This article is part of the Summer of ’92 the summer series that takes a look at the movies of the year I was born.
Most film enthusiasts believe in the auteur theory. In case you are not familiar with the term, auteur means author in French. If you are interested, there are very long, boring essays about how the term “auteur” actually means slightly different things depending on who you talk to, but the important thing behind it is that before he was a director, French film critic François Truffaut wrote about how the director was the “author” of the movie (in the way that a writer is the author of a novel). The idea behind this theory is that a director will always leave his visual or thematic mark in the movie he is making. If you can see recurring themes and visuals in a director’s body of work, then he is an auteur. Pretty much ever since, cinephiles have agreed with this theory, and pretty much ever since directors have been categorized as ether auteurs or journeyman directors. The latter are directors that are usually competent at their jobs, but don’t feature that many particular trademarks the way the work of auteurs do. A lot of the time, directors are immediately considered superior if they are auteurs even though many journeymen have directed amazing movies.
The concept of a movie having an author, and the difference between an auteur and a journeyman are what I want to focus on in this article. The question of authorship is something I couldn’t help but think about watching A Few Good Men and Strictly Ballroom one after the other. They aren’t similar movies as far as the plot goes. One is a legal drama about the darker side of the U.S. Army, while the other is about a group of Australians obsessed with ballroom dancing. But they are both entries in prolific movie genres: the courtroom drama, and the romantic comedy. What’s more, neither of the movies’ screenplays are afraid of following the more formulaic aspects of their respective genres. They are pretty straightforward, crowd-pleasing movies that develop more or less in the way you would expect. At the same time, though, within all the familiar trappings, you can see the voices of two of the most recognizable auteurs of the past twenty years.
Let’s start with A Few Good Men. Tom Cruise stars as a JAG lawyer assigned to defend two U.S. Marines charged with the murder of a member of their company while they were stationed at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Cruise recognizes his assignment as a lost cause, and plans to plea for an agreement before a determined Demi Moore convinces him to follow through and argue for the Marines’ innocence in court. Cruise agrees, and uncovers shady goings-on of Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), the man in charge of the Naval Base. Rob Reiner, a journeyman if there ever was one, directed the movie with sober restrain. There are a few shots of monuments photographed against a stark, orange, sunset, but even cinematographer Robert Richardson is far less flashy than usual. A Few Good Men tells the story in the most straightforward way possible. But even if Reiner and Richardson weren’t interested in leaving their mark, the movie undoubtedly finds an auteurish hand in the script by a then young writer named Aaron Sorkin.
Nowadays, Sorkin’s style is so well known that it has inspired many a parody, and has actually become kind of a parody of itself. but back in ’92, people didn’t know who this guy was. People also didn’t care that much about him. Very few reviews of A Few Good Men mention him or the script in any detail, which is not surprising since the movie, based on Sorkin’s own play, was his first produced screenplay. Still, it features a lot of the things that we go on to recognize as Sorkinisms.For example, Rob Reiner becomes the first director to ever stage a classic Sorkin walk-and-talk (pictured above). We also get characters that introduce themselves by reciting their resume, and a bunch of flashy speeches. Most interesting of all, though, are Sorkin’s gender politics. He has gotten a lot of slack, especially in recent years, for having a predilection for incompetent women that fall in love with the hero. In that sense, his treatment of the Demi Moore character is very interesting. Upon release, critics praised the fact that Cruise and Moore didn’t end up together in the movie, which is sadly remains a breath of fresh air all these years later. The bad part is that, even then, the Moore character is kind of a non entity, and is also much, much more boring than the Cruise character. At times it seems like she’s only there to push the hero in the right direction, but Moore does inject her with enough energy and attitude to make her one of Sorkin’s better female leads.
This was the most prestigious project of director Rob Reiner, who up to that point had been directing comedies and Stephen King adaptations. It looked like a front-runner for the Oscar, and like many movies that are perceived that way, was much maligned for being so formulaic. It was, however, a huge hit, ending up fifth in the list of the year’s highest grossing movies. This is not surprising considering the movie came out right around the time Tom Cruise was the world’s biggest superstar. In fact, famous film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert didn’t care all that much for A Few Good Men, but were very excited with Cruise’s performance. Siskel, in particular, singled him out as an actor that is dismissed because of his good looks, but is more than capable of holding his own against Jack Nicholson. I would say he does more than hold his own. This is Tom Cruise’s movie. The great film critic for the L.A. Weekly, Amy Nicholson, who is a lifelong Cruise devotee, recently wrote a fascinating article about the actor’s infamous “meltdown” on Oprah’s couch, and how he might have been our last true movie star. There are many movies to support this claim, and A Few Good Men is definitely one of them. I was a little irritated at the beginning by how the character was yet another carefree, young, cool, guy, but Cruise won me over pretty quickly, and if there is something that elevates this movie from adequate to actual fun, it’s his performance.
