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The Auteur Theory

6.01.2011

In the midst of all this technological tumult, a new group of American directors came of age, eager to embrace the shift to color and CinemaScope. They were also bolstered by the critical cheerleading of the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma, begun in 1947 by writer and theorist André Bazin (then La Revue du Cinéma, changing its name in 1951). Co-edited by the French critic Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Cahiers du Cinéma was the first publication to promote the auteur theory, or le politique des auteurs, which held that the director was the most important person involved in the creation of a film. Today, with the high profile enjoyed by such directors as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and other mainstream filmmakers, it seems impossible to imagine an era in which the director, for the most part, was considered a minor functionary in a film’s creation, after the stars, the script, and the studio imprimatur.


Cahiers was the first major publication to recognize that the films of the great cinematic stylists—Hitchcock, Welles, Ophüls, Renoir, Ford, Hawks, and the rest—each had a distinctive visual signature and range of thematic interests or motifs that made every director an instantly recognizable individual, with his own set of values, levels of social engagement, and concomitant visual style. From the inception of the cinema through the 1950s, only trade papers such as Variety took note of the director for any given film, and with rare exception it was someone like Hitchcock or Welles, larger-than-life personalities who were indelibly stamped on the public consciousness.


More taciturn auteurs, such as Hawks, Ford, Lupino, Cukor, Lang, Arzner, and others, created a body of work that was distinctively their own, but working without the acknowledgment that was afforded novelists, playwrights, composers, and other major figures in the creative arts. Cahiers insisted that each director’s body of work was unique and quantifiable; furthermore, as one can easily see in the early writings of such future directors as François Truffaut, the Cahiers critics abolished the artificial line between high and low art, praising the low-budget work of Edgar G. Ulmer, Samuel Fuller, and Anthony Mann as being on the same level as that of their more conventionally illustrious colleagues.


Finally, Cahiers, working in conjunction with the great champion of film and the New Wave Henri Langlois, curator of the Cinémathèque Française, insisted for the first time that American commercial films could also be personal works of art, depending on the skill of their directors, and in addition that many of the films of the established directors were both uncinematic and literary, lacking in visual invention and imagination. Langlois, an obsessive collector, was in love with the cinema in all its aspects, and over the years amassed one of the world’s great film libraries, located in Paris. During the 1950s and 1960s, the screenings at the Cinémathèque Française served as a training ground for the young critics at Cahiers, who then went on to make groundbreaking movies of their own. In short, Cahiers rescued the American cinema and its directors from critical oblivion, and forced a reassessment of the classical Hollywood cinema based not on stars or studio moguls but rather on the men and women who actually made the films under examination.


In recent years, it has been argued that the director, while an integral part of the film production process, is not necessarily the auteur of a film; counterexamples include the Marx Brothers, who exercised strong control over their films, or the comic actor W. C. Fields. Art director William Cameron Menzies, who designed Gone with the Wind, was so influential to the overall look of the final production that the film’s principal director, Victor Fleming, offered Menzies co-credit as director. However, the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, intervened with the suggestion that the movie carry the credit “production designed by William Cameron Menzies” in the opening titles, the first formal acknowledgment of the role of the production designer as an auteur in Hollywood history. Producers such as the visionary Val Lewton, whose atmospheric low-budget horror films at RKO in the 1940s all bore his individual stamp, no matter who directed the films, also can have a major influence on the look of a film. Cinematographer Gregg Toland, who shot Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, had such an impact on the Sal Mineo, James Dean, and Natalie Wood in Nicholas Ray’s classic film about teenage alienation, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).


film’s visual design that Welles insisted on sharing with him the director’s title card in the credits. For these reasons, a number of contemporary critics have argued that auteurism is reductive and oversimplifies the process of making a feature film. And certainly it’s true: filmmaking is a team effort. But in most cases, it is the director who ultimately controls and shapes the visual, editorial, and aural world of a movie, working with the rest of the crew to achieve his or her vision.



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