Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Choose up sides

Several moves ago, I had a very small book of Leigh Hunt essays. I would love to know what became of it because it contained an essay that dealt with the idea of not comparing things to make a point. Hunt’s example was that he’d no desire to hear someone prove to him the relative lack of value of a kitten because it was inferior to a puppy. The idea was that we should continue to like that which is likable in anything without trying to render it unlikable by pointing out its inferiority to something else. I like that. I think it’s a swell idea. I also think—human nature being what it is—that it’s an unlikely idea to catch on. Nowhere does it seem less likely to me than with movie fans.

This is actually something related to a “Screening Room” that’s in the works on the topic of Chaplin vs. Keaton, but it was brought home by a link— http://chronicle.com/article/The-Death-of-Film-Criticism/64352/?sid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en —posted by one of our regular commenters that directed us to the article “TheDeath of Film Criticism.” Among other thngs brought up in this fascinating piece was the now legendary battle between film critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael—and the creation of champions for each camp (known as “Sarristes” and “Paulettes”).

Without getting too deeply involved in this aesthetic dust-up, it mostly comes down to a basic disagreement over Sarris’ promoting the “auteur theory,” which holds that the director is the real author of a film. Kael was so not 100 percent sold on this that she went so far as to assail the unassailable by attempting to wrest the credit for Citizen Kane (1941) away from Orson Welles and dole it out to his co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and cinematographer Gregg Toland. This was first an article called “Raising Kane” and later became The Citizen Kane Book. In that later incarnation, it became personally noteworthy as the first book I ever threw across the room. It also provoked angry print attacks on Kael from such diverse sources as Peter Bogdanovich and Ken Russell. (Kael is perhaps unique in having managed to piss off—for more reasons than this—Orson Welles, Bogdanovich, Russell, and George Cukor in one lifetime.)

Looked at today—assuming you can find a copy (I suspect mine is a landfill somewhere in Florida)—the book seems rather silly. But that’s hardly the point here. What is notable is the way in which Sarris and Kael raised the art of film criticism by being at loggerheads with each other. Films—or movies (Kael disliked the term “film” as being “elitist”)—were being discussed in broad terms as important in something other than obscure academic journals that almost no one read. That this dovetailed with the nostalgia boom of the second half of the 1960s through the mid-1970s and the age (covering roughly the same era) of the director as superstar made it all the more interesting and pertinent.

I was never really a Sarriste, though I’m much nearer that than a Paulette—probably because she simply hated too many films that I loved. That said, there are inherent flaws in the auteur theory, because it tends to get silly when applied too broadly. I like a surprising number of movies directed by William Beaudine—ranging from his 1934 W.C. Fields opus The Old-Fashioned Way to the loopy delights of his 1944 Bela Lugosi Monogrammer Voodoo Man—but, apart from basic competence, I see nothing that makes a case for a Beaudine style. I doubt he could be said to be the author of either movie. I doubt he would want to be thought of as the author of Voodoo Man. Indeed, I’ve always suspected that the only reason those Lugosi Monogrammers were made was that no one was paying any attention—and that one day someone in authority happened to stumble onto a soundstage, got an eyeful and said, “Stop this immediately.”

However, the whole Sarris/Kael dichotomy is, I think, symptomatic of the world of movies in a much broader sense. It seems to me that it’s pretty much a case that whenever two or more are gathered in the name of film, fights will break out and camps will be formed. The history of film history is riddled with this. You can start by looking at it in the broadest of all sweeping strokes—highbrow vs. lobrow. This goes way back to the 1920s with images of cineastes crowded into smoke-filled basements staring at dubiously acquired prints of Sergei Eisenstein movies in rapt attention verging on the worshipful, while decrying the baseness of popular film. Somewhere around this same time, the world of the art film fanciers broadedned to include German movies—so much, in fact, that it crossed over into popular film. There’s even a Will Rogers short film (I think it’s the 1924 two-reeler Big Moments from Little Pictures, but don’t hold me to that) where Will—via a title card—tells the audience, “If you don’t like this movie, I’ll put a beard on it and call it German and you’ll call it ‘art.’” (The quote is from memory.)

