A Counterpoint to the Auteur Theory

A Potpourri of Vestiges Guest Post

By Jyoti Prakash Mallick

The Auteur Theory, Great Filmmakers Collage
Image courtesy of English 1B: Cinerama / sjsu-eng1b-sum13.blogspot.in/

According to the Auteur Theory, the director is the chief creator of a film and gives it an individual style that is evident in all aspects of the finished product.

I was surfing channels when something, inconspicuous to most, caught my eye. It was before the credits would start rolling and the screen read- A Rohit Shetty & team film. The film was the madcap, mostly silly, Chennai Express. Anyway, the words took me back to some exhaustive reading I had done - cooped up in a room, scribbling down notes and drawing inferences when I paused for breath - on the auteur theory. The notes were nowhere to be found, so I tried recollecting. The first thing I remembered was an interview of Quentin Tarantino, who was answering a question that I would paraphrase as- What was the one recurring, crippling thought that he had had about & before making movies?

I remember his answer quite vividly.

Tarantino said: "Everyone sets out to make a good film. No one wants to make a bad film. There have been several people with the vision and great stories too, but have failed to make good movies. And that was what scared me. What if i am just a great writer with no talent for filmmaking?! So, I put the question to Terry Gilliam in Cannes. He told me, and I still remember it, that if you have a vision, to bring it to life, you have to assemble a group of people who are great at their jobs, and if they do their jobs right, you have your movie."

He wasn’t even talking about the Auteur theory, but I felt, Terry Gilliam, in that one line, pretty much threw his weight behind Pauline Kael’s vicious essays against Sarris’ Auteur Theory and championing the merits of collaboration instead.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the rationale behind discrediting, and, in fact, disparaging the auteur theory. I would divide the whole tribe of critics that didn’t agree with auteurism into two major schools of thought championed by two of the greatest (and, probably the most unforgiving) voices in America, writing exhaustively on movies.
     1). Manny Farber-

Manny Farber, Auteur Theory, American Film Critic

While Manny Farber focused on decrying the merits of auteristic films, as opposed to directly contradicting the theory, he had his share of fun at the expense of the smug, anti-philistine army of critics. He remarked on the theory and its proponents, and I quote him second-hand: "A bunch of guys standing around trying to catch some director pushing art up into the crevices of dreck." He loved films that kept at it, pushing ahead, and not moving laconically, not unlike a white elephant trudging ahead in all its glory, demanding attention, and intimidated gazes.

And there’s merit in his opinion. Terry Malick, supposedly, the last, true living auteur, chokes the life of a film in the crib, and plays pastelist, painting the room instead with the careful precision of a long-at-it killer. The life of a movie, many opine, is the narrative. I agree, but if a filmmaker, instead of going hammer and tongs at a self-absorbed recreation of his convictions (à la Malick), makes a movie out of self-abandonment and unfettered passion like Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, narrative ceases to matter. Pulp Fiction explodes on the screen, and that movie has a disjointed narrative too.

The point being, the closer one gets to making a film completely on his own, his indulgences make the film virtually unwatchable. That’s what Farber contended and this theory was, agreeably, contentious. He later owned up to liking Godard (the darling of critics amongst the French new-wave directors), and had to disavow his theory against auteurs.

I still agree with him though, and my distaste toward both Godard and Malick remains consistent with every film of theirs that I have to sit through.

I will tell you why, and with examples too.

Kurosawa found and used axis cuts to make a point in Rashomon, if I am not mistaken, and filmmakers still employ that technique, a case in point being the end of the famous “horse-head-in-bed” scene, in which Coppola employs the axis-cut, with macabre effect. A technique to further the film!

If Hitchcock didn’t use the dolly-zoom, Vertigo wouldn’t be Vertigo. The technique was almost waiting to be discovered during and for the movie. Spielberg uses the same to scare the life out of us in Jaws.

Compare these with Godard employing jump-cuts in several of his movies, notably Breathless, more for a different style of filmmaking than anything else.

The two former techniques still appear in films, whereas jump-cuts no longer find takers. Again, the closer a filmmaker gets to driving the film as and how he deems fit, without any solicitude to what the characters would say, he stifles the narrative with style, as opposed to a director, say, a de Palma whose cinematic style is a major character- The Voyeur.

Do auteurs or filmmakers, who do everything or micro-manage the crew, virtually owning and figuring in every aspect of a film, make good films? If I were one of Farber enthusiasts, I would vigorously nod side-to-side; a resounding ‘NO’.

     2). Pauline Kael-

Pauline Kael, Auteur Theory, American Film Critic

Now, Pauline Kael emphasized that the process of making a film is a collaborative process, and the auteur theory is unfair to the writers, cinematographers, and several technicians on board. Most of the essays on this line of thinking are usually non-inclusive of actors.

If Kurosawa is an auteur, would his major films be the same without his collaboration with the constantly frowning, hurriedly leaping through the screen in giants lopes, the terrific- Toshiro Mifune.

What would Scorsese be without De Niro giving it his everything in their movies together?

Would Fellini have made those brilliant movies without Mastroianni playing those characters?

Would Elia Kazan’s films have the same life if someone other than Brando were in it?

We can’t say for sure, but we can be safe in assuming that they just wouldn’t be the same.

These are just actors.

I will go ahead and take the example of Robert Rodriguez, who famously does ‘everything’ in his movies. His credits in Sin City read, rather quirkily- Shot & Cut by Robert Rