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David Kipen has devised a cinematic conspiracy theory so simple it could be termed “high concept.” But don’t expect his The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History to be adapted as a vehicle for Bruce Willis, Adam Sandler, or even Ralph Fiennes. That’s because Kipen’s reading of Hollywood’s decline stars not that charismatically tormented potentate, the director, but a miserable character who almost never works on-screen: the writer.
Yiddish for “writer,” “schreiber” is offered as a replacement for another word that also basically means writer: auteur. Expounded in the ’50s by the young French critics who were soon to become the nouvelle vague’s leading directors and popularized in the United States by critic Andrew Sarris, the auteur theory holds that directors are the authors of their films. Kipen claims this doctrine has subsequently done great damage, downgrading the role of screenwriting and bloating directorial influence as American movies putrefied into “generalized jejune awfulness.” In large part, the motivation of the early auteurists was to boost the standing of B-directors who were considered mere journeymen or outright hacks. But Kipen asserts that auteurism led to a new generation of megadirectors who are as heedlessly destructive as Godzilla.
There’s something to this, but not much. Kipen’s use of the term “auteur” is less flexible than that of many auteurists, and it’s hard to pin the current power of the Directors Guild of America on some 50-year-old essays by Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Most significant, there’s a several-generation gap between the screenwriters Kipen champions and the industrywide maladies he diagnoses.
The Schreiber Theory’s central essay runs fewer than 60 pages and is followed by a 76-page appendix the author calls a guide to “reliably gifted screenwriters.” The current scripters include such dubious characters as Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes, Ever After) and Ted Tally (Red Dragon, White Palace) and largely exclude writer-directors, a category whose growing influence is in itself a substantial rebuke to the book’s thesis. There are 31 scribes in all, and 20 of them are still alive, but that doesn’t make Kipen’s argument two-thirds contemporary. Most of the neglected screenwriters he praises in the main essay—including Citizen Kane’s Herman Mankiewicz, Scarface’s Ben Hecht, and Stagecoach’s Dudley Nichols—are long dead. Perhaps they wuz robbed, but not by the movie business that exists today.
Many things have happened to Hollywood since the mid-20th century, notably the collapse of the studio system that kept writers, directors, and stars alike on short leashes. New freedoms allowed the rise of near-omnipotent directors such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, whose successes have redounded to the benefit of other, less consistently commercial filmmakers. Yet when Kipen notes that in cinema’s first 50 years, it was regarded as “not a director’s but a producer’s medium,” he elides the fact that it still is. In big-budget, mass-market moviedom, very few directors maintain complete control of their projects, and the ones who do—the Spielbergs and Lucases—are producers as much as (and sometimes more than) directors.
Kipen mentions some of this in passing, suggesting that producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Harvey Weinstein “are wrestling power back from the director.” Weinstein has done some wrestling, but that’s mostly because he, as a distributor of existing foreign and indie films, was often dealing with directors who understandably thought their films were finished. Other leading Hollywood producers control their projects utterly, hiring and firing directors with as much impunity as they do those poor, undervalued writers. So, even if you hate the jejune blow-’em-ups that result, it’s hard to deny that the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver are auteurs. —Mark Jenkins