Auteurism as Perspective: Directors Vs. Screenwriters as Auteurs

A whole tradition of film scholarship, juxtaposing genre and auteur criticism, emerged, with scholars examining the influence of individual filmmakers, such as Ford, Hawks, Anthony Mann, on an established genre like the Western. They explored the possibility of individual vision in the context of the collective-corporate nature of film production. Any importance attached to individuals who influenced a film was weighed against the notion of film as a creation of artists, technicians, and businessmen.

This did not dispute the auteur theory–of attributing the film’s style and meaning to its director. Nor did it deny qualitative differences that distinguish art from mediocrity. Rather, it suggested social meanings that transcended any one filmmaker. Ford and Hawks developed a distinctive point of view and personal style, but they also dealt with issues inherent in the Western genre, reflected in the Westerns made by other directors.

Other scholars, such as Tad Gallagher have classified major Hollywood directors into different types of auteurs:

1. The director as an author who dominates his films completely, such as Orson Wells and Josef Von Sternberg. 2. The director as an architect who reigns, such as John Ford and Jean Renoir. 3. The director as a collaborator who keeps a low profile, such as George Cukor.

Screenwriters as Auteurs

Critical opponents of auteurism claimed that, by elevating only the director, other crafts were neglected, such as screenwriting. Writers create or adapt (from other sources) the film’s plot, characters, dialogue, and themes. If the director is an interpretive artist, should not the screenwriter be considered the real creative force Richard Corliss, who was a student of Sarris’s, wrote the book Talking Pictures (1974), in which he proposed that, unless he writes the screenplay, the Hollywood director is an interpretive artist, steering the script, actors, camera in the right direction. According to this conception, the director is less an architect than a foreman, less a painter than an illustrator, less a composer than a conductor. For Corliss, the solution to the scenarist-versus-director problem will be resolved when the same individual writes and directs a picture.

Tracing thematic patterns and consistencies in the work of major screenwriters, Talking Pictures was meant to challenge and “correct” Sarris’s notion of auteurism. Corliss felt that auteur critics were relinquishing the original intent of analyzing visual style as the key to directorial temperament, settling instead on the analysis of thematic structures which, he argued, was the writer’s, not the director’s, domain. He proposed that writers who imposed their ideas on a diverse variety of directors should be valued as central creative forces, calling for a more detailed consideration of film as a collaborative art. Ideally, film criticism should consist of painstaking efforts in assessing the relative contribution of the producer, director, writer, actors, cinematographer, designer, and actors.

As interesting as Corliss’s proposition is, it is impossible to accomplish until and unless critics are present on the set as participant observants of the filmmaking process. Year after year, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association debates whether to establish a new award category for editing, and the counter argument is that critics never really know the particular contribution of the editor vis-a-vis the director on the final cut.

Opponents of auteurism have charged that they place greater value on the director than on the film itself. There was fear that a fashionable acceptance of some directors would reach the point where criticism ceases to ask questions and lapses into a celebration of excellence. There was also the danger that a worthy film would be rejected because its creator has not made good films up until then. Andre Bazin, who was not an auteurist in the way that his disciples were, had pointed out that mediocre directors can make good films and geniuses can make bad ones. Bazin felt that auteurism needed to be “supplemented” by other theoretical approaches.

Sarris stressed the importance of combining thematic and stylistic explorations, but there was a risk that auteurists would favor thematic over stylistic analysis. Indeed, if one classified directors just by the themes of their movies Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan are similar (in Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass), though their work is vastly different stylistically. Still, at the very least, auteurism raised the issue of relative and specific contribution (who did what) and suggested that responsibility and credit should be allocated more precisely. For example, several crucial speeches in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath were written by its producer, Daryl Zanuck, who didn’t get any writing credit.

Guilty of hero-worshipping, early writings by auteurists imagined directors as autonomous geniuses who transcended the genres and the economic conditions under which they worked. Auteurism implied a certain autonomy to specific directors; a director’s work was analyzed for the common elements that reflect his distinctive “world view.” But neo-Marxist critics pointed out that directors were only one variable in the total institution called cinema, that they were implicated in the system financially and ideologically, and that their world view expressed these factors. These critics questioned the validity of auteurism because of the special ways in which cinema works as an ideological apparatus.

There was fear that auteur critics would not respond adequately to new films. It soon became clear that auteurist criticism was of greater value in judging new films by veteran directors than in judging new films by young directors who have not established yet consistent themes or styles. One of the interesting empirical questions became: At what point of his career a particular director is justifiably declared an auteur. The problem today is that young filmmakers, such as Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, are perceived as auteurs after making only one or two movies, which was never Sarris’s intention.

The claim that the text expresses the feelings and personality of the author, as Richard Dyer noted, presupposes a transparency between an author and his text. For Dyer, the text could express the author’s unconscious and artistic personality as something distinct from his personality in other areas of life. Since expression is only possible through codes, and codes tend to be shared, he proposed a new direction in auteurist studies that should analyze the specific way of working with codes as a way to identify a film as a typical Hawks or a Hitchcock work.

Other critics pointed out that the auteurists’ aim to uncover the “deep structure” (the director’s personality) in order to interpret the film’s “surface structure should take into account the director’s manipulation of a number of variables: industrial, political, technical, stylistic, and narrative. Society’s dominant culture and the genre’s established conventions might determine the director’s specific approach (in terms of formal and thematic codes) much more than their own personality.