Monday, August 17, 2015

Haute Auteur

Aside from what he is best remembered for (not, alas, for his splendid essays), Gore Vidal, like many another American writer, did his time in the Hollywood salt mines and worked on scripts for various half-forgotten or forgettable movies. His experience gave him a clear understanding of the men who made the movies - not the directors, whom he rarely met, but producers and his fellow writers. Naturally, he took a dim view of the auteur theory, that I've expended excessive space on this blog debunking. (I feel as if I'm fighting for the soul of the medium, dear reader.)

Unlike literature and literary criticism, which continue to cling to standards established over centuries, Film's standards are all over the place since it is stubbornly viewed as that most impossible of things - a popular art. Consequently, despite the existence of a tradition of quality established in a small percentage of films almost entirely from abroad, American film, either oblivious of that tradition or defiantly contrary to it, has formed its own standards, based on its own dubious traditions which the French, in their capricious love-hate of all things American, are supposed to have codified (or trumped up) into a "politique."

Appalled at the deleterious effects that American films had had on American fiction, Vidal wrote an illuminating essay on the contents of a contemporary New York Times fiction Best Seller List. The following is an excerpt from the recent New York Review of Books reprint of that piece, written in 1973. 

'"Shit has its own integrity." The Wise Hack at the Writers' Table in the MGM commissary used regularly to affirm this axiom for the benefit of us alien integers from the world of Quality Lit. It was plain to him (if not to the front office) that since we had come to Hollywood only to make money, our pictures would entirely lack the one basic homely ingredient hat spells boffo world-wide grosses. The Wise Hack was not far wrong. He knew that the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked even though, as he was quick to admit, no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public. He was cynical (so were we); yet he also truly believed that children in jeopardy always hooked an audience, that Lana Turner was convincing when she rejected the advances of Edmund Purdom in The Prodigal "because I'm a priestess of Baal," and he thought that Irving Thalberg was a genius of Leonardo proportion because he had made such tasteful 'products' as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Marie Antoinette.

"The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century. An entire generation has been brought up to admire the product of that era. Like so many dinosaur droppings, the old Hollywood films have petrified into something rich, strange, numinous-golden. For any survivor of the Writers' Table (alien or indigenous integer), it is astonishing to find young directors like Bertolucci, Bogdanovich, Truffaut reverently repeating or echoing or paying homage to the sort of kitsch we created first time around with a good deal of 'help' from our producers and practically none at all from the directors - if one may quickly set aside the myth of the director as auteur. Golden age movies were the work of producer(s) and writer(s).

Gore Vidal, "The Ashes of Hollywood," The New York Review of Books.

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