In one of the remarks most frequently attributed to him, Charlie Parker said, “Music is your own experience, your thought, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
This sounds like the most unexceptionable of statements, particularly when one considers the combination of genius and torment that lent authority to the speaker. I have, therefore, been rather surprised to see the high-level debate, gutter imprecations, and critical street-fighting that have been raging the last few years over an analogous conclusion by several of the younger film reviewers. The system they follow is called “la politique des auteurs” and has been imported from France as “the auteur theory.”
It was interesting to see that the auteur theory closely parallels a system employed for the last several years, in far more casual, unsystematized fashion, by jazz critics, probably without conscious knowledge on the part of critics or readers that any kind of formal discipline was being used and certainly without benefit of a name. The two, when viewed together, seem indicative of things far more basic than either jazz or films.
Since it is unlikely that many readers of jazz criticism follow the specialist film magazines, it might first be well to attempt to state what “la politique des auteurs” is. The phrase, which translates literally as “policy of authors,” appeared first in 1954, in an article written by the French director François Truffaut, who was, at the time, a critic for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Since Truffaut has since directed The 400 Blows, Shoot The Piano Player, and Jules And Jim, it is natural that his critical opinions would now carry considerable weight. Although the original article has never appeared in English, Truffaut gave an interview in 1961 to the New York Film Bulletin that recapitulates his views:
“The politiques des auteurs was a critical concept, essentially polemic; that is to say, for some critics there are good and bad films, and I had the idea that there are not good and bad films—there are simply good and bad directors. It might happen that a bad director could make a film that gives the illusion of being good because he had the excellent fortune of having a good scenario, fine actors…nevertheless, this ‘good’ film would have no value in the eyes of a critic because it was just chance—a coincidence of circumstances.
“Conversely, you might have a situation whereby a good director makes a ‘bad’ picture, because of the same circumstances in reverse, but nevertheless this film would have more interest for the critic than the ‘good’ film by the bad director. Still, in the same way, because the concept of success or failure has no importance—what is interesting in the career of a good director is that it reflects his thought from the beginning to his more mature phase. Each of the films marks one phase of his thoughts, and it’s of no importance that any particular picture is successful or not, or a good picture or not. I have summed it up in an example for which Jean Delannoy never forgave me: I said that the best film of Jean Delannoy would never equal the worst film of Jean Renoir. And this is what is really meant by the politique des auteurs.“
Elsewhere in the interview, Truffaut said that “primarily, the idea was that the man who has the ideas and the man who makes the picture must be the same. This being so, I’m also convinced that a film resembles the man who made it—even if he didn’t choose the subject, did not exclusively direct, let the assistants do the editing—even such a film would profoundly reflect in depth—for instance though the rhythm, the pacing—the man who made it….”
It should be easy to see the correlation between Truffaut’s view of film criticism and the assertion which most jazz critics would probably make, that the worst Dizzy Gillespie record is superior to the best Al Hirt.
Still, most established film critics are unwilling to accept the auteur theory; partly because of the method (critic Dwight MacDonald has written that the U.S. version “seems to be no more precise an instrument than a massively impenetrable prejudice in favor of certain directors”) and partly because auteur critics have been involved in destroying the barrier between so-called art films and plain old popular movies. They have attacked such directors as John Huston, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and Vittorio de Sica and have attempted to replace them with less-fashionable names like Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Otto Preminger.
The situation has become so heated that MacDonald ceased his association with a film magazine when he magazine made an auteur critic a regular contributor.
We are all familiar with the ugly spectacle of critical squabbling, to which I have contributed in my day, at least some of which is traceable to the fact that it is often easier to attack another critic’s statements than to address oneself to the work he was discussing. But the unusual rancor of the auteur controversy, coupled with its similarity to much jazz criticism, makes me think it is symptomatic of more basic questions.
The Cahiers du Cinema critics admired the brash vitality of U.S. films—possibly because they were in no position to see how little correspondence to reality those films contained—and wrote long, metaphysical articles about them, which are now aped by some Americans.
Similarly, two of the greatest influences on jazz criticism have been the Frenchmen Hugues Panassié and André Hodeir. In the mid-1950s, Hodeir revolutionized jazz criticism from abroad, and now we see George Shearing, Stan Getz, and Chet Baker replaced by Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis. The reasons, I think, are somewhat the same—French admiration for U.S. creativity, and U.S. awe of the French critical faculty. There are several parallels between jazz and films, which make it understandable that similar criticism should develop.
To begin with, both areas are somewhat unfashionable, so that a partisan critic may constantly feel defensive, having given such importance to mere “entertainment.” Both, if the discussion is limited for the moment to jazz as recorded music, are attempt to reproduce a feeling of immediacy through mechanical means and thus make it permanent. The speed of history in both forms is astonishing, and new breakthroughs often cause the critic to re-evaluate his position. Some of these breakthroughs are technical, and the art has changed accordingly; the LP is certainly one cause of the discursiveness of such current soloists as saxophonist John Coltrane; wide-screen has simultaneously revised concepts of how figures may be arranged in a single frame and altered the importance of editing. The critic follows along, with discussions of how long a solo should be, and whether, in a given situation, it is esthetically preferable to have two images in one shot or one image in each of two juxtaposed shots.
I believe that while the auteur theory is too limited to apply with much validity to so co-operative a venture as film making, it is superbly applicable to jazz, and based on the foregoing statements, a certain case could be made for Truffaut as the great jazz theoretician.
