Some people don’t arrange their DVDs in a particular order. Of course, there are those who download torrents and regard the very possession of DVDs as an amusing quirk of the Old Days, back when we had Von Dutch caps and Most Haunted: Live. But buy DVDs I do, and arrange them in a particular order I must. I spit on those who don’t.
Since I take all my lifestyle cues from HMV, my shelves are ordered by genre. Aside from Comedy, Horror, Sci-Fi and World Cinema, I can boast an Adaptations section that’s subdivided into Book and Stage (which includes the further subsections of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams). My most cherished category, however, is The Auteurs. Here you’ll find the stalwarts like Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese among young guns such as Peter Strickland, Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson, not to mention the World Cinema crossovers like Krzysztof Kieslowski, Mihalis Kakogiannis and Pedro Almodóvar. I put Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth, Under the Skin) in that category too. He pretty much defies categorisation but is guaranteed to throw me into, a delirious fit with every release.
So what’s an auteur if not a French novelist? Strictly speaking, to be labelled an “auteur” a director must have a distinctive voice and identifiable traits. Like Hitchcock with his suspense, icy blondes and MacGuffins (a device which drives the plot but serves no other real purpose), a filmmaker should essentially stamp his or her work. If you were to switch on the TV to catch a random minute of The Birds, you’d probably guess it was a Hitchcock from the stylish composition, long shot length, aforementioned icy blonde and your own increased heart rate. Say the words “Quentin Tarantino” to anyone on the street, and they’ll probably think of violence, dialogue and music. Woody Allen = uptight Americans self-analysing at the speed of Gilmore Girls.
I was sixteen when I lost my Hitchcock virginity. The film was Vertigo. I got about an hour’s sleep that night. In part, maybe because I’ve been having coffee since a Filipino waitress named Queenie introduced me to cappuccinos at the age of nine, but mostly because I had never seen anything so beautifully put together. Being a geek, I was spasming from a movie rush. While I’d always been aware of Hitchcock thanks to my mother, I’d never given the man a chance. I quickly atoned for my sins. After school the next day, I sprinted to MVC (this was Cambridgeshire) to buy another movie by the Master.
It took no time for me to see what makes these films “Hitchcockian”, or why the adjective was coined in the first place. Whatever their plots, his films are bound together by thematic, technical and stylistic threads that make them distinctly Hitch. Even his weakest works bare his stamp, instantly making them more interesting than lesser directors’ finest work, which is what some French guy said about two other French guys* back when the idea of “auteurs” was brewing in the ‘40s.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I began to think up adjectives for my own name. Every project brief at uni would spark a daydream of how my films might be arranged on someone’s bookshelves. Did my love of tension sit me next to Hitchcock? Could a focus on bored rich kids pair me with Sofia Coppola? Would I be cool as Kubrick, inventive as Gondry? I already had the baseball cap and facial hair to be Spielberg, I was on my way!
One day I discovered Jack Clayton —whose masterful The Innocents (1961) is one of the best British films of all time according to me and François Truffaut— and decided he should be deemed an auteur, reevaluated as an important 20th-century filmmaker. After all, he kickstarted the British New Wave of “angry young man” films with 1959’s Room at the Top. So I aspired to be him. Jack and I had things in common – a love subtext, beauty and elegance; a preoccupation with women and children being distressed, oppressed and repressed… Let’s not kid ourselves, I WAS Jack!
Except I wasn’t. My attempt at making a short in his mould looked fine to me in 2007, but these days I convulse even just thinking about it. Of course, I realise that setting out to become an auteur is both naive and arrogant. You can’t ape someone else’s schtick while hoping to be your own brand. Also, the quest to become an adjective is megalomania taken to new heights — what kind of dictator am I?
Why label a film as something “auteured” in the first place? A film should be its own person, not the child of a celebrity or the spouse of a CEO. In the world of literature, it’s advisable for the writer to disappear behind the story, not to crush the story and characters with his or her overt presence. Every creative piece should be serving its central idea only, not bowing to the ego of its creator.
For me, the most admirable directors, playwrights and writers are those who explore a variety of ideas but can’t help their work being identifiably theirs. Their stamp should almost be accidental, rather than a conscious branding. Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson are arguably guilty of the latter; they practically wink through the celluloid, as if they too had read about auteurs and set out to become one. Sofia Coppola is so Sofia Coppola she almost parodies herself.
But are these lesser filmmakers than my darling Jack Clayton, whose films ranged from psychological horror to kitchen-sink drama to a Ray Bradbury adaptation for Disney? Or is Jack not on those directors’ level because nobody was ever heard to say, “It’s so Jack Clayton”? Was he too subtle, not stamping clearly enough?
Of course, none of that matters when all you’re looking at is the movie, and not its maker. If a film can stand on its own merit as well as being a recognisable part of an oeuvre, then it’s all the better for that.
Maybe the people who don’t arrange their DVDs are right after all. How Jack Clayton.
* Film critic and French New Wave auteur François Truffaut said that even the worst film by Jean Renoir would be more interesting than the best by Jean Delannoy.