Back in the 1970s, musician Benny Green wrote an essay on the demise of jazz. His lament was that every possible combination of notes had been explored, reworked, reversed and occasionally twisted into barely listenable shapes. 'We have to ask whether today's brilliant jazz musicians have left themselves any fresh fields to explore,' he suggested. And the answer has proved to be, well, not many.
Now jazz is one of cinema's old pals from way back when, and there's an argument that arthouse cinema is facing a similar ageing problem, for much the same reason. There's talk these days about post-auteurism. Whenever a new cliche is invented, prefixed with either post- or neo-, it's usually time to release the safety catch on the revolver. There's a certain amount of truth in the idea, however. Biology dictates we are in a post-auteur era of sorts, simply because some of the greats for whom the label 'auteur' doesn't seem embarrassingly overblown have died.
It may not be polite to point it out, but there are others who have simply run out of ideas and haven't made a challenging film for some time. Age inevitably has withered them and exposed the limits of what had once seemed infinite variety. So for festival programmers, buyers and sellers, and arthouse cinema operators, what we mean by post-auterism is more the loss of bankable name directors with built-in fanbases than some grander change in the Zeitgeist.
When the film world goes through these moments of self-doubt, it's always worth looking at the facts. Actually, there are still plenty of directors who can drive specialist film audiences to theatres. The fact some shoo-in names on competition lists have been absent this year is down to rather more prosaic reasons such as the writers' strike. What's more, the world's great auteurs have inspired a new generation of film-makers who have drawn heavily on their work - and so to that extent they live on.
Many of the most promising directors have also assimilated influences from beyond cinema, including video games, rock videos and television news. Reinvention is vital to the health of the industry. But a good number of those making interesting films today do not aspire to the title of auteur - which, let's not forget, is an idea that's more than 50 years old. Some may even eschew the whole idea of auteurism, in the sense of a singular genius driving a vision, in favour of a more collaborative theory of production. In recent years, writers and producers have been demanding more recognition of their role in the creation of a film.
What's more, not enough is written about the other elements that make for some of the most exciting work. The snobbish may focus on what they see as the overbearing vulgarity of CGI, but new technologies have allowed advances in cinematography, sound and editing that are too often taken for granted. What Cannes demonstrated this year - and Venice may follow suit - was signs of flawed but brilliant experimentation with new techniques, even if there were rather fewer polished final films to impress the markets.
In other words, we may be seeing less of an obsession with a handful of important film-makers and rather more interest in important film-making.
The optimistic analysis comes with the usual bad timing. Like the digital issue, the short-term pain associated with a changing of the guard is more apparent than the long-term gain. But if the industry is to prosper, it must ride the wave.
But there's another catch. The real post-auteurist challenge may be the now familiar post-modern one of engaging with audiences. The notion of the auteur was not conceived in a digital age when audience demand had such a big say. Distribution is moving to the centre of subsidy policies as well as the commercial market and that trend won't stop.
But there's no reason why that should be a cause for pessimism. Unlike jazz, cinema is playing with a much greater range of octaves.
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