For a long time now, much jazz criticism has been of the auteur variety. Having decided that, for instance, Miles Davis is an important musician—perhaps because others have decided the same thing, or because Davis’ personal harmonic sense and the personal sound he gets from the trumpet are pleasing, the critic then assesses a given Davis recording not so much on absolute merit, if such exists, as on its relevance to the total context of his work, he indications it gives of his current thought and where he may be going.
As an experiment, I wrote a review of Davis’ Seven Steps To Heaven on a strict auteur basis and found that the system worked quite well. It would be an easy trap to fall into; having arrived at a list of great jazz musicians, one would simply rationalize their output to fit the party line. But it is also easy to see instances in which the theory makes excellent sense: Miles Davis, nominally a sideman on Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else LP is obviously the auteur of the session. The main drawback to the theory was first noted by André Bazin, spiritual father of the Cahiers critics. “One sees the danger,” Bazin wrote, “which is an esthetic cult of personality.” Again, Miles Davis is a ready example. Many fans feel they have got their full money’s worth if Davis simply shows up in one of his Italian suits. If he shows disdain for the audience, better yet. And if he is overheard in one of his obscenities, the listener is ready to give him the trumpeter-of-the-year award.
We are prone, I think, to have mutually exclusive criteria. Many of us are too ready to rely on brand names, as revealed in Leonard Feather’s Blindfold Tests. But on the one hand, we value craftsmanship, no matter to what end it is directed, and on the other, we are always willing to give points for good intentions, whether realized or not. Whatever its excesses, the auteur system probably demonstrates a deep need in us, for our highest accolades are usually reserved for the man who is both a personal and artistic rebel, dazzling us with new techniques, reinterpreting old conventions, displaying in his personal life the same kind of audacious flair that informs his work.
Our old ideas of excellence are rapidly changing. Most of us fear limitless freedom and would tend to go along with the position set forth by Igor Stravinsky apropos his oratorio Oedipus Rex, in An Autobiography:
“The need for restriction, for deliberately submitting to a style, has its source in the very depths of our nature and is found not only in matters of art, but in every conscious manifestation of human activity. It is the need for order, without which nothing can be achieved and upon the disappearance of which everything disintegrates. But one would be wrong to regard that as an impediment to liberty. On the contrary, the style, the restraint, contribute to its development, and only prevent liberty from degenerating into license. At the same time, in borrowing a form already established and consecrated, the creative artist is not in the least restricting the manifestation of his personality. One the contrary, it is more detached, and stands out better when it moves within the definite limits of a convention.”
Not surprisingly, this is the same man who wrote, in Poetics Of Music, that “a real tradition is not the relic of a past irretrievably gone; it is a living force that informs and animates the present.”
Most of us still find it preferable for a man to make meaningful changes within the boundaries of a convention—as, for instance, Dashiell Hammett did—rather than shattering the convention. The true radical is likely to have imprecations thrown at him, be he Ornette Coleman or Jean-Luc Godard.
But often we confuse tradition with the aping of a few superficial stylistic mannerisms. It can be easily seen how Coleman has a deep understanding of the blues that informs his work, or how Godard, in Breathless (pointedly dedicated to Monogram pictures) had carefully studied our B-picture gangster films if only to use them as a referent against which to set off his own personality.
None of these is a new problem. There is a further analogy in the debate that continues to center on the “new critics” of the 1930s—F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards, and their followers, who believe in strict textual explication as opposed to the inclusion of biographical information about an author. This approach, as it has filtered down, has reached an extreme in which the how of technique has become all important, and the critic takes little note of what is being said. This is not far removed from auteur criticism, which often overlooks a banal script while concentrating on intriguing camera angles. Nor is it far removed from the practice of U.S. business in considering “management” a skill separate from that being managed, so that an executive of a food company may turn up next in a record company.
It is interesting, in what is supposed to be the age of specialization, when we have largely replaced morality with expertise, that we, as the public, are still sufficiently confused in our criteria to demand, so to speak, the entire man, to deny him any area of privacy, and to judge a Miles Davis as much on his haberdashery as his playing.
We could discuss endlessly the justice of such criteria, but they are certainly relevant; there are those who would argue that Richard Nixon missed being President in 1960 because he seems, on television, to sweat a lot and need a shave.
We are, as many, including Dwight MacDonald, have observed, a nation avid for “the facts,” and we tend to assuage our self-contempt at our own questionable curiosity by judging those we have been so curious about.
Most of us witnessed, when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, what one newspaper called “the first nationally televised murder.” I think a certain case could be made in arguing that this is only the latest and most terrible instance of a change in criteria that has been effected by the mass media. I cite, as varied instances, the popularity of Confidential magazine, the televised investigations of Frank Costello and Joseph Valachi, and the mea culpa of Charles Van Doren. From our avarice for these facts about public figures, it is only a step to the situation in which private activity—or what is generally considered to be the inside story on a celebrity—becomes the critical and box-office correlative of talent; Charles Chaplin and Elizabeth Taylor will do for examples.
To return to where I began: I think that Miles Davis’ choice in clothing is no more my concern than Mickey Mantle’s publicized choice of hair tonic, and I think that the trends in criticism of our most vital popular arts indicate things about all of us that we would do well to consider.
By Joe Goldberg
[Originally published in Down Beat, February 11, 1965, pp. 22-24]