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Useful Notes / The Auteur Theory

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"People are incorrect to compare a director to an author. If he's a creator, he's more like an architect. And an architect conceives his plans according to precise circumstances."

The concept of the "auteur" had a great deal of vogue in the 1960s and '70s, where it was used in magazines and the media as a catch-all shorthand of a "serious film-maker" or "great director". In America it was then, and remains in the Internet Age, a real controversial subject among movie geeks, because for some, it overestimates the importance of the film's director over his other collaborators, assigning him credit for a film over the writers who, in the majority of instances, come up with the story and characters, the actors who play the roles, the producers who fund the films, and the army of collaborators who play a role in shaping the product. There is, needless to say, much confusion about what "auteurism", or the "auteur theory", means and how its definitions shifted.

To begin with, there's the word, "auteur", French for "author". The beginning of the movement is an innocuous enough article in the famous French cultural journal Cahiers du Cinéma titled Une certaine tendance du cinéma français, which translates as "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema". The article was written by none other than François Truffaut, and as its name suggests, its original context was specific to French cinema in the '50s. At the time, the general claim against cinema being True Art was that it was "art by committee" and lacked the individual expression of writers, poets, painters, musicians, and architects to their mediums. The movies that had cultural cachet then were the French version of Oscar Bait — films with prestigious literary pedigree, which the Cahiers critics noted were often flat as cinema, with little creativity in camera and editing technique compared to, say, a film by Alfred Hitchcock which abounded with invention.

Truffaut argued in favor of directors like the independent (for France, that is) Robert Bresson, who were driven by their strong identification with the material and shaped a film in the same way that authors shaped books.

He and his friends argued that the director was the chief visionary of the film, and any good or great film was a matter of how the director expressed his style or personality on a film through their choice of camera set-ups, compositions, editing strategy, and direction of actors. This is the Auteur Theory.

For the French, their argument was important in getting cinema itself Out of the Ghetto of not being True Art, and in making a case for "genre" directors in musicals, Westerns, film noir (a term coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946), and screwball comedy to be taken as seriously as arthouse directors as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Jean Renoir. To their Sophisticated as Hell tastes, there was no difference between liking a commercial film like Rear Window and a serious film by Sergei Eisenstein because, for them, both directors were just as rich in invention and technique. In their view, "genre" filmmakers were underrated because critics dismissed the content or the plot itself out of hand without looking at the subtext, the Meaningful Background Events, and other Genius Bonuses these films were filled with, whereas someone like Eisenstein declared his artistic ambitions openly in his movies and so allowed people to admire him for the wrong reasons.

This idea was defined by the French as la politique des auteurs and the principle idea that Hollywood directors like Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich and even B-Movie directors like Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy) or Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour) were great artists was considered ridiculous by the Anglo-American cultural establishment. They felt that these critics were Running the Asylum and made Entertainingly Wrong conclusions about how Hollywood worked, driven by their youthful Foreign Culture Fetish. However, once these critics started directing the edgy, avant-garde films of the French New Wave and gave many a Shout-Out to the same films they talked about in their writings, their arguments started being taken more seriously. In America, the critic Andrew Sarris introduced his translation of the French philosophy as "the auteur theory" or "auteurism", and he published a famous issue in Film Comment magazine that listed the best American directors. This list tended to include lesser-known filmmakers, and made the same daring claims in English as his inspirations did in French.

This idea didn't spread into the mainstream until the film school students at the time (who knew these concepts), like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and others like Woody Allen, became directors in their own right. The culmination of this was the New Hollywood era, also known as "the age of the director", where film directors received Protection from Editors and had celebrity status comparable to the movie stars in front of the camera. On one hand, this produced a creative explosion in American cinema in The '70s, with many films frequently cited on "greatest of all time" lists having been made in the '70s by auteur filmmakers. On the other hand, a backlash eventually emerged against the idea, with some believing it enables the Prima Donna Director mindset; expensive flops like Heaven's Gate and One from the Heart were often cited as showing what happened when this idea went too far. But the concept endures as an ideal for independent filmmakers in America and around the world, and the core idea of film as an art form capable of individual expression despite its collective discipline has endured. In that respect, the idea was a success.

