I’m a hypocrite. That’s right. There’s no denying it. Why? Because I am about to spend an entire article strongly arguing against something I am guilty of using all the time, and the same goes for most film nerds. Yes, that includes you. In case you can’t read headlines for some reason, I will be talking about “Auteur Theory” and why it’s… uhm, not great.
For those who don’t know, “Auteur Theory” is a concept in academic film studies in which the director is seen as the main creative force behind a film, and in a way, its author. It is credited by most to the iconic French director Françios Truffaut. If you haven’t heard of him, you most likely know about his most famous movie The 400 Blows. But if you haven’t heard of that, you’ve most likely heard of the movement it inspired: The French New Wave. And if you haven’t heard of that… well, you owe it to yourself to do some research.
However, just like with “Auteur Theory” itself (hint, hint), that way of viewing the theory’s origins is overly simplified. François Truffaut did not come up with it, but he was part of the reason it became widely known. The term was coined by the American writer Andrew Sarris, but the concept was first concieved in the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which was edited by Truffaut. And since Truffaut became a famous and vocal advocate of the theory, it makes sense why many would choose to attribute its inception to him.
But never mind all that, what is it really about? As I said, “Auteur Theory” sees the director as the single driving creative force behind a film. It saw a film as the work of one artist, with assistants – sort of like a large mural in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo didn’t do that by himself, obviously, but the paintings are credited to him, and the artworks are his. The same goes for someone like Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut. To use a quote from Truffaut himself, “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”.
In broad strokes, that is the gist of the theory. It’s not much more than that. Although, to give it some credit, it was used as a way to justify film as a work of art. In the theory’s burgeoning years, the film industry was also in its relatively early stages. Film had been a bankable commercial product since the nine-teens (get it? nineteen-teens? Okay, I’ll stop), but it wasn’t accepted as a mainstream art form. Or well, it had, but as a consequence of the Hollywood Studio system and its monopoly on theatres, it was viewed as a lower art form. Films were investments designed to make a profit, not true art.
So in the context of the time, “Auteur Theory” makes more sense. Up to that point, art was as a form of expression for a single person, or a very small group. Symphonies were written by a composer, paintings were made by an artist, and movies were made by a director.
And the thing is… it worked. Today, we have a whole new perspective on the movies of the time. We realise and appreciate the art made by the earliest German expressionists like Fritz Lang and Robert Weine. We love and see the value of the art in the 20’s from people like Carl Theodor Dreyer and Charlie Chaplin, but back then, they weren’t held in as high regard. Thanks to “Auteur Theory”, cinema was not only born again, but we look back on its history with completely new eyes.
Hold on… Wait. Go back and read that last paragraph again. Go ahead. Scroll back up. I’ll wait.
You done? In that paragraph, I held up some of the great art of early cinema as works by single directors, didn’t I? As if Dreyer would be the only person responsible for The Passion of Joan of Arc. That’s “Auteur Theory” at work, right there. And therein lies the problem. The glaring issue with the theory. Boiling a film down as the work of one person makes it very easy to keep track of all the films we need to keep track of. But it is problematic.
As a way to comfortably categorize film history, it works wonders, and that’s all well and good. But use it as legitimate way of thinking about the way movies are made and it immAs a way to comfortably categorize film history, it works wonders, and that’s all well and good. But use it as legitimate way of thinking about the way movies are made and it immediately falls apart. In fact, it might even be harmful for up-and-coming filmmakers to think of themselves as the be-all-end-all creative force behind a production. ediately falls apart. In fact, it might even be harmful for up-and-coming filmmakers to think of themselves as the be-all-end-all creative force behind a production.
Filmmaking, by its very fundamental building blocks, is a joint effort of a larger team. The director is, indeed, the leader. But a director thinking of themselves as the author of the entire finished product will lead to a finished product no one will be proud to put their names on, trust me.
We need to face the facts. In the 1940’s and 50’s, “Auteur Theory” popularised the notion that film should be treated as an art form equal to any other. However, it also helped spread the idea that the director plays the role of God on set. In the words of Chris Rock’s character from the 2003 film Head of State: “That ain’t right.”
I’m sorry to say this to all the Tarantino- or Scorsese-adoring film students out there, but “Auteur Theory” is passé. Scorsese would not be in the position that he is today without the constant assistance and guidance from people like Thelma Schoonmaker (his longtime editor), or John Cassavettes (who tutored him in his early days). Furthermore, without a gigantic crew of equally ambitious, motivated and creative young filmmakers, his movies would never see the light of day and certainly not be as good as they are.
I will freely admit that I am a hypocrite. I boil film history down to directors and actors all the time. I’ve done it in every article I’ve written for this website. I talk about films as authored by a single individual all the time, and “That ain’t right”. Fleet of Creators is here to promote collaboration, because it is what makes the best movies and because it is what best makes movies. I’ll do my utmost to refrain from writing about films as the property of the director in the future, because in conclusion: “Auteur Theory” bad.
Hey, the article is technically over, but here’s a little thing for the people interested in learning more. There’s a lot of that in this article, but I gloss over many of the “things” to get to the point as quickly as possible. I realise that might confuse a few readers who are not intimately familiar with some of the terminology so…
So here’s a list of a few videos and articles you could read to dive deeper into some of the things I only mentioned briefly in this article:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srk-tPbQVcs The brilliant video essayist Lindsey Ellis uses the filmography of Michael Bay to examine “Auteur Theory”. Feel free to watch the whole series, it’s great.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfHnuZqtV68&list=PLrMEncyd64BdPt-iWyxiAdo19tYm7myf1&index=25 This one goes a bit more in depth on the origins of the theory and touches on its social surroundings.
https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-day-the-supreme-court-killed-hollywoods-studio-system Article on the landmark case that ended the Hollywood Studio monopoly on theatres and chains that existed through the 30s and 40s and had continued repercussions into the 50s and 60s.
And now some art movements:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Expressionism German Expressionism. This was a movement that started in paintings and architecture and then made quite the imprint on cinema history.
http://www.newwavefilm.com/new-wave-cinema-guide/nouvelle-vague-where-to-start.shtml The French New Wave is the single most important moment in modern cinema, according to most, and it contains a whole smattering of fantastic works, so here’s an article to get ya started.
http://dramaandfilm.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2011/06/Sarris-Notes-on-the-Auteur-Theory.pdf The original article in which Andrew Sarris coins and explains the term “Auteur Theory”.
https://filmmakeriq.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Circles-and-Squares-the-Joys-and-Sarris.pdf Pauline Kael’s 1963 takedown of the theory. She basically says what I say and more but much better so do yourself a favour and read it if you have the time.