From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In film theory, the 1950s-era auteur theory holds that a director's films reflect that director's personal creative vision, as if he or she were the primary "auteur" (the French word for 'author'). In some cases, film producers are considered to have a similar "auteur" role for films that they have produced. Compare singer songwriter.
Auteur theory has had a major impact on film criticism ever since it was advocated by film director and film critic François Truffaut in 1954. "Auteurism" is the method of analyzing films based on this theory or, alternately, the characteristics of a director's work that makes her or him an auteur. Both the auteur theory and the auteurism method of film analysis are frequently associated with the French New Wave and the film critics who wrote for the influential French film review periodical Cahiers du cinéma.
Sources of auteur theory
Auteur theory draws on the work of André Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers du cinéma who argued that films should reflect a director's personal vision. Bazin championed filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. Although Bazin provided a forum for auteurism to flourish, he himself remained wary of its excesses. Another key element of auteur theory comes from Alexandre Astruc's notion of the caméra-stylo or "camera-pen" and the idea that directors should wield their cameras like writers use their pens and that they need not be hindered by traditional storytelling.
Truffaut and the members of the Cahiers recognized that moviemaking was an industrial process. However, they proposed an ideal to strive for: the director should use the commercial apparatus the way a writer uses a pen and, through the mise en scène, imprint his or her vision on the work (conversely, the role of the screenwriter was minimized in their eyes). While recognizing that not all directors reached this ideal, they valued the work of those who neared it.
Truffaut's development of auteur theory
In his 1954 essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma français ("a certain tendency in the French cinema"), François Truffaut coined the phrase "la politique des auteurs", and asserted that the worst of Jean Renoir's movies would always be more interesting than the best of Jean Delannoy's. "Politique" might very well be translated as "policy" or "program"; it involves a conscious decision to look at films and to value them in a certain way. Truffaut provocatively said that "(t)here are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors."
Much of Truffaut's writing of this period, and of his colleagues at the film criticism magazine Cahiers du cinéma was designed to lambast post-war French cinema, and especially the big production films of the cinéma de qualité ("quality films"). Truffaut's circle referred to these films with disdain as sterile, old-fashioned cinéma de papa (or "Dad's cinema"). During the Nazi occupation, the Vichy government did not allow the exhibition of US films such as The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane. When French film critics were finally able to see these 1940s US movies in 1946, they were enamoured of the dark style of what came to be called the film noir style of US films.
Truffaut's theory maintains that all good directors (and many bad ones) have such a distinctive style or consistent theme that their influence is unmistakable in the body of their work. Truffaut himself was appreciative of both directors with a marked visual style (such as Alfred Hitchcock), and those whose visual style was less pronounced but who had nevertheless a consistent theme throughout their movies (such as Jean Renoir's humanism).
Impact of auteur theory
The auteur theory was used by the directors of the nouvelle vague (New Wave) movement of French cinema in the 1960s (many of whom were also critics at the Cahiers du cinéma) as justification for their intensely personal and idiosyncratic films. One of the ironies of the auteur theory is that, at the very moment Truffaut was writing, the break-up of the Hollywood studio system during the 1950's was ushering in a period of uncertainty and conservatism in American cinema, with the result that fewer of the sort of films Truffaut admired were actually being made.
The "auteur" approach was adopted in English-language film criticism in the 1960s. In the UK, Movie adopted auteurism, while in the U.S., Andrew Sarris introduced it in the essay, "Notes on the Auteur Theory" in 1962. This essay is where the half-French, half-English term, "auteur theory," originated. To be classified as an "auteur", according to Sarris, a director must accomplish technical competence in his or her technique, personal style in terms of how the movie looks and feels, and interior meaning (although many of Sarris's auterist criteria were left vague). Later in the decade, Sarris published The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, which quickly became the unofficial bible of auteurism.
