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Film Theory 101: A Critical Analysis of Auteur Theory

Written by Drew Morton
Wednesday, 04 May 2005 14:28

I have not posted much lately.  Most of this is because of my class load right now and finishing up my film studies major.  I thought a lot about posting some of papers and I thought it might be a good idea.  It would be something new and fresh aside from the general criticism offered here.  So, with that being said, I offer up my first film theory paper on the auteur theory. 

“The cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successfully a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. This is why I would like to call this new age of the cinema the age of the camera-stylo.”

-Alexandre Astruc, “The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo”.

“We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the death of the author.”

-Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”.

One of the most debated theories in the realm of film studies is that of the auteur theory or the association of a film artist with the writer and the insistence that films are pieces of individual self-expression (Caughie, 9). As John Caughie writes in his introduction to Theories of Authorship, “As a term, Astruc’s camera-stylo (camera pen) failed to take root, but…[it] had a considerable polemical importance, forming the basis of the cinema d’ auteurs constructed in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950’s” (9). The Cahiers du Cinema would transform Astruc’s idea of a filmic author into the theory that this author is the film’s director. However, as one can note from the aforementioned quotations, the theory of the auteur, like many other theories, has scholars scattered across both poles of the issue. The Cahier critics in France, along with Andrew Sarris in America, argue not only that “an artist’s personality will manifest itself in his works…[but that] there was, indeed, an artist at work where many had never believed one existed” (Braudy, 577).

Now, more than fifty years after Francois Traffaut began the debate of the “politique des auteurs” with his article “Une Certaint Tendance du Cinema Francais” (A Certain Tendency of French Cinema), the theory has becoming increasingly complicated with contributions by Peter Wollen, John Ellis, Thomas Schatz, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault. However, in order to fully understand this theory, one must first begin with one of the first responses to it: Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”.

Sarris begins his essay with a question: how does the auteur theory differ from a straightforward theory of directors? Sarris turns to Ian Cameron’s article “Films, Directors, and Critics” for an answer by analyzing his definition point by point. Sarris agrees with Cameron’s statement that the auteur theory believes “that the director is the author of a film, the person who gives it any distinctive quality” (561). However, Sarris disagrees with Cameron’s assessment that the “theory makes it difficult to think of a bad director making a good film and almost impossible to think of a good director making a bad one” (561). Sarris states that he believes there is a misunderstanding of the auteur theory in this respect and that it requires further definition.

Sarris begins his definition with the statement that the auteur theory “claims neither the gift of prophecy nor the option of extra cinematic perception. Directors…do not always run true to form, and the critic can never assume that a bad director will always make a bad film…Obviously, the auteur theory cannot possibly cover every vagrant charm of the cinema” (561-562).

Placing this disclaimer on his definition, Sarris begins stating the first two premises that make up the auteur theory: the technical competence of the director as a criterion of value and the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value.

He stalls, however, on the third premise stating that it is “concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art” (562). Sarris states that this premise “is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in noncinematic terms” (563).

The auteur theory grew up rather haphazardly; it was never elaborated in programmatic terms, in a manifesto or collective statement. As a result, it could be interpreted and applied on rather broad lines; different critics developed somewhat different methods within a loose framework of common attitudes. This looseness and diffuseness has allowed flagrant misunderstandings to take root, particularly among critics in Britain and the United States. (565-566)

Obviously, Wollen seems to have a great difficulty in accepting Sarris’s version of the auteur theory and he goes on to say that due “to the diffuseness of the original theory, two main schools of auteur critics grew up: those who insisted on revealing a core of meanings, of thematic motifs, and those who stressed style and mise en scene” (566). This arises the question of where the auteur’s is to be found: in the motifs of a film or in the style the director brings to a film.

Wollen believes that the director’s expression is to be found in a structural approach of the motifs that run across a director’s works. He begins this approach by separating auteurs, filmmakers whose films hold a semantic dimension, from metteurs en scene, whose films “do not go beyond the realm of performance, of transposing into the special complex of cinematic codes and channels a pre-existing texts: a scenario, a book or a play” (566). He goes on to test his theory that “the meaning of the films of an auteur is constructed a posteriori; the meaning--semantic, rather than stylistic or expressive--of the films of a metteur en scene” by applying it to the films of Howard Hawks (566-567).

Wollen notes that he has chosen Hawks because he is a director who has worked in the Hollywood system for years and whose films have covered nearly every genre. However, Wollen concludes, no matter how different the narratives of these films may be, they all “exhibit the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, the same visual style and tempo” (567). Overall, Wollen obviously finds the true voice of the director in a different place than Sarris. However, they both conclude that the film expresses the views, in one form or another, of the director, the central creative figure behind the finished product of a film.

The auteur theories pitched by both Sarris and Wollen are not without their share of problems. For example, in relation to Sarris‘s theory, when is a critic able to come to a judgment in regards to if a director is truly an auteur? Some directors, Orson Welles for example, can exemplify their technical competence and distinguishable personality in their first film. Others, however, take a great deal of time to hone their craft before they establish both a stylistic personality and technical competence. An example of this sort of auteur would be Stanley Kubrick. While there is no doubt that his first three films, Flying Padre, Fear and Desire, and Killer’s Kiss, have interesting aspects embedded in each of them, none of them illustrate the competence and personality of 2001: A Space Odyssey or cry out “AUTEUR! like Welles’s Citizen Kane.

