Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Auteur Theory (Brief Musings)

(Let's see if I can complete this entry in about 15 minutes.) Back when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s the auteur theory of filmmaking seemed to be in great vogue, perhaps even dominant, in many articles and texts I was reading about film. Friends I had who were studying film also spoke quite a bit about it as well. From what I gathered, it developed in the French critical journal Cahiers du Cinéma (see below), in whose pages great filmmakers like François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, three of the best known Nouvelle Vague auteurs, had gotten their start as critics. In the US, American critic Andrew Sarris, who, if I recall correctly, was reviewing for the Village Voice then (and later--perhaps still--the New York Observer), while also teaching film studies at Columbia, too up the auteur theory cause. I think Truffaut actually coined the term in a Cahiers du Cinéma article at some point in the 1950s or 1960s. He and likeminded critics initially used the term to champion certain Hollywood directors (like John Ford, CahiersAlfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh, or Mr. Auteur himself, Orson Welles) whose unique artistic visions and styles shone through whatever sort of film they made, a notion that Sarris and successive critics broadened somewhat.

As I learned more about it the auteur theory seemed--at least to me at the time--to invalidate individual failures in favor of the larger body of work. So for example while Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and even the studio-butchered The Magnificent Ambersons are masterpieces, and The Lady from Shanghai is a fascinating disaster, the focus, from the auteur theory standpoint, would be on Welles's career as a whole, and the definitive artistic stamp he left on the films both generally and in relation to each other.

I read this as I would many critical projects by artists: this theoretical intervention--which was certainly less rigorous and programmatic than other sorts of critical methods in cinema studies that drew upon semiotics, feminism, psychoanalytic theory, deconstruction, etc.--served and serves as an ideational and explanatory manifesto for and powerful defense of an art of filmmaking, as well as the filmmakers themselves, as opposed to film as a commercial medium in which the artistic aspect remains in the background or isn't considered at all (the usual tendency nowadays in American moviemaking, where the main concern is the box office, as opposed to what's being put on screen to draw people in).

Anyways, I was very skeptical of the auteur theory back then, though I did enjoy reading Andrew Sarris's essays on it. Part of my skepticism came from a belief that works should be viewed individually and within the particular context in which they appeared, and part came from not seeing enough films by any of the authors who were being championed; this was in the days before DVDs, even before VHS versions of many films were available at rental stores, and to see many of the films you really had to go to a revival or foreign movie-oriented house or catch a university series, and I never seemed to be able to get my act together to do this for many of the auteurs.

There were then-contemporary ones, like Waters (one of my favorites from high school on), Fassbinder, Bergman, Scorsese, DePalma, Allen, Altman, Almodóvar, Cronenberg, Lynch, and Spike Lee (whose films I used to wait for, though after She Hate Me I may have to be dragged to see another one), whose films I was able to catch successively, but others--Ray, Roeg, Antonioni, Buñuel, Kurosawa, Fellini, Godard, Tarkovsky, Oshima, Pasolini, de Sica, Parajanov, Sturges, Cukor, Resnais, Cassavetes, Ousmane, Cissé, etc.--I would only catch sporadically or wouldn't see until years later, when I could actually rent the movies from video stores that actually had them, or got cable channels (like Sundance or Turner Classic Movies) that showed a number of their works (yet it's still rare to find even one Tarkovsky, for example, on any channel), or, most recently, signed up for Netflix (yes, this is my third or fourth mention of this company, but they're not paying me, unfortunately.)
2046 Clip
In recent years there are some newer filmmakers who'd qualify as auteurs--I'm thinking of Tsai Ming-Liang, Claire Denis, François Ozon, Catherine Breillat, Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Miike, Alexander Payne, etc.--about whom I can say that I've actually seen quite a few, if not all, of their major films. For some directors, I find myself actively seeking out as many films of hers or his as I can find. Though I've read that the auteur theory has gone out of style as cinema studies and scholars themselves have moved on, I do read aspects of it and its influence in some reviews I come across, and I know that my fascination with cetain directors contains a desire to see aesthetic--formal, stylistic, conceptual, materialist, and so on--throughlines, consistencies, motifs, and details in their various works, and I attribute this to having assimilated, despite my youthful doubt, some of the best aspects of Sarris's (and, in opposition, people like Pauline Kael's) interesting arguments.

Right now, I am subjecting Wong Kar-Wai to the serial treatment. In the Mood for Love (one of the most beautiful films about desire I've ever seen) and Happy Together (poetry on the screen, despite a problematic script) are two of my favorite films, and now I plan to watch 2046, the sequel to In the Mood for Love, and Chungking Express, which preceded both in his filmography. Everytime I drop by TLA Video I see lots of Ozu films now in DVD format on display, so maybe I'll add him to my cinemathèque next. And then there're Belvaux, Kusturica, Hanneke.... (Oh well, 38 [45+] minutes--maybe next entry!)


  1. hey john:

    great post...I've been looking forward to Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 for sometime now...

    and, im planning to see it when im in town for more interviews august 15th thru 19th.

    in terms of american auteur filmmakers, i would add Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, and even John Sayles to the list. Each has films that resemble that kind of "auteur spirit" of sorts.

  2. John:

    Is this post in honor of the publication of James Agee's film criticism -- in one volume, the novel A Death in the Family and Now Let Us Praise Famous Men in another -- in the Library of America series?:)

    I was quite taken with the auteur theory when I was younger (and reading Sarris and the rest of the Village Voice from cover to cover), and I'm sure there's a copy of Andrew S' The American Cinema around my place somewhere. One of the problematic things about it is how collaborative filmmaking is: not just the director but the cinematographer who handles lighting (and sometimes camera placement) and the whole range of others (including the screenwriter) who are involved in making a movie (where would Welles have been when making Citizen Kane, for example, without John Ford's favorite cinematographer Greg Toland?) The French critics (later turned directors) also tended to praise a number of directors who were in the main not then considered of first rank, and disliked what can be considered 'A-list' or high prestige pictures for more genre-fueled fare (hence their 'discovery' and touting of Film Noir). Like all theories that attempt to 'explain everything' it doesn't entirely hold together....

    ...and yet. Directors DO have distinctive styles/takes on the world, and the more control they have over their films the more obvious it is. Sometimes its in terms of visual style, sometimes its at the level of theme (after reading something about Billy Wilder, I've noticed how nearly all his films have to do at some level with artifice or impersonation/false identities). There is something to "auteurism" and it is an interesting lens through which to view movies (or should that be 'film'?:)

  3. Ryan, I meant to add Jarmusch and Sayles, and I definitely agree that they and the others you mention have definable styles, or in the case of Sayles, an ideological compass that is usually evident. I'd add Mike Leigh, Terence Malik, etc.

    Reggie, your comments about the collaborative aspects of filmmaking are right on, and call into question a central element of auteurship. I wasn't thinking of the publication of the Agee book, but thanks for bringing that up. And I guess you could say "cinema" or "film" or "movies"--all three work for me.

  4. Yes! I was going to mention Hal Hartley too. Those early films were amazing! His recent stuff... don't know... it doesn't get released over here in England.