Written in response to this author and this auteur.
Return to writings.

Smashing the Hulking Auteur Theory

The “auteur theory.” It was exciting to me, when I first heard about it. Although in fact said theory had already been largely taken up as fact within our culture years before I learned of its derivation. So actually one could say that the moment when what I had taken for granted was first revealed to me as theory was the beginning of doubt for me as to the singular authorship of films. Like when I went through the Catholic “confirmation” sacrament – that was the beginning of the end of my involvement with the church.

Of course, when I say the “auteur theory” I am taking about – well, I hesitate to say mainstream films because that term has perhaps the least meaning that it has ever had. When those French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950’s were first arguing for the film director as the singular author, or auteur, of Hollywood movies, “mainstream” was much more defined, and such an assertion doubtless seemed radical. This was evidently not lost on Andrew Sarris in 1962 when, in his “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” he said, “it requires cultural audacity to establish a pantheon of film directors.” That is, versus judging a film “on its own merits,” as Sarris puts it. But this is just the problem I have with Sarris’s so-called seminal essay. The impression is one of a snot nosed kid trying to make a name for himself and being audacious for its own sake. And it smacks of elitism. Which is to say the same thing, for to try to “stand out from the crowd” is to be elitist, to align oneself with “art” doubly so.

What Sarris’s essay shows is how the auteur theory is predicated on an unproven, and unprovable, assumption. That assumption can be summed up by Sarris’s question: “Is it possible to honor a work of art without honoring the artist involved?” To which he answers, “I think not.” In other words, I assume that film is an art, therefore it is made by artists. The whole essay is predicated on wishful thinking. Just listen to him: “... we are dealing here with Minnelli in his Lust for Life period and Huston with his Moby Dick period.” What is the point of reading further? Sarris has decided a priori that Huston and Minnelli are the authors of these respective films. That is all there is to the auteur theory – you either ascribe authorship to the director or you don’t. Any attempt at proving such a stance is little more than interpretation of a Rorschach blot.

Yet, at the same time, who would dispute that Breatless, Contempt, Alphaville, Weekend are anything other than works of art authored by one of those very Cahiers critics, Jean-Luc Godard? Still, those films from the 1960’s are like the ones made today by people using DV or Super 16MM and a few thousand dollars (like, say, the brilliant Primer, written directed, edited, scored by, and starring Shane Carruth), as compared to the apparatus required to produce Hollywood or otherwise mainstream or mass-marketed films.

Like Hulk. Yes, that’s right, Hulk, the 2003 film that was something less than a, uh, smash – “too much talking and not enough smashing,” in fact, according to the Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus encapsulation. Yes, that’s right, the film by Ang Lee, a film that most people, like good ole Andrew Sarris, would not judge “on its own merits,” but instead compare to the rest of Lee’s oeuvre – and usually judge it to be lacking, in comparison. I mean, a comic book film with a CGI monster? That’s a bit too low for an auteur like Lee, isn’t it? Which ironically betrays a complete misunderstanding of how the auteur is meant to function; along with that French word, there is another one that, once again thanks to the Cahiers critics, has entered the English vernacular – genre. The auteur works with populist genres, or forms, like the Western, the Action-Adventure, and now the Comic Book Adaptation in order to have a career in the marketplace; what distinguishes the film director as an auteur is the stylistic and thematic marks she leaves on each of those formulaic money-makers. The funny thing is that serious, auteurist film buffs deride Hulk for precisely the kind of “lowbrow” staples like action and special effects that other people found all too lacking in the production – “not enough smashing,” indeed (those people are not comparing Hulk to the rest of Lee’s oeuvre, but to the rest of the Comic Book Films). I have often thought of entertainment as being a matter of having your cake and eating it too – mediation par excellence. It seems that Lee failed to deliver on either count, leaving a mixed bag that has me reaching into my own grab bag of mixed metaphors to pronounce Hulk a cake that’s neither fish nor foul.

Ang Lee failed – not the producer, or the writer, or Marvel Comics, because it’s Lee’s film. Even before I saw it, Lee’s authorship was so firmly inscribed that a friend of mine was already riffing off the accumulated mythology of the film’s titular character to produce this pun: “Don’t make me Ang Lee, you wouldn’t like me when I’m Ang Lee." Funny stuff.

Hulk, however, is very serious stuff. Most of the films in the Comic Book Adaptation genre are Freudian psychodramas (many of those films featuring properties belonging to Marvel Comics, for which the characteristic is a hallmark), but none more so than Hulk, which is transformed for the silver screen into a metaphor for child abuse and – note to those who’d smash Hulk with tomatoes – a meditation on the aggressive impulse, militaristic and otherwise. It doesn't want to smash, but to ask questions about why we all want to smash, dudes. I’m sorry, I mean Ang Lee wants to ask those questions. Then there is the film’s visual style, an amalgam of techniques – such as the fragmenting of the screen into numerous mini-screens, little if at all seen since 1976’s Carrie – done as a kind of homage to the film’s source material (I love how my beloved comic books are becoming mere “source material” for motion pictures). While, since arguably a film is already simply doing in time what a comic book does in space (comics can be seen as storyboards for films), such a trope could be called gratuitous, it nevertheless makes a strong statement, and does remind us of the film’s pulpy origins, at that. Best comic book adaptation? Stylistically and thematically, it’s a great film, period.