This divide basically exists today. I know a few critics who won’t go near movies they consider beneath them. The father of fellow movie reviewer Luke Y. Thompson once told me that I was a high-brow critic, while his son was more of middle-brow. I argued that I wasn’t sure that anyone who gave a good review to Eurotrip (2004) could be called “high-brow,” but he was unshaken in his assessment. (The fact that Luke later told me that he didn’t see the problem because Eurotrip was OK does nothing to settle this.) I don’t actually consider myself particularly high-brow—except to the degree that I consider the Wayans Brothers, Friedberg and Seltzer, Michael Bay, Zack Snyder and Roland Emmerich (to name a few) a blight on the cinematic landscape.

It goes deeper, however, depending on how far you want to take it in terms of specificity. That brings me back to the whole Chaplin vs. Keaton question. Theoretically, you have to choose a side here. I’m not sure why—except for the fact that it became fashionable at one point to use Keaton as a handy cudgel against the long-held belief that Chaplin was one of the true geniuses of film. Some of this stems from the hangover of Chaplin being branded a communist because he chose to sail back to England—where he’d gone to promote the opening of Limelight in 1952—rather than testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (This so dogged Chaplin that as recently as the late 1960s you can find refernces to his supposed Marxist leanings in ill-researched nostalgia books.)  More of it, however, has to do with Chaplin’s sentimentality and tendency to veer toward—oh, here we go again—high-brow subject matter in his later films. Against this, we have the argument that Keaton seems more modern (lacking sentimentality) and less pretentious (not high-brow).

It helps that Keaton looks like a victim. He’s the perfect picture of a once powerful force in film, who got chewed up and spit out by MGM, who took over the control of his movies at the dawn of sound and ruined him. That’s not wrong—though personal problems and alcohol played a part in this. In any case, this was hardly Chaplin’s fault. Chaplin invested wisely, kept control of everything he made from 1918 on and had his own studio—and he doled out his later work very sparingly, making only five movies from 1931 through 1952. None of this makes Keaton better than Chaplin. Personally, this is no contest thing for me. When I watch Keaton I’m impressed by how clever he is, but I rarely laugh (actually, I find Harold Lloyd just as clever and funnier). When I watch Chaplin, I’m completely immersed in the world of his films. Put me down as a Chaplinist and not a Keatonian.

In a not dissimilar vein, there’s the age old Boris Karloff vs. Bela Lugosi grudge match. These are trickier waters, because Karloff is the survivor in career terms and Lugosi is the victim. Again, Lugosi—like Keaton—is partly responsible for his own predicament. He sold himself short on Dracula (1931), being so desperate to repeat his Broadway success that he worked for less money than the romantic leads! Universal would remember this and take advantage of it for the next seventeen years with “special” contracts (no prizes for guessing from whom they were special). He then compounded this by not digging his heels in and insisting on playing the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Instead, he was relieved when the role went to Karloff, helping to create his own monster in the bargain. Similar career choices—he seems to have never turned down a contract—and alcohol and drugs did the rest.

In the realm of classic horror fandom—which is all too often distinct from film in general with many of its adherents having no familiarity with anything outside the genre—it’s virtually impossible not to take sides. For a lot of reasons—some which probably don’t make sense—I’m a pure Lugosiphile and not a Karloffian (or should that be Karlovian?). I recognize Karloff’s greatness and admire many of his performances—none perhaps more than his silky villainy opposite the sympathetic Lugosi in The Black Cat (1934)—but he doesn’t emerge the favorite for me at any point.

I’ll leave my rationale at its simplest level. When Karloff was in a stinker (and he made his share), he contemptuously walked through the performance, giving the filmmakers what they perhaps deserved, but cheating his fans in the bargain. When Lugosi was in the same—very frequent—position, he still gave the role everything he had. Whether this was for the fans or simply the result of an ego that felt he could breathe life into anything by the sheer force of his will, I have no idea. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is on the screen—and a bad Lugosi picture is still fascinating to sit through, while a bad Karloff one is just a chore. Think not? Try sitting through Karloff in The Climax (1944). Then try Lugosi in the same year’s Voodoo Man.