Now let’s talk about Strictly Ballroom, a film whose plot is as predictable, if not more so, than that of A Few Good Men. I think it’s fair to say that if you have seen as many movies as the average person, you will be able to spot the plot points and developments of Strictly Ballroom coming from a mile away. And yet, predictability is surprisingly not a liability but one of the movie’s biggest strengths. Because Strictly Ballroom features a level of unabashed romanticism that has been traditionally present in cinema (especially American cinema) in the past, but is almost completely absent from the current state of filmmaking. The reason behind this is not a mystery, it’s all because the man behind the making of this movie is Australian director Baz Luhrmann. It’s more than safe to say that the man who directed Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! is nothing if not a romantic.
Strictly Ballroom was Luhrmann’s first feature, produced entirely in his native country of Australia. He is, however, one of those directors whose auteurist vision seems to emerge fully formed in their first movie. I mean, Strictly Ballroom might not be as visually daring and stunning as some of his latter films (a lot of that must have had to do with budgetary reasons), but it is unquestionably a Baz Luhrmann movie, featuring his predilection for romance, his zany style of comedy, and a lot of the visual flourishes that we would see in his future movies. A few weeks ago, there was a video essay going around the internet that praised director Edgar Wright’s sense for visual humor, as well as it lamented the visually dull state of contemporary comedy movies, which are often limited by the directors’ over-reliance in improvisation. The first thing I thought of while watching Strictly Ballroom, was that video, and how Luhrmann’s comedy is often solely visual. Many times what characters are saying isn’t even that funny, it is just framed and shot in a funny way.
This is important, because beyond his iconoclastic visual style, the most valuable thing about Luhrmann as a filmmaker is his attitude. In an industry whose existence relies heavily on repetition and imitation, the idea of a director that is as self-assured and confident that his quirky ways will connect with audiences is refreshing. That is actually what I think makes cinephiles so enthusiastic about auteurs and the auteur theory. When you are not a casual moviegoer, but someone who dedicated a large part of your life to film, you start looking for the differences and particularities of the medium instead of the elements that are always there. Luhrmann is undoubtedly an auteur, and Strictly Ballroom is probably the second best movie he ever directed (the first is, and probably always will be Moulin Rouge!, his masterpiece and one of the most original movies in the history of the medium).
Anyway, I’ve gone this long without really talking about Stricly Ballroom is about, and that’s not right. Although the plot is not all that important to the enjoyment of the movie, it’s setting is one of its biggest strengths. The story focuses on a romeo-and-juliet-style romance (a recurring theme in Luhrmann’s movies) set in the world of Australian ballroom dancing. This all might sound too quirky or too cutesy to be an actually good film, but not only is Luhrmann particular enough in his filmmaking to make it work, he also seems to have had a personal connection to this world. According to many interviews, Luhrmann had been involved in the ballroom dancing community since he was a young man, and I believe it. The movie is so particular about the world it’s set in and populated with such colorful characters that it could only have possibly been inspired by real life.
So, what are the lessons learned from pairing up A Few Good Men and Strictly Ballroom? Well, you can tell the ending of both movies five minutes into their running time. Their pleasures simply don’t come from the plot or how it develops. In the case of A Few Good Men, we are talking about a studio movie that is almost muted in its efficiency. It wants to get in, do its thing, and get out as perfectly as possible. It delivers as an entertaining viewing experience, particularly thanks to Tom Cruise’s work in the lead role. However, this might end up feeling like an essay advocating for the presence of auteurs in our movies, because Strictly Ballroom, just by being the container for as original a voice as Luhrmann’s, ends up being a much more enjoyable and precious movie. I guess you can tell when someone’s telling something that’s coming from the deepest part of their being, and if they do it well… well, there’s no beating that.
Previously in Summer of ’92:
Vampires and Bats takes a look at Batman Returns and Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Next Week’s Double Feature: One False Move and Reservoir Dogs