the lede also suggested that "younger generations" do not have any "nostalgic" relationship of going to the cinema and therefore do not have any reason for doing so, as if that was the only reason why anyone would go there. (Tell that to all the kids who have been filling up cinemas to watch the Avengers saving the universe.) I sometimes get the impression that for a lot of people, doing anything that could also be done before 2010 is somehow suspect and can only be explained by nostalgia.

Friday 13 November 2020

Discarding a term

At work the other day I read a new book, Postfeminist Whiteness - Problematising Melancholic Burden in Contemporary Hollywood by Kendra Marston, and it reminded me of a common but odd phenomenon within film studies. The last chapter was about Sofia Coppola, and the chapter began with an overview of the history of the "auteur" for a couple of pages, mentioning all the usual suspects from Truffaut and Barthes to Sarris and Kael. How come people still feel the need to do this? Everybody in the field knows this story. If Marston felt a need to call Coppola an auteur she could just do it, there is no need to explain the term, provide its history, and mention the criticism that has been made against it. No other term of this kind is treated in this way. (Imagine if each use of the term "genre" was accompanied with a long review of what has been said for and against it, beginning with Aristotle.)

Another peculiar thing about the term is that many books/articles about this or that director often begins with the writer dismissing the concept of the auteur, and enthusiastically claiming that "we know from the writings of Roland Barthes that the idea of an author should be buried" or something similar, yet the rest of the book/article is the conventional kind of auteur study that you would think, given what they wrote in the introduction, they do not believe is valid or relevant.

I think the reason for this is that they are scared of being seen as old-fashioned, with "romantic ideas of authorship," so they want to pretend that they are not like that, that they are wise and knowledgeable. But it is untenable, as all efforts to eat your cake and have it are. If you do not believe in authorships and oeuvres, you should not write a book or article about the style, themes and concerns about a certain filmmaker, discussing their career as a whole. But if you want to do that, you need to accept the fact that this is what you do, and not hedge your writings by showing you have heard of Barthes and Foucault. (That a short, provocative text for a conceptual multimedia art magazine (Aspen), which is what Barthes's "The Death of the Author" initially was, and which he would quickly move away from in different ways, still seems to be regarded as containing some essential truths about art and writers, which we must always refer to, is quite absurd.)

It is all so pointless though. It is not romantic and starry-eyed to believe that human beings have personal agency and ideas, thoughts and visions, and that, when they make an artwork, these ideas, thoughts and visions can be expressed in that artwork. That is just common sense, and all this hedging and throat clearing is tiresome and annoying, a sign of insecurities. None of it would be needed if the word auteur was just dropped. This is what I mean by the title of this post, "Discarding a term".

It is also common that you will read sentences like "Federico Fellini was an auteur in the true sense of the word, he wrote and directed his own films and had complete control over them." But this is not the true sense of the word auteur. Many directors, such as John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock (to name just five), do not write all of their scripts, yet are usually considered auteurs in the 1950s sense, which logically should be regarded as the "true sense". And it is almost impossible for any individual to have "complete control" over a film. Sufficient control is enough. Another issue is that people today often claim that auteur films are the opposite of genre films, even though the French critics of the 1950s, as well as Andrew Sarris, emphasised that many of those they considered auteurs worked within traditional genres.

These are examples of the fact that few know exactly what the term means, even though they know its conventional history. And this is another reason why we are better off giving up on using it. I do not think it serves a purpose.

For the first, say, 60 years of filmmaking the word auteur was not in use, yet the common view of films and filmmaking was not that different from what it is now. Films were advertised with their stars, and/or directors, and/or studios, critics wrote about the styles and themes of directors, and in general it was the director who was considered the most prominent person in the filmmaking process (with plenty of variations and nuances, just like today). It is a mistake to think that the views of directors changed in the 1950s. In this regard, the conventional history is a distortion.

When I began writing my PhD thesis ten years ago I wrestled with this. How should I approach Hasse Ekman? Should I do the historical overview of views on authorship? Should I call him an auteur? I did not think calling him an auteur was particularly meaningful as most directors can be called that, and since Ekman often directed, wrote, produced, and also played the lead, it was self-evident that he too would be. I tried to give it some more nuance by distinguishing between "internal" and "external" auteurs, with internals being filmmakers, like him, whose presence are embodied in their films because they are being autobiographical or because they appear in them. Other directors with no such presence would be external auteurs. But this was already a fuzzy distinction when I came up with it, and not one I have pursued. I did do a historical overview, but not the conventional one, as in Postfeminist Whiteness, but one that showed how the director traditionally, or at least since the 1910s, has usually been regarded in much the same way as today.

Given how the term, whenever I come across it, is either unnecessary or presented in an ahistorical way, I have become more and more alienated from it. It has been a long time since I referred to a director as an auteur. There is no need. Calling a director a director is enough, regardless of whether they write their scripts or not. Critics and others were doing fine in earlier decades without using the term auteur, and so would we today. But if you do feel compelled to call somebody an auteur, just do it, and do not spend pages of contextualisation and disclaimers.



For an earlier piece by me about auteurs and academia, you can read this:

This article about Andrew Sarris is also related:

Although I singled out Postfeminist Whiteness, this has nothing to do with this particular book, it was just a new example among hundreds of others. I think it is quite possible that it was not Marston but an overzealous supervisor or editor who demanded that historical overview.