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Auteur comes from the French and is most often translated as composer (of music), author (of literature, or perpetrator (of a crime). The first recorded use of the term in France was in 1896, and conformed to sense of auteur as composer. 1936 marks the first French use of the term to describe an author of a work of literature. However, the term became most popularized in film[link] theory, due to the work of François Truffaut in the 1950s.1
Truffaut was part of a group of film critics who wrote for the journal, Cahiers du Cinéma. Many of the critics for this journal were also directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer; Truffaut was a also a director. In 1954, Truffaut published a landmark essay called, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français.” In it, he discussed a series of European (mostly French) film directors, including Jean Renoir; Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Becker, Abel Gance, Max Ophuls, Jacques Tati, and Roger Leenhardt, whom he classified as “auteurs” of their films. This term was a distinction from the terms that had previously signified directors, namely, réalisateur (translation[link]: director) or metteur en scène (translation: director, but with an emphasis on the role of staging the scene). The new term singled out directors who “write their dialogue and … invent the stories they direct,” from those who merely adapted others’ works.2
One of the predecessor theories for auteurism can be found in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay, “Birth of a New Avant-Garde.”[link] In it, Astruc proposes the idea of the caméra-stylo, or “camera-pen,” and the corresponding notion that directors used their cameras like writers used their pens. The essay also implied that cinema could break free of the limitations of narrative,[link] and become a language[link] as flexible as that of the written word[link (writing)].3 Truffaut was influenced by this theory in his coining of the term auteur: the director that was truly the author of his filmic product.
Co-founders of Cahiers du Cinéma Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and André Bazin, recognized the importance of Truffaut’s distinctive definition of the term. Doniol-Valcroze noted that “From then on, it was known that we were for Renoir, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Cocteau, Bresson, and against X, Y, and Z.”4 Bazin expanded the definition in accordance with his own theories of personalism, stating that auteur directors utilized a “personal factor” that linked their films together, or made them identifiable, specific to that director.5 Thus, American directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks, could now be considered auteurs, even though they operated under the Hollywood system which was structured to be a highly collaborative process.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines auteur as “a film director whose personal influence and artistic control over his or her films are so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision.” A secondary definition is also included: “A musician or other artist who retains a high degree of independent artistic control over his or her work, from conception to production or performance.[link] Also: a creative[link] artist whose work is perceived to reflect a highly individual vision or innovative approach, or is (self-consciously) presented as such.”6 Both of these definitions emphasize control as being at the heart of the auteur’s practice; auteurism marks an ability to manipulate (that is, control and direct) the filmic medium.[link]
This definition originates from a re-appropriation of the French term into the English language. The British film magazine, Movie, was founded in May, 1962. It ascribed to the ideas of auteurism by featuring a ranking of directors in its first issue. This list was initially controversial, as it singled out the figure of the director over the film itself, as being worthy of criticism. Truffaut was quoted as saying, controversially, “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.” 7 Movie reflected this idea in its first issue by including a hierarchy of directors as opposed to films. Ian Cameron, one of the writers featured in the September 1962 issue of Movie, summarized the journal’s purpose: “The assumption that underlies all the writing in Movie is that the director is the author of a film, the person who gives it any distinctive quality.” The term auteur came to denote a “cinema of directors.” 8
The same year, Andrew Sarris, a film critic for the New York Times, published an essay entitled, “Notes on Auteur Theory,” in which he delineated the criteria for an auteur director: technical competence, personal style, and interior meaning or themes. Later Sarris emphasized that “The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression,”[link] referring to the “barriers” constructed by mainstream Hollywood. Consequentially, the role of the film critic, Sarris concluded, was to isolate and evaluate “the personality of director”9 from his/her finished product: the film.[link]
The uses of the term in France, Britain, and the United States, all had in common a desire to stir-up contemporary conceptions of cinema. One main distinction from this goal existed in France. The definition of the auteur-director became a motivation for a politique des Auteurs (a practice of auteurs). Because Truffaut’s definition referred to both a method of looking at films, as well as a proposal to produce/reproduce the qualities of these directors, it became one of the driving forces and models for French directors of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), a cinema that incorporated a highly idiosyncratic style.