You can play the same game with the question of Universal Pictures vs. Hammer Films. I’ll certainly concede that Hammer never made anything quite as bad as Jungle Woman (1944) or The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), though The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) probably comes close. At the same time, they never scaled the heights of The Black Cat (1934) or Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  (Actually, I wouldn’t trade any of the original 12 Universal horrors for the best Hammer ever made.)

For me, the most difficult dichotomy of all is also the most rarefied split. You have to be pretty firmly entrenched in cinematic history to even have an opinion on whether you prefer Rouben Mamoulian or Ernst Lubitsch. Even then, it’s one of the sillier splits. Even though Mamoulian might get some grief for having directed Silk Stockings (1957) and thereby daring to remake the acknowledged Lubitsch classic Ninothcka (1939), this really comes down to one movie—Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932).  And the problem? Well, that’s easy. Lubitsch had already made two musicals starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald—The Love Parade (1929) and One Hour with You (1932)—and would make one more—The Merry Widow (1934)—when Mamoulian agreed to take on this project. As a result, he feels like an interloper.

The only thing is Love Me Tonight just happens to be better than the Lubitsch musicals surrounding it. To compound matters, Chevalier himself was delighted with it (and he didn’t even much like making movies) and more than a few critics have gone on record as this being the musical Lubitsch always seemed to be wanting to make, yet never did. Well, the Lubitsch camp is having none of this, and so Love Me Tonight becomes a punching bag for their ire—with Mamoulian coming into it in general by extension. (Peter Bogdanovich once got so worked up in praising Lubitsch that he felt compelled to drag the 1936 George Stevens Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time into the fray, noting that both it and Love Me Tonight, while highly prized in “some quarters,” seem “tawdry” up against the real McLubitsch. I don’t even know what Swing Time has to do with this!)

My problem is that I agree that Love Me Tonight is better than Lubitsch’s musicals. I’d go so far as to say that the most musical film Lubitsch ever made was Trouble in Paradise (1932), which isn’t a musical, but feels like one with its heavily interpolated musical score, and it has the musical sensibility that his actual musicals lack. However, I love Lubitsch’s musicals, too. (Well, maybe not The Merry Widow.) As a result, I’m in neither camp on this one. Or maybe I’m in both—a Lubitschite and a Mamoulianist. I don’t think this is a punishable offense, though there’s always the chance that Bogdanovich might pop me in the eye with his ascot over it if the opportunity arose.

So here I am a sort of Sarriste maybe high-brow Chaplinist Lugosiphile Lubitschite Mamoulianist. If that confuses you, just think how I feel. Maybe I’ll just go watch Eurotrip and forget about the whole thing.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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29 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Choose up sides

  1. Uncle Charley

    There are worse places to forget about the day–or park your car–than Eurotrip.

    As for my own still-developing classification as a film watcher, I can’t really tack on any last names. I’m either a hopefulist or Why-would-you-do-thatist. There are scads of directors out there with the clarity of vision and delivery to contribute mind-numbingly good narrative to the world…who keep making nigh-unwatchable material.

    Zack Snyder certainly makes that list, as much as the geek in me hates to say it. Given the right marriage of his form and the appropriate content, I have faith in the man’s abilities. That just hasn’t happened yet. I won’t go so far as to call his material dross, but so far only the quieter moments of his Dawn of the Dead remake have stopped me in my tracks to think “something very big could happen here one day.”

    This was also the attitude I had concerning Martin Scorsese at first introduction, because Murphy’s law somehow dictated that I’d not get my hands on anything aside from Raging Bull until paying a coke fiend $12 to come into a film studies class and threaten my professor if he didn’t move on with our class’ syllabus. After a great deal of consideration, teeth grinding, drinking and acceptance, I now have no trouble saying that it’s perhaps the most technically brilliant work in the Western world. I also have no problem threatening to throw people out of a closed window if they seriously suggest watching it with me again, because after innumerable viewings and writings on the subject, it’s still a stretch for me to find any redeeming value in its story. Can I make the stretch happen? Certainly. I’m a bastard. That should not suggest, however, that a little bit of my soul doesn’t wither away every time I do so.

    Since then I’ve moved into a couple of communities that had respectable selections of movies on hand, internet shopping became a legitimate business enterprise that no longer terrified intelligent consumers, and netflix has taken to keeping me warm at night. I’m now well aware that Mr. Scorsese set his formidable abilities on more worthy subject matter before and after Raging Bull. I sleep a little better seeing that there is at least that amount of fairness in the world.

