Ridley Scott as an auteur

Just out in kindle

The following is extracted from Film Notes: Blade Runner, just published in kindle:

The idea of the director being the author of a film originated in Francois Truffaut’s ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’, first published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954, which attacked what he called a ‘Tradition of Quality’. Truffaut’s intent was polemical and the notion of the auteur (see Part Six: Cinematic Terms) was not ‘turned’ into a theory until the publication of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema in the 1960s.

The auteur ‘theory’ was useful in enabling academics and critics to give legitimacy to their investigation of popular films that had previously been dismissed as ‘trash’. Auteurs are directors who put a strong personal stamp on their films, usually through the mise en scene. They are contrasted with the metteur-en-scene, the director who merely functions, more or less, at the service of the script. Once acknowledged as auteurs, distinctive Hollywood (see Part Six: Cinematic Terms) filmmakers, such as John Ford and Nicholas Ray, could be acknowledged as great artists and their films given serious discussion.

In such a collaborative medium there is a certain absurdity in assuming one person is the author of the film. However, there is also no doubt that insights can be gained by comparing films of the same director; just as there can be with novelists. These points are not necessarily contradictory: powerful directors will often write the script, produce the film and always use the same team of collaborators to fulfil their vision

Although in academic discourse the ‘theory’ is now somewhat passé, film marketing has taken it up and virtually all films are prefaced by ‘A film by…’. This is absurd as most director’s visual style is completely anonymous but Ridley Scott, more than many other contemporary directors, can lay claims to being an auteur.

Scott’s roots are in art direction, for the BBC, and advertising, he created his own company in the late 1960s. It is unsurprising then that Scott’s movies, like those of his brother Tony, all look great. He has been taken to task for this as if glossy visuals on their own could be a corrupting influence. The charge that Scott’s movies are all gloss and no substance, however, is a serious one that, as we shall see, can be satisfactorily answered. This glossy look, derived from advertising, has been one of the defining features of Hollywood production in the last quarter of the 20th century. Tony Scott can be seen as the epitome of the High Concept (see Part Six: Cinematic Terms) movie director with films like Top Gun (1986).

Although the script is rarely the most important element of a film, it obviously provides the framework from which Scott produces his visuals. In the work of David Peoples, who co-scripted Blade Runner, it is possible to see echoes of the film’s themes. He has also written Unforgiven (produced in 1992 but written many years earlier), a western starring Clint Eastwood and Twelve Monkeys (1995) a SF film directed by Terry Gilliam. Unforgiven has been described as, ‘veteran manhunter, bullied from retirement, shoots down undeserving fugitives’ (Philip Strick, 1992, p. 9) which has obvious similarities to the narrative of Blade Runner. Twelve Monkeys focuses on the role memory has in our lives using the metaphor of time travel and a mentally ill protagonist.

Another influence is Dan O’Bannon who co-wrote the cult SF movie Dark Star (1973) and co-scripted Scott’s first box office success, Alien (1979). O’Bannon had also written, with Moebius (the nom de plume of Jean Giraud), ‘The Long Tomorrow’ in Heavy Metal magazine that greatly influenced the design of Blade Runner (see Part Three: Style – Set design and setting). Jean Giraud also designed the space suits in Alien.

Clearly so many authorial voices militate against the idea of the ‘director as auteur’; however Scott is the ‘controlling voice’ in his films, he runs Scott-Free productions, and employs people to realise his vision.

We can use the auteur theory to assess the charges of misogyny that have been made against Blade Runner. Alien, Scott’s first major film (that is one with the full weight of Hollywood’s marketing machine behind it), introduced the iconic Ripley who has since appeared in three further episodes of the franchise. Ripley is a rare character in Hollywood, the strong and charismatic woman of action. Her superiority to men is evident. Scott, however, was criticised for the voyeurism of Alien‘s final scenes when Ripley strips down to her underwear. But it is arguable that this serves to emphasise her vulnerability particularly when compared to the alien that has not yet been despatched.

His follow-up to Blade Runner, Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), also emphasises the female over the male; during the climactic battle between the women, the male lead can only watch.

