The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Age of the Executive Auteur

The Auteur as a figure in entertainment is dead. Grown strong on digital production, a more artistically bankrupt creature emerges in their place. It is the Executive Auteur, and it's coming soon to a theater near you, whether you like it or not.

Scrolling twitter, avoiding thinking too hard about the deadline for this article, I come across a promotion for an AI "reshooting" technology that purports to change actors' mouth movements to fit rerecorded dialogue. It's a seller's market for such flashy digital trash. Meanwhile, a new rough beast slouches out of the Hollywood hills and Montreal game studio offices. Growing hearty by gobbling up new technologies and spitting out the crunched bones of vfx contractors, these beasts come with their own cultists eager to explain how good they are for art and culture actually. They are the Executive Auteurs, and this is there age.

Let's taxonomize these new beasts.

The Executive Auteur isn't necessarily a guy exactly. I think there can be people in charge, as with Kevin Feige, Kathleen Kennedy, and of course returning champion Bob Iger at Disney. But just as often the Executive Auteur as a kind of intelligible force seems to be more like an amorphous blob of money men, algorithms, c suite ghouls and so on. Same as it ever was, right? Not much has changed in terms of the basic way that corporate art is produced and hierarchically organized. I really want to stress this, I think corporate art has gotten on the whole more cowardly, bland, and ugly, but I doubt there's any particular change in the basic *aspirations* of bosses happening.

No, this is happening on two levels very distant from each other but critically linked. Something is changing high in the superstructure, in ideology, where we theorize the nature of the world. It responds to changes very close to the metal, deep down in the base, with the development of new technologies for disciplining very specific types of worker.

You can probably guess some of those technologies based on a bunch of the articles I wrote last year, but I'll be primarily focusing here on the specific development of the blockbuster film. In the field of the blockbuster, increasingly we've seen a push towards ever greater use of CGI, produced by non-union contractors crunching to generate huge numbers of assets. The emphasis in production is on the ability to reshoot and digitally tweak endlessly, leading to, as Defector points out, films where the image looking good takes a distant back seat to the image being accurate to the studio's specifications. These specifications are often produced in advance, entire scenes existing solely in CGI, and fights planned out and animated before a director can even step onto a physical set.

So, what we're seeing is the development of a series of technological affordances that both take power away from unionized lighting crews, set dressers, and so on, and indeed take power away from writing rooms and even directors, who, I think it's pretty well understood at this point, are there to fill a seat while studio or project leads control the actual meaningful decisions. These technologies hand power to those studio and project leads, who can simply send films back to the effects studios for recuts and virtual reshoots until they're satisfied.

Now, isn't it interesting that in parallel to this I'm seeing a bunch of discourse about how "auteur directors" are holding Hollywood back? Not to "in my day", but IN MY DAY there was some cultural understanding of the "executive" or nebulously the money men at a studio having a malign influence on art because of the demands they imposed on artists. Hence, "executive meddling". It kind of feels like the teeth of "executive meddler" as a charge got blunted sometime in the last few decades, in the same way a charge of being a "sellout", or engaging in "payola", or being an "industry plant" lost their power.  I'm not actually sure that people... care anymore whether or not something is a naked cynical cash grab. Meanwhile the "Auteur" has become a kind of all purpose boogeyman discursively, applied pejoratively to everyone from film directors who have the nerve to say they don't much care for superheroes, to artists and writers angry about their work being stolen by corporations and money men.

Actually, it was that aspect, exemplified not in films but in videogames, the game Disco Elysium in particular, that helped the Executive Auteur start to click for me. It wasn't even the shocking announcement by Martin Luiga that the ZA/UM collective was dissolved and that founding members of the collective who had developed Disco Elysium's world, art, and writing had left the corporation ZA/UM that did it. Rather, I started to put the pieces together when current ZA/UM heads released a statement that Disco Elysium was a "collective effort", and some fans took the hint and began denouncing critics as "auteurists" not respecting the other people at the studio who made the game. This only increased with the ZA/UM studio releasing further rather threadbare statements claiming that (unspecified) members of the team had been fired for being abusive. People easily took up this narrative, again with reference to auteur theory: ah, of course, that's how Auteurs are, don't you know. Tyrants, the lot of them!