    And that’s where I draw my line. I’m a movie monk, silently praying that a divine hand will place form and content together at a time and place where I may see them do their little dance, knowing that each alone is fairly useless. When this happens I give thanks. Then I go out into the world and preach the good word of a good movie, afterward harshly criticizing those works that blaspheme all the good that has come before them. The really fun part remains debating with others like me what is canonical and apocryphal. It’s a good thing they let monks drink beer.

  2. luluthebeast

    I’m mostly confused about it all, except that I really liked THE MERRY WIDOW.

    Or maybe it’s just that metal plate in my head.

  3. Kevin F.

    I like the idea of a “Beaudine style.” In fact, The Beaudine Styles would be a good name for a band.

    Chaplin/Lugosi over here. Never cared much for the Kael/Sarris split (though I’m young and it was a tired argument even before I was born). I’d rather throw in my lot with Raymond Durgnat, to my mind the most unjustly undervalued of film critics. Hope to see his writings resurrected soon. He had the ability to make the strangest (at times most unsettling, but usually most insightful) connections.

  4. Ken Hanke

    There are worse places to forget about the day—or park your car—than Eurotrip

    I maintain if there was a shred of sanity in this world “Scotty Doesn’t Know” would have gotten an Oscar for Best Song that year.

    There are scads of directors out there with the clarity of vision and delivery to contribute mind-numbingly good narrative to the world…who keep making nigh-unwatchable material

    I’d need some specifics here to know how much I agree or don’t agree with this. I also think it’s hard to know whether one’s expecting too much from filmmakers they generally like or if one’s cutting too much slack or at least looking at the films differently. In this second — and by extension third — regard, I mean that a film that offers very little to the average viewer can have a much greater significance to someone who is intimately familiar with the body of work. For instance, I don’t think Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman (1935) is a very good film, no matter how terrific it looks, but I think it’s essential to understanding Sternberg. As someone who is very familiar with Tim Burton’s work, I can actually make a case for Planet of the Apes that puts it in line with his other films on a thematic basis. That doesn’t, however, mean I think it’s especially good (though I do find it less childishly jokey than the original).

    Zack Snyder certainly makes that list, as much as the geek in me hates to say it. Given the right marriage of his form and the appropriate content, I have faith in the man’s abilities. That just hasn’t happened yet.

    I don’t see it. For me, he peaked with Dawn of the Dead and it’s been downhill from there. His movies have gotten bigger and more repellent, but they haven’t gotten better.

    The really fun part remains debating with others like me what is canonical and apocryphal

    That gets tricky. It gets even trickier when you start dealing with filmmakers who enjoyed one specific period of greatness, but kept making movies long after that. This is especially true in the studio system era, but it happens a lot and it’s hard to work around without considering how this is affected by shifting power structures and changing tastes. I suspect those factors play heavily in the cases of, for instance, Lubitsch, Mamoulian, Sternberg and James Whale. They’re all at their peak from roughly 1926 through 1935. Certainly, they didn’t all burn-out at about the same time, but whatever allowed them their creative freedom had changed.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I really liked THE MERRY WIDOW

    A lot of people do. I try it every so often to see if it’s grown on me. I know it’s partly the score. I don’t care for the songs, but I’m not wild about the songs in The Smiling Lieutenant either and I really like the film. I really suspect that something got lost by making the film at MGM rather than Paramount.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Never cared much for the Kael/Sarris split (though I’m young and it was a tired argument even before I was born). I’d rather throw in my lot with Raymond Durgnat, to my mind the most unjustly undervalued of film critics

    The problem with that is that Durgnat is too specialized and too esoteric. The greatness (if that it can be called) of Sarris and Kael lies in the fact that it popularized the idea of serious writing about film. In itself, it may not be important (I think Sarris is much more important than Kael), but what it opened up was pretty phenomenal — especially if you know how very poor the state of serious criticism was prior to that.

    If you crack what defines “the Beaudine style,” I want you to take a whack at Phil Rosen.