Thelma and Louise (1991) would appear to offer a clear-cut example of Scott’s ability to deal with women sympathetically. He used his status in Hollywood to get Callie Khouri’s first script made and remained faithful to her vision. This included the controversial ending where the protagonists commit suicide rather than face patriarchal law. This film was something of a departure for Scott, particularly after the gloss of Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989), because it foregrounded the relationship between two women. Thelma and Louise is a sumptuous visual experience that uses the Utah and Colorado landscape as a monumental backdrop to the women’s flight for freedom. The landscape represents pre-social nature where patriarchy does not dictate that women have to be defined solely in relation to men.

Thelma and Louise is a road movie, but it is a road to nowhere. At one point the heroines swerve off the road and find themselves surrounded by an oil field with phallically pumping wells. The environment looks alien and the music, even though it is instrumental and not synthesised, segues into the plangent tones of Blade Runner; undoubtedly an auteurist touch. Other Scott ‘signatures’ appear elsewhere: the rain that lashes down periodically, even on occasions accompanied by bright sunlight; the steam that gushes out of streets; the bright lights of the trucks and the truck stops that cast a neon glow throughout the film.

Thelma and Louise, like the Blade Runner, is about choices and freedom. Deckard’s alienation is engendered by his isolated existence; Thelma’s by her life as housewife to the childish Darryl; Louise’s through the trauma she experienced when raped which makes it difficult for her to commit herself to Jimmy. The couple escape their psychic entrapment but, like Deckard and Rachel, they have nowhere to run.

The film that preceded Thelma and Louise, Black Rain (1989), has a look that is astonishingly like that of Blade Runner and it too deals with alienation. Set in Osaka, Japan, Michael Douglas (whose star persona, see Part Six: Cinematic Terms, is one of the most masochistic of contemporary male actors) plays a corrupt cop who learns the dignity of honesty. While its representation of the Japanese is problematic, to say the least (the police need a gung-ho American to show them what to do), the representation of the city is visually stunning. It looks like a clean LA-2019, neon dominates slick and glossy surfaces. After having seen Blade Runner it is quite startling to see the future already exists.

Scott’s most recent movie, at the time of writing, G.I. Jane (1997), once again has a female protagonist who proves herself to be better than the men around her. Although it could be argued that the sexual politics of the film suggest that, in order to compete with a man, a woman must become a man (the Demi Moore character shouts ‘Suck my dick!’ at a climactic moment), this does not detract from the film’s engagement with male misogyny.

Using the auteur perspective we can see that, If anything, Scott’s oeuvre is strong evidence against the charge that he is sexist. We shall return to the misogyny charge in Part four: Ideology – gender.

Most critics, even if only to disparage him, recognise Scott’s ability to make a film look good; less often commented upon is his extraordinary good direction of actors. While the talents of Harvey Keitel, Sigourney Weaver and Susan Sarandon are likely to grace any film they appear in, Scott has also garnered, in Blade Runner, ‘performances of a lifetime’ from Rutger Hauer and Sean Young.

Scott is a cinematic talent who probably chooses projects for their visual potential rather than any desire to comment upon the human condition. However, if his only cinematic legacy was Blade Runner then that alone represents a substantial achievement.

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3 Responses

  1. Pleased to see this little book back from the dead. I bought one straight away! Do you know if there’s any chance of other York Film Notes/Ultimate Film Guides being resurrected as Kindle books? It seems a shocking waste that they were allowed to go out of print. I suppose they only ever had a small potential readership, but there’s nothing else quite like them.

    Also, what do you think of the new OCR Film Studies A Level?

    • Thanks for your purchase! When the ‘notes’ went out of print the copyright reverted to the author so it’s up to them to ‘reprint’. I am working on getting ‘Se7en’ into kindle.

      As to the new A level: ‘missed opportunity’ would summarise it. Why the insistence on English language at AS (particularly for coursework)? And I don’t fancy the section where you have to consider local reception of ‘world cinema’ films. There are, I think, a lot of great films where it will be extremely difficult to get that information. Liked the recces and casting section for the practical.

  2. Interesting article, was wonderin about this, and found your analysis. Thanks . Will go back and look a his work to see what i can notice.

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