Ambiguity to the point of nihilism: Jude Law in Steven Soderbergh's "Side Effects"
Most of us would agree that Casablanca is one of the all-time film greats. A couple of its lines have entered the language and we can still name the stars. But do you know who directed it? Indeed, did the audiences of 1942 know — or care — who directed it?
I doubt it (just in case it ever comes up, it was Michael Curtiz). During the heyday of the studio system, the director was seen very much as a hired hand, one part of a glittering production line, a massive, highly professional but thoroughly collective effort. This didn't stop individual directors being immensely talented. But they certainly weren't fetishised, by industry or public. We have the 1950s French obsession with the idea of the auteur to thank for the current all-consuming and somewhat bogus focus on the importance of the director as creator, a preoccupation which leads us to see uniquely personal themes and styles where there really aren't any.
Ang Lee, who has just won an Oscar for his direction of Life of Pi, is a good example. Exceptionally skilled and intelligent his work undoubtedly is, but only the most determined (and sheep-like) of contemporary critics could possibly detect a unique signature on films as diverse as Hulk and Brokeback Mountain. And although it pays lip service to the director-cult, Hollywood in its heart still holds to the view that it takes a multitude of chefs to come up with the broth, hence the fact that it maintains separate Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, even if they usually end up going to the same movie (although not this year, when the terrific Argo won Best Picture).
Since he stormed Cannes in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh has been the recipient of director-love from auteur buffs who've charted his every move. The just released Side Effects is, apparently, his last film for the cinema (he'll be turning his attention to HBO in the future) due, he has said, to his increasing disillusionment with audiences, who have an obstinate tendency to make hits out of films he considers terrible.