When I asked my partner for a subscription to The Criterion Channel* last Christmas, he enthusiastically agreed. I’d had a brief fling with film studies in university, where I was introduced to this living archive of international cinema. Each week our small Intro to European Cinema class clustered among the crumbling lecture seats at Bailey Hall from 5-11 pm to watch three movies. Films like Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966), Head-On (Fatih Akin, 2004), Little Vera (Vasili Pichul, 1988), Through a Glass Darkly (Bergman, 1961), and La mala educación (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004) left me feeling displaced within narrative—and I loved it! Layered, fragmented, soundtracked, symbolic, soliloquized—I wondered, What would these things look like in writing, and could a writer also create like an auteur?
Unlike basic authorship, the auteur “applies a highly centralized and subjective control to many aspects of a collaborative creative work”, creating their own oeuvre. Each typically collaborates with the same actors, often writes their own scripts, and directs within that “subjective control”. As a viewer, you need a necessary degree of blind trust in these kinds of filmmakers.
Blind trust, however, was a different beast when it came to my first boyfriend and his family. His parents said things like “groovy” and “bummed out”, listened to Frank Zappa, and supported political parties that meditated in high crime areas. During my first family supper, his father offered to torch my bra on the barbeque, while his mother sang her rendition of the “Dangerous Kitchen” which incorporated their household rules. My boyfriend jumped in with a booming “Don’t Eat Yellow Snow”. Later, we looked at their photos and he pointed out the village rooster that he had fed a whole ball of opium. Suddenly his mother seized my shoulders and pulled me to her. Noses touching, she said, “I hope you love to read because we will never own a TV.”
So, I spent most weeknights reading in front of their wood fire as his goth CDs mourned in the background. But every Wednesday night was Movie Night and they sent me home early, even though I offered to pay for my own ticket. It was torturous, as I knew they were off to watch the kind of films that interested me. Like Kundun (Martin Scorsese, 1997). How saddened they were when the ticket-taker ripped their movie stubs and told them these were the only seats they had sold.
A year later, when they told me to air pop my own plastic Sobeys bag of popcorn, I knew I was in! But I didn’t have a vote. At the Cineplex, they paid for my ticket to Terrence Malik’s The Thin Red Line. I hated combat movies. “Didn’t you protest the Vietnam War?” I argued with them, “Why would you want to see this?” My boyfriend smirked, his dad told me to shut up, and his mom whispered, “You’ll see.”
I’d never seen a film so superbly articulated and aesthetically centered. Guadalcanal wasn’t just setting and foliage. Captured in those long upward moving camera shots it was an entity that surpassed history. These same shots gave way to tight portraits of each character. Within the chaos of the Pacific Theatre, they were exposed to what seemed to be the real confrontation: truth. I hadn’t seen into the souls of men this way. There was poetry and philosophy, despair and transcendence. No glory was found except in the grace of authentic human connection.
After plunging into my boyfriend’s favourite auteur films where parody, subversion, and misdirection reigned, I realized auteurship was grounded in sound, sense, and its own mystery. Hungry for this mystery, I slowly built my own stack of favourites, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001), Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1951 & 1953), 2046 (Wong Kar Wai, 2004) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-Wook, 2005), The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001), The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1969), and Late Spring starring Setsuko Hara (Yasujiro Ozu,1949). So, where does that sense of mystery, that something unique created by each filmmaker or writer, come from?
It very likely comes from strict limitations.
Strict limitations?! Kayla, I thought you were TOTALLY against all that?!
Not if you are defining your creative process and aesthetics. That is, defining how, what, and where you write from. In any case, auteurship is all about striking out on your own, finding your collaborative cronies, and breaking the rules to write a space for yourself. What I call “writing you”. Except “writing you” in this context also means the bold pursuit of your art.
“Ozu didn’t use low angle shots for just style. Ozu got to the heart of Japan. He really got to the heart of what ordinary people were like. In order to do that he had to use Japanese-style rooms with shoji screens, futon pallets and tatami mats, all straight lines and right angles. Low camera angles are best for filming a setting like that. Then he confined living beings within these rigid forms. I think he was trying to express his ideas through that. That’s why he never panned or moved the camera. No high-angle shots either. The camera angles with which he was most comfortable bound him within narrow limits. If you don’t have strict limitations, you probably won’t think your ideas through so carefully. These limitations make you condense your thoughts into a more concentrated form. That creative process is something you can’t do without.”
I underlined that because it’s important! Even though strict limitations sound tough, they just might give you the kind of freedom you need as a writer. Especially since they are self-imposed.
That’s right, you create them! When you know yourself as a writer and what you want to accomplish, your own style comes into being through creative instinct and technical discipline. You become the visionary.
If you have nothing better to do this weekend, watch a movie. I suggest buttery popcorn and an old favourite, like The Princess Bride (Rob Reiner, 1987). Or maybe it’s time to discover new favourites! In that case, I can definitely recommend the absurdly charming Leningrad Cowboys Go America (Aki Kaurismäki, 1989) or Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1953) to inspire that vision burning inside you.
However, if you haven’t set down the parameters of all the wondrous things you want to create, maybe it’s time. Inspire others with your wonder, really write you.
*I am not receiving any endorsement from The Criterion Channel.