Given the seismic cultural and theoretical shifts within academia in the past several decades, auteur theory seemingly should have been outmoded long ago. The essential premise, which places the (implicitly white male) director as the artistic and psychic center of a film, has had critics from the outset. In 1963, shortly after Andrew Sarris imported the French “politique” refashioned as an American “theory,” Pauline Kael famously shredded auteurism as little more than a celebration of arrested masculinity, whose proponents “are so enthralled with their narcissistic male fantasies…that they seem unable to relinquish their schoolboy notions of human experience.”1
The persistence of the theory attests to its usefulness. Regarding a body of cinematic work as expressive of an artistic psyche at the very least opens space for psychoanalytic criticism, and feminist scholars such as Geetha Ramanathan have demonstrated its value in considering the works of female directors and artists of color.
The implicit celebration of a director’s work as an expression of an artistic self, however, precludes critical evaluation of directors such as Robert Wise, whose considerable body of quality work is notable for revealing no trace of authorial personality. Although Wise directed 40 films, won four Academy Awards, and received numerous other accolades in a career spanning over seven decades, critical assessment of his work tends to dismiss him as a craftsman, a mere metteur en scène.
J.R. Jordan does not engage any theoretical perspective in Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures. His meticulous cataloging of every one of Wise’s films, however, with thorough plot summaries and well-researched biographical information, provide ample material for scholars who might wish to take up the case. With a foreword by veteran actor Gavin McLeod, an introduction by Wise’s nephew Douglas E. Wise, and interviews with cast, crew, and family members, the book presents an engaging insider’s view of the process and business of filmmaking. Each of its five parts covers a decade in Wise’s career, with chapters detailing each film during that period. The highlight of the 1940s-focused first section, “RKO Radio Pictures,” is a detailed summary of The Curse of the Cat People (1943) that includes some visual analysis of the film’s incidental cat imagery. Part II: “The Fifties” covers Wise’s most prolific years, evincing the range and versatility of a director who produced such disparate films as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Run Silent Run Deep. Part III, “Primetime,” features behind-the-scenes interviews with cast and crew of West Side Story and The Sound of Music recounting Wise’s competence and kindness as a director. Part IV: ”The Science and Surrealism of the Seventies,” reveals a director tightly focused on speculative fiction (The Andromeda Strain, The Hindenberg, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and accomplished in reshaping the previously marginalized genre within the emergent blockbuster aesthetic. Part V: “Twilight” outlines Wise’s final two films, made in 1989 and 1999 respectively, and exists mainly to complete the full forty-feature catalog.
Besides the love, affection, and respect Wise elicited from those he worked closely with, the portrait that emerges is that of a master craftsman whose genius lay in knowing when to stay out of the way. In a long interview about the making of West Side Story, George Chakiris, the actor who played Bernardo, observes: “Bob didn’t try to put a style or a stamp on the movies that he directed…With some directors, you can recognize their style. With Bob, his style, if that word applies, was just to do that particular film the way it should be made.”2 Martin Scorsese, who was largely responsible for getting Wise the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998, particularly admired “a very crisp, clear style of editing that kind of points the audience toward where to look in a scene."3
Jordan’s presentation mirrors the self-effacing style of his subject, letting the films, and the industry professionals who made them, speak for themselves. Although his assembling such a vast array of material and presenting it in a readable, accessible fashion stands as a remarkable accomplishment and an invaluable service, an academic audience may find the absence of both a critical perspective and an organizational scheme beyond chronology frustrating. His presentation of Wise’s personal characteristics in sometimes overly-effusive terms, with no counter-perspective or critical framing, seem more designed to please the many friends, colleagues, and family members who contributed to the book than to engender analysis. While possibly too uncritical for a scholarly audience yet too dense and comprehensive for the casual film buff, Jordan’s account of Wise’s career nonetheless offers a crucial first step to further scholarly consideration of an unfairly neglected director. Rather than the inescapable auteur baggage of personality and masculine genius, Jordan’s work suggests that a more appropriate critical lens through which to assess Wise’s work may be what the poet Keats called “negative capability”—the capacity of the artist to fully subsume his own desire for mastery and control into the Beauty of art for itself. Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot, W B. Yeats and Ezra Pound similarly advocated for the poetic principle of poetic impersonality. As a director whose mastery of his craft is both consummately impersonal and characteristically inclusive—of all the people who share the work of making films and all the fans who enjoy them, Robert Wise is fully deserving of far more critical consideration than he has received.
Shannon McRae is a professor of English and coordinator of Film Studies at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Her research interests include aesthetic modernism and American popular culture.
- Kael, Pauline. “Circles and Squares.” Film Quarterly 16, no. 3 (Spring, 1963), 12-26. ⮭
- Jordan, J.R. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures. BearMedia Manor (2020), 306. ⮭
- “Robert Wise, Film Director, Dies at 91.” The New York Times. (Sept 15, 2005.) https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/15/movies/robert-wise-film-director-dies-at-91.html ⮭