In describing today's best directors, three terms are generally used (and overused): Maverick, Genius and Auteur. A "maverick" is now used to describe virtually anyone who makes a movie without using Hollywood money. An "auteur" is used to describe anyone who writes as well as directs. And "genius" is used to describe anyone who makes a halfway decent film. I'm taking these words back. In reality, a "maverick" should be a button-pusher. It's a filmmaker who is so radical and daring that even high-minded, forward-thinking critics sneer at their work, people like Vincent Gallo or Catherine Breillat. These people are so dangerous that they have trouble making and distributing films. Harmony Korine, director of Mister Lonely (5 screens) is very much a maverick. Korine has pushed many buttons and many envelopes over the years and though I love his work, he's someone I wouldn't want to invite to my house. (He scares me.)
Werner Herzog, director of Encounters at the End of the World (1 screen), is also a maverick (and, incidentally, a buddy of Korine's). His physically dangerous films have probably had insurance companies slamming the door in his face, and his co-workers have included people who might not be fit for polite society. (At the very least, most of them would turn heads.) Some of his actors have reportedly threatened to kill him. It cracks me up that, because Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man was such a hit, Herzog was allowed to make his new film for the Discovery Channel. I'd really love to have been in on that board meeting. Did they really know who they were dealing with? At the same time, Herzog is also an auteur: all of his films have the same roaming curiosity, fearlessly exploring man's tenuous connection to nature, from Aguirre navigating the Amazon looking for El Dorado, to Timothy Treadwell seeking to befriend the bears.
The "Auteur Theory," developed in France in the 1950s and brought to America in the 1960s, has always had its detractors, but mainly it argues that the director is the author of a picture; a true auteur has a signature style that is discernable from movie to movie, regardless of cast, crew or subject matter. Wong Kar-wai is definitely an auteur, and his latest box office failure My Blueberry Nights (27 screens) is exactly the kind of film auteur critics like to champion. Most people unfavorably compared it to Wong's earlier work, but every frame has Wong's dreamy, lonely rhythms filled with streaked colors and a kind of distant sound design. Just because it feels lighter, and it's in English, doesn't mean it's a bad film. Errol Morris, the director of Standard Operating Procedure (16 screens), is also a definite auteur. He's one of the only documentary filmmakers to employ his own personality and methods (interviewees speaking right into the camera, re-creation footage, dramatic music, etc.) rather than the usual PBS format.
Also in the auteur category we have Hou Hsiao-hsien, director of Flight of the Red Balloon (13 screens) and Jacques Rivette, director of The Duchess of Langeais (6 screens). Their artistically superior work has always had a consistent, patient tone. It gets a little trickier when we talk about genre filmmakers like Argento, director of Mother of Tears (6 screens). The very nature of his work seems to cry out "maverick," since he flaunts convention to work in the lower, more physical horror genre. But he's not exactly dangerous and not entirely an outsider. But Argento, whose style remains the same from movie to movie, is definitely, definitely an auteur, and Mother of Tears, as awful as it is, has been one of my favorite movies of the year so far. But what about our third category, the "genius"? Far fewer geniuses exist in movies than the other categories, so it makes sense that there aren't any on the list right now.
A genius should be someone educated and worldly, with deep knowledge of cinema, art, world culture, music and other forms. Their decisions and ideas should be so surprising that mere mortals could never have conceived of them. Among the potential geniuses in cinema, we have Chaplin, Keaton, Welles, Kubrick, Bresson, Bergman and Kiarostami. And of course, that brings us to Jean-Luc Godard, director of Contempt (2 screens). Godard and Orson Welles are probably the only two directors who qualify for all three categories; although Godard's major drawback is that he's not as easy to like as Welles. His later films are obtuse and frustrating, although no one can deny their brilliance, and no one can deny that they're perfectly Godardian. He practically invented a whole new cinematic language, although, like Griffith, his contributions now seem quaint and out of date. His early films, like the aforementioned Contempt, as well as Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Weekend, Pierrot le Fou, Alphaville, A Woman Is a Woman, Masculine-Feminine, etc. are still amazing and a great source of excitement and discovery for film buffs. I only hope I get to see another filmmaker like this in my lifetime.