This essay will define and explore the inception and development of auteurist approaches to cinema – the conceit that a film may be said to have an individual author in the manner of a book or a stage play, and that such authorship should be ascribed to the film’s director. Two directors will be used as case studies to illustrate the points being made: Martin Scorsese, and Stephen Frears. Scorsese’s work will be analysed to better understand how auteur status might be aligned with a director, as well as probing the possible limitations of such an approach, and Frears will be invoked as a significant British film director who has worked extensively in both UK and Hollywood cinema, who is critically and commercially successful, yet refutes the concept of auteurism.
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Authorship became an intellectual consideration initially with the politique des auteurs developed by French film critics in the immediate post-Second World War years. It developed largely in the pages of the influential film periodical Cahiers du Cinema. The politique, less a fully-conceived theory of popular film than a concordance of critical opinion, sought to position film in line with literature, theatre and classical music by identifying with an “essentially literary and Romantic conception of the artist as the central, even the sole source of meaning in a text”, as Stoddart (1995, p. 39) indicates. Theorist Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 article “The birth of a new avant-garde: la camera-stylo” outlined, as Stoddart (1995, p. 39) goes on to summarise, three important considerations for the approach:
- First, that cinema has obtained an equivalence to literature, or any other art form of ‘profundity or meaning’.
- Second, that it is constituted through a new and unique language; and,
- third, that this situation affords directors a means of personal expression.
François Truffaut developed this in his 1948 Cahiers article ‘Une certain Tendence du Cinema Francais’. Truffaut here identified the main problems he saw with French film. Dismissing it as le cinema de papa, and of pursuing a tradition de la qualite, he “accused it of being script-led, redolent of safe psychology, lacking in social realism and of being produced by the same old scriptwriters and film-makers whose time was up”, as Hayward (1996, p. 14) indicates.
The politique advocated a refocus onto mise-en-scene, the visual aspects of cinema, rather than the verbal aspects privileged to date. Following this approach, it would be possible to make both aesthetic judgments about the film, and assign to directors an authorial signature. The politique drew a distinction between auteurs, directors who demonstrated their own creativity and personal stylistic and thematic voice, particularly within the constraints of the Hollywood production system, and those who functioned only as competent practitioners of the technical and organisational aspects of film direction, dubbed metteurs-en-scene. These latter directors, as Stoddart (1995, p. 40) shows “were seen as craftsmen rather than artists, (William Wyler and Fred Zinneman are cited)”. Recognised auteurs included “the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Sam Fuller” (Hayward, 1996, p. 15).
Among American film directors, Martin Scorsese may be seen as one who is auteurist. Phillips (2007) deconstructs the 1977 Scorsese-directed New York, New York as a case study of the applicability of a range of theoretical approaches to cinema. For Phillips (2007, p. 17), the “Scorsese auteur structure is assembled deductively from the films Martin Scorsese has directed”; in other words, generalities across a career are deduced, then applied retrospectively back to the individual film text.
Scorsese has collaborated extensively with leading actor Robert de Niro, who is the male lead of New York, New York. Scorsese’s movies typically deal with Italian-American experience and with New York as a setting; elements that are reflected in this text. Many Scorsese-directed films are inflected with crime and gangster genre elements (other Scorsese crime genre films include Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed); though New York, New York is also generically a musical, there is this thematic subtext to the film too.
Phillips (2007, p. 19) identifies a range of thematic concerns common to other Scorsese-directed films that appear in New York, New York, including: a strong focus on masculinity, on awkward male attitudes towards women, on Catholic guilt, on violence as a flawed solution to problems. Phillips (2007, p. 19) also notes the use of formal aspects of cinema that recur across Scorsese’s films: a quasi-documentary mode of representation, the use of mobile cameras, the interplay of popular music and visuals to create meaning and mood. These kinds of observations may be “amplified by reference to biographical information concerning Martin Scorsese” (Phillips, 2007, p. 19). These include “his Catholic background provid[ing] useful corroborating evidence, and … personal statements such as that in which he says that as a boy he wished to be either a priest or a gangster” (Phillips, 2007, pp. 19-20).
