Friday, January 04, 2013

Craftsperson Auteurism

I've been working on an essay on cinematography which, among other things, is wrestling with what it means to understand the cinematographer as an artist. And by happenstance, I watched on Mubi a documentary on production design, The Man on Lincoln's Nose (Daniel Raim, 2000). Like other documentaries of its kind (namely Visions of Light), the tone of the documentary (on designer Robert Boyle) is entirely laudatory. What I noticed was that the praise came in a rhetoric of execution: the craftsperson was an artist because she/he was able to take a vision explicit from the director and implicit from the story and actualize this vision into a visual form.

But there's at least another potential way of understand the art of the Hollywood craftsperson, as stylistic autonomy from the directorial vision. This is not how craftspeople in the classical Hollywood would have thought about themselves, at least not in public and perhaps not in private. They were wedded to the execution-functionalist model. Nonetheless, we do not have to understand their artistry in their own terms. In the case of cinematographers there were many ways in which mediocre or under-directed films had an impressive visual look. Off the top of my head, If Winter Comes is a terrific example. Maybe there's a case that Victor Saville is an undervalued auteur and in any case, the book/script has an emotional tenor of its own. Nonetheless, George Folsey's cinematography is superb (though superb like so many other films') and its aesthetic success owes less to its actualization the script than in the visual feel it imposes on the story.

It's easy, as in The Man on Lincoln's Nose, to imagine the craftsperson as the secret support behind canonical auteurs. I'm increasingly drawn to starting from the vantage of Hollywood's crafts and asking how it asks us to examine and judge films differently than an auteur-based system does.

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