  7. Uncle Charley

    I don’t see it. For me, [Zack Snyder] peaked with Dawn of the Dead and it’s been downhill from there. His movies have gotten bigger and more repellent, but they haven’t gotten better.

    Considered objectively, good death metal is really just a bunch of Tchaikovsky played fast and entirely too loud. Look at the notes on a page one day and tell me you don’t need a graduate student from Berkeley to help you decipher it.

    By the same token, Zack Snyder’s finest moments are those wherein he can present people being people. Their quiet moments of reflection and dialogue force the viewer to consider their own hypothetical actions given similar circumstances happening in the film. There’s just an awful lot of distortion to wade through before getting to that. I have to believe that one day he’ll get tired of spending 93% of his budget on special effects and instead craft an adaptation of Wives and Daughters that will daily remind me to call my family to tell them they’re loved. Given the (admittedly few) crystalline moments of emotion he’s managed to wring from NOBODIES, I think it’s possible…even if only a fantasy.

    At least part of these assertions on my part come from the most expert handling of adapted material I’ve ever witnessed: the opening credits of Watchmen. In five minutes, half a novel’s worth of information that fleshed out an alternate reality and the principle players in it that even made Terry Gilliam scratch his head and ask “how do we get that across?” wooshed by with no dialogue, satisfying the die-hard fans of the source material as well as those who had no idea what the hell was going on en route to the cinema.

    All that said, I’ll freely admit here that there’s still no excuse for 300.

  8. Ken Hanke

    At least part of these assertions on my part come from the most expert handling of adapted material I’ve ever witnessed: the opening credits of Watchmen.

    Duly noted, granted and conceded. I even remarked favorably on this when I reviewed the film. In fact, it’s so much better than anything else in Snyder’s filmography that I wonder how much of it was somebody else’s doing. (Oooh, I sound like Pauline Kael on Kane, don’t I?) Still, fine as this is, there’s another 150 minutes to be accounted for. I’m not saying he mightn’t one day make a good, even great, film. I’m only saying the evidence for suspecting this seems pretty thin to me.

  9. Chip Kaufmann

    Standing firmly in the middle of the road (as I often do), I prefer to look at both sides and take the best they have to offer.

    I take more from Kael than I do from Sarris and I prefer Chaplin to Keaton although I hold them both in high esteem. The same goes for Karloff and Lugosi with Karloff winning out because, like Chaplin, his performances contain more elements of pathos. He also has a better lisp.

    While the Universal 12 are in a class by themselves, Hammer, before Anthony Hinds (their version of Val Lewton) left in 1969, turned out at least as many high quality releases but being English Gothic and in color as opposed to German Expressionist and in B&W, it’s rather like comparing apples and oranges. I do think SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA was better than their 3 previous Dracula films thanks to Freddie Jones’ scene with Peter Cushing.

    As for Mamoulian -vs- Lubitsch, the latter makes me laugh more while the former dazzles me with his technique. Both have their place depending on the mood I’m in.

    Well so much for not taking sides, the Oscars are a few hours away and it’s time for me to get ready. Should I watch a Chaplin or a Keaton, a Karloff or a Lugosi, a Universal or a Hammer, or perhaps a Lubitsch or a Mamoulian? Perhaps the best thing to do would be to revisit THE CITIZEN KANE BOOK and see if Andrew Sarris approves.

  10. Is that a photo of Andrew Sarris up the top there? He looks like Armin Mueller-Stahl!

    I can’t say I’m a fan of the auteur theory, but I’m perfectly happy to side with anything that pisses off Pauline Kael.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I take more from Kael than I do from Sarris

    I suspect my problem with Kael stems to a great degree from the fact that she hated far too many filmmakers and films that I love without question. I give her credit, however, for being the one voice that kept saying that, no, A Night at the Opera wasn’t the Marx Brothers’ best film — until people finally gave the Paramount films another look and found out she was right.

    While the Universal 12 are in a class by themselves, Hammer, before Anthony Hinds (their version of Val Lewton) left in 1969, turned out at least as many high quality releases but being English Gothic and in color as opposed to German Expressionist and in B&W, it’s rather like comparing apples and oranges

    Yet the comparison is inevitable. One of my many problems with the Hammers is a lack of much substance. They rarely — though sometimes — get past the level of garishly colored fairy tales where things go “Boo!” And, for me, some of them are pretty tedious affairs.

