Auteurism as Perspective: French Origins, American Tradition (Part One)

Part One: Auteurism as Perspective: French Origins, American Tradition (Part One)

I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it–Orson Welles

There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself–Akira Kurosawa

Personality–or personal style–has been invoked to enshrine all kinds of meretricious trash, but try to think of a great picture without it–Steven Bach, Author of Final Cut

Auteurism is the single most productive concept in film history over the past quarter century–Thomas Schatz, film historian

The defining characteristics of an author’s works are not necessarily those which are most readily apparent.

The purpose of criticism is to uncover behind the superficial contrast of subject and treatment a hard core of basic motifs.  The patterns formed by these motifs is what gives an author’s work its particular structure, both defining it internally and distinguishing one body of work from another.”

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

French Origins

In the late 1940s, French critic Alexandre Astruc drafted the auteur theory around the metaphor of the camera-stylo, the camera as fountain pen. Astruc suggested that film should be read as a text, and that a good film is one in which the director is the main creative force. Accordingly, the entire production crew should be subsumed under the director’s leadership for his self-expression. The Paris-based journal, Cahiers du Cinema, founded by Andre Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze in 1951, was extremely important in propagating auteurism in the film world.

The approach was formalized by a group of critics writing for the magazine, who fashioned the “auteur policy” as an alternative to the then prevalent sociological method of content analysis. Francois Truffaut first postulated auteurism in his 1954 article, “Une certaine tendance du cinema francaise,” in Cahiers du Cinema. In this seminal piece, Truffaut developed the concept of “la politique des auteurs,” in which he argued that a single person, the director, should assume aesthetic responsibility for the film’s overall look. Truffaut’s target was the “Tradition of Quality” (“la tradition de la qualite”), manifest in French post-War films that were adapted from novels and were heavily dependent on plot. Truffaut attacked the “psychologically realistic” films of Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannay, Rene Clement and others, because they were more of a writer’s than a director’s movies.

La politique des auteurs assumed immediate and specific meanings. First, it called for a strong stance in favor of some directors and against some others. Auteurists elevated the stature of French filmmakers Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, and Jean Cocteau, and of American directors Howard Hawks, John Ford, and British-born Hitchcock. Second, auteurism called for the reevaluation of Hollywood directors who had to overcome many more obstacles than their European counterparts. During the studio system, directors were assigned scripts over which they had little control and had to deal with domineering studio moguls and powerful movie stars.

Searching for the thematic and stylistic consistencies among the various films of individual directors, the auteurists elevated identifiable personal signature to a standard of value.

Auteur directors were defined as the creators of a personal world vision and a distinctive cinematic style. The Cahiers’ critics perceived Hollywood as the most extreme contrast to the “refined” French cinema of the 1950s, which they wanted to destroy.

It was when the Cahiers critics applied the auteur theory to the apparently complacent functionaries of the Hollywood factory system that the controversy erupted. The feeling was, as Dave Kehr has observed, that Hawks and Hitchcock, who engaged in the commercial exploitation of “juvenile” genres, like Western and thriller, couldn’t possibly be elaborating a personal vision of the world stamped with their own marks as artists. In pointing out how deeply the supposedly uncaring craftsmen were involved in their movies, the auteurists succeeded in unearthing numerous personal–and by their definition good–Hollywood films.