Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why "Auteur Theory" is nonsense

Earlier today, we received the sad news that the distinguished film critic Andrew Sarris passed away due to an infection he acquired after a fall. Immediately, expressions of grief, tributes and remembrances poured out on news and social media outlets. He was praised for his passion, vast knowledge and influence on subsequent generations of critics. He is most remembered, though, for introducing to Americans the "Auteur Theory" of the Cahiers du Cinema writers such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol who later formed La Nouvelle Vague (The New Wave).

He famously feuded with fellow film critic legend Pauline Kael about the concept, a feud which became bitterly personal. Both were redoubtable opinion-makers and both could be quite wrong. On this issue, Sarris could be declared the winner, since Auteur Theory has taken hold and people now take it as a given that the director is the author of a film.

Yet Sarris was completely wrong.

There is no single author of a film. Cinema is a collaborative art form,Gesamtkunstwerk ("Total Art Work") as Richard Wagner said of opera but even more all-encompassing. Whereas music is primary in opera, a good film is a balances the art of writing, acting, cinematography, music, production design, editing, and so forth. Any one of those can make or break a film. The director oversees all of the departments but in many cases, he or she is just translating the vision of the screenwriter or the producer. Often directors are among the last people hired and many of them get fired or replaced along the way.

Directors who are not also producers or writers are most often not the ones who come up with the idea for a movie. The idea can come from a writer, an actor who wants a starring vehicle, a producer – particularly one who finds a property that would translate well to film, etc. If memory serves, Casablanca was an unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick's by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison discovered by producer Hal B. Wallis. He bought the rights and hired the writing team, director and key cast. The director Michael Curtiz was brought in late in the game. Even Sarris conceded that Casablanca was "the most decisive exception to the auteur theory." But the exceptions are many. They would be even more if Auteur Theory hadn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On any given film, everybody plays an important role. In particular, the three key creatives are the producer, the writer and the director. Usually the producer is the boss and has far more creative input than people realize. The writer is in many ways the true author in that he or she creates the blueprint from which everyone else including the director will work. But sadly, the writer is generally given the least respect and recognition and is treated as disposable more often than not.

Of course, depending on the film, some other element make take on primary significance. Perhaps it relies on a strong lead performance. Or it may be a fantasy or period piece that is heavily dependent on production design. History shows that Star Wars succeeded in spite of George Lucas and when he exerted more authority on the prequels, his results were disastrous.

Auteurists like to say that the director wields the camera the way a novelist or writer wields a pen and that is where the authorship lies. But the director doesn't wield the camera; even the cinematographer usually doesn't wield the camera but a team of operators does. As for using a pen, John Milton dictated his epic poem Paradise Lost to his daughters due to his blindness. Do we consider his daughters the authors of the poem? Of course not; they were simply writing down their father's ideas. So even if the director is wielding the camera, what is being filmed is primaily the writer's ideas.

I don't mean to be dismissive of directors, but to say then that one person created the film is I think disrespectful to all the other artists who participated in the process. Sure the director is the boss on set, but a good cast and crew can be like a well-oiled machine that doesn't need much oversight. Just like being the conductor of a top-flight orchestra, sometimes less is more and you have to know when to stay out of their way when they're doing a great job without any help.

If I did accept that there was such as thing as an auteur, then I would say it was someone who did all three key positions of writer, director and producer (or at a minimum writer and director). So in my books, that would include people like Stanley Kubrick, the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Billy Wilder, Sofia Coppola, Oliver Stone and yes, even blockbuster filmmakers such as James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson and M. Night Shyamalan. But I would not include people such as Stephen Spielberg, Ridley Scott, David Fincher and the Auteur Theory's poster boy Alfred Hitchcock – people who are completely dependent on their writers.

The idea of the Auteur has served its purpose of getting people to take film seriously as an art form. But now it only limits people's understanding of the creative process and hinders the creation of good movies by undervaluing other contributors, especially writers. Eventually, even the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers moved on in their thinking, with François Truffaut saying that Auteur Theory was "forgotten in France, but still discussed in American periodicals." Perhaps it's time we let go of it on this side of the Atlantic as well.

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