16
May
2011
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011
Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"But then the whole idea became perverted; it was transformed into a cult of the author's work. So everybody becomes an author, and today even set decorators want to be recognized as the "˜authors' of the nails they put into the walls. The term "˜auteur' hence does not really mean anything anymore"¦ I think the problem was that when we created the auteur theory, we insisted on the word "˜auteur' whereas it's the word "˜theory' we should have insisted upon because the real goal of this concept was not to show who makes a good film but to demonstrate what makes a good film."-Jean Luc Godard, Moviemakers' Master Class

"The directors"”and they can excel at doing that"”are people who only interpret the script, who just turn it from words into images. The filmmakers, however, will be able to take somebody else's material and still manage to have a personal vision come through."-Martin Scorsese, Moviemakers' Master Class

And then we came to the end. After a full year and columns on 26 directors, we have reached the end of Whose Film Is It Anyway?, at least for the time being. I set out to, as the introduction to every single installment has said, examine the validity of the auteur theory by looking at individual directors. I aimed to look at the films they made, at the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of these films and finally to spark a discussion on the merits of the auteur theory. Now, having done (or at least attempted to do) just that for a full year, it's time to step back and take stock of both the auteur theory itself and of what we have learned about it in the last year. Is the theory correct? That's a question far too big to cogently answer in the space of one column, and I'm not sure that's ever really been the aim of this column. The point has always been to spark a discussion and to rethink the way we look at the theory, at directors, and at cinema itself. And so, as a conclusion to this column (or at least the initial run thereof), I wanted to take stock of my own thoughts on the theory. Rather than trying to be coherent or redefine the theory for a new generation of cinephiles, I want to follow the lead of Andrew Sarris, the critic responsible for bringing the theory to America and articulating its beliefs in English for the first time (after the theory's invention in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema prior to the French New Wave), who authored an article entitled "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" that first tried to define the theory for the English speaking world. And so here, at the end of Whose Film Is It Anyway? Are my "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011."

When the auteur theory really began picking up steam, it was criticized for a tendency to champion bad films (or at least, films that were not very good) simply because they had a strong authorial presence. I have consciously tried to avoid the same; I don't think that was a productive tendency 50 years ago, and it certainly isn't today. I have discussed how, under the auteur theory, a terrible director like Michael Bay can be called an auteur, but those of you who read my column on him well know that while I consider him an auteur, I also consider him a terrible director of terrible films, and I wouldn't champion any of his work in spite of that strong authorial presence. So, in that way, I would say that the way the auteur theory was originally laid out was not necessarily useful. The theory was incredibly rigid and dictatorial, requiring support for any auteur regardless of the quality of their films. Personally, I believe the fact that Michael Bay is an auteur with a consistent style and thematic concerns makes him a more interesting director, but it certainly doesn't make him a better director.

I think the conclusion I have come to is not that the auteur theory is right or wrong, but that it can be both, and therefore should be no one's central thesis when approaching cinema. Instead, it is better viewed as a tool, and one of many, for better understanding and appreciating cinema. As Sarris, himself put it, "I will give the Cahiers critics full credit for the original formulation of an idea that reshaped my thinking on the cinema." Whether you believe in the theory or not, its mere presence in the cinematic conversation is important, I think.

A year ago, I was skeptical at best about the supremacy of the director, but over the course of writing this column, I have seen much evidence that the director often reins supreme as the major creative force behind a film. I watch movies differently than I did a year ago, more critically in some cases, and with a greater contextual understanding in others, and that can't really be a bad thing. Thinking about entertainment more thoroughly and more critically does make it more of an academic exercise, at times, but it also makes it an infinitely more rewarding process. Being able to walk out of a movie talking about not only its individual quality but about how it fits into the director's career makes me more annoying, sure, but it also makes me a more conscious film-watcher; it allows me to put more thought into movies than just the initial quality of the individual work.

Films are almost always considered in context with every other film the director has done by critics; what I would suggest is that this practice need not be restrained to an academic setting, but rather can be used by any moviegoer to have a more complete an interesting movie-going experience. This is why I have focused so much on thematic recurrences in this space. As I have said before, I believe discussions of pet themes that can be found in many or all of a director's films are easier to understand and adapt to film watching than an in-depth discussion of technical elements. I think that any movie fan can, and should, find recurring examinations in the work of a director and that those can make said work more interesting, or can at least increase our understanding of what goes into certain films and what individual films mean as part of a larger whole.

This greater awareness and dedication to looking more closely at films need not be restricted to considering a film within the context of the auteur theory. As I said earlier, the theory should be used as one of many tools in any examination of a film, or of films in general. A movie like The Social Network can be looked at using the auteur theory, and examining it as a part of David Fincher's oeuvre, or as part of Aaron Sorkin's larger body of work. But it can also be looked at in the context of the rest of the film's released that year, and further, by what it is saying about our times, and about the place of social networking in our lives. The auteur theory can be useful as part of a larger examination of films, but should not, in my estimation, be the end all be all of cinematic analysis.

Ultimately, I don't believe in the auteur theory, at least not in the way it was originally laid out in Cahiers du Cinema or by Andrew Sarris 50 years ago. As legendary film critic Pauline Kael put it in her retort to Sarris' original article, "Criticism is an art, not a science, and a critic who follows rules will fail in one of his most important functions: perceiving what is original and important in new work and helping others to see." My largest problem with the original auteur theory is how strict it is, how universally it demands to be applied. I don't believe in a set of steadfast rules that must be applied to define an auteur. But I do believe that the auteur theory is useful to the examination of films, a necessary tool to be employed by critics and by contemplative fans.

I do believe that auteurs exist, but that doesn't mean that I believe the identification and championing of these auteurs should be central to any film critic or fan's discussion of the medium. I also believe, contrary to the original theory, that not all auteurs are directors. They are not even all writers, as I see it, and the presence of two auteurs on one project need not mean conflict or failure (look again to the collaboration of Fincher and Sorkin on The Social Network). Not all auteurs, as I define them, would fit into Sarris' definition, not all of them can be universally agreed upon. And they shouldn't be. Part of the fun of being a movie fan is debating these questions, forming your own opinions and seeing how they measure up against the ideas of other people whose opinions you trust. I don't think that every film even necessarily has a definitive author. I do think that the auteur theory is important, though, for what it tells us about individual films and about cinema as an art form, both collaboratively, and individually.

When I originally brainstormed this feature, I had a list of over 100 individuals, mostly directors, to examine. Over the last year, I have covered only 26 of those people. Hopefully, this column has been interesting or even enlightening to those of you who stuck around and read it the whole way through. I don't think the conversation about this theory should end with this column; in fact, I don't think it should ever end. I opened the very first installment of this column with a quote from "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," wherein Andrew Sarris said, "The task of validating the auteur theory is an enormous one, and the end will never be in sight." I hope that this is true, and that the discussion about the theory long outlives this column. I also hope, that with enough time on my hands, and enough interest and support from you, dear readers, that this column will someday come back and continue to examine more people and more issues that are important to the auteur theory. In the interim, it is my hope that I have helped at least some of you to watch movies differently, to think about them more, and to actually question the theories that are put forward about them. If we can all do that, then not only will we be able to determine who, if anyone, a film "belongs" to, and more importantly, we will be able to form our own cinematic theories that can be ours and ours alone.

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