    As for Mamoulian -vs- Lubitsch, the latter makes me laugh more while the former dazzles me with his technique

    Well, Lubitsch primarily made comedies and musical comedies. Mamoulian’s filmography is more diverse. At the same time, Lubitsch’s 1929-1933 output has more than its share of pretty dazzling technique.

    Should I watch a Chaplin or a Keaton, a Karloff or a Lugosi, a Universal or a Hammer, or perhaps a Lubitsch or a Mamoulian?

    This is what double features were made for. And in the case of Karloff and Lugosi, you can always go for The Black Cat and get both of them and dazzling technique in one 65 minute package!

  12. Ken Hanke

    Is that a photo of Andrew Sarris up the top there? He looks like Armin Mueller-Stahl

    Yes. And I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right.

    I can’t say I’m a fan of the auteur theory, but I’m perfectly happy to side with anything that pisses off Pauline Kael

    And yet you tacitly subscribe to it every time you credit the director with a film.

  13. And yet you tacitly subscribe to it every time you credit the director with a film.

    I do that either for the sake of convenience and brevity (it would be most cumbersome to refer to Batman Returns as Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, Danny Elfman, Michel Pfieffer, Daniel Waters, Michael Gough, Wesley Strick and Stefan Czapsky’s Batman Returns, even though they all creatively contributed to the final product) or because I’m looking at it as part of a director’s body of work. If I refer to Casablanca as a Humphrey Bogart picture, I’m not crediting him as the author of the film, any more than when I refer to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a Michel Gondry film. After all, it’s also a Charlie Kaufman film, a Jim Carrey film, etc.

    I don’t think we have to credit the director with authorship of a movie in order to discuss his or her stylistic/thematic preoccupations, or the film’s relevance to other pictures they directed.
    The directors that come the closest, in my mind, to possible consideration for being an author of their films are Russ Meyer and Robert Rodriguez.

  14. Chip Kaufmann

    “One of my many problems with the Hammers is a lack of much substance. They rarely—though sometimes—get past the level of garishly colored fairy tales where things go “Boo!”…

    …I happen to enjoy garishly colored fairy tales which is part of their appeal to me. I actually like the non-Cushing/Lee films better. CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, THE REPTILE, QUATERMASS & THE PIT are personal favorites. X THE UNKNOWN and STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (shamelessly ripped off by Steven Spielberg for TEMPLE OF DOOM) are a trip too but they’re in B&W.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I don’t think we have to credit the director with authorship of a movie in order to discuss his or her stylistic/thematic preoccupations, or the film’s relevance to other pictures they directed.
    The directors that come the closest, in my mind, to possible consideration for being an author of their films are Russ Meyer and Robert Rodriguez

    I very rarely disagree with you, but in this case, I have to make a huge exception. Your overall argument doesn’t work for me simply because there are — to take one example — other Tim Burton films that very much relate to his style and his thematic preoccupations. On the other hand, there are no Michael Keaton movies that can make any such claim. I’m not discounting the input of others, merely stating that most of the time — there are definite exceptions — the major imprint is that of the director.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I actually like the non-Cushing/Lee films better. CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, THE REPTILE, QUATERMASS & THE PIT are personal favorites

    I wouldn’t argue that in general, though Curse of the Werewolf is the film that I was most thinking of when I used the word “tedious.” In the realm of Cushing and Lee, however, there are Hound of the Baskervilles, Brides of Dracula (one of the few Hammers with some subtext), and The Gorgon rank high with me. I’m not really arguing against these films, so much as I’m saying there’s less meat on them than the Laemmle era Universals.

  17. I’m not discounting the input of others, merely stating that most of the time—there are definite exceptions—the major imprint is that of the director.
    A) That doesn’t make him the author of the movie. My point is that movies aren’t a medium like prose, poetry or songwriting where you can say any one person is the author of the work. There can be an author of a screenplay, but not of a film, unless they not only wrote the film, but shot it, edited it, produced it, scored it and played all the parts.
    B) Why the director and not the writer? After all, the director doesn’t come up with the plot, the characters, the settings, the dialogue or the sequence of events. Of course, some directors are but that’s in their capacities are writers. I would never claim a writer as the auteur of a film, even someone like Aaron Sorkin or Charlie Kaufman whose creative voices are usually the ones that stand out in any project they’re involved in.

