AS a longtime fan of the politique des auteurs, I was prepared to dislike David Kipen's deconstruction, or, as he puts it, "radical rewrite" of what has held film criticism in thrall for half a century. But when Kipen declares his new book to be "an attempt to put the disarranged library of American film back in order," I immediately thought of Audrey Hepburn singing "How Long Has This Been Going On?" in the movie "Funny Face" and was won over.
As those familiar with that classic musical well know, it stars the immortal gamin as a Greenwich Village book dealer whisked off to Paris to be turned into a high fashion model who sneaks off to see her favorite philosophes on the side. In allegorical terms this is just what happened to those Americans caught up in the French penchant for ascribing all cinematic creativity in Hollywood films to the director and ignoring the writer. "The aim here will not be to replace unthinking doctrinaire auteurism with an equally unthinking writer-centered theory of film," says Kipen, hoping to do for writers what Fred Astaire did for Hepburn. And for the most part he does, beginning with the title, "The Schreiber Theory." "Schreiber (sometimes shrayber) means 'writer' in Yiddish," he explains.
"Collaboration doesn't preclude analysis; it compels analysis," Kipen declares. "Really, what would you rather try to write a cogent, humanly legible paragraph about? Sidney Pollack's 'Tootsie'? Or Larry Gelbart's, Barry Levinson's, Elaine May's, Don Maguire's and Murray Schisgal's 'Tootsie'?" It's a more than fair question considering how many films are stitched together in this fashion. However he's also right to complain that in the "Biographical Dictionary of Film," David Thomson "gives an entry on [director] Michael Bay, but not to [blacklisted screenwriter] Dalton Trumbo."
Taking his cue from Andrew Sarris' auteurist classic "The American Cinema," Kipen's book is a lengthy, tartly written manifesto followed by a wittily annotated filmography of notables. But it's quite select. Paddy Chayevsky, though mentioned in passing, gets no entry of his own -- which is surprising considering the trouble he took to get the Sidney Lumet-directed film title to read "Network by Paddy Chayevsky." Jacques Prevert -- whose screenplays for "Le Crime de Monsieur Lange," "Lumiere d'Ete" and above all "Children of Paradise," could have made Kipen's point about screenwriter dominance in a flash -- has no entry. Neither do Aldous Huxley, Harold Pinter, Gavin Lambert or Christopher Isherwood. Still, Kipen has much to say about Dudley Nichols ("The only screenwriter ever to write for John Ford, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Leo McCarey, Elia Kazan, Cecil B. DeMille, Anthony Mann and George Cukor"), Julius J. Epstein ("Casablanca" -- you may have heard of it) and Peter Stone ("Charade"). But he really can't turn Paul Dehn ("Murder on the Orient Express") into anything more than a workmanlike artisan. He's lukewarm to the phenomenon of writer-directors -- jump-started in the 1940s by Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder.
"Screenwriters don't do it all, any more than directors do -- or maybe a little more than directors do, at least on the best movies," says Kipen, claiming that "a good director excels at telling people what to do." Well, sure he does -- and maybe a little bit more than that. But Kipen's words only echo Gore Vidal's complaint in his 1976 essay "Who Makes the Movies?" about "auteurism," arguing that "there are thousands of movie technicians who do what a director is supposed to do" as opposed to what a writer does. Yet like so many really sharp, really knowing scriptwriters, Vidal had a devil of a time making his voice heard above the collaborative din in a medium where many are responsible but invariably only the writer gets blamed.
But as Kipen notes, we're on the cusp of a new era with such screenwriter stars as Charlie Kaufman, whose bizarrely original screenplays have trumped whichever director "told everybody what to do." Spike Jonze directed Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich," George Clooney directed "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and Michael Gondry did "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Is Kaufman a super-schreiber? Perhaps. And perhaps director-dominated criticism may be ending faster than Kipen thinks.
David Ehrenstein, a freelance film journalist, is the author of "Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000."