There Auteur Be a Law
Auteur theory has been taking it on the chin lately.
Never especially strong in this country — as opposed to Europe, where it has even been allowed to influence matters of copyright, in a shockingly communistic example of art being given primacy over commerce — it’s really taken a beating in the new New Hollywood, where franchising has taken precedence over storytelling, sequels are a built-in contract requirement, and even the remake has been superseded by the ‘re-imagining’. Even in the glory days of the 1970s, when the rise of maverick filmmakers bucked against the studio system and managed to create movies that were both commercially and artistically successful to a degree hard to imagine today, restrictive costs and limited resources gave studios a degree of power that necessarily checked that of the visionary filmmaker; in the following decade, the overreaching ambition of the likes of Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola helped scuttle the small gains in the direction of auteurism that Hollywood ever managed to achieve, and now, 30 years on, you might as well wait for a silent movie than a film entirely under the control of its director. The Coen Brothers are virtually the only big-picture practitioners of the approach, and for their troubles they are labeled chilly, remote stylists as often as not.
With studios ever mindful of cost and insistent on the constant reification of moneymaking properties, there is as little continuity of content in film today as there is in mainstream comic books — and therein lies a lesson. After decades of being botched, mishandled and underestimated by Hollywood, comic book heroes finally appeared in film, in a number of skillfully executed vehicles in the late 1990s; the following decade was something of a golden age for the genre, followed by the inevitable overexposure and curdling. The rise of ‘geek culture’ as a dominant expression in this decade has had any number of deleterious effects, from the proliferation of the sub-adult as the norm in storytelling to the replacement of analysis with enthusiasm as a measure of a film’s success, but it has also played up the increasing ambiguities of what we mean when we talk about who is the owner of a character, a story, a work of art.
This question, only now peeking its way into media like film and television, has been raging for decades in the world of comics. (Even the one arena where the notion of an author should be clear-cut — the medium of literature — has been infected by big-money issues, as risk-averse publisher revivify old properties in new hands, exercise ruthless control of copyright, and encourage profitable authors to franchise their characters, their ideas, and even their names in the pursuit of ‘branding’.) Comics — especially mainstream ones — are a study in the paradoxes of auteurism. It cannot be denied that the big-name publishers have long engaged in brutal suppression of the very idea of creator’s rights; ever since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster signed away Superman in exchange for a handful of magic beans, writers and artists have been routinely getting rooked out of the fruits of their labors. From an economic standpoint, the medium is as exploitative as it can get away with being. Artistically, though, comics have also proven that the person who creates a character is not always the best person to tell that character’s story. There are innumerable examples; had the right of refusal stayed with the creators of Superman and Batman, we might have been denied some of the most brilliant interpretations of those characters. Comic heroes, with their long histories, collaborative nature, generational appeal, and iconic qualities, are vibrant proof that stories of great critical and popular appeal can be told by people who had nothing to do with creating the material on which they’re based.
Of course, this also plays into the muddle that exists between auteurism and ownership. In Europe, as noted, these issues are intertwined, despite the collaborative nature of media like film and television; but in America, predictably, big-money interests have kept them separated by an iron curtain of law. Even the small advances made in the arena of fair use are guarded by razor-sharp restrictions; we are entirely comfortable with the idea of generations of professional heirs, children and grandchildren who grow fat off the cash of artistic labor to which they have contributed not a drop of sweat or a flash of thought, but the idea that we might have the right to make art from a character so culturally ubiquitous that we have been exposed to it daily our entire lives is strictly verboten. Being born with a certain name entitles you to make money as long as you live off an idea you had nothing to do with in some media, but creating a character in another that makes a corporations tens of millions of dollars doesn’t buy you the right to ever use that character again. A combination of ignorance, short-sightedness, greed, indifference and deliberate obfuscation has left us with a terribly unfair and inconsistent concept both of who owns the rights and profits to an artistic creation, and who should be considered its author. The result has been a financial and creative cluster-fuck of galactic proportions.