    On the other hand, there are no Michael Keaton movies that can make any such claim.
    Maybe not Keaton, but you could say that about, say, The Marx Brothers, who neither wrote nor directed any of their films.

  18. LYT

    I would like to think that ANY critic, highbrow or lowbrow, would reject the Friedberg/Seltzer canon. After SPY HARD, I’m astonished they ever got a second shot, let alone a third, fourth, fifth.

    And then I remember Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly.

    As for the Wayans brothers, I think there is a distinction to be made. Keenan’s “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” surpasses anything made by his other siblings.

    I would submit that being more highbrow than I may not be that hard…but then again, I did vote enthusiastically with the majority of LA Film critics to give Yolande Moreau our Best Actress award for SERAPHINE.

    (Must admit I did not want to see the movie initially.)

  19. Ken Hanke

    A) That doesn’t make him the author of the movie. My point is that movies aren’t a medium like prose, poetry or songwriting where you can say any one person is the author of the work. There can be an author of a screenplay, but not of a film, unless they not only wrote the film, but shot it, edited it, produced it, scored it and played all the parts

    Well, you’re being too literal minded and taking the term too much to heart. By your definition, even the author of a book isn’t the author, because a book has gone through many hands before it reaches the reader, most notably the editor or editors — and possibly the publisher. (Not to mention your friends and family who made this suggestion or that one, or caught this error or another one.) No book or anything else is touched by only one person — unless, of course, you never let anyone read it and you publish and print it yourself. I’ve been fairly lucky in not having been through too many heavy-handed editors, though I’d say that my Tim Burton book is maybe 80% the book I wrote — and that might be generous. In any case, what you’re saying is not what the auteur theory actually puts forth.

    B) Why the director and not the writer? After all, the director doesn’t come up with the plot, the characters, the settings, the dialogue or the sequence of events. Of course, some directors are but that’s in their capacities are writers. I would never claim a writer as the auteur of a film, even someone like Aaron Sorkin or Charlie Kaufman whose creative voices are usually the ones that stand out in any project they’re involved in

    Because — and even most writers will tell you this — it’s not a writers’ medium. That’s both a glib simplification and a simple truth. (I sometimes tend to think you’re more looking at writing than at films as film.) And where do you land if the writer and the director are the same person? Then you have another consideration — and it doesn’t stop there, because if the director and the producer are the same person, the writer is generally being directed from the onset by the producer-director who’s calling the shots. With powerful directors, this even applies to a lot of studio system work. A director can change a scene, replace an actor, reject a musical score, ask for this or that change along the way, so ultimately what you’re getting is what the director wants — in broad, general terms.

    Maybe not Keaton, but you could say that about, say, The Marx Brothers, who neither wrote nor directed any of their films

    The problem is that the auteur idea was never meant to be one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t apply straight across the board and the auteur needn’t be the director. It can be whoever has the strongest controlling voice on a project, i.e., the one whose fingerprints are all over a thing. There are many cases where the producer has been claimed as the auteur. Buster Keaton is generally considered the creator of his films even though he had directors. I can make a case that George Arliss — an actor — was the auteur of his movies. At the same time, it would be hard not to note that the direction of Duck Soup is what makes it stand out in the Marx Brothers’ oeuvre.

    The problem comes from the shorthand use of the possessive on films where it doesn’t belong — go back to the absurd notion of a “William Beaudine style.” Factor into that the rush by directors to get that possessive or “a film by” notion applied to them. By the end of the 1970s it was becoming meaningless and was little more than a contractual agreement. It happenened in the 20s and 30s, too, but the term was different. “An Ernst Lubitsch Production” didn’t mean Lubitsch was the producer, it meant “An Ernst Lubitsch Film.” (The IMDb never has grasped this and on early talkies where “a so and so production” is the only such credit, they’ll claim the director is uncreduted.) Somehow or other directors like George Fitzmaurice wrangled this kind of billing, making it less meaningful then, too.

