The Auteur Theory Revisited

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One of the more controversial ideas currently in film discourse is the notion of the auteur: a director with a personal vision that heavily impacts the film. The auteur director, in theory, will produce a body of work that features their identifiable ‘stamps’ in terms of style and theme. The controversy surrounding this theory stems from the belief that framing film art in terms of authorship unfairly diminishes the collaboration of other creatives on the film, whilst others also argue that the construct of the auteur bolsters a culture (even a cult, some suggest) of privilege granted primarily to white male directors.

Part of the problem with the auteur theory, especially regarding its role as a descriptor, is that no one has a settled definition. Even its original debates veer towards vagueness and much of the current understanding stands in contrast as to how the earlier thinkers, primarily the Cahiers Du Cinema and Andrew Sarris, conceived it. For many, especially laypersons, the term has become a means of describing a heavily micromanaging director; one who dictates every choice made in the film, controlling, intimately, each area of production. Some critics grimace at this notion, believing it unfairly credits the director at the expense of others’ contributions: often this argument is framed as, “you can never really know whose idea it truly was!” However, a challenge to that may be that, ultimately, the director influences all choices — if they dislike an idea, would it be used in the film?

This view of the director as ‘primary creative’ may be descriptive of the directorial position in general: the director is the principal creative on a film, typically hired to bring a particular vision to the project, or has a particular project they have brought along from the ground up. They are with the project longer than any other member of the staff, from scripting to the final edits. Micromanaging, of course, describes a style of direction: some directors may be very hands-on across the board, others more delegating; some downright incompetent and heavily reliant on the skill-sets of their crew.

Part of the complexity with the use of the term is there is no singular mode of directing. A director might choose to be a keen collaborator or more autocratic with their wants. Some directors might choose to be heavily involved in the camerawork seeing it as integral to their approach to film whereas others might instead prefer to allow the cinematographer to have more say whilst they focus on the performances of the actors. Steven Spielberg is an example of the former, notably designing the camera movements, choosing the lenses, and composing the blocking and composition of his shots. Ultimately, this lies in the hands of the individual director, and there is no universal ‘way’ in which they are dictated to work; auteurism in this colloquial sense argues for the director to ‘do all’ which some reject as physically impossible; a view others counter is not meant to be a literal descriptor, but rather influencing all. Even still, the directorial position itself tends to place all directors as the central influence of the creative direction of the films — excepting studio interference.

Attempting to define the auteur, Andrew Sarris attempted a criteria. Sarris suggested that an auteur director must, at least, be a good director and, preferably, a great one. His first two expectations suggest that an auteur must both be a skilled film-maker and one with a personal voice.

The first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of the director as a criterion of value. A badly directed or undirected film has no importance in a critical scale of values…the second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serves as his signature.

Generally speaking, under this argument, an auteur director is not one with ‘total control' but rather one where the distinctive qualities of their creative vision can be observed, critically, when they have amassed a body of work. The auteur theory originated in French film discourse to find value in the direction of Hollywood film-makers who rose beyond the impositions of the studio system. It was argued that, given the confines that the studio system imposed upon the directors, certain directors had distinguished themselves through powerful technique, project choice, tone and thematic interest. From here, the auteur theory was an important development in elevating cinema to a ‘proper’ art-form. It had its value, its voices, its greats. More spuriously, the pro-auteur camp proclaimed that an auteur’s film would also be superior to a non-auteur film — a claim that, frankly, is extremely easy to dismiss and is usually seen as a form of cinematic snobbery.

It is interesting to note the friction between the modern popular conception of the theory and how it was initially framed. As noted, the original theorists did not define an auteur as film-maker as one waving his directorial sceptre around, proclaiming, “Do this!” or “Do that!” and being an on-set dictator, merely that his personality within the creative direction of his works would shine through in an observable manner when his career is examined. Auteur-ship, in its conceptualisation, was not about total power, but rather discovering the individuality of voice that a director, as central creative, could imbue in a film. It was celebrated in the likes of Hawks and Ford and Hitchcock — who individualised their art despite the restraints placed on them. Beyond this, however, the theory itself did not have a solid foundation. According to scholar Peter Wollen, the auteur theory lacked a definitive statement of purpose, leading to broad categorisations and misrepresentations.