Wollen’s theory of the auteur, while slightly less fluid than Sarris’s, is also not without its share of criticisms. For example, a director’s motifs do not simply remain constant over time, they change and evolve with time. Wollen even takes note of this in the films of Hawks: “the dramas show the mastery of man over nature, over woman, over the animal and childish; the comedies show his humiliation, his regression” (570). He goes on to state, towards the end of his essay, that “perhaps it would be true to say that it is the lesser auteurs who can be defined, as Nowell-Smith put it, by a core of basic motifs which remain constant, without variation. The great directors must be defined in terms of shifting relations, in their singularity as well as their uniformity” (575). Obviously, the idea that a great director is also to be defined by changes in his or her motifs is a direct contradiction to his assertion that auteurs are to be defined by their exhibition of the “same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, the same visual style and tempo” (567).

John Ellis, in his essay “Stars as a Cinematic Phenomenon”, offers up an interesting alternative to the auteur theory, complicating the discourse with the idea that, perhaps, the movie star is the creative presence. Ellis’s assertion is that the movie star and both the on and off screen presence the actor or actress brings to the film is what creates the film. He begins his essay with the statement that movie stars “have a similar function in the film industry to the creation of a ‘narrative image’: they provide a foreknowledge of the fiction, an invitation to the cinema. Stars are incomplete images outside of the cinema: the performance of the film is the moment of completion of image subsidiary circulation, in newspapers, fanzines, and so on” (598).

Ellis begins this argument by driving forth the notion that in the beginning of cinema, all movies were treated, in terms of advertising, as the same. The studios were not selling a narrative, they were purely selling the experience of sitting in a darkened theatre and watching a film. Ellis notes that it was the exhibitors that noticed “that some performers had a greater value than others and some producers began to offer them in roles with the same name” (598). By offering films with performers in reoccurring roles, producers were giving audiences a face and presence to relate to. This, in turn, brought about the trend of the star as a marketing strategy which, with films like Ocean’s Twelve that showcase performances by several big stars, still continues today.

Ellis rightfully observes that studios, by marketing films in terms of the actors and actresses in them, distinguished films as products from one another. This was aided by the marketing of an off-screen persona per each star in other forms of media. Ellis argues that the production of this persona “began to become a major part of the creation of narrative images. The importance of the star image in the creation of narrative images is that the star is also an incomplete and paradoxical phenomenon” (599). Basically, what Ellis is stating is that without the star, the film cannot successfully function and without the film, the star does not exist.

This arises one major question: what about films in which there is no star? Where is the point in which an actor or actress becomes a star? Take, for example, the American independent film movement. Contrary to Ellis’s assessment, the marketing behind most American independent films is neither the “experience of the cinema” nor the star (598). Moreover, many of them are incredibly successful. The focal point of much of the advertising behind independent films is the individual experience these films can lend to the lives of the spectator, an experience that audience can not encounter in any other film. One prime example of this trend is in the marketing behind the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. The film, which has no stars amongst its cast, was one of the most successful films in the history of cinema. The film, a milestone of the horror genre, was marketed purely on the fact that the film was a “documentary” depicting the real mysterious disappearance of three film students and it made 220 million dollars of pure profit. Incontestably, a film can not only stand on its own, but can be incredibly successful without a star to provide “an invitation to the cinema” (598).

Another interesting alternative to the original auteur theory and its variations can be found in the work of many critics who have argued that it is impossible to determine that one person can be solely responsible for the creative voice behind a film when there are hundreds of people involved in its production. Thomas Schatz, in his essay “The Whole Equation of the Pictures”, finds a solution to this problem by drawing the conclusion that it is the creative source behind films are the studios that produce them.

Schatz begins his argument by pointing out that each of the studios has had their own personality. For example, Universal was famous for its horror films, Warner Brothers for its crime films. Schatz states that the “key issues here are style and authority--creative expression and creative control--and there were indeed a number of Hollywood directors who had an unusual degree of authority and a certain style” (653). However, Schatz goes on to state that “ these were first-rate Hollywood films, but they were no more distinctive than other star-genre formulations turned out by routine contract directors” (653). Schatz concludes his argument by writing that:

The quality and artistry of all these films were the product not simply of individual human expression, but of a melding of institutional forces. In each case the “style” of a writer, director, star--or even a cinematographer, art director, or costume designer--fused with the studio’s production operations and management structure, its resources and talent pool, its narrative traditions and marketing strategy. (654)

However, it is imperative to note that Schatz wrote his essay in 1988. Again, to use the example of the American independent film movement, 1988 was a full year before the movement would take off due to the critical and economic success of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape. Using the early 1990’s American independent film movement as an example, Schatz’s evaluation of the film studio as auteur may be incorrect. Many of the films to come out of the movement had no studio and were the sole products of individuals, such as Soderbergh who wrote, directed, and edited sex, lies, and videotape. Moreover, as the makers of these films were integrated into the studio system, Hollywood productions began to take on the traits of their films. This, arguably, proves that the individual filmmaker is the author and not the studio.

