David Kipen Posits New Auteur Theory

Michael Fox March 6, 2006

The auteur theory posits that the director is the primary “author” of a movie, and the film is an expression of his or her vision. This perspective presumes that themes will recur in the course of a filmmaker’s career, revealing a worldview of a certain breadth and depth. This method of analyzing film history originated in the 1950s with then-critics Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and others. The New York critic Andrew Sarris famously and controversially applied the term to an analysis of U.S. directors in a 1963 magazine article that he expanded into his seminal 1968 book, The American Cinema. A number of Sarris’s peers, including Pauline Kael, wrote passionate and erudite denunciations of the auteur theory, prompting Sarris himself – both at the time and repeatedly over the ensuing years – to clarify that he was always cognizant of the theory’s limitations and never intended to mass-market a simplistic shorthand for evaluating movies.

But all these years later, David Kipen declares in his witty and concise book, The Schreiber Theory (Melville Manifestos, $12), most critics routinely name-check the director above everyone else who supplies creative input on a movie. The Schreiber Theory, which is subtitled “A Radical Rewrite of American Film History,” takes its name from the Yiddish word for writer, and aims to reclaim the contribution of screenwriters to motion pictures. Kipen has reviewed books and movies for the last 15 years, including a stint as the book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. A tall, lanky fellow who speaks in rapid bursts, Kipen recently took over as Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. I caught up with him during his return to the Bay Area in early March for a whirlwind publicity tour.

SF360: Let’s clear up one thing from the beginning. Do you or did you aspire to be a screenwriter? Do you have a script sitting on the shelf?

David Kipen: The shelf makes it sound really handy. It’s in storage, and it would take a little digging to find it. But yes, there was a script long ago, right after college.

SF360: Aha. Would it be fair to call you a frustrated screenwriter?

Kipen: Certainly at the time I wrote it, it was pretty damn frustrating. But I’ve had a couple of interesting careers since then, so I’m over it. If you asked me whether I would rather have seen that screenplay produced – and even produced well – or would I like to use the schreiber theory as a lever to change the way people think about screenwriting, and movies in general, frankly, the latter appeals to the megalomaniac in me more than the former.

SF360: Fair enough. Nonetheless, your book feels in places as if you had compiled the time-honored torture stories of Hollywood screenwriters over shots of whiskey in dark L.A. bars.

Kipen: I wish I had, but no. I’ve read plenty of interviews with disgruntled screenwriters and if this book opens the door to screenwriters and I hear some of those age-old kvetches first-hand that would be a delightful side benefit.

SF360: OK, now let’s get to the heart of the issue. It seems to me that The Schreiber Theory is less an attempt to discredit the auteur theory outright than a sly ploy to simply shift the auteur appellation from directors to screenwriters.

Kipen: Well, yeah, that’s my project to a certain extent. Although looking for the figure in the carpet, as Henry James put it – looking for consistent motifs and themes within a filmography – is a fool’s errand. I’m not sure that that sort of consistency is a hallmark of genius. It could just as easily be a hallmark of one-track mindedness. So that’s one more way my theory functions, I hope, as a parody of its predecessor.

SF360: So the ultimate goal of your “radical rewrite” is not, in fact, subversion but balance?

Kipen: Yes, a little bit irreverently, not to supplant the auteur theory [of the director’s dominance] overnight but to overcorrect it in such a way that the final average of the two is a more realistic representation of just how collaborative filmmaking really is.

SF360: The second half of the book consists of your brief commentaries on some 30 screenwriters along with their filmographies. I confess I find it unfair that you essentially give equal weight to original screenplays and those adapted from novels or plays.

Kipen: For so long, we’ve heard directors accorded credit for realizing the work of the screenwriter. It seems delicious to me that someone who might conceivably defend that practice might cry foul if I shine a little light on the screenwriter at the expense of [the author of] his underlying source material.

SF360: I can take that dig, but I’d still argue that writing a terrific original screenplay requires inspiration while adapting an existing work for the screen is a craft.

Kipen: I would agree with that, and I would say that adaptation is second among equals among a screenwriter’s gifts. But in today’s Hollywood, it’s next to impossible to sell an original screenplay. Look at an enormously gifted screenwriter like Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Flesh and Bone). What is his current project? What is he spending years of his life on when he could be writing several more wonderful original screenplays? He is adapting not one, but all seven of the Harry Potter novels. He’s adapting them quite well, but is that the best use of his talents? I think not.

SF360: Martin Scorsese has said that he tries to practice the John Ford model; that is, make one movie for the studio and one for himself. So perhaps that’s Kloves’ strategy?

Kipen: It’s sort of a practice for writers outside the film industry, as well. I seem to recall that Virginia Woolf would write a novel and then she’d write nonfiction, and go back and forth and use the nonfiction to cleanse her palate. Certainly Hemingway was notorious for writing masterpieces every other book. If a screenwriter can go back and forth, alternating original scripts and adaptations, that’s probably a productive tactic for keeping a career going and protecting his or her sanity. But I don’t see how writing seven Harry Potter screenplays fills that bill.

SF360: The exceptional San Francisco film critic and essayist David Thomson maintains that he always intended his Biographical Dictionary of Film to provoke film lovers to argue with him. Do you share a desire to stir readers to debate you from the comfort of their armchairs, or aisle seats?

Kipen: If Thomson’s goal, beyond writing like an angel, is to pick fights, he certainly succeeded with me. If I can start a few rhubarbs of my own, I’ll be well-satisfied.

SF360: To put it another way, your book is admittedly not a scholarly, definitive work but a call for a reevaluation of the way American cinema history has been presented.

Kipen: I hope I’m not finished with it, and I hope I don’t have to finish it single-handedly. The schreiber theory, you should pardon the invocation, is what Immanuel Kant would call a prolegomenon, an opening salvo, an opening shot in a war between swivel chairs – the writers – and canvas chairs – the directors – that won’t see an armistice for years, if not decades, to come.