Monday, April 10, 2023

The Studio System Redux

I’m thinking about defending the studio system against promiscuous auteurism. I suspect the studio system may be our best chance to maintain some semblance of quality in film by acting as a gatekeeper, a bestower of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, an imprimatur that narrows our viewing options to an almost manageable way too many now that streaming has kicked into high gear. That’s a role critics have played in the past and the auteur theory was the perfect instrument for separating the wheat from the chaff, the quality art from the kitsch. But in a streaming world of tens of thousands of directors, concentrating on the work of a handful of auteurs seems, well, limited. And the number of true auteurs may be even smaller than some critics believe. Many of the auteurs only made the list because we stretched the definition of authorship. I still believe there have been, are and will be auteurs, but my take now is that only makers like Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, John Cassavetes and others who write their own screenplays as well as realize them should be considered authors of films. That reduces the candidates for the exalted status of auteur considerably. “Pantheon” directors like John Ford who primarily realized scripts written by other makers, would be immediately demoted, directors like Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Terence Malik, young Greta Gerwig, Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola, Kubrick, and Oliver Stone would be promoted and directors like Scorsese, Cameron, Bigelow and Scott would become questionable auteurs. Certainly someone like Antoine Fuqua would never make the cut. But wait.
About eighteen years ago I missed King Arthur (2004) when it was first released. There are probably a number of reasons I wasn’t interested in seeing it, primarily, I think, because I had no great interest in Fuqua the director. I had seen Training Day (2001) but wasn’t particularly impressed, and I probably counted Fuqua’s music videos against him. But why I dismissed Fuqua’s film doesn’t matter really, because if I had seen King Arthur in 2004 I would have seen an entirely different film from the one I saw one evening when I was bored, clicked through the movies on Cinemax, and decided to give King Arthur a look. Back in 2004, I hadn’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and tried to imagine ways Ishiguro’s foggy Arthurian England could be rendered on film. And although it was first published in 1956, I hadn’t read Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples yet either. When I read the first volume I realized the history of the Saxon conquest of England was as vague as the memories of Ishiguro’s characters in The Buried Giant. The Fifth Century generally is a murky, empty space, lost in time and waiting to be filled.
This was on my mind when I had my first look at Fuqua’s King Arthur. I’ve watched it four times now and I still can’t explain why I am so intrigued and, yes, moved by the film. I understand some of it. I was struck by how much King Arthur resembles a John Ford Western set in the darkness, grime and poverty of Fuqua’s 5th Century England, not just because of the similarities between King Arthur’s knights and Ford’s cavalry officers and cowboys, but also because Fuqua uses portrait shots of his characters to freeze them in time and in our memories the way Ford did, and even goes John Ford one better by using portrait-like close-ups of King Arthur’s knights to transform them from Romans to Sarmatians and to restore them to the Middle East at the end of his film. And King Arthur is a striking example of the way the confluence, the synthesis, of film and literature creates a rich experience for viewers who can bring something of their own to a film. Fuqua’s portrayal of the Romans, Britons and Saxons fits my picture of the Britons, Arthur, his knights and the Saxons in The Buried Giant and in Churchill’s history better than the Medieval rendition of those characters in typical Arthurian films. Fuqua’s mise-en-scène is, for me, powerful and poignant. Like all great myths, the legend of Arthur never fails to entertain. And Fuqua’s King Arthur is a dark and fascinating retelling of that myth. But was it Fuqua the director who did all that, and if it was, how did he get to that place?
King Arthur is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, based on a screenplay by David Franzoni. Without interviewing them it’s impossible to know if the King Arthur project originated with Bruckheimer or Franzoni, but almost certainly it did not originate with Fuqua. And that’s the point. In the case of King Arthur, the track records of the producer and the screenwriter are better guides to the quality of the film than the oeuvre of the director. And that’s very neat, because it is going to be easier to keep track of and predict the quality of the work of production studios than it is to get a handle on the talent of individual makers of streaming film and video. If we get lucky, the studios will step up to the job of making sure that the quality goes in before their names go on. The best bets right now? HBO and Netflix.
For the would-be makers of screenplays and films, information about how the studio system works, how projects are conceived and realized in the real world, will become an increasingly essential part of their education. Surprisingly, just when an explosion of bandwidth makes it easier than ever to make and distribute independent films, studios may become more important to filmmakers and audiences than they were in the heyday of Hollywood.
Everything old is new again. (Hat tip to Peter Allen.)

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