In time, owing to the diffuseness of the original theory, two main schools of auteur critics grew up: those who insisted on revealing a core of meanings, of thematic motifs and those stressed style and mise-en-scene.

Thus a conflict between visual style and storytelling, and the narrative cores of the pieces. Some seek to combine them, arguing that an auteur is a director both with visual style and thematic interest that are each complimentary to the distinction of the director’s oeuvre.

Some modern day directors have denounced the idea of authorship. Alex Garland, when asked about his own role as an ‘auteur’ immediately pointed to creative ideas brought to him by others. David Fincher also condemned the notion of idea of the directorial dictator fully impressing his exact vision into a crew of hundreds, treating the surprises and re-evaluations that occur in film-making as the death of the singular vision. In many ways these objections suggest the transformation of the theory in public consciousness; neither has much to do with the original conception of the auteur as recognisable ‘stamps’ that can be found in the director’s work film by film, especially within the compromise of varying influences and more powerful systemic influences.

In many ways, the mere fact of asking Garland about his auteur status underlines how detached the understanding has become from the origins of the concept: why ask a film-maker who, at the time, had a single film under his directing belt? There is no body of work to analyse for signs of auteur trademarks, be they thematic or stylistic. There is no way to determine the consistency or development of the ‘personality’ of his direction with only a debut feature.

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Beyond this, the concept of the auteur itself has changed, philosophically, within film discourse. Critical musings on whether or not other roles can be viewed as “auteurs” have been posited over time. One essay contemplates the idea of the star as an auteur. Another focuses on arguing that Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a project that can be observed as a meeting of four auteur filmmakers: Scorsese, Schrader, Hermann and De Niro. The late Ennio Morricone has also been honoured by some thinkers as an auteur-composer in recent days. The theory itself seems to have broadened its applicability beyond the director and has now grown into appraisal for various filmic qualities, to highlight the distinctiveness of the ‘voices’ in other roles within film productions. It is beneficial to acknowledge how distinctive voices can contribute to the whole piece, as well as how each can develop an identity of their own throughout their body of film work. However, it is also worth noting that the director is still the central creative on a film, and the final call will usually fall to them. In many cases, the visual approach, musical cue, or performance take that is used will often be reflective more of the director’s taste and personality than what the collaborator alone might have chosen.

Outside the philosophical disputes of who-and-what an auteur is, discussions pertaining to ‘auteurship’ have often been coated in a certain sadness. There exists a conflict between the personal film-maker and the hegemony of the studio system; between the passion of artistic vision and the stipulations of market research. An anti-individual demand that sees the director’s vision crushed under the weight of studio expectations — the central focus on achieving mass appeal, tweaking in accordance with focus groups, testing a film, time and time again, to ensure its marketability. The origins of the auteur theory were often finding value in individual film-makers breathing uniqueness into their films despite the grip of the Hollywood studio system, yet some argue an extremity exists today, where studio hegemony crushes out directorial uniqueness, with the multi-instalment franchise universes, films now seem to have their entire aesthetic, tone and narrative decided to perfectly match each previous and forthcoming instalment; the directors are little more than paid overseers, ensuring the studio notes are achieved.

Nowadays, directors are noted to complain that they feel little more than hired-hands, their vision taken away from them in post-production as the studios become increasingly controlling. Marvel Studios have been pointed to as one of the worst examples; critiqued for enforcing an incredibly limited set of stylistics on their works: the tones, visuals, humours and scripts often feeling highly interchangeable, despite shifting directorial hands. In some ways, this is an old debate and cross-cultural, where the smaller films, the ‘independents’ feel strangled by blockbuster dominance.

