death to the auteur
📯 Content warning: this entry contains a brief but frank description of the gruesome killing of two young children.
Behind the Bastards recently did a 2-part episode about the Twilight Zone movie.1 It was an anthology film released in
1983, intended to be a modern reboot of the classic TV show. It featured four segments by four different directors: John Landis, Stephen Spielberg, George Miller (who at that point was famous for the first two Mad Max films) and Joe Dante (a then-unknown B movie director who would go on to fame with the Gremlins franchise.) Stephen Spielberg was also credited as producer, and the whole project was John Landis' baby—he oversaw production and also directed an underwhelming intro that served as a clumsy framing device for the four segments.
I had heard that the movie was cursed, but I thought it was just because it was a lousy movie: Dante and Miller's segments were pretty good, but critics all agreed that Landis' and Spielberg's segments both fell flat, which was surprising given their superstar power, and disappointing for an entry in such a beloved franchise. If that was all there was to it, it'd be a completely unremarkable film.
No, the reason it's cursed is that John Landis killed the lead actor of his segment and two children with a helicopter. The children were on set illegally; there were laws preventing children from working on movie sets at night or with dangerous pyrotechnics being used. John Landis knew this, so he was paying them under the table. He used his influence network to locate two Asian-American families with parents who were willing to let their children be in the film. The children were excited by the idea, but the parents had no idea what was actually happening on set, and it turned into an unimaginable tragedy.
You see, for whatever reason, Landis wanted his segment of the Twilight Zone movie to be an ultra-realistic war film. At that point, he was mostly known for successful if somewhat low-brow comedies, and I guess he wanted to flex his Big Director Dick. The scene in which the children were killed was during a flashback to the Vietnam war. The killings are often described as an "accident", but everything leading up to it was entirely the responsibility of John Landis. He was the auteur, the dictator of the film: he was the one who made the decision to have the children work illegally. He was the one who decided to shoot at night, because shooting during the day when it's safer and color-grading the film to look like it was shot at night wasn't realistic enough. He was the one who kept shouting at the helicopter pilot (Dorcey Wingo, a veteran of the actual vietnam war, who had said that the intensity of the explosives being used on set freaked him out) to keep flying "Lower! Lower!" He was the one setting off real explosives so close to a low-flying helicopter that its rotor was damaged, Wingo lost control, and the helicopter fell on actor Vic Morrow and the two children. Landis made all the decisions that led to Renee Shin-Yi Chen (6) being crushed to death, and Myca Dinh Le (7) and Vic Morrow being decapitated by the helicopter blade. Their blood is on his hands.
Not only is he not in prison, he continues to be allowed to make films to this day. Fuck him, and fuck our cultural obsession with the "auteur" that allowed this to happen in the first place.
One question I have is, why is auteur theory only ever applied to movies? If your premise is that films are best when the director has the freedom to exercise complete authorial control, why do people never talk about the self-published authors? Surely if a director having complete control is good, it's also good when a novel is true to the author's vision, untainted by any outside editorial process or publication pressures. Right? Or what about independent comics, published online such that one person is responsible for every aspect of the writing, art, and presentation? If auteur theory is correct, shouldn't these works be given more of a spotlight than they are?
It's telling that in these cases, it's often the exact opposite. Self-published books are mostly seen as illegitimate vanity projects, and sure, a lot of them are, but even the good examples are glossed over and, even for the ones good enough (or unique enough) to gain a fanbase, they often gain a stigma of "otherness" that they're not quite ever able to shake... until such time that the authors agree to have their work exploited by a publisher.
I love independent art. Some of my favorite books are self-published, or heck, depending on where your bar for publication is, unpublished. I love games made by one person, or webcomics drawn and written by a single person over a course of years, not because they're quote-unquote "better", but because they're far more interesting than anything designed by committee is going to be. I've talked about my love for Unicorn Jelly: despite its many (many) flaws, it's completely unique. It could never be a big hollywood movie. No one will ever see commercial potential in it or try to buy the rights to adapt it to something more mainstream. It will always stand as a monument to Jennifer Reitz's uniquely independent artistic vision, and I think that's beautiful, warts and all.
But even when there are no warts, individual artistic achievement is still unrewarded until it obtains the blessing of capital, and Cave Story is the quintessential example. It was a monumental game, one where every element was designed, drawn, programmed, and composed by a single person. A love letter to an under-appreciated genre, released for free to a public who didn't even know how hungry they were for more of that genre. It should be held up as a sterling example of auteur theory in action.
And yet, it wasn't taken seriously by anyone but a small community of indie game enthusiasts until Nicalis got their grubby fingers on it. They changed the graphics. They changed the music. They brought Cave Story characters into their own weird video game cinematic universe. You can still get the original version for free (as well as the original translation patch, also a labor of love) but no one seems to care. Nicalis's version is the one you can buy in a store, so clearly that's the "legitimate" one.2
I don't know how Pixel feels about what happened with the Nicalis deal. Maybe he's set up for life and he's happy working on whatever he wants to work on now (although given what I've heard about Nicalis' business practices, I kinda doubt it.) He certainly should be set up for life, as important of a cultural product as Cave Story was. The effect it's had on the entire concept of "indie games" is incalculable. But he shouldn't have needed to compromise. He should have been rewarded for his work without needing it be exploited and commercialized to the degree it has been. After all, he's an auteur, we're supposed to respect that.
But our white men-dominated culture only seems to think being an auteur is important when it's in service of defending or exonerating white male directors doing horrible things to the marginalized people who work for them, whether it's Stanley Kubrick terrorizing Shelley Duvall, or Hitchcock assaulting Tippi Hendren with living birds, or Tarantino dodging responsibility for injuring Uma Thurman, or Landis murdering two children. After all, these are serious artists making serious art, and you can tell it's serious because the studios have invested so much money in it. Clearly the children shouldn't have gotten in the way of that very famous and important man's helicopter.
Obviously not all film auteurs are bad, Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch have made plenty of unique films and as far as I can tell, they always treat the people who work for them with care and respect. But they're still white men who have been blessed by the system, and that's why they're auteurs, and anyone who doesn't have the stamp of approval from capital is just an "outsider artist", especially if they're not a straight cis white dude.3
I've bought the Nicalis version, twice: once on PC and once on 3DS. This is because, as far as I can tell, Pixel never gave his fans a way to donate money directly to him. I wish he did. I hope his share was anything close to what he deserved (i.e., all of it). Not angry at anyone buying that version because it's the only way that Pixel can hopefully get some of your money, just frustrated at the situation.↩
Note how rarely John Waters comes up when people talk about the great film auteurs. Why could that be, I wonder 🙄↩
Naturally anyone still alive who's responsible for actual US war crimes should be tried first (Kissinger, the Bushes, Clintons, Obama, etc); hopefully that goes without saying.↩