Auteur Theory

Auteur Theory

            As World War II ended, the embargo on American films was lifted, inviting all of the films released in the United States during the war into previously forbidden arenas. Whereas the German Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels controlled the French film industry during the occupation, preventing the importation of any films that may provoke any acts of resistance against the occupying forces, new styles, genres and filmmakers from the United States and elsewhere made their rounds in the film circuits throughout France. Particularly in Paris, the importation of Hollywood films revived previously suppressed film societies, and inspired many young critics and filmmakers to break new ground in the realm of film.

Amongst those involved in the influx of Hollywood films were the works of such greats as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, and others of the western and film noir genres, the latter never having been seen in Europe. The writers of Cahiers du cinema, including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and André Bazin, embraced the incursion of foreign films, regarding them above French films in a time when nationalism was on the rise in France. In their country, the trend in filmmaking tended towards the adaptation of literature into films. The issue that the young writers of Cahiers—called the “young Turks”—took with this style of filmmaking was its departure from reality. In his “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” Truffaut attacks the likes of Jean Aurenche, Clouzot, and Jean Delannoy, among others, as representatives of the passé classic style of French cinema. He even included photographs of each director or screenwriter as if they were mug shots. In a way, such filmmakers were on trial for insulting the aesthetic sensibilities of the Turks and for the criminal fact that they did not have a style of their own. Although many of the auteur filmmakers came from European film movements, a majority of the Cahiers favorites was of the Hollywood studio system.

Considered the father of auteurism, André Bazin stressed the worldview of the filmmaker, citing such greats as Charlie Chaplin and Jean Renoir as great artists. For Bazin, the cinema “offered an unprecedented access to reality, allowing the viewer to see the deeper… beauty, which ordinarily escaped the naked eye” (Bickerton 16-17). In his view the director was a student as well as a purveyor of knowledge, with as much to learn from as to teach his audience. Ultimately for Bazin, the image depicted on screen was the image of the particular filmmaker’s reality, which was, to him, the true beauty of the medium. While the young Turks of Cahiers du cinema further expanded the idea, Bazin laid the groundwork for their expansion. Coined by François Truffaut as politique des auteurs, the principle applauded filmmakers, mostly directors, with a personal style of filmmaking, with emphasis on formal elements and themes. Ideally, the filmmaker would not only direct, but also write their own material; however, this was mostly limited to European filmmakers Like Roberto Rossellini.

The Turks were aware of the constraints under which the Hollywood auteurs worked. The studio system, in place for decades and turning out films at a rapid pace, prevented filmmakers from telling the stories they would want to tell. Though the narrative elements of the films may have been limited, the aesthetic aspect of the films was often in the hands of the directors, thus they received the credit in the eyes of the Cahiers critics. Even with often-formulaic stories, the films of these auteurs expressed their respective worldviews using the film medium itself and their utilizing the mise-en-scene. The Turks believed that, when looking at the works of the auteurs, they could see a common thread running through each of his respective works. It mattered not that any one of an auteur’s films was inferior; as long as it looked good and held true to the auteur’s aesthetic style, it was laudable. While some films of this nature became part of the discussion—mainly Truffaut’s analysis of Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952)—each of the Turks chose a now revered filmmaker as his auteur of choice.

The most famous of the auteur-Turk pairings is that of François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. Now amongst the pantheon of great Hollywood directors, Hitchcock was at one time considered a lesser director, one whose specialty were cheap, B-movie thrillers. Once Truffaut and some of the other writers at Cahiers gave his films their treatment and extracted meaning from the otherwise meaningless films, Hitchcock’s star rose significantly. Jean-Luc Godard’s defense of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), published in 1952, opposed the standard views of his contemporaries, and inspired Rohmer to publish “On Three Films and a Particular School” under his nom de plume Maurice Scherer. In this piece, he placed Hitchcock in ranks with the greatest directors, and called I Confess a masterpiece. The Turks looked to Hitchcock as a guide and an inspiration, and he, in turn, respected them enough to allow them to interview him.

The 1967 Hitchcock by Truffaut is to this day the most comprehensive study of Hitchcock. Rather than a simple survey of Hitchcock’s life and works, Truffaut conducted an extensive interview with the normally elusive director, covering all of the bases from his childhood to his work in the silent cinema to his now canonical works. Amongst those works discussed were Strangers on a Train, Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), all of which feature the aesthetic and stylistic traits that Hitchcock has come to represent. The meeting of the two iconic directors was not only a landmark in film studies, but it was also a true celebration of the auteur. Truffaut gets Hitchcock to discuss his most famous films, but also has a chance to explain to the director what it is he loves about his films. From the standpoint of a young cinephile talking to his idol, these interviews must have been a highlight of Truffaut’s career, just as they are a highlight to those studying Hitchcock the auteur.

Originally conceived in France, the idea of the filmmaker as auteur was never thought of as a theory until Andrew Sarris brought it across the Atlantic in the 1960s. Sarris applied the newly formulated theory to American film history, focusing on the careers of specific directors and classifying them by their successes and talents. His version of the auteur theory placed constraints on the classification of directors and filmmakers, and seems to have created issues about the credits due for the achievement of a film. Many people believed that Truffaut’s Hitchcock interviews reduced the work done on the film to only that of the director, thus devaluing the work contributed by other writers, photographers, actors and the like to pawns in Hitchcock’s filmmaking game. With his idea that “over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature,” Sarris significantly contributed to the development of auteurism as a theory, and to the formation of the canon of directors that continues to serve as a basis for film studies. Though the idea of the auteur has changed to include other members of the filmmaking community as actors, writer and producers, Sarris and the Turks of Cahiers have given a name to the stylistic thread linking the works of any filmmaker, and have given us a standard to which we hold all films and filmmakers to this day.

-Amanda Natiello

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