The auteurist critics—Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer—wrote mostly about directors (as they were directors themselves), although they also produced some shrewd appreciations of actors. Later writers of the same general school have emphasized the contributions of star personalities like Mae West. However, the stress was on directors, and screenwriters, producers and others have reacted with a good deal of hostility. Writer William Goldman has said that, on first hearing the auteur theory, his reaction was, "What's the punchline?"
Criticism of auteur theory
Starting in the 1960s, some film critics began criticizing auteur theory's focus on the authorial role of the director. Pauline Kael and Sarris feuded in the pages of The New Yorker and various film magazines. One reason for the backlash is the collaborative aspect of shooting a film (one person cannot do everything) and in the theory's privileging of the role of the director (whose name, at times, has become more important than the movie itself). In Kael's review of Citizen Kane, a classic film for the auteur model, she points out how the film made extensive use of the distinctive talents of co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland.
As well, the very people who had once championed the auteur theory began to back away from it. Godard handed over much creative control to others (most notably Jean-Pierre Gorin) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In an ironic twist, Truffaut's later films embraced the same formalism he rejected early on in his career. Costly "auteur" films like Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate showed that the an "auteur's" expansive creative vision, if unchecked, could put a studio out of business.
The auteur theory was also challenged and undermined by the influence of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism. The New Critics argued that critics made an "intentional fallacy" when they tried to interpret works of art by speculating about what the author meant, based on the author's personality or life experiences. New Critics argued that that information or speculation about an author's intention was secondary to the words on the page as the basis of the experience of reading literature. New Critics suggested that the internal evidence of the work of literature itself--the text-- was the appropriate object of literary criticism. This ushered in a variety of text-centered approaches to understanding literature which had tremendous influence on subsequent film theory and criticism, such as semiotics and structuralism.
The influence of psychoanalytic film theory further undermined the auteur theory by raising the issue of the unconscious of both the "author" and the text itself. Subsequent theories of reception and cultural studies approaches broadened the context of meaning and interpretation as manifestations of culturally determined institutions in which authors and readers (directors and spectators) as well as texts (films) and their meanings are produced and reproduced. However, this view is disputed by the psychiatrist Rollo May (in his book "The Courage To Create") - and other psychologists (such as Anthony Storr) who have studied individuals who create art - who points out that cultures depend on the visions, dreams and creative output of individuals within them to shape them. So the notion that the roots of an individual artist's work can be traced back to the collective creative product of his or her culture is circular since the product of said culture must come from the works of individual storytellers and artists within it. According to these parties, by and large dreams and visions and the mysterious notion of "talent" are a far more plausible source of creative inspiration and output than mere observation of general culture. What's more this also accords with the struggles and experiences of artists heavily involved in the creative process.
Criticism of the auteur theory
It can easily be argued that any "writer director" - as in one who both writes and directs a film - could be labeled an auteur, since both writing and directing a film, is likely produce a film with the personal imprint of the director.
Auteur may or may not refer to control over the final version of the film. See the entry director's cut for more on this subject.
Note: the search string "writer director" turns up 1670 results in Wikipedia. [Aug 2007]
In recent years, the auteur theory has been contrasted with genre theory, arguing that the auteur theory is a manifestation of the cult of personality theory which tend to exclude the work of directors such as David Cronenberg, Radley Metzger or Roger Corman to name but a few, who produce highly personal movies but are mainly active in what has been labeled genre films, the cinematic equivalent of escapist fiction. This exclusion could hardly have been the original intention of the Cahiers writers, as they were the first to re-appraise - against established film critical currents - the works of "genre directors" such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Roger Corman.
As quoted from Greencine.com:
[the Cahiers writers] embraced directors - both French and American - whose personal signature could be read in their films. The French directors the Cahiers critics endorsed included Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and Marcel Ophüls; while the Americans on their list of favorites included John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles, indisputed masters, all. There were also a few surprising, even head-scratching favorites, including Jerry Lewis (where the whole "France loves Jerry Lewis" stereotype began) and Roger Corman. (Greencine.com, early 2000s)