The masterful Japanese film-maker, Akira Kurosawa, also found himself forced out of Japan’s cinema at the time due to the changes in film culture. Japan, much like Western cinema of the time, came to compete with the new and powerful influence of the television format. Studios began to refocus their interests away from supporting the individuality of their film-makers and instead towards ‘tested’ audience productions. Furthermore, Kurosawa’s stylistic and thematic preoccupations became outdated with the contemporary cultural trends. He lamented:

In today’s Japanese films , it would be possible to interchange titles , names of directors, without anyone noticing it. Anyone would be able to sign today’s films. None is marked by the personality of the creator.

Kurosawa’s lamentations reflect the common protests made towards the increasingly studio mandated productions of today. The most exemplary example in the modern discourse perhaps being Martin Scorsese’s own controversy in the personal films against the studio authority. Scorsese’s concerns primarily focused on the loss of smaller and intimate films against the huge reach of major franchises — works he considers more like theme park rides than cinema. He fears the experimental picture is suffocated and neglected by the focus on the ever-flowing stream of huge superhero blockbusters. For Scorsese, perhaps also, is the sense that these films lack individuality; they fail to be the expression of a director’s personality; they are spectacular exhibits of budget and studio management, but not the guiding hand of a passionate film-maker. For Scorsese, one imagines, this is not an attack on the blockbuster. As he contrasted himself: there is only one James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, yet the current system has created a labyrinth of films intended to be stylistically, tonally and thematically connected regardless of the voices steering each production.

Objections to Scorsese added that his definition of ‘true cinema’ is limited to his own experiences and that fans of the Superhero genre experience the same emotional transcendence that he felt watching the pictures that influenced him. Others argued that auteur film-making is another form of power within film discourse that primarily privileges white male directors. In number, that may perhaps be true, and given its origins the theory inevitably has an American-European bias. The maleness of the historical directorial position also plays a role in the bias there, I think. However, as noted above, Kurosawa himself discussed the role of the auteur and has been praised as one himself. Other non-white directors like Yasujiro Ozu, Park Chan-Wook, Wong Kar-Wai, Spike Lee, and Djibril Diop Mambety have been called auteur directors as well. Female film-makers, such as Lynne Ramsay and Sophia Coppola, have shown women can make the title as well. I’m unsure if that particular accusation is necessarily fair.

The war between ‘auteur’ directors and studios seems almost cyclical in many ways. The elusiveness of the theory also makes its application somewhat difficult. The changing definitions have themselves clouded the understanding of what can be viewed as auteurism. The (now) popular conception suggests a highly controlling director, one who in order to be an ‘auteur’ must do everything. Other associated ideas that remain contestable is the supposed link between an auteur film-maker and quality. Sarris suggested that an auteur must, by necessity, be ‘at least a good director’ and French film-maker François Truffaut even argued that an auteur’s cinema would always be better than a non-auteur’s. Quality, it seemed to them, was tied to the ‘personality’ of the creator. Even today, some still use ‘auteur’ as a stamp of quality; to elevate certain directors above others. Autuerism, in some understandings, still has more connotated than simply a consistent personality; it’s a marker of great quality.

For my own part, I do think the concept of the auteur has its values. I do think, also, that the director is best regarded as the primary creative and ought to be given a level of creative control that respects that position. Film is an art, and all arts need a voice, someone who envisions the end of the piece from its very first steps. Someone that guides it, shapes it, considers it, and lives for it. There is pleasure and reward in looking through a director’s body of working and discovering the connective threads, be the way they might shoot scenes, edit them, or the choice of themes that draw them. There might be similar symbolisms across a body of work. Despite working with different cinematographers, their films might all have similar visual tones or visual gradings. There is a vagueness to it, however, and an open applicability that may have caused more dissent than is necessary.

I think it is a useful construct when understood as a form of connectivity between a director’s work; seeking the individuality of their voice and what they might bring to the projects they select. I think it requires rescuing from the more peculiar interpretations that posit it as a form of ultimate directorial power (its roots alone discard that view: it has never positioned the director as the all-powerful figure; merely one with the potential to birth uniqueness in film art) and should not necessarily be amalgamated, simplistically and snootily, with “good art”.

My passions include cinema, literature, fantasy, psychology, music/guitar, photography and ancient/medieval history.

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