In course of time, the idea of the auteur would spread to other fields which argued for medium specificity and its status as "serious art", namely the fields of Comic Books and Video Games.

More points to consider:

  • Auteurism subsequently had its fruit in Europe, where directors hold copyright over their films and the law is called "Les droits d'auteur". In America, directors don't hold copyright unless they are also producers and depend on contract or goodwill for the privilege of "final cut". Even now, Executive Meddling is a risk on any studio project, or even on independent films with producers with vested interests. Auteurism, however, did inspire the most important period in the history of the DGA when Robert Aldrich, celebrated by the French as an "auteur" negotiated for the "first cut privilege". Thanks to Aldrich, at the very least, any Hollywood studio film in the mainstream has to allow the directors the privilege of the first cut, to make their version of the film unhindered and unadulterated before previews and post-production feedback. Before, in the classic era, directors weren't even allowed in the editing room (with select exceptions) whereas in contemporary American cinema, directors are consulted and allowed to make their version before other cutters and producers have their say.
  • Since the argument of the French and American auteur critics rested on overall development of style rather than one or two official classics, they believed in going on an Archive Binge and watching the whole filmography of filmmakers to better understand how a style and technique evolved. This in turn inspired film studies, and later brought to light neglected films which later became Vindicated by History and played no small role in the later movements for film restoration.
  • Even in its initial stage, auteurism was sophisticated enough to note that every major filmmaker had his or her own Production Posse and regular crew, who played a great role in maintaining and developing the director's style. The overall shift in attention from the content to the visual style of the film brought technicians like cinematographers, art directors, and even lesser-known supporting actors and bit players into prominence, since the director is the best placed to collaborate and interact with every known person on the set and best use their energy.
  • The most debated and often misunderstood aspect of auteurism is "style". The likes of Bob Chipman, William Goldman and others believe that the main focus determining an auteur is an obvious visual style and aesthetic that clearly makes a film the vision of a single artist. However, the French and Sarris identified as auteurs directors like George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch who are usually not seen as great stylists in the way that Alfred Hitchcock is. Likewise, the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and even Sarris deprecated (initially) the likes of Stanley Kubrick precisely because they felt he was "style" over substancenote . The original auteurists had no hard and fast notion about "style" and indeed were criticized in their time, and afterwards, for using the word "style" to play favorites while Moving the Goalposts to attack/defend those they liked/disliked. Auteurists on the other hand insist that not every film-maker has a style that manifests in the same way, and while some directors have obvious visual styles and aesthetics, others are more subtle, quiet and work out their style via direction of actors or use of tone.
  • The original auteurists likewise also took it for granted, on the part of their readers, and in their writings, that a film-maker who they classified as "auteur" are fundamentally competent technicians, good storytellers and that their films are genuinely very good. It's true that they championed film-makers like Hawks or Hitchcock who were seen as entertainers (in their time) but which they argued were great artists, but this has often led later writers to make claims that the likes of Ed Wood can be seen as an auteur, and especially in The Oughties to put forth ideas of vulgar auteurism by which any mass market product can be potentially seen as auteurist since some of them are made and codified by film-makers with a distinct visual and editing style. Film historians note that the original Cahiers writers were in an entirely different film-making era, a time when genre fiction like science-fiction and pulp narratives were low-budget B-Movie, with little known, obscure B-Grade actors which really did require film-makers to use style and creativity to improvise and riff off of weak stories and technical limitations. This is different from The Blockbuster Age of Hollywood where such genre fiction receive astronomically high movie budgets, top of the line visual effects and production values, and A-List stars. When films like The Western or the suspense thriller, Film Noir and others were more or less ordinary fare, as opposed to the late 20th-early 21st, when such genres are evoked as Nostalgia Filter Genre Throwback (as the Western is) or seen as prestigious (thrillers and Neo-Noir like Gone Girl and Zodiac). This is not to say of course that the idea of a mass-market auteur is no longer possible, in theory it is, but it's being defined in an entirely different context from the one in The '50s, and a different period of mass entertainment, and as such claims of direct continuity are at best Entertainingly Wrong.