Roland Barthes’s structural argument, while not specifically against the filmic auteur, stands firmly against the romanticized ideal of an author behind every text. Proposed in his infamously titled essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes begins his argument by looking at Sarrasine, a story by Balzac, and questions who the true narrator of the work is. He comes to the conclusion that “we shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” (208).

Barthes, unlike previous theoreticians on auteur theory, believes that “the author, rather than standing behind the text as a source, becomes a term in the process of reading or spectating” (Caughie, 200). In this sense, the reader or spectator invents the persona of the author, which in turn imposes “a limit on the final text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (212). To Barthes, a true post-structuralist, placing an author into a text is to be blamed on the critic because a critic, in turn, can claim that the text can be definitively “explained”.

Instead, Barthes claims that writing “is to be disentangled, [not] deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’…at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced” (212). By refusing to apply a definitive meaning to a text, Barthes argues that the reader liberates it and he comes to the conclusion that in order “to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (213). However, by saying that critics and readers place meaning upon a work, Barthes himself is falling prey to his own argument: he himself is placing a meaning and judgment on the work of critics and readers. Furthermore, if there is no “author”, who is Barthes and who writing his argument?

It seems that Barthes has opened up a worm hole of sorts with his theory that is destined, by its own nature, to swallow itself.

Michel Foucault, in his essay “What is an Author”, a companion piece to Barthes’s argument, also questions why people always want to trace ideas back to a certain person. He begins by stating “it is obviously insufficient to repeat empty slogans: the author has disappeared; God and man died a common death. Rather, we should reexamine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance” (282). Foucault begins his examination by stating that he is “far from offering a solution”, but would like to “consider the problems that arise in the use [and function] of an author’s name” (282).

Foucault states that the author’s name is “more than a gesture…it is, to a certain extent, the equivalent of a description” (282-283). Furthermore, he goes on to state that the presence of the author’s name is “functional in that it serves as a means of classification” (284). Foucault is also driving at the notion that names of authors serve as a means of evaluation. He concludes this point by writing that “the author’s name characterizes a particular manner of existence of discourse. Discourse that possesses an author’s name is not to be immediately consumed and forgotten; neither is it accorded the momentary attention given to ordinary, fleeting words. Rather, its status and its manner of reception are regulated by the culture in which it circulates” (284). Foucault, like Barthes, is claiming the author is dead. However, he does grant him some existence in the sense that a form of author does exist, but only with along side a text.

Since Astruc proposed the notion of a filmic author in 1948 and Traffaut brought forth an early draft of the theory in 1954, auteur theory has gone through many complications and has been under much debate. From the early evolutionary stages of the theory, as exemplified by the writings of Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen, who debated if the true voice of the auteur was to be found in the style or underlying motifs of a director’s works, through the alternative arguments of John Ellis and Thomas Schatz, who, respectively brought forth notions that the star and the studios were the true creative forces behind films, to the post-structuralist theories of Barthes and Foucault, who claimed, respectively, that the author was a construct of either the reader or the text, auteur theory has been one of the more prevalent and debated theories in the history of film studies. If there was a simple answer to the question of who and if there is a single creative force behind each piece of art, there would be no theory, only fact.

In the end, one conclusion can be drawn: this paper has an author. I know I exist and I know I wrote this paper. Granted, many of the ideas I’ve formed in the body of this text may have been influenced, sometimes heavily, by the essays and arguments debated and analyzed within. In this sense, it can be argued that the author behind this work is that of the many who formed the argument debated within. However, all of the aforementioned variables found a focal point both within this text and within myself and, while it may be cliché or stereotypical to end on this note, perhaps Descartes was correct in his assumption: “I think, therefore I am.”

Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo.” The New Wave. Ed. Peter Graham. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968. 17-23.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. “The Film Artist.” Film Theory and Criticism.

6th ed. New York: Oxford, 2004. 555-559.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism. 6th ed.

New York: Oxford, 2004.

Ellis, John. “Stars as a Cinematic Phenomenon.” Braudy 598-605.

Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Braudy 561-564.

Schatz, Thomas. “The Whole Equation of the Pictures.” Braudy 652-656.

Wollen, Peter. “The Auteur Theory.” Braudy 565-580.

Caughie, John. Introduction. Theories of Authorship. Ed. John Caughie. London: Routledge, 1981. 9-16.

Caughie, John, ed. Theories of Authorship. London: Routledge, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Caughie 208-213.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Caughie 282-291.

Klages, Mary. “Michel Foucault: What is an Author?.” University of Colorado.

15 Nov. 2001. 8 Dec. 2004.

<http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/foucault.html>

Works Cited

The “interior meaning” Sarris points out, but cannot define, is the point on which Peter Wollen brings forth his variation on the auteur theory. Wollen, in his essay “The Auteur Theory” from Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, states that: