Friday 29 April 2016

The birth of the auteur wars - Bruce Hodsdon recalls Days of 'word thuggery' at S.U.F.G. in 1965

Bruce writes

While browsing some issues of the Sydney University Film Group Bulletin the other day. I realised that it is 50 years since auteurism, personified by the work and life of Nicholas Ray, threatened BFI-inspired orthodoxy at the Sydney University Film Group. Ray was one of the chosen few, nominated by Andrew Sarris, to inhabit "the far side” of Andrew’s  cinematic “paradise”. I think those days at SUFG worthy of “commemoration".

Nicholas Ray 1950s
Satyajit Ray in 1955
In 1966, with Andrew Sarris and 'Movie' fuelled auteurist fervour, myself and my brother Barrett, both then having a sizeable hand in the shaping of the Sydney University Film Group's term film programs, usually in consultation with our then mentor John Flaus, decided that the twice weekly screenings offered the opportunity to immure members in the work of a chosen auteur. This we saw as a way of both focusing upon and redefining, in film criticism, the creative role of the director in the commercial film industry, Hollywood being the paradigm. In this case the clear choice seemed to us to be Nicholas Ray, we both having recently caught up with Johnny Guitar (USA, 1954) at a suburban “ranch night”.

With John's doubtful assent I had programmed, a double bill of films by the two Rays (Satyajit and Nick) on a Monday night during third term 1965, in the Union Theatre, SUFG's main venue. The former had established himself (quite rightly) from his first film Pather Panchali (India, 1955), as something of a film society and art house icon.

The only locally available print of  Satyajit's Devi (The Goddess, India, 1960) was on rather murky 16mm b&w film, throwing into relief the wall to wall, brash Cinemascope and Eastmancolor spectacle of  Nick's Party Girl (USA, 1958) on 35mm with the accompanying “ Party Girl, Party Girl” theme song behind the credits. Acting as a prologue to the ensuing drama are the sexually choreographed gyrations of  Cyd Charisse which drew an audible reaction, in approval (or otherwise), especially from those sitting in the front section of the theatre where self acknowledged cinephiles tended to sit (and still do), seemingly affirming Mas Generis's much more recent claim in Screening the Past that cinephilia “is a condition of sexual attraction to movies”.

We then programmed four more of Ray's features – Bitter Victory (France, 1957), Johnny Guitar, Wind Across the Everglades (USA, 1958), and Rebel Without a Cause (USA, 1955), to be screened in the course of seven weeks during first term, 1966. The then SUFG President, Brian Murphy, insisted that the four Ray films could only be screened if the series commenced with a 16mm screening of Bitter Victory in a rent-free venue, the large former kitchen of a decaying, soon to be demolished building, aptly called, in the eyes of the philistines, The Blind Institute.

A surprisingly large number of members crossed City Road to the Institute on a Friday night in March, to view, in those austere surroundings, the lingering death by scorpion bite of a Ray anti-hero played by Richard Burton, the setting being the North African desert during WW11.

John Flaus
The President had also resolved to establish a roneoed newsletter in which members could vent their displeasure, or otherwise, at this precocious intrusion on their rights. It took several weeks for the uniformly hostile response (to the films as much as to the theory) from a small number of motivated members to appear in print in the newsletter which ran six issues. In advocating gradualism in the face of what he saw as overcompensation by the so-called 'new guard', Flaus’s claimed disregard for a member's right to expect the honouring of a cultural contract for diversity in programming choices when he/she took out a membership.mise-en-scène had not yet been absorbed into the English lexicon) was not to neglect content (what the film is about) but was central to it. 
Michael Thornhill
Mike Thornhill responded to my defence of auteurism in the newsletter with a charge of  'word thuggery'. Both Flaus and Thornhill were concerned with the priority given to the auteurist notion of 'interior meaning' (authorial sub-text running through the work of a chosen director) which they felt all but ignored the key literary element (the role of the screenwriter). John was adamant that 'the concern should be what the work is, not almost exclusively with the artist's (read director's) intentions'.I rebutted that the new preeminence given to form (the French term mise-en-scène had not yet been absorbed into the English lexicon) was not to neglect content (what the film is about) but was central to it. 

So on it went, intensely but briefly, with a certain rancour lingering. Thornhill, in a chapter on film culture for the book 'Entertainment Arts in Australia' (1968), quoted 'introspective Sydney film buff, John Flaus' and fellow 'member' (there was no formal membership) of the Sydney Push in his essay. John is quoted defining a film buff as 'a compulsive aesthete of the cinema (who is often a secret romantic) caught in one of the cultural traps'
                 His pale ideology ensures that his own life will be a conformist one, but his
                 imagination seeks a symbolic revolt. The Auteur concept of the director makes
                 an ideal sublimate. He is the lone, creative (self enclosed?) talent striving to
                 impose his vision upon an insensitive world, yet he is also the masterful leader
                 whose command is law (on the set).

John does not now have a strong recollection of this controversy that surrounded the emergent politics of auteurism. He suspects that he was more the soft voice while fellow Push members Mike Thornhill and Ken Quinnell were 'the hard cops'. (Does John now see himself, in this respect, as something of a local version of the 'Cahiers' critic and father figure of the French New Wave, André Bazin?)

A suggestion was made at an informal late night gathering after the screening of Party Girl  ('give the new guys a chance') by ex-MUFS provocateur and aspiring filmmaker (Dalmas, Pure Shit) Bert Deling, who was then living and working in Sydney. John opened his response in the newsletter with “the new guard, given a go - albeit restricted - in the first term 1966 programme - have overreached themselves (sic)”. This 'overreach' was our overweighting in film selection of what was being claimed to be the main game in film criticism: the overriding attribution of individual creativity to the authorship of a chosen director, especially in the Hollywood studio system. John saw screening five Ray films with the primary purpose of promoting the claimed directorial talents of a director, at times in creative tension with the system, as promoting 'a new orthodoxy' drawing on Andrew Sarris and Movie magazine in the UK “that promoted Hitchcock and Hawks as the great directors”. For 'the new guard' Sarris opened up a new, engaging way of looking at Hollywood films.

In the terrain of classical Hollywood's 'journeyman director' hierarchy, Flaus did concede a more singularly discernible directorial personality, for example, in Raoul Walsh's work behind the camera, over that of say Henry Hathaway's. John, from his later vantage point as a working actor in films, became an increasingly astute observer, in his criticism, drawing the distinction between the director as the 'setter of the scene' (metteur-en-scène) and the director as auteur. The former  competently but anonymously directs pretty much according to the set rules and conventions, as in much tv drama. In 1992 John wrote that the latter “shapes meaning through mise-en-scène”, the what and the how unified through visual style – “the orchestration of meaning through the actors and assignment of dramatic priorities to pictorial factors”, in other words, “the movie director's province of creativity”.

John's lengthy 1992 essay, “Thanks for Your Heart, Bart”  (now accessible online at  Continuum ),, goes a long way towards redressing the imbalance of those days of auteur theory-inspired angst, standing as an insightful primer not only for aspiring actors but also for cinephiles. The forthcoming book by Barrett Hodsdon, 'The Elusive Auteur', has potential to be something close to definitive, if that is possible, in the final laying to rest of a controversy spanning back at least to 1966 and the shock of those five Nicholas Ray films in the SUFG program in six months.

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