By the early 1960s, the politique des auteurs had fallen out of cachet in France (partly a direct effect of former Cahiers writers like Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard having turned to direction themselves) , though it was continued in Anglo-American criticism, in British periodical Movie, and significantly, by American critic Andrew Sarris. Sarris developed the French position into what he termed an auteur theory. Sarris sought a “meaningful coherence” between directors as artists and their work (Stoddart, 1995, p. 42). Directorial ability was seen as being comprised of what Sarris saw, according to Mast, Cohen and Braudy (1992, p. 587) as “three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, personal meaning”. These corresponded to the director as technician, as stylist, and as artist respectively. Over time, a director could move through these circles, in either direction, and their status thus diagnosed. Sarris constructed a pantheon of great American directors, among which he listed John Ford, Orson Welles, D W Griffith and Howard Hawks.
Auteurist theories as expressed above are significant in that they examined popular cultural forms with serious scrutiny, though this was done not to understand the popular but what Lapsley and Westlake (1988, p. 107) understand to attempt to “elevate one small section…to the status of high art”. The consideration of mise-en-scene is important in that it laid the ground work for studies of the specifically cinematic. However, as Lapsley and Westlake (1988, p. 109) conclude, there is something perhaps trivial about auteurism, which is both faddish and elitist. There seems to be little engagement with social realities, any examination of cinema’s engagement with the real world is replaced by questions of ranking and relative worth of directors. Questions of the collaborative nature of cinema, of the industrial aspects of commercial film production and exhibition are not dealt with. Similar omissions are made with regard to the role of the audience. At best, auteur theory here sees two types of spectator: the mass audience member who receives the director’s intent without question, and the aware cineaste, who both perceives the intent, and relishes the ways it is conveyed cinematically. Sarris, for example, was criticised (Stoddart, 1995, p. 43) for constructing little more than a personal list of favourites, employing a quasi-rational system that made little objective sense.
Hayward (1996) usefully breaks author-based theories into three phases. The first phase, as outlined above, conceives the author-role as that of the director, and this as being central to the production of meaning. Hayward’s second phase is that of the interaction of auteur theories with structuralism in the 1960s. Hayward identifies a third phase, that of 1970s post-structuralism, which is discussed in the section below.
Author-based theories were allied with French structuralism in the mid-1960s. As Hayward (1996, p. 16) points out, this impetus came not from within film, but from the attentions of semioticians and structuralists, and it was “unquestionably their work that has legitimated film studies as a discipline”. Theorists such as Christian Metz sought to invoke the rational approach of structuralism to counter the romantic subjectivity of auteur theory to this point. The grande syntagmatique that Metz set out in his Essais sur la signification au cinema attempted a totalizing structural theory of cinema. Using Saussure, Metz perceived cinema as a langue, and each individual film as parole. Hayward (1996, p. 16) reminds us that such an all-encompassing theoretical perspective irreversibly overshadows the texts being examined. In addition, aspects outside the theory get ignored, such as “the notion of pleasure and audience reception, and what occurs instead is a crushing of the aesthetic experience through the weight of the theoretical framework” (Hayward, 1996, p. 16). As Cook (1985, pp. 61-2) reminds us, contemporary revisions in both Cahiers du Cinema and the British film periodical Movie sought to refocus the author as one of several structures to be considered in establishing the meaning of film, alongside stars, the industry, linguistic concerns, and social factors. Still unexamined, though, were questions of audience and of ideology.
