Last evening, near the end of Film Twitter’s “We Need To Talk About Cameron” quasi-telethon, the critic Tina Hassannia registered some disapprobation thusly:
“ALOHA reviews are all framed in the auteurist framework, which inherently treats the white, male director as an artist worthy of discussion.”
“It doesn’t matter what you think of the movie, at the end of the day what’s important is: what’s going on with Cameron Crowe?”
“Now imagine trying to have a similar conversation about any mediocre, messy, or outright bad movie by a director who isn’t white or male.”
“When was the last time that happened?"
I have no trouble imagining having the “similar conversations” posited by Hassania, as I’ve had them, in the pre-Twitter days. “What’s going on with Spike Lee?” was a big question around the time of Girl 6, and again with She Hate Me; “What’s going on with Jane Campion?” was a big question for some with Holy Smoke (not for me—I loved it) and more so with In The Cut (yeah, that was bad). The political sensitivities of young critics these days are so finely tuned that it’s hard to know sometimes whether a protest is part of an attempt to create a new critical paradigm centered around diversity, or just some kind of high-functioning troll activity (if I understand Hassannia’s subsequent Twitter updates correctly, Spike Lee doesn’t really count). But as we’re framing within the auteurist framework, and so much of the most interesting and provocative criticism happening today at least carries the implication that auteur-based criticism has somehow ruined almost everything, it’s worth noting that—judging from appearances, at least—a lot of Cameron Crowe’s current troubles stem from auteurism, or a misapprehension of auteurism.
Not that I’ve seen Aloha, or am in a particular hurry to. I began worrying about Cameron Crowe, like so many others, upon seeing Elizabethtown, in Toronto in 2005. Actually, not to get all inside baseball, but I had been worried about Crowe even before cameras started rolling on that picture. I knew that Crowe had written the script, an ambitious comedy-drama, with Leonardo DiCaprio in mind, and that DiCaprio was now determined to do only Serious Movies with Serious Directors such as Martin Scorsese, which left Crowe without a bankable leading man. And so it went. Anyway, I was at Toronto for the premiere of Elizabethtown, and Crowe personally returned to the scene of his Almost Famous triumph to deliver a quasi-apology at the beginning of the press screening of his new film, which was indeed, alas, Elizabethtown. I felt bad after seeing it. My thoughts were these: One, that Crowe was maybe the best-intentioned and most big-hearted of American directors (maybe I should have been thinking “of white male American directors,” but I wasn’t, I cannot tell a lie). Two, that because his kind of picture is so difficult to get produced nowadays, prior commercial triumphs or not (and let us not forget that between Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, there was Vanilla Sky), Crowe apparently feels compelled to cram EVERYTHING HE KNOW AND FEELS INTO EACH AND EVERY INDIVIDUAL FILM HE MAKES. The directors Crowe frequently cites as models and mentors, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, working within the studio system (Lubitsch was even, at one point, a studio executive), had the advantage of being able to produce with some consistency; if they couldn’t do something they wanted on Project X, they might be able to get it done on Project Y. They didn’t have the nagging consciousness of each individual film maybe being their last.
That consciousness is part of the artistic and intellectual DNA of at least two generations of “personal filmmakers.” Which Lubitsch and Wilder, both directors icons of critics and creators of the Possessory Credit School, were in fact not. One of the features of what we call "Auteurism," or "auteurism," as we know it, and so on, is how damned confused it is. The politique des auteurs as articulated by Bazin and Truffaut is a different kettle of fish from auteurism as articulated by Andrew Sarris. And while Sarris was in fact pretty careful about differentiating between illuminating evidence of a director’s personal signature and avowing that the director or “auteur” is the creative be-all and end-all of every artistically worthwhile film made, he might as well not bothered given the crude way such notions are bandied about on an almost daily basis. In any event, one thing that gets lost in the shuffle is that the “personal touches” that distinguish Lubitsch and Wilder films from more routine Hollywood fare of its time is that these touches were by-products of a process that Crowe either doesn’t have access to or doesn’t want. Reading Charles Brackett’s recently published diaries, one is struck by how often Brackett virtually roles his eyes at Wilder’s insistence on narrative coherence—“Billy’s terrifying neurosis that everything isn’t crystal clear to the audience” is how he puts it at one point. Contrast this “neurotic” precision with the loose baggy monsters Crowe has to fight tooth and nail to get made at all, and then has to cut by thirty minutes or however long. The self-consciousness of the contemporary “personal touch”—even when adapting an intriguing Spanish-language horror/sci-fi romance, Crowe was madly compelled to transform it into My Empathetic Tortured Biopic Of My Old Boss Jann Wenner—can be laid, I think, pretty squarely at the feet of slavish devotion to misunderstood auteurism. Combined, paradoxically enough, with the production-on-my-own-terms ethos of the early French New Wave. All of which seems to have left Crowe in a pretty, and seemingly inextricable, pickle. At least when Lee and Campion went off the rails, they did so trying to accomplish something a little different from their prior fare. One reason I’m not in a hurry to see Aloha is because the accounts of the movie have me thinking dog-returning-to-its-own-vomit.