And, given that it’s an Ang Lee film, you’d think I’d find those same stylistic and thematic hallmarks in Lee’s other movies, right? That’s what I went looking for as I watched (and in some cases re-watched) not just Hulk, but also Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Ice Storm [at the time of this writing, Brokeback Mountain had just come out in the theater, and wasn’t even released yet on DVD]. I made notes on camera movements, lighting design, editing strategies, and themes, of course themes. But instead of a unified body of work, what I found was, frankly, not much in common between those three films. Lest I be chastised as unobservant, here is a quote from Time magazine media critic Jim Poniewozik, from an online profile on the director: “Lee is able to remake his style for each movie to suit the narrative needs of that movie ... in a way, he kind of suppresses his own individuality (in his movies) [article’s interpolation].”

His movies. If ever there were a perfect example of the gymnastics necessary to prop up the auteur theory, it’s right there. The critic recognizes that these films nominally belonging to Ang Lee do not hang together stylistically, yet because he assumes a priori that Ang Lee is the auteur of said films, the critic rationalizes the lack of stylistic cohesion by explaining it as part of the director’s style!

Still, there is something about the films attributed to Ang Lee that makes them stand out. Although maybe, for me, it's more that there's something about the films attributed to the Comic Book Adaptation genre that makes them stand out. It's actually easier to justify grouping films that way than it is grouping films together according to whether or not Ang Lee served as the director on them. And in fact my motivation for writing this essay was far less to see if Ang Lee is an auteur than it was to defend Hulk against auteurist critics. Which actually makes me sound like Andrew Sarris; I want to prove something considered pedestrian to be art. Yes, I’m an elitist, I’ll admit it. I just wish Sarris and the other auteurists would admit it too. That would make Sarris’s essay (and the so-called theory) easier to swallow. Sarris finds it “impossible to attribute X directors and Y films to any particular system [like capitalism or communism] or culture” (therefore upholding the auteur as the yardstick by which a film’s “quality” is measured) because, for him, that would mean a deplorable thumbs-upping or downing an entire system or culture! In other words, the culture or socio-economic system in question should not be praised or damned based on the ranking of the directors a priori considered to be the auteurs of the films belonging to that culture or system. Brilliant, Andrew! We can’t rank socio-economic systems or cultures but we can rank auteurs! Did you ever consider that the auteur theory itself is eminently a capitalist product? And so Sarris, one of the supposedly great film critics, overlooks the cultural anthropological perspective. Was Hulk made because Ang Lee wanted to make it? And even more to the point, was Hulk an Oedipal psychodrama because this reflects Ang Lee’s preoccupations? As I already suggested, the preponderance of Marvel-style Freudian comic book movies makes the answer a no – the Wikipedia author betrays his auteurist leanings when he says "Lee used the genre to tell the tortuous story between a father and his son," but that story had already been established, more or less, in the comic books.

In other words, the question is less "what is it about the Hulk that appealed to Ang Lee?" than “what is it about these comic book movies that appeals to the general public, at this time, such that they continue to be, uh, green-lighted?” In other words, a movie like Hulk can be thought of as saying far less about Lee as an auteur than it might about, say, the increasing infantilization of our culture, in which people say the name of a character like “Wolverine” (from the X-men comics and now movies) in all seriousness, while the actor who played him can go on to have a successful career, when formerly starring in a comic book film was tantamount to career suicide. Comic books started to rise out of their pulpy origins and resemble movies years ago (the apotheosis of which is undoubtedly 1985’s Watchmen – soon, naturally, to be a major motion picture), and now movies are meeting them halfway, in the ever-increasing push to cater to mass media’s major demographic. Of course, this particular cultural anthropological reading could be considered elitist.

A person operates in a given arena with a certain set of parameters. We must all work with those parameters
– literally, for the money – and in that arena we will or will not make our mark. That is the essence of the auteur theory, is it not? The question after all is not whether Ang Lee is an artist – he isn’t. Godard is an artist. Stan Brakhage is an artist. Shane Carruth is an artist. The question is whether Lee is an auteur. I think I have already shown undeniably that he is. How could I not? In fact, I might just as well have dispensed with the question, taken it as a given, and just watched some more comic book movies.

The assumption is eminently reasonable since it is likewise finally indefensible. It is just a matter of perspective, a tilt of the head, which from one angle will reveal Hulk as a green jewel in the Ang Lee oeuvre, and from another as belonging to another Lee, the comic book auteur Stan Lee, and from yet another as being another great work in the canon of films by Gale Anne Hurd, who also produced the Terminator series and some of the Alien films, among many others. In the former case, that’s quite a tilt of the head, since every comic book fan knows that Stan Lee has always gotten way too much credit for characters that he created with collaborators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who both incidentally stamped their imprint on the green anti-hero long before Ang Lee got to him. In fact, the importance of Stan Lee’s collaborators is illustrated by which Marvel comics properties have succeeded and failed at the box office. To date, anything with which Jack Kirby had any significant involvement has not translated well to the big screen – consider the risible Fantastic Four films – while Ditko's characters, like Spider-man, have been box office gold (Ditko’s work, even if against his avowed wishes, has always been more Freudian than Kirby’s larger than life archetypal epics). Kirby may have originated the Hulk, but it’s Ditko’s subsequent tenure that really solidified what we now take for granted as the character – don’t make me angry, or the beast will come out.

The auteur theory is a beast of burden, at least if you take it seriously. You want Ang Lee to be an auteur? Sure, he's an auteur, but if he is, then so is absolutely everyone, grip to gaffer to audience member (merci, Monsieur Barthes). Within that arena where we each operate, how can we help but ... express ourselves? That this was ever an argument in the first place, famously advanced by people like Andrew Sarris, points to the absurdity (an eminently capitalist absurdity) of the idea that self-expression is a unique field, one that is presided over by the figure of  “the artist.” It’s a semantic game, part of another structure, language, through which, once again, a person might make his mark. And it’s a game I’ll keep playing, provocateur (if not auteur), naysayer, devil’s advocate, and elitist that I am. Hulk smash!!!!!