Friday, March 19, 2010


Before he began his impressive career as a film director, Francois Truffaut was a scholarly film critic. In 1954, he wrote Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français (A Certain Tendency in French Cinema), an influential essay that introduced the 'auteur theory.' In his essay, Truffaut declares that a director is the creative force in filmmaking and should be regarded as an 'auteur' (author), and those directors who imbue their films with their personal expression and vision have created an artistic signature as distinctive as an autograph.

Few directors are recognized by name alone; consider the trend in recent film ads that list a director's previous work instead:

You won't get that sort of drum roll in the promotion for films by Martin Scorsese or Roman Polanski. They are 'auteurs' as Truffaut described; both men have worked for decades at their craft and have received the highest honors accordingly. Who hasn't seen, or at least heard of Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas? Or Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown or The Pianist? Few, I'm sure.

As luck would have it, Shutter Island, Scorsese's latest film, and The Ghost Writer, Polanski's first film since 2005, have been released on the same day. Two very different stories adapted from recent bestsellers, are surprisingly similar films:

In Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall sent to investigate a mental institution where an inmate has reportedly vanished. The institution is more of a fortress, located on a craggy, remote island made even creepier by the eccentric staff and motley group of mental patients. An unexpected storm keeps him on the island, allowing him to dig deep into very dark territory.

In The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays a writer (he is never named) who agrees to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang. He is replacing the original ghost writer who has died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. The new 'ghost' travels to a remote island to spend time with Lang, and his small tight-lipped posse of assistants. What was supposed to be a quick and lucrative project unravels into something more sinister as the story unfolds.

In the genre of mystery, information and clues are carefully apportioned, with a third act revelation that just might inspire a forehead slap. Both films have isolated protagonists, eccentric characters, shadowy atmosphere, treacherous weather and frustrating bureaucrats. Still, with everything going wrong for each of these main characters, there is little intrigue and virtually no suspense. Nobody intends to make a bad movie, and with a healthy budget, a fine director, a bestselling story and a solid cast, what could possibly go wrong? Plenty.

In his provocative essay, Truffaut also asserted, that the worst of Jean Renoir's movies would always be more interesting than the best of Jean Delannoy's. Which is to say, even a lesser film by an auteur will deliver something worth seeing, something better than most can deliver. A star chef with the best cut of meat can overcook it. Babe Ruth struck out much more than he hit home runs. The auteur Alfred Hitchcock has a stable of classics, as well as some duds. But with greatness, a master earns a lot of good will; fans remember the hits.

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