Auteurism provoked much controversy on both sides of the Atlantic, primarily due to its exclusion of the other important figures that participated in the inherently collaborative process of cinema and film-making. Screenwriters, cinematographers, producers, and some even argued actors, also left their mark on films, but were not given the privileged titled of auteur. Auteur theory emphasized the primacy of the director’s vision. A contemporary theory in literature called “New Criticism,” stood in direct opposition to Sarris’s definition of Auteur theory, because it emphasized interpretation of the text[link] without the aid or influence of extra-textual sources. In film, such external sources of interpretation would include two of the essential components on auteur theory: the biographic information of the directors, as well as the rest of their body of work.” Exclusion of these contextual details in film criticism or reviews, minimizes the importance of the director.
Other critics of Auteur theory objected to it on the grounds of its failure in the light of the studio system in Hollywood. Film critic Pauline Kael has theorized that Sarris’s support of Auteur theory was part of a larger objective to highlight the supremacy of American cinema in general, particularly through the notion that directors managed creative control even in the face of Hollywood’s relentless structuring.10 Others have theorized that his argument undermines itself. Film historian, Aljean Harmetz has critically addressed the auteurism and Auteur Theory as “collaps[ing] against the reality of the studio system.”11
One of the most recent criticisms of auteur theory is that of David Kippen, who coined the term Schreiber Theory in his 2006 book entitled, “The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History.” Arguing against director-centric interpretations of films, Kippen argued that the screenwriters themselves have the most impact on the finished product in cinema.12 In many ways, Kippen’s argument is a return to Truffaut’s first use of the term auteur, in which he distinguished directors who wrote their own material from those who appropriated from works of literature. Also, similar to the goals of auteur theory, Kippen has been quoted in interviews as saying he wants to “change the way people think about screenwriting, and movies in general.”13
However, some remark that Kippen has gone too far in the opposite direction. Film journalist Diane Garrett has argued that Kippen’s book, instead of emphasizing the collaborative process of cinema, merely puts replaces the director with the screenwriter on the pedestal. “Why spend 150 pages arguing for the supremacy of the writer?”f she questioned. “Instead say what you really mean: Don’t forget the writer, please.”14 Kippen defended that his book was somewhat of a parody of auteur theory and its perpetuating effects in mainstream cinema and film criticism, thereby explaining its similarities to the 1950s doctrine. He has stated that his book attempts to “overcorrect” this emphasis on directing in such a way that balance is restored and film can once again be recognized as a collaborative process.15
If we return to the OED definition, the auteur as defined by a kind of control he/she operates over the medium, one can make a comparison between the auteur and McLuhan’s artist. In Understanding Media, McCluhan describes the artist as a kind of person who is aware of the medium. “The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.”16 Because of this awareness, the artist is able to reveal the true nature of the medium to society. That is “the medium is the message.” The average human being isn’t aware of this essential fact, having been conditioned to focus on the content. However, McLuhan warns, “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” 17 By thus distracting us, media achieves its strongest numbing effect. The artist “can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has numbed conscious procedures. He can correct them before numbness and subliminal groping and reaction begin.”18 Especially in “experimental art,” McLuhan continues, man is confronted with the adverse affects (a self-driven amputation of the senses) of expanding themselves via technology. By creating art that brings attention to the medium itself, the artist can make others aware as well and act as a “social conscience.”19
McLuhan cites Cubism as an example of this. Cubism does away with perspective,[link] which was merely an illusion on a 2-dimensional canvas, and in doing so, draws attention to its own form.[link] “By giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front and the rest, in two dimensions, [cubism] drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message.” 20 Cubists made a fascination with content obsolete. McLuhan explains, “people use to ask what a painting[link] was about,” but cubism made such a question irrelevant.21
Many auteurs can be considered artists, under McLuhan’s definition. The French New Wave, which came out of the auteur theory of the Cahiers du Cinéma, frequently featured a highlighting of the filmic medium itself, or otherwise a subversion of the expectations of traditional cinema (synchronized sound, linear narratives, etc.) The auteurs’ personal style and their control over the medium itself are one in the same. Having an awareness of the extremely structured and mediated cinema industry is a criterion of the auteur. Whether it is applied solely to a director, or as later critics maintained, anyone who can be attributed with creating or “making” a film (the producer, actors, etc.), at its basics auteur theory delineates a theory of the artist reclaiming control over his/her medium.
