Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wall-e and Authorship: Pixar's Career as an Auteur

So Wall-e is the... what... ninth Pixar film? If you read my last post, you'll know my opinion of it... that it's a new level of craftsmanship on Pixar's part. Now, we've all seen artists who developed their skills to transcendent levels over the course of their careers -- Picasso's periods, Shakespeare's writings -- now we have a new artist (if you can call it that), the animation studio that's going to define the cinematic experiences of a whole generation, and it seems as though they've yet to peak.

Before this, Pixar's filmography was probably defined by Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo. Toy Story made them famous and put them squarely ahead of their competition, and Monsters Inc. was their introduction to big-time at the Oscars, being nominated for Best Animated Feature, as well as three other awards, and winning Best Original Song (beating out all the live-action soundtracks that year). Finding Nemo was Pixar's clincher, the film whose characters and storytelling defied all the expectations of the critics. The Best Animated Feature award was the crown on Pixar's ascending head.

Pixar's other films, movies that everybody adored but that didn't quite change the landscape of media, include The Incredibles and Ratatouille... both of these could have taken that coveted Best Animated Feature award, but Finding Nemo just happened to be the earlier project. Wall-e might indeed be the next definitive movie in Pixar's oeuvre, not only because it had the immaculate craftsmanship of Finding Nemo, but also because it experimented with style and boundaries in such a way that it seemed to be a new experience, even for the seasoned Pixar fan.

Has anyone else noticed the strangeness of treating an animation studio -- Pixar -- as if it's a single human being, an author with a unified creative vision that sculpts the animated masterpieces we see each year? Nobody seems to have taken notice of this phenomenon, but it's definitely something new. In the past, any noteworthy film was attached to a director's name, and that film's artistic vision was credited to that director. This is the essence of auteur theory, and a cornerstone of Hollywood's celebrity marketing pitch: see the new Hitchcock / Kurosawa / Cronenburg / Woody Allen / Cohen Brothers film this summer, and return to the world of an artist you've fallen in love with.

The problem with this approach is that every film is a collision of hundreds of different talented people. The film industry is massive and evenly distributed over too many disciplines to count, and in every film, you can find the hand of a director, a cinematographer, a production designer, an effects supervisor, and a thousand consultants and lackeys. Maybe you don't actually like David Fincher... maybe you just happened to like Zodiac because he worked with Harris Savides, and so the photography direction was exceptionally brilliant.

In this sense, as strange as it sounds to treat Pixar as an individual auteur when it's actually a whole collective, it might actually be a more honest way to look at authorship in cinema. After all, even though the staff changes, there's a good chance that most of the principal personalities... concept artists, production designers, photography supervisors, and head writers... are carrying across from movie to movie. We can see the development of a company, and the streamlining of its vision, as we watch each successive triumph on the movie screen. We can stop pretending it's just one guy with a camera and some friends from acting school, and we can see that these things are the product of a vast, synchronized creative/corporate process.

As long as I trust that there is still room for the auteur in film... for people like Werner Herzog, who really do involve themselves deeply in every step of the process... then I'm also happy to treat a great company with the same respect I would give to a great artist. Artist, company, single, multiple... we're so over those binaries! This is the future!

1 comment:

patrick said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course