I found this dizzying and nauseating. The game was a collective effort? Well of course, but this collective surely included the workers who *wrote the damn game and developed the artwork*--now ousted. A whole critical line supposedly elevating the rights of workers, used to justify treating those workers as... replaceable! And moreover, their contribution diminished precisely because laying any claim to creative production was "auteurist!"

But just what is this fearsome beast, the "auteur"?

Strip back the cultural cruft and the theoretical approach is actually relatively straightforward. It's an approach to film (and, off and on, video games, comics, and other collaborative art fields) that treats the director as the ultimate author of a work. Other modes of criticism might (somewhat logically) emphasize screenwriters as authors, but for auteur theorists what matters is less the script and more how a script is put on the screen, how the mise en scene is constructed. Auteur theorists emphasize how the cinematography of a particular director operates over their whole career, and determine "great" directors based on this comprehensive appraisal. Auteur directors--at least in the contemporary imagination--assert creative control over all aspects of the film, sometimes acting as screenwriter or even performers, with other workers on the film taking a subordinate role.

There's some good reasons to be skeptical of auteur theory. Certainly it's acquired a dubious pal in recent years as we've culturally reexamined the treatment of, say, female actors and crew by some of the Great Film Directors. If auteur theory rose to prominence in part due to the brilliance of a new wave of directors in the middle of the 20th century, it's not surprising it fell from grace alongside figures like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Maybe this is a bit unfair to directors specifically--Harvey Weinstein was famously not a director of much besides "The Gnomes' Great Adventure", for example--but the theory's emphasis on singular authorial control DOES conspicuously line up with other systems of power, exploitation, and abuse in Hollywood.

Part of that exploitation is tied up in the theory's treatment of film workers. If the film ultimately comes from the vision of the director, what does it really matter who acts in the film or writes the script, let alone who does the lowly work of costume design, set dressing, lighting, and sound engineering? Auteur theory sort of... doesn't care. So a big part of the push against auteur theory's dominance comes from a desire to make the whole range of workers visible, ideally as part of a broader push for labor power. It seems notable in this that auteur driven creative rights movements, most notably the creator rights movement in comics, have tended to abandon less "essential" workers in their fields (colorists, letterers) and it seems equally inescapable that these movements have made precious little progress: the field of comics remains an exploitative mess.

Disturbingly, the arguments in favor of exploitation are evolving to appropriate this criticism. Any one group of workers can be pitted against another: if you point out how directors are increasingly guns for hire, you're diminishing the contribution of other workers on franchises. If you suggest something is lost when art production is handed over to algorithms you're gatekeeping. This new discourse postures at egalitarianism in order to put workers on a level: all replaceable. Who does this actually serve though? The executive auteur, like I already noted, is not necessarily a guy. Rather what people seem to be privileging is the franchise, the intellectual property and its landlords.

The development of Disney lifestylism had a lot to do with this, of course. It's a concerted strategy by the corporation to produce "Disney families". I've known families that would ONLY show their kids Disney films. And certainly no Disney Adult knows or cares really who directed the live action Lion King or Dumbo, any more than anyone but weird wiki obsessives (auteur theorists of distinction!) care who directed the direct to video Lady and the Tramp sequel. It's just, you know... Disney.

It goes far beyond Disney, though. Who didn't sigh with relief when George Lucas sold off Star Wars to people who might "manage" the franchise properly? Isn't it important that a licensed shared world fiction be above all consistent with itself and kept broadly relatable? Do not I repeat do not try to produce a deconstructive work like The Homestuck Epilogues! And I've already written about, and Sarah has produced an excellent video about, Netflix deliberately homogenizing and kneecapping their products in order to ensure that it is Netflix itself rather than Sense8, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, The Get Down, or Godzilla Singular Point that develops a following and fandom.

And the most supreme irony of all?

This is exactly the kind of calcification and transformation of creative professionals into mere technicians and fabricators that Auteur Theory originally fought against!

Auteur theory emerged in France (the clue is in the "eu") to challenge a local film industry totally ossified. The industry gets described in Remi Lanzoni's history of French Cinema almost like a medieval guild, a weird feudal holdout where directors slowly, over two decades potentially (!), rose through the ranks from apprentice to master. The end goal was to become essentially a technician-director, someone who competently oversaw the adaptation of an existing text through the screenwriter (the author of the film) into a film according to rigid technical specifications. It can sound less like a film production as we understand it now and more like the production of an illuminated manuscript.