    The other problem stems from the idea that auteur denotes quality. It doesn’t. It merely denotes a signature. Edward D. Wood and Hugo Haas are clearly auteurs and their films suck, but you’re not going to mistake them for anyone else’s films. (Nor do I imagine anyone else would want you to.)

  20. Ken Hanke

    As for the Wayans brothers, I think there is a distinction to be made. Keenan’s “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” surpasses anything made by his other siblings

    I’d concede that quite happily, but there’s been so much Wayans water under the bridge in the meantime that…well, you know what I mean.

    I would submit that being more highbrow than I may not be that hard…but then again, I did vote enthusiastically with the majority of LA Film critics to give Yolande Moreau our Best Actress award for SERAPHINE

    As long as you weren’t arguing for Zoe Saldana. Really, I wasn’t claiming to be more highbrow than you. I don’t even think of myself as especially highbrow.

    (Must admit I did not want to see the movie initially.)

    Neither did I. Further evidence that I am not highbrow.

  21. LYT

    Actually, I argued for Charlotte Gainsbourg in ANTICHRIST. When that went nowhere, I voted for my second choice, Moreau.

  22. Ken Hanke

    Actually, I argued for Charlotte Gainsbourg in ANTICHRIST.

    Still haven’t seen that, so I don’t know if that was highbrow or perverse.

  23. brianpaige

    When it comes to the Sarris/Kael argument I don’t think there is a wrong or right answer. There are great films that come from the studio system, and there are great auteur films.

    I am easily a Lugosi fan over Karloff since Karloff is kind of a dull, mannered actor. He simply lacks Lugosi’s charisma. However, Bela certainly phoned it in several times…Bowery at Midnight for instance. I’d say Tod Slaughter is the one old school horror star that truly didn’t phone it in. That dude was a crazy nut in EVERYTHING, haha. I’d probably watch a bad Slaughter flick from 1935-40 over either a bad Karloff or Lugosi flick.

    When it comes to Chaplin or Keaton, I dunno. I’ve always liked Chaplin’s shorts but his features are so maudlin that it becomes preachy. I actually would probably prefer Lloyd over either. But then again, Ken, you know I’m a talkie comedy fan more than silent.

    (Speaking of which, I should be writing my pre code paper in the next few days…when it’s done I can email it to you if you’d like)

  24. Ken Hanke

    There are great films that come from the studio system, and there are great auteur films

    And there are great auteur films that come from the studio system.

    However, Bela certainly phoned it in several times…Bowery at Midnight for instance.

    Oh, I’m not on board with either the statement or the example.

    I’d say Tod Slaughter is the one old school horror star that truly didn’t phone it in. That dude was a crazy nut in EVERYTHING, haha. I’d probably watch a bad Slaughter flick from 1935-40 over either a bad Karloff or Lugosi flick

    I’m a pretty big supporter of Slaughter. In fact, so far as I can tell the article I did on him for Films in Review (which I believe was reprinted in Filmfax) back in 1987 was the first article on his films. He’d rated a paragraph in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror and a mention in Everson’s The Bad Guys, but that’s all I’ve found. That said, there are a few Slaughter pictures that are pretty tough sledding. They may not be as deadly as Karloff’s Juggernaut or The Climax, but I’d rather tackle a Lugosi Monogrammer over a few of them.

    I’ve always liked Chaplin’s shorts but his features are so maudlin that it becomes preachy

    I keep reading that, but I’ve never found anything other than possibly The Kid that I’d call maudlin. Preachy? Perhaps. It probably helps that I’m usually in accord with whatever he’s preaching about.

    But then again, Ken, you know I’m a talkie comedy fan more than silent

    So am I if it comes to that, though I can make an exception for Chaplin (even if I am including his talkies in my assessment).

    (Speaking of which, I should be writing my pre code paper in the next few days…when it’s done I can email it to you if you’d like)

    Yes, I’d be very interested to read it.

  25. Ken Hanke

    Karloff…..dull?

    PIFFLE!

    Sit through a quadruple feature of Juggernaut, The Ape, The Climax and Voodoo Island and piffle that.

  26. Ken Hanke

    I’ve got your piffle right here!

    Well, it’s heartening to see someone take up the late Richard Valley’s Piffle Mantle at least.

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