Only recently, this cluster-fuck has come to visit the world of television. Always consumed by commercialism, and artistically disreputable almost on the level of comic books, television has never once been considered a medium where the hired guns who put together its programming have any rights whatsoever to their labor. (They’re barely even considered creators on even the basest level, as we learned during the writer’s strike a few years back; indeed, on some types of ‘unscripted’ shows, writers are legally not treated as writers, even though the action on screen is guided by words that they write.) But as we enter what many believe to be a golden age of quality drama and comedy on television, longtime assumptions about the rights and privileges of the creator are being challenged — and the bosses are once again responding by buying new rules and regulations that keep them firmly in control of someone else’s labor.
At every point where auteurs place their creative imprimatur on their work, owners — in the person of studios, production companies, and even advertisers — rush to erase it. At a time when television shows of quality are much more often the product of an individual writer or director’s vision instead of the dashed-off high-concept idea of a producer, the ‘created by’ credit gains more and more respect; but the bosses have ensured that it means nothing more than money. They have also introduced the concept of the ‘show-runner’, which seems to indicate what it really should be — the person whose artistic vision binds the disparate elements that make up the collaborative process of making a television show together — but in practical terms often means little more than the guy who wrangles the writers. Some shows, of course, are more auteurish than others, but the process by which these titles are defined has nothing to do with creative control, and everything to do with money.
This, of course, brings us to our case in point: the long-awaited return of beloved cult comedy Community, without the presence of its creator/former ‘show-runner’/beating heart, writer/director Dan Harmon. According to conventional wisdom, which usually becomes conventional through the medium of money and the power of critical laziness, Harmon was unceremoniously jettisoned from the show he created for two reasons: his inability to get along with a washed-up has-been universally reviled by the rest of Hollywood, and the fact that he was the first creative person in the history of art to have a difficult personality. His real crime, unsurprisingly, was a financial one: he created a brilliant television show with a fiercely loyal audience that was not popular enough to make a profit, but was just popular enough to allow it to creep towards the big-money goal of syndication. For this failing, he got ousted in the shabbiest manner possible by the bosses, and had the further bad taste not to just shut up about it and collect his ‘creator’-credit payoff, but to point out publicly how shamefully he was treated. This won him few friends, because nobody likes to be reminded that ‘creative’ work is just as dominated by the money men as any other field, let alone their culpability in that process.
Community made its return this week after endless delays, in the hands of two new ‘show-runners’ the network felt would be able to sustain the tenor made possible by the efforts of a man who poured his entire being into the creation. Advance copies of episodes made available to critics seem to indicate that, shockingly, that will not be the case, and that a quality television show is something a bit more than the aggregate of its individual talents. I wouldn’t know, myself; I made a decision when I found out how badly Harmon was treated that the first three seasons — nicely culminated by Harmon himself, who was smart enough to read the writing on the wall — would be plenty for me, and that there was plenty of other good art in the world that would fill the void left by a show that intentionally let out its own blood. Community actually did better in the ratings, a fact which can and will be made to do whatever trick people want it to do, but whatever happens to the show down the road in terms of commercial success, creatively, it’s likely to prove what that handful of people who cared in the first place said was going to happen. Some art creates a template upon which all sorts of successful interpretations may be impressed; other art creates an outline so distinct and fully formed that only one person can fill it in.
Neither is more valid than the other. But both prove one thing: the notion of an auteur, the idea that a creator leaves an indelible mark on a creation, is one that is not always consistent but is always present, and it demands consideration on an artistic level, not just a financial one. We’re unlikely to witness any sea change in this current era of blockbuster films, studio ‘properties’, and character brand-building; and even less so, as critics and journalists increasingly become publicists, and ordinary people habituate themselves into tolerating ‘where are they now’ articles on the stars of a franchise less than ten years old but which already suffers under a studio-mandated re-imagining. But if we want to keep what is vivid and alive from becoming stagnant and shallow, we might want to again look to Europe, and admit that a creator who is given a stake in his creation is the difference between a soldier who will die for what he believes and a mercenary who will leave the battlefield when the chance for profit starts to die out.