Auteur Theory arrived on the scene at the same time as the French New Wave and, critically, the development of cheaper hand held cameras that allowed these directors to explode the calcified hierarchy of production. It makes sense that theory would arrive to, as auteur theorist Andrew Sarris memorably puts it, blow up the crusty pyramid of Master Directors that made it impossible to imagine anything new not already "pioneered" by someone in the silent era. Most intriguingly, he points out that the methods of filming are so codified that:

"it is possible to become a director without knowing too much about the technical side, even the crucial functions of photography and editing. An expert production crew could probably cover up for a chimpanzee in the director's chair. How do you tell the genuine director from the quasichimpanzee? After a given number of films, a pattern is established."

In particular the American and British critics who took up the auteur banner were interested in reclaiming directors as meaningful contributors within the American studio system. By examining an entire career, the specific aesthetic signature of the author-director might be excavated out of even gun for hire schlock. Maybe that's the source of some of our problems now, though. After all, in her iconic flame war with Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael is at pains to point out how quickly auteur theory became a way of justifying exactly that commercial garbage--stuff that, she notes, was successful precisely when the auteur theorists were kids. Worse, they not only diminish the work of screenwriters and scripts entirely, but due to their emphasis on how the director's signature emerges in the tension between a script and the mise en scene, they wind up arguing that a writer and director of his own chosen projects like Ingmar Bergman *by necessity* has an "undeveloped" style!

Is it so big a leap from viewing the director this way to just... tossing the director aside and ascribing mise en scene to a studio? Every time we remark to a friend that it's too bad everything on Netflix looks, you know, *Like That*, or all adult animation looks, you know, *Like That*, we're essentially doing Executive Auteurism. The flip side of this critical version of it is a celebratory one where a kind of studio genius emerges and we can talk about the Pixar style and the like.

It turns out that from a studio perspective, everything is much easier to produce when your entire staff is quasichimpanzees, following rote instructions. Art poses all sorts of difficulties. Much easier to just use a near monopoly to force your films to dominate theaters, and produce them the way you'd produce all the other goods that used to be made by hand: via factory line. And these franchise managers and money men get to pat themselves on the back, because they're the true Authors of these works. They're real artists.

*Are* they real artists, though?

I was complaining about how gnarly this article is last night to Sarah and she, sleepy, groaned "If writing was easy people wouldn't be writing algorithms to do it for us." That's sort of the point, isn't it? This is probably going to be controversial but let me offer a suggestion: it's relatively easy to make art (just declaring something art can do the trick!). It's hard work to actually *be an artist*. Take my own work as an example. It was pretty easy to make one game (A Host of Gentle Terrors) and one comic (On The Tracks of an Angry God). Making more than one, engaging in the artist practice of game making and comic making, has posed me a lot more problems! I think this is a pretty common struggle: once you've created something once, operating at the level of artistic production and mastery of medium that you *went in having*, I think you're going to inevitably have some idea of where you want to push, expand, do better. But now friction sets in as your idea of what comes next collides with the limits of your skills, the material realities of your medium, and so on.

I find that people in other fields--particularly STEM let's be honest--undervalue this process. You can regularly catch them making dismissive comments about how they can't imagine making a bunch of chair legs and finding that a satisfying existence. I guess, in that sense, a lot of this type of person's contempt for the arts runs parallel to their contempt for all sorts of labor. The conviction that once you've done something for the first time all the novelty is gone might ring true. Novelty's sure part of the fun for me! But isn't it sort of childish to just do the easy bit, and then rationalize not doing the hard work of continuing, growing, and developing with "well, I've already mastered all the *novel pleasure* to be had here"?

Maybe that's why so many contemporary super star artists--beloved of rich advertisers like Charles Saatchi--seem to have no particular artistic vision besides a vague "postmodern" or "pop" noodling. Contrast that with the clear desire to master a medium that you get on a show like Carta Monir and Skye Novara's sex work podcast "I Know It When I See It". Part of what makes the show compelling is their discussions on how a vision for a shoot and the process of producing it within physical human limits, time and space constraints, and so on affect each other. When Monir talks, for example, about having to radically readjust a shoot where she was to be submerged in an industrial tank, due to the coldness of the water pushing her body temperature dangerously low, the sense she gives off is not of telling a wacky anecdote but presenting a humorous but significant setback to her artistic vision. It's of interest precisely because of its intellectual component (how can we achieve this particular artistic image in the face of these newfound constraints) and because it entails Monir and her crew having a real direct stake in the outcome. I don't think every artistic process need demand direct physical danger, but on reflection I'd probably respect it a lot more if Damien Hirst had to get in the tank with his stupid shark! And he'd probably wind up having more to say than "look what an expensive skull I can pay someone to fabricate for me!"