1 “auteur,” OED Online, March 2002.
2 François Truffaut, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 31, 1954. Translation by Bill Nichols, Movies and Methods. Berkely: University of California Press, 1976. <http://soma.sbcc.edu/users/davega/FILMST_101/FILMST_101_FILM_
3 Alexandre Astruc, “The Birth of a New Avant Garde,” L’Ecran Français, No. 144,
4Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, “On the Beginnings of Cahiers du Cinema,” Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 100, 1958: 67.
5 Andre Bazin, “De la politique des auteurs,” in Jim Hillier, ed., Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, Neorealism, Hollywood, New Wave (London: British Film Institute, 1985) 255.
6 “auteur,” OED Online.
8 Ian Cameron, “Films, Directors and Critics,” in John Caughie, ed., Theories of
Authorship, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981) 42.
9 Andrew Sarris, “Towards a Theory of Film History,” in John Caughie, ed., Theories of
Authorship, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981) 49.
10 Pauline Kael, “Circles and Squares,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1963: 12-26.
11 Aljean Harmetz, The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II, (New York: Hyperion, 2002) 29.
12 David Kipen, The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History, (New York: Melville House, 2006) 37.
13 Michael Fox, “Author! Author! David Kipen Posits a New Auteur Theory,” SF360, 6 March 2006 < http://www.sf360.org/features/author-author-david-kipen-posits-a-new-auteur-theory>.
14 Diane Garrette, “Book Review: The Schreiber Theory,” Variety, 15 April 2006 <http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117930243>.
15 Kipen 28-29.
16 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994) pages.
17 Ibid., 18.
18 Ibid., 65-66.
19 Ibid., 66.
20 Ibid., 13.
1. Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant Garde.” L’Ecran Français. No. 144. 1948.
2. “auteur, n. and a.” OED Online. March 2002. Oxford University Press. 29 January 2010.
3. Bazin, Andre. “De la politique des auteurs” in Jim Hillier, ed., Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, Neorealism, Hollywood, New Wave. London: British Film Institute, 1985.
4. Cameron, Ian. “Films, Directors and Critics.” in John Caughie, ed., Theories of
Authorship. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
5. Doniol-Valcroze, Jacques. “On the Beginnings of Cahiers du Cinema.” Cahiers du Cinéma.
No. 100. 1958.
6. Fox, Michael. “Author! Author! David Kipen Posits a New Auteur Theory.” SF360. 6 March
2006. 29 January 2010. < http://www.sf360.org/features/author-author-david-kipen
7. Garrett, Diane. “Book Review: The Schreiber Theory.” Variety. 15 April 2006. 29 January
2010. < http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117930243>.
8. Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. New
York: Hyperion, 2002.
9. Kael, Pauline. “Circles and Squares.” Film Quarterly. Vol. 16, No. 3. 1963.
10. Kipen, David. The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History. New
York: Melville House, 2006.
11. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994.
12. Sarris, Andrew. “Towards a Theory of Film History.” in John Caughie, ed., Theories of
Authorship. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
13. Truffaut, François. “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français.” Cahiers du Cinéma. No.
31. 1954. Translation by Bill Nichols, Movies and Methods. Berkely: University of California Press, 1976. 29 January 2010. <http://soma.sbcc.edu/users/davega/FILMST_101/FILMST_101_FILM_MOVEMENTS/FrenchNewWave/A_certain_tendency_tr%23540A3.pdf>.