June 19, 2007

The Auteur's Heavy Burden

Watching the sublimely perfect Soprano's farewell episode got me thinking about Ken Burns.

Why? Because no one told David Chase how he should finish his movie. He gets to sing "I did it my way." Not so for Ken Burns, who has been pressured by Latino activists and even the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to include more Hispanic perspectives in his documentary "The War", a history of WWII.

Mr. Burns, in precise form, supplied the standard auteur response: "It would be destructive, like trying to graft an arm onto your child,'' he said. ''It would destroy the film.'' A few weeks later, he himself performed the grafting procedure.

It must be challenging to be forced to learn the first two rules of filmmaking at such an advanced stage of your career, and I, for one, feel his pain. For uninitiates who are curious about these two rules, here they are:

#1: Every filmmaker has a client. The client is the person who can capriciously change your masterful handiwork without notice, transforming it in one swipe from art object to shameful hack job. The client has something the filmmaker needs(money). Some examples of clients are: HBO, CPB (hey- what does the "P" stand for?)

#2: Though it is not widely acknowledged, film and video are properly classified as plastic arts. Historically they have been captured on a physical medium made of plastic, for one thing, and, beyond this material classification, they are infinitely pliable in a metaphorical sense and are able to be molded to fit any content. Two important corollaries of this rule are:

a) there are a million perfect ways to construct any film

b) Mr. Burns' Frankensteinian claims notwithstanding, anything can be changed at any stage of the filmmaking process. Not all changes are improvements, but there are always equally satisfying alternative choices available. Gazing upon your creation and declaring its immutable perfection is hubris of the highest order.

Still, there are merits to his case. While "artistic independence" is largely a myth(see rule #1), there are occasions when filmmaking has to bear a burden from which other forms of artistic expression are largely exempt. Here I am reminded of Oliver Stone's JFK. Call it 'seeing is believing', the inherent verisimilitude of the medium can foster an expectation that what you see is truthful. Compounding the problem, Stone's use of the Zapruder film thrust the issue in your face. For many, the cathexis attached to Kennedy and his assassination was so strong that Stone's effort to stage a pitched battle between 'film' and 'the truth' was merely a churlish affront.

Yet the "founding myth of cinema" remains its invincible power of illusion. Perhaps one day, when moving holograms supplant the 2-D world of the movie screen, it will become more apparent that film never could depict reality. The best it can do is to appropriate it. This fact conflates the role of the director in the two genres, dramatic feature and documentary, genres separated only by a tissue of ethics.

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