The third phase Hayward identifies, that of the influence of 1970s post-structuralist thought on the study of cinema, again demonstrates the extent that understanding of film is indebted to theorists from outside film using the medium to exemplify and examine their approaches. Key to this is Roland Barthes’ 1968 declaration of the death of the author. The text, Barthes declared, as King (2002, p. 110) quotes, is:
“not a line of words releasing a single “theologial” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multidimensional place in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”
This definitive rebuttal of the romantic ideal of the director as author has been accompanied by a plurality of theories variously combining, according to the individual theorist. Lacanian psychoanalytic, semiotic, Althusserian Marxist, feminist and deconstructivist approaches have all been applied in combination to this end. As King (2000, p. 111) states, an “implicit auteurism remains a convenience for journalism and other film writing and criticism [and] the name of the director remains a potentially useful marketing tool”.
Phillips (2007) examines Scorsese’s filmmaking through three main approaches; auteurist, genre and audience studies, concluding that, in order to most fully understand a film and a director’s work, a range of tools need to be used: “the critical approaches outlined here and applied to New York, New York need to be supplemented by others which explore the relationship between image, sound and their impact on the spectator at more ‘micro’ levels.”
British director Stephen Frears is vocal on the subject of auteurism. Fraser (2010) notes how Frears is reticent to see himself as an auteur, preferring instead to have himself seen, as Fraser reports on BBC executive Alan Yentob’s description of Frears as “the ultimate hired gun”. Fraser (2010) goes on to question if one may “really speak of a coherent style or, indeed, vision, from the man who made, amid some disasters, successful films as various as The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, The Deal, and now Tamara Drewe?” The interest for Frears is in the making of films presented to him, rather than exploring personal themes and finding or creating scripts that will permit that exploration. In a recent article (Leigh, 2015) in support of his latest film, the Lance Armstrong biography The Program, this is highlighted, not just by interviewer Danny Leigh, but by Frears as well: “As a young film-maker in the 1960s, [Frears] was amused by the rise of the auteur theory, the idea of directors as visionaries. “I never believed all that rubbish. I haven’t had a vision in my life.””
Auteurist film theories are useful in that they represent a first step towards a theoretical language for cinema, though by themselves they may offer little more than generalities or perhaps an expression of personal preference and taste. The origins of the approach in literature might give auteur theory some initial legitimacy, though it does a disservice to the necessarily collaborative nature of film and of the filmmakers involved in the multiple stages of conceiving, financing, writing, producing editing and distributing a film to its multiple audiences. Though auteurist identifications may be made, and there may be some usefulness in marketing terms to such links, film is perhaps more complicated than this, and required more nuanced study.
Cook, P. (1985) The Cinema Book. London: British Film Institute.
Fraser, N. (2010) Stephen Frears: ‘Audiences aren’t fools – their judgement is crucial’. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/aug/15/stephen-frears-tamara-drewe-interview (Accessed: 4 October 2015).
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The Program (2015) Directed by Stephen Frears [Film]. Working Title.
Hayward, S. (1996) Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. New York: Routledge.
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Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (1988) Thinking About Cinema: An Introduction to Contemporary Film Theory. Manchester, UK: St. Martin’s Press.
Leigh, D. (2015) Interview: Stephen Frears. Available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/9a1e8f20-6762-11e5-a57f-21b88f7d973f.html (Accessed: 4 October 2015).
Mast, G., Cohen, M. and Braudy, L. (eds.) (1992) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 4th edn. New York: Oxford University Press.
Phillips, P. (2007) Genre, star and auteur critical approaches applied to Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York. Available at: http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415409285/resources/genrestar.pdf (Accessed: 4 October 2015).
Mean Streets (1973) Directed by Martin Scorsese [Film]. Warner Bros.
New York, New York (1977) Directed by Martin Scorsese [Film]. United Artists.
Goodfellas (1990) Directed by Martin Scorsese [Film]. Warner Bros.
Casino (1995) Directed by Martin Scorsese [Film]. Universal Pictures.
The Departed (2006) Directed by Martin Scorsese [Film]. Warner Bros.
Stoddart, H. (2000) ‘Auteurism and film authorship theory’, in Jancovich, M. and Hollows, J. (eds.) Film Studies: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
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