Last month as I sat down to watch Scorsese’s Shutter Island with the rest of the Austin-based Reject crew, Lost Club’s David Gunn and I had a rather enlightening discussion about the applicability of the auteur theory in today’s cinematic landscape. It got me thinking about the contemporary negotiations between the theory’s shortcomings, contradictions, and pragmatic applicability to how we perceive and view cinema on a regular basis in the 21st century. Since this is such a huge subject, I’ve decided to divide it into two posts. Today I’ll speak about what the auteur theory really means and how it’s influenced the ways we view movies today. Next Tuesday’s post will be a discussion of the problems it’s created and its limited relevance regarding how we view films today.
The auteur theory as it was first articulated by French critics and filmmakers in the cinema journal Cahiers du Cinema stipulates that the prominent authorial voice evident in a film or series of films belongs to that of the director – the true auteur, then, is one whose personality and worldview are reflected in the revisited themes of their filmic canon, even if that director works across a vast array of genres, types of content, or with various stars to the point that their films are dissimilar on a superficial level. In auteur criticism, or an auteur-specific reading of films, a common thread can be extrapolated from directors working within a disparate set of films. While this idea may seem obvious now, its importance in mid-twentieth century film criticism is most evident in that it replaced the viewing of individual films as good or bad with the view of directors as good or bad. As Truffaut once famously stated, “there are no good or bad films, only good or bad directors.” Thus, in order to truly understand a director through an auteur reading, one must rid themselves of a qualitiative approach of their individual works and instead approach their body of work as a whole, prioritizing their lesser, unappreciated, or smaller films on the same plane as their “essential works” (the auteur reader would view Hitchock’s Vertigo and Topaz, or Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Kundun, as equally important in the process of understanding the influence of the director).
The auteur theory impacted the way pre-1950s Western cinema was viewed a great deal. While the early Academy Award ceremonies continuously gave the Best Director award to a small, repeated community of Hollywood talent, it would be hard to argue that films were viewed regularly as products of directors, even those of the most celebrated kind. Directors themselves actively rejected the author/artist label at this time, as exemplified by John Ford’s (a favorite subject of early auteur readings of Classic Hollywood directors) statement that his job was simply to “make Westerns.” But no matter, the auteur thread can be read as a conscious or unconscious product of the person, and the way Ford isolates himself to a specific genre is a self-contradicting statement that unintentionally “proves” the auteur theory through Ford’s admission that his filmmaking personality lends itself to a specific genre (it should further be noted that some of Ford’s most celebrated films – Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), his fiction and non-fiction war films – weren’t westerns, yet contained many of the same sensibilities shared by his famous westerns).
But we’ve moved in everywhere from serious film criticism to casual-but-informed film spectatorship towards a negotiation in responding to each individual film as a qualitative assessment of both the director and the film itself. The auteur theory as it was first envisioned was manufactured by critics who conflated the idea of auteur with a director of worth and talent – bad directors or directors-for-hire were, inferentially, not auteurs. But today every director’s filmography and canon are considered within an assessment of each new film they release. Joe Johnston’s career was discussed in comparable length with respect to the failure of Wolfman as Scorsese’s past work was analyzed with respect to Shutter Island’s varied reactions. The qualitative requirements for the auteur are gone, and, I think, for the better. Michael Bay, for instance, can be a case study of the looser definition of the auteur that has evolved since, as he meets the requirements of a personal vision that implements repeated themes that connect throughout his filmography, as disliked as his films may be within many circles.
The origins of the auteur theory come from a time in film studies that promoted the masterpiece tradition – that is, the idea that only the greatest of the filmic canon are the one’s worthy of serious study – thus creating a very limited perception of film history and an unquestioned endorsement of a consensual subjective viewpoint in regards to what a ‘good film’ is (in other words, it requires an unchallenged agreement upon what ‘the’ important canon of movies are). With the broadening requirements of what constitutes an auteur, it’s often more fascinating when ‘bad’ films are studied from this theoretical standpoint, as the personality of bad filmmakers are often apparent in anything from the work of Ed Wood to that of Bay, Johnston, Uwe Boll, et al. I’ve found time and again that what are often dismissed as bad films, be they popular or not, often have more telling revelations of our cultural priorities and values than ‘good’ films do. But regardless, the language of assessing film today remains director-centric thanks to the auteur theory. From excavating the layers of depth in a film by David Fincher or Paul Thomas Anderson to criticizing the absurdities or excesses of a film by Michael Bay or Joe Johnston, credit and meaning – regardless of good or bad – is assigned primarily to the director.
But the limitations of the auteur theory are obvious. To assign primary, if not exclusive, authorial meaning to the director is to disregard to collaborative process that is filmmaking as a whole. Each and every decision that goes into the final cinematic product could have come from suggestion or via collaboration involving anybody in front of or behind the camera. So often do we assign repeated themes within narratives to be the credit of the personality of the auteur, yet this potentially disregards the many different writers involved across varied films by the same director (check out the compelling Schreiber Theory for more on this interpretation. Also, the writer-director is often cited as a less problematic example of the auteur). Furthermore, the signifier of the auteur is most often and most readily identified by a director’s visual sense or style, yet this style is regularly determined by other contributions to a film’s complete vision, from set designers to costume designers to, especially, cinematographers (perhaps it would be worth assessing the potential auteurs amongst famous directors of photography – Robert Richardson’s signature, Oscar –nominated visual sense is visible across works by a great many directors; look at the similar employment backlighting, for instance, in Inglourious Basterds and The Aviator). The living factors in front of the camera also contribute repeated patterns of meaning in the same vein as the auteur, as many great and not-so-great actors use the same techniques, seek similar characters, or work in familiar genres in a way that can be interpreted as a continued exploration of a personal set of themes and an implementation of the actor’s worldview (the connection between Clooney’s star persona, bachelor reputation, and outspoken political views are conflated with the roles he chooses, for example). Lastly, producers – anybody from Roger Corman to Jerry Bruckheimer to Jeremy Thomas – can also be regarded as auteurs in their own right.
Thus, the classic view of the auteur belonging exclusively to good movies and to the role of the director becomes rather arbitrary. Films are a collective effort manifested through a collaboration of personalities, not an unquestioned effort by many to honor the vision of this pseudo-dictatorial perspective of the director’s role. The auteur theory has been as discredited in contemporary film studies as the masterpiece tradition, valued only as an important piece in the evolutionary puzzle of the history of film theory that led to the seemingly more relevant ideas popularly accepted in the discipline today. While there are many holes in the auteur theory and its contradictions and oversimplifications are readily apparent, it’s dangerous to dismiss it wholly as contemporary film studies and film criticism continue to take a director-centric approach when assessing the artistry and meaning of film, an irrevocable perspective permanently indebted to the popularity of the auteur theory.
We can pretend to ignore the idea of the auteur, but it’s something that can’t be unlearned. And the fact that film is a collaborative process must always be considered – and it remains important, especially in film criticism, to be aware of the speculative process in which the critic assigns particular decisions within the production to the director – there’s no denying that our admiration for certain filmmakers is often a result of their repeated implementation of a signature style or the act of embedding their own personality throughout their canon. We’re trained to look for these things, and finding them isn’t an incorrect approach simply because there are major holes in the idea behind it. We look for Godard’s jump cuts, Tarantino’s pastiche, or Altman’s mosaics in order to seek out a more understandable appreciation for the set of films we love and the people behind them. The auteur theory should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s far too essential in shaping the way we see movies today to dismiss.
Tune in next week for part 2 of ‘The Contemporary Auteur’