The History and Evolution of Auteur Theory

Ever since I learned of its existence, the concept of auteur theory has always fascinated me. Perhaps most importantly, it inspired my series of articles for Headstuff entitled “Director Profile”. The idea was to take five films by a director and through analysing them, chart their evolution as a filmmaker, as well as flagging recurring elements within their work. The fact that film fanatics can do this is down to the principle of auteur theory.

Auteur Theory revolves around these key principles:

  • Above all else (writers, producers, cinematographers, actors), the director is the singular author of the movie.
  • The director is the artist, displaying a recognisable or unique style one that’s maintained whether working independently or with big studios
  • This style manifests itself through recurring plots, motifs and visual cues – with the idea being that one could know a certain director’s movie just by watching it.

Pam Cook in her highly informative essay “Authorship in the Cinema” describes how pre-1950, American critics didn’t see cinema as an art-form due to its industrial nature. Studio movies were business ventures designed to make money. Directors were hired to oversee the film but often the projects were tooled with and altered by producers to wring maximum profits. Thus, businessmen were not keen on taking bold, artistic risks so many thought the studio system prevented “a single authorial voice making itself heard or seen”.

download.jpgHowever, in 1940’s France, Andre Bazin, creator of influential French magazine Cahiers du Cinema began preaching the notion of personalism – the idea that a film should reflect its director’s personal vision. His ideas were later expanded upon by Cahiers writer and future acclaimed filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Coining the phrase “les poltique des auteurs”, The 400 Blows director argued that the worst of Jean Renoir, often cited as the greatest French auteur, would always be better than the best of Jean Delannoy, a filmmaker derogatorily referred to by Truffaut as a “stager” – someone who, to him, just staged writer’s scripts without adding any artistic merit.

American critic Andrew Sarris later translated “les politique des auteurs” into the English “auteur theory”. Meanwhile Truffaut built on his ideas, culminating in his publication of Hitchcock/Truffaut – a transcript of an eight-day interview between the titular filmmakers. The two probed through Hitchcock’s filmography discussing the recurring elements – psychoanalysis, warped sexuality, macabre humour and plot motifs such as “the wrong man” or “the macguffin”. A seminal leap forward in film criticism, the book is what led to directors like Hitchcock being considered masters of their craft as opposed to simply “light entertainers”.

Perhaps, the most recognisable modern auteur is Quentin Tarantino. Hugely inspired by the French New Wave movement of which Truffaut derived (the title of his production company A Band Apart is a play on the movie Bande a Part by Truffaut contemporary Jean-Luc Godard), Tarantino’s movies display so much style recognisable only to their creator.

The recurring elements within his work include:

  • Homages to older forms of cinema: (Stanley Kubrick’s The KillingReservoir Dogs, Sergio Corbucci’s DjangoDjango Unchained, Toshiya Fujita’s Lady SnowbloodKill Bill, Enzo G. Castellari’s Inglorious BastardsInglorious Basterds.
  • Profane, rapid fire dialogue – Like a Virgin scene from Reservoir Dogs, “English, motherfucker” scene from Pulp Fiction
  • Comic, sudden violence – Lara’s death in Django Unchained, Melanie’s murder in Jackie Brown, Marvin’s death in Pulp Fiction, The Hangman’s poisoning in The Hateful Eight
  • Discussions on pop culture – Discussions about Madonna in Reservoir Dogs, Quarter Pounders in Pulp Fiction and The Virginian in Death Proof
  • New Takes on old genres – (slasher – Death Proof), (Blaxploitation – Jackie Brown), (heist – Reservoir Dogs), (kung-fu – Kill Bill)
  • Subtle examinations of race Jackie Brown, The Hateful Eight
  • Obsession with Women’s Feet
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Top to Bottom: Mads Mikkelsen in Pusher II, Kristen Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives, John Turturro in Fear X

Another prominent auteur is Nicolas Winding Refn, most famed for directing Bronson and Drive. The most notable element that runs through all his work are these visually striking neon-drenched settings. These can be found throughout his filmography whether it be in his gritty Danish crime trilogy Pusher, his violent character study Bronson or his art-house thrillers Fear X and Only God Forgives.

The reason for this recognisable trait in Refn’s work is his colour-blindness. As the director states: “I can’t see mid-colours. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it”. Other motifs unique to Refn are his approach to character. He loves quiet leading men, something evident by Ryan Gosling’s muted turns in Drive and Only God Forgives, as well as Mads Mikkelsen’s completely silent role as One-Eye in Vahalla Rising. Refn has also stated that he writes characters that at first appear stagnant or unwilling to change but are forced to due to external circumstances and what they “end up becoming is what they were meant to be” e.g. The Driver’s love for Irene in Drive forcing him to become a hero, the news Tommy has a son in Pusher II pushing the character to gain some form of maturity. All these elements merge together in, what is in my opinion Refn’s most singular work, The Neon Demon, where his trademark “neon” is even incorporated into the title.

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Although I could discuss the auteurial stamps of people like Lynch (surrealism, industrialism), Scorsese (Catholicism, machismo, social etiquette), PTA (masculinity, fractured family units, sprawling narratives), Cronenberg (psychological and physical change), Herzog (nature, philosophy) and Bigelow (macho environments, revolutionary action sequences) in depth, the one person I want to briefly touch upon is Spike Lee. However, it isn’t his trademark bombastic take on racial and social issues, found in movies like Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever or Malcolm X, I’d like to mention. Instead, what strikes me about all of Lee’s work is his recurring use of a dolly shot, often used to highlight when his characters are in extreme emotional states e.g. euphoria, love, obsession, anger etc. It creates the effect that his central players are floating and appears in nearly all his cinematic output.

However, there are definite flaws to the auteur theory. It’s still tough to apply to older movies due to the studio system. For instance, we think of Casablanca as being one of the greatest movies ever made. Yet, we don’t think of its’ director Michael Curtiz as being one of the best directors. This is because, along with making other acclaimed dramas like Mildred Pierce and Angels with Dirty Faces, he made a vast amount of forgettable genre fare for Jack Warner of Warner Bros.

Plus, a lot of filmmakers working in Hollywood today are “directors for hire” or “journeymen”, being technically proficient but not necessarily possessing an artistic fingerprint. One sees this often in franchises like the Fast and Furious pictures or the Marvel movies where what is needed is a talented director but one whose style won’t distract from the look or flavour set-up in previous instalments. Also, occasionally, one sees brilliant directors that just don’t possess common traits that define their work. Ridley Scott (of Alien and Blade Runner fame), for instance, is a phenomenal world builder. Yet, he makes many movies where world building is not a factor e.g. Matchstick Men, Thelma & Louise or The Counsellor.

tumblr_nm7ss8P9Pj1r6uq5ao1_1280.pngHowever, the biggest critique of auteur theory, cited often by American critic Pauline Kael, is that it ignores other artists in the collaborative movie making process. For example, what about the writer? On TV, we think of screenwriters or show-runners such as Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom) as auteurish figures but does that not translate into cinema? Often the fast-paced, dialogue driven screenplays for which Sorkin is acclaimed (Steve Jobs, The Social Network) are more distinct and recognisable to the viewer than the style of the person adapting said script. Also, if we look at the work of Alex Garland – the scribe behind 28 Weeks Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, as well as the novel Coma – all share the common theme of trying to remain human in sci-fi inflected worlds. Thus, by the time, Garland makes his directorial debut – Ex Machina, people are already referring to him as an “auteur”.

What about cinematographers? If one views the movies shot by three-time Academy-Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki – Tree of Life, Birdman, The Revenant, Gravity – all share a distinct look, featuring plenty of long-takes, natural lighting and smooth but swirling camerawork. Thus, is Lubezki somewhat of an auteur? Is the meaning of the word, once noted as being solely for directors, expanding to fit anyone who displays a recognisable style? It’s very possible.

Ultimately, the principle of auteurship is not universal or definitive. However, I think what fascinates film scholars about the theory, drawing them to it again and again, is the idea that a person can leave a singular human artistic fingerprint despite the giant, group effort that goes into making a movie. Stephen Porzio

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