The rise and fall of auteur theory

alfred hitchcock
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We take a look at the origins and development of auteur theory – from its rise to, arguably, its fall. 

Orson Welles. Alfred Hitchcock. John Ford.

These were the great directors of cinema when Francois Truffaut defined the concept of auteur theory in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954. 

Building on the work of Alexandre Austrec’s 1948 work The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Camera Stylo, it was a step towards claiming the director of a film as the true author of a work, in the same way that you might consider a painter or a sculptor as the single creator of a piece of art.  A director wasn’t just a cog in the production puzzle who decided when to start rolling and shout ‘cut’ when he felt the scene was done; cinema had moved on from the production line-style studio system and was transforming into a craft with artistic merit and creativity.

Truffaut argued that directors could be an artist if they held and applied a centralised and subjective control over the work. In this sense, they can exercise an element of authorship over all their work, and by extension, become the author.

This view wasn’t without controversy and disagreement, and it provoked debate. Truffaut primarily focused on French directors and how they were able to sidestep the bland plagiarism of Hollywood by creating works that merited the attention of cinephiles. But, while he offered no real details about what specifically constituted an auteur, the idea that a director could ‘own’ a work took root in film theory.

In the 1960s, Andrew Sarris expanded on Truffaut’s themes in Notes on Auteur Theory. He posited a short list of characteristics that could be applied to works by an auteur: 

  • “A great director has to at least be a good director”
  • “Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain characteristics of style, which serve as his signature”
  • “Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.”

This gave the theory additional structure and allowed critics and historians to determine how and where these rules might take effect. For instance, it was possible to view the work of the directors we mentioned at the beginning of this article and match them up with this formula. Hitchcock, for example, is widely agreed to be at the very least a good director, if not one of the greats. His oeuvre displays a consistent style, including themes of mistaken identity, violence against women and the need to run away, and his films exhibit a personality that has a sadistic nature. 

Following this example, we can add other directors from the same time to the list – Welles, Ford, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut himself, and Fritz Lang all fit the pattern. 

But not everyone agreed with this concept. Despite being in a period before movies had legions of CG animators and special effects co-ordinators filling out the credits at the end of a film, the crew required to shoot even an average run-of-the-mill studio flick had an army of specialists – from writing, to makeup, to best boys and key grips.

One notable critic was Pauline Kael, who argued (amongst other things) that auteur theory suggested that even poor films were meritorious simply because of the involvement of a director that was an auteur, and that it was impossible to understand auteurship in the moment; a director’s whole of body of work would need to be assessed before conveying the mantle, which made a historical judgement. 

However, the theory stuck, and as cinema moved into the 70s, it began to receive higher levels of interest and recognition. This was a decade where cinema was extremist. The blockbuster was born in the shape of Jaws and Star Wars, while Coppola, Scorsese and Cimono rewrote the rulebook on epic storytelling. This American New Wave of film directors influenced the way that Hollywood made films, exercising control over their own works in a way that had not been possible before, and brought their own stylistic techniques to the fore.

Who could argue that George Lucas for instance wasn’t an auteur when he has almost complete control over Star Wars? Likewise, if there was a heart of darkness in the centre of Apocalypse Now, surely it was Francis Ford Coppola.

But as the 70s gave way to the 80s, the criticisms raised by Pauline Kael felt like a prescient slam dunk. Sure, George Lucas had complete control over Star Wars, but when he delivered the prequel trilogy it was clear that his strength was in world-building rather than direction (his over-the-shoulder exposition scenes are filmmaking 101). Coppola meanwhile abruptly ended the golden phase of his career by delivering One From the Heart and Rumble Fish, both of which bombed at the box office and were as far away from The Godfather as they could have been. 

Others bucked the trend. Both Scorsese and Spielberg had good decades and released films that are considered the best of their work. Let’s not talk about Cimino though. I think we all now what happened there, but if you don’t, read this.

Step forward a decade though, and the 90s saw a resurgence of auteur theory. Arguably, this was almost entirely due to one man: Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is one of the great figures still working in American cinema. His backstory is almost a parable for Hollywood. While working at a video store, an aspiring screenwriter pens not only one, but three great scripts, and goes on to direct a Sundance Festival hit that takes the cinematic world by storm.

