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Auteur theory


Auteur theory

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The auteur theory holds that a film, or an entire body of work, by a director (or, less commonly, a producer) reflects the personal vision and preoccupations of that director, as if she or he were the work's primary "author" (auteur).

The auteur theory has had a major impact on film criticism worldwide ever since it was first advocated by François Truffaut in 1954. "Auteurism" is the method of analyzing films based on this theory (or, alternately, the characteristics of a director's work that makes her or him an auteur). Both the Auteur Theory and the auteurism method of film analysis are frequently associated with the French New Wave and the film critics who wrote for Cahiers du cinéma.

Truffaut's theory

In his 1954 essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma français ("a certain tendency in the French cinema"), François Truffaut coined the phrase "la politique des auteurs", and asserted that the worst of Jean Renoir's movies would always be more interesting than the best of Jean Delannoy's. "Politique" might very well be translated as "policy," "polemic" or "program"; it involves a conscious decision to look at movies and to value them in a certain way. Truffaut provocatively said, "There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors."

Much of Truffaut's writing of this period (as too that of his colleagues at the film criticism magazine Cahiers du cinéma) was designed to lambast post-war French cinema, and especially the big production films of the cinéma de qualité ("quality films") that Truffaut's circle referred to with disdain as cinéma de papa (or "Dad's cinema"). Their sudden discovery of a host of great American movies which flooded France at the end of the war (the Nazi occupation had prevented the French from seeing such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane) incited Truffaut to take up arms against what he considered to be an old-fashioned and sterile cinema. (One of the unfortunate ironies of the auteur theory is that, at the very moment Truffaut was writing, the break-up of the Hollywood studio system during the 1950's was ushering in a period of uncertainty and conservatism in American cinema, with the result that fewer of the sort of films Truffaut admired were actually being made.)

Truffaut's thinking was indebted to the work of André Bazin, co-founder of the Cahiers du cinéma (where Truffaut worked), who promoted the idea that films should reflect a director's personal vision and who championed such filmmakers as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir. Although Bazin provided a forum for auteurism to flourish, he himself remained wary of its excesses.

Another key element of Truffaut's theory comes from Alexandre Astruc's notion of the caméra-stylo or "camera-pen" and the idea that directors should wield their cameras like writers use their pens and that they need not be hindered by traditional storytelling.

Truffaut and the members of the Cahiers recognized that moviemaking was an industrial process. However, they proposed an ideal to strive for: the director should use the commercial apparatus the way a writer uses a pen and, through the mise en scène, imprint his or her vision on the work (conversely, the role of the screenwriter was minimized in their eyes). While recognizing that not all directors reached this ideal, they valued the work of those who neared it.

Truffaut's theory maintains that all good directors (and many bad ones) have such a distinctive style or consistent theme that their influence is unmistakable in the body of their work. Truffaut himself was appreciative of both directors with a marked visual style (such as Alfred Hitchcock), and those whose visual style was less pronounced but who had nevertheless a consistent theme throughout their movies (such as Jean Renoir's humanism).

Impact of the "auteur theory"

The auteur theory was used by the directors of the nouvelle vague (New Wave) movement of French cinema in the 1960s (many of whom were also critics at the Cahiers du cinéma) as justification for their intensely personal and idiosyncratic films.

The approach soon found a home in English-language film criticism. In the U.K., Movie adopted auteurism and in the U.S., Andrew Sarris introduced it in the essay, "Notes on the Auteur Theory" in 1962. This essay is where the half-French, half-English term, "auteur theory," originated. To be classified as an "auteur", according to Sarris, a director must accomplish technical competence in his or her technique, personal style in terms of how the movie looks and feels, and interior meaning (although many of Sarris's auterist criteria were left vague). Later in the decade, Sarris published The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, which quickly became the unofficial bible of auteurism.

The auteurist critics—Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer—wrote mostly about directors (as they were directors themselves), although they also produced some shrewd appreciations of actors. Later writers of the same general school have emphasized the contributions of star personalities like Mae West. However, the stress was on directors, and screenwriters, producers and others have reacted with a good deal of hostility. Writer William Goldman has said that, on first hearing the auteur theory, his reaction was, "What's the punchline?"

Criticism of the "auteur theory"

Starting in the 1960s, there has been a backlash against the auteur theory. Pauline Kael and Sarris feuded in the pages of The New Yorker and various film magazines. One reason for the backlash is the collaborative aspect of shooting a film (one person cannot do everything) and in the theory's privileging of the role of the director (whose name, at times, has become more important than the movie itself). In Kael's review of Citizen Kane, a classic film for the auteur model, she points out how the film involved the talents of co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland and would have been hurt without their distinctive ability. Also, the very people who championed the auteur theory backed away from it. Godard handed over much creative control to others (most notably Jean-Pierre Gorin) in his later films while, in a twist of irony, Truffaut's later films embraced the same formalism he rejected early on in his career. Also, with costly films like Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, the excesses of auteurism not only created uncreative films, they put studios out of business.

The auteur theory was also challenged and undermined by the influence of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism, which established the "intentional fallacy," holding that information about an author's intention was secondary to the words on the page as the basis of the experience of reading literature. New Critics suggested that the internal evidence of the work of literature itself was the appropriate object of literary criticism, ushering in a variety of text-centered approaches to understanding literature which had tremendous influence on subsequent film theory and criticism, in particular on the advent of semiotics and structuralist approaches which emerged in the 1970's. The influence of psychoanalytic film theory further undermined the auteur theory by raising the issue of the unconscious of both the "author" and the text itself. Subsequent theories of reception and cultural studies approaches broadened the context of meaning and interpretation as manifestations of culturally determined institutions in which authors and readers (directors and spectators) as well as texts (films) and their meanings are produced and reproduced.


See also

External links

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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