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Schwarzenegger, DeVito, Riteman, and collaborative filmmaking.
Auteur theory—the idea that movies are the singular vision of a singular, directorial controlling intelligence—limits how we see and appreciate movies. It leads us to value and venerate control, even abusive control, rather than celebrating film as a collaborative medium, which is beautiful and meaningful in part because it is created by many people, working together. A finished film is more than the sum of its parts because it's more than the conception of its director. As critic Ada Sussman puts it in a wonderful post on their Substack, "Auteurism brought about some of the most iconic and important art and artists of the 20th century, but it discredits the painstaking and revolutionary creativity of many whose contributions are deemed unworthy of marquee status."
I was thinking about Sussman's post while watching the not-very-critically-celebrated 1988 film Twins. The director of the film was Ivan Reitman, a veteran of lowbrow 80s and 90s comedies (Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Dave) who had a type of film, but isn't usually thought of as a great stylist. On the contrary, most of Reitman's films are associated first with the marquee comedians involved—Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and in Twins, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.
Because Reitman isn't seen as an auteur, Twins isn't generally thought of as a unified artistic statement,which means it isn't rated highly as an aesthetic accomplishment.
But what if its aesthetic accomplishment is precisely that it refuses to be a unified artistic vision? Even in its title, the movie insists that it is about multiples; not one, but (at least) two. And in fact, the movie was only made because Schwarzenegger, Reitman, and DeVito joined together to defy studio skepticism.
Universal wanted Schwarzenegger to keep making action films. In order to get funding, the star agreed to take no salary, working for a percentage of the profits. DeVito and Reitman made similar deals in solidairty and faith. The movie is not the product of a single auteur, bent on their own vision. Instead, it's the creation of a group of artists who gambled their reputations and their money because they wanted to work together. It's a child with multiple fathers.
The Bits That Are Out of Control
Children with multiple fathers are, not coincidentally, central to the plot of the film. Julius (Schwarzenegger) is a eugenically, physically and spiritually perfect human created from the DNA of six men. Julius grows up on a tropical island, helping a foster father with research in part because he thinks his mother died and that he was an only child. But at the beginning of the film, his foster dad tells him he has a twin brother. Julius immediately goes off to search for him.
The brother, Vincent, is Danny DeVito. The odd couple pairing is of course a lot of the joke. Where Jules is massively muscled, beatific in demeanor, and pure of heart, Vincent, who grew up in an orphanage, is physically diminutive and morally reprobate; he makes money by stealing cars, gets in debt to loan sharks, and philanders compulsively. When Vincent and Julius meet the scientist who created them, he tells them that Vincent is a byproduct—the unwanted ugly "genetic garbage" of a controlled experiment. He's the bit an auteur would throw out.
The movie, though, refuses to see Vincent as lesser or as a mistake. He wasn't what the control freak "shithead" scientist dreamed up, but that makes him more valuable, not less. "We had six fathers. We're many parts of a lot of different people," Julius says. He adds:
And don't forget, I was taken to a beautiful island, I was cared for, educated, looked after. You had nobody, Vincent. No one to love you, teach you, or encourage you. You see, Vincent, you're the missing part of my life. And I'm the missing part of your life. And when we find Mama, we can be the missing part of her life. We won't be alone anymore. We can be a family.
Life and art isn't about crafting the one perfect life or art by yourself. It's about finding others who fit you, and becoming something together that no one could have planned.
Directing the Director
Movies like The Shining foreground the control and power of the director; Kubrick is the haunted hotel manipulating Jack and everyone else in the movie, staging moments of horror and elaborate death scenes. Kubrick terrorized actress Shelley Duval in real life just as she was terrorized on screen; as Sussman points out "Kubrick created a production environment virtually indistinguishable from the narrative he crafted."
Twins also uses a metaphor of a directing hand—it's just not a unitary appendage, and doesn't belong to the director. Rather, much of the film is about Jules and Vincent teaching each other to be more like the other. Vicent—aka, Danny DeVito, the comic actor—teaches Jules to loosen up, enjoy life, drink beer, date women. There's a marvelous scene where the other brother teaches the perfect man to dance, literally directing him through unfamiliar steps. For his part, Jules—aka Schwarzenegger, the traditional action hero—teaches Vincent to believe in himself, to respect himself and to be heroic. At Jules' direction, its Vincent who pulls the lever taking out their antagonist.
Obviously, Schwarzenegger and DeVito aren't really the directors—Reitman is. But...is it that obvious? Yes, directors direct. But actors also learn from each other and are inspired by each other. Schwarzenegger went on to become a very talented comic actor, using his own stiffness and cragginess to deliver absurd lines in a way that allowed him to function as his own straight man. Playing opposite DeVito certainly seems to have taught him something. And maybe DeVito enjoyed getting the opportunity to play the action hero too, however briefly.
Twins isn't a movie where Reitman is moving actors around the screen like chess pieces. It's more like a semi-improvised dance, in which the collaborators riff off one another. Some of the most entertaining scenes are those in which DeVito and Schwarzenegger unexpectedly perform small tasks in unison; rotating their plate at dinner in the same way, or washing their hands with the same series of motions. It's gentle physical comedy, that had to have required coordination and collaboration, with everyone—Reitman, DeVito, Schwarzenegger—directing and watching each other at once.
No Perfect Film
Sussman suggests that attending to the collaborative nature of cinema might reduce incentives for abuse; if you realize that the auteur is just one artist among many, there's less excuse for him (and it's usually him) to harm others in the name of his unique vision. There are no reports of abuses on the set of Twins —though Schwarzenegger has admitted to sexual harassment in other contexts. Expanding appreciation for collaboration can't alone defuse the star system, to say nothing of patriarchy. Kelly Preston and Chloe Webb, the female leads, didn't get a chance to forego salaries in favor of a cut of the film's success. Nor did they get especially interesting or fulfilling roles.
To really flatten the hierarchy of credit, you'd probably need to move towards more experimental films and approaches—like Yoko Ono's Butts perhaps, which is just a footage of a lot of her friends' naked rears walking. There's no plot except collaboration; the joy of the movie is watching a bunch of almost certainly stoned artists being goofy together.
Twins is more conventional in every sense. But it's also, undeniably a film about how there are virtues other than hierarchy, unity, and control. If we're always trying to create the perfect Jules of film, we're going to miss the value of Vincent, of Kelly Preston, and of Jules as well.
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