He then followed this up with perhaps the greatest postmodern sophomore film of all time. Developed around a circular narrative structure, Pulp Fiction displays a fondness for laser-sharp writing, memorable characters and directorial flourishes that are begged, borrowed, and stolen from the good and the great. Importantly though, his progression from Reservoir Dogs, to Pulp Fiction, to Jackie Brown, to Kill Bill clearly fit the mould of an auteur. Instantly recognisable and stylistically analogous, Tarantino films are born of a director who owns his output. You can convincingly argue that Andrzej Sekula, as cinematographer, had a major impact on how these films look and are lit, but it would be hard to dispute that this is what Tarantino had in his head before he directed his own script. 

pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction

That period of the 90’s seemed to bring auteurs back into vogue – Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Spike Lee – all seemed to flourish during a period of filmmaking before special effects become widely embedded in films and audiences accepted more realistic scenarios. 

But with the advent of the 21st century, the auteur theory once again started to leak badly. As films grew in scope and CGI became a staple, it was becoming clear that filmmaking was ever more an ensemble piece behind the camera as much as it was in front of it. After all, if the bulk of a film’s work is done at the VFX studio, who’s really in control? And can a director be held responsible for scenes that have been created to replace a green screen beyond the actors? 

Aside from Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, it’s hard to create a convincing list of standalone auteurs from the past two decades working in Hollywood cinema. But fortunately for this piece, the story isn’t over. A new branch of auteur theory has emerged called “vulgar auterism”. For those not in the know, a Canadian critic called Andrew Tracy invented the term to provide a counterpoint to those that “trash hump” bad movies. Or, if you were being unkind, it’s a way to make bad movies seem good. 

Vulgar auterism delights in the work of Michael Bay, Justin Lin and Paul W.S. Anderson, rather than the masters of old. It finds gratification in the action and horror genres, and satisfaction in a strong visual style, and includes movies such as The Expendables, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The A-Team and Resident Evil: Retribution

If I was being unkind, I could suggest that it’s a way of being controversial and contrary for the sake of it, but that might be unfair. We all have guilty pleasures (my own peccadillos tend to be movies with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore – yes, even Blended), and for many viewers these tend to be those movies that can be classed as style over substance. The box office doesn’t lie; there’s a reason that the Fast & Furious franchise is about to tip into double figures.

Fast and Furious Vin Diesel and Paul Walker

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in The Fast & Furious franchise

But have we crossed the rubicon? Are we getting to the point where everyone can be an auteur, or is the premise of the theory fundamentally flawed anyway? 

If we look back to the original tenets of auteurship, we should remember that the third item was: “Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.” 

With this in mind, it’s probably a stretch to find any interior meaning in a collection of scenes of CGI robots smashing each other to smithereens, and how Michael Bay puts it together on-screen. Do we really think he had anything in mind for this film other than box office dollars? Sure, we can agree that it’s filmed in his indomitable Bay-style, and that he’s technically a good director, although the jury is out on whether he’s a great director. It seems to me that if Michael Bay is an auteur, then maybe everyone is an auteur. 

Maybe just the ability to develop a film from a smattering of words on a page through to a run in a cinema is enough these days. After all, as Simon continues to remind us on the Film Stories podcast – just getting a movie made is an achievement in itself

So does auteur theory matter anymore? Is it relevant? Can we accept that all directors are auteurs in their own right? Should we place certain films, or individuals, on a pedestal and praise them for telling stories in their own style? Is that not what everyone does anyway? And are we ignoring the input from the vast resources that are now required to bring a movie to life?  

Personally, I think that the concept of an auteur in film has become far harder to prove nowadays than it may be in other creative arts such as writing or painting that are more solitary pursuits. But it’s worth hanging on to. Cinema provides a channel for the expression of a creative mind that looks at things differently, and no one needs moviemaking by numbers. I do know one thing for sure though – there’s enough scope to debate it for another 50 years!

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