Doing art is so hard though. Wouldn't it be marvelous if you could just snap your fingers and someone could skate over all that friction for you? I mean, of course, your ideas won't have to dialectically respond to the experiments with your medium, they won't be challenged by your own limits, forcing you to innovate. You won't have actually worked your intellect much at all.

Would it be that surprising if your ideas remained facile, commercial, generic, and repetitive?

Boy it sure would be unfortunate if we structured the entirety of art production, from "high" to "low", around a system where franchise managers and executive producers and marketing consultants could simply command an interchangeable workforce of replaceable fabricators to generate whatever some marketing analytics or someone's unexamined preferences demand! It'd be a real fine environment for breeding stunted man children, nepo hires, and shallow showmen while the people who actually do the art are increasingly overworked, burnt out, and creatively voiceless! A culture driven by this kind of production might, say, return endlessly to the same franchises that were popular when they were kids in the 80s, recycling the same material over and over with a more saccharine color grading. It could do no else, and maybe it's no surprise that popular discourse warps to accommodate an approach to art that is structurally inescapable and ubiquitous.

Does a desire to assert the value of art made by engaged artists mean we should return to Auteur Theory? Well... no. I mean, for one thing, as I pointed out, the whole original construction of auteur theory feels barely recognizable today. Nothing about this view of the artist as someone engaged in the dialectical process of production suggests that a film or game director is a sole author, though it DOES suggest looking at one person's career might have critical value. Instead I think it suggests a radically pro-worker perspective that upends both auteur theory and the technician-based feudal system it replaced (and the industrialized system replacing it). It positions even "mere" fabricators as engaged participants in the production of a whole work. 

This should, frankly, be a no brainer. What would Guillermo Del Toro's films be without the creature design of artists like Wayne Barlow and the incredible physical performances of Doug Jones? Surely there's a reason why Olivier Assayas after working with Kristen Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria cast her again in Personal Shopper and Irma Vep? These are obvious examples of celebrities in their own right, but talk to people who work below the line in film and you'll find out just how critical an electrician can be for a scene's iconic lighting! This can even, indeed, come in the form of mastering algorithmic elements of the production pipeline. Watch Steve Yedlin, cinematographer and Rian Johnson's frequent collaborator, absolutely responsible for the look and feel of a Johnson film, talk about the capacity of the production pipeline to make digital cameras emulate the look of film and tell me that's not someone taking his artistic practice very, very seriously.

What the emerging technology and theorization of the executive auteur proposes to do is render all of these voices interchangeable, subservient to brand management and the maintenance of franchise. From this warped perspective, it makes perfect sense that individual artists should retain no moral rights to their work. Its value as a consumer good transcends any personal relationship of production. In this sense, the emergence of the executive auteur seeks to turn the last holdouts of artistic production into the same alienated and fetishized commodity production as everything else under capitalism.

If there's something to be done, it begins with not getting taken in. Don't buy the bullshit where the crimes of big franchises--an appalling lack of diversity, and institutional sexism and homophobia, for example--are projected onto "auteur" boogeymen--people like Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese who, whatever you think of them or their films, have objectively leveraged their position to promote *global* cinema. Don't get suckered into responding to an artist saying they were treated unfairly by a corporation with "well, a company has lots of employees." We can't necessarily stop the progression of the tech transforming the industry, but we can at least have a conversation about whether we want to watch films where "actors" are just a pretty face to be endlessly bowdlerized and puppeted about in postproduction. We can keep doing criticism that appreciates the *work* of art. And we can push for strong, militant unionism and the exploration of radical alternate structures for production that give workers a voice.

We can meet this rampaging beast on the field of battle, discursive and economic, with the belief in human expression and potential that has always been the province of the Left.

This Has Been

Age of the Executive Auteur

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1 comment:

  1. How long do you think it will take until we get The Congress, where they drop the actors completely and just buying their likeness and voice?
    They've already "literally" re-animated Peter Cushing for Star Wars.
    My prediciton is that it will come when some 80s movie star passes away and the "Schwarzenegger estate" or whatever sells their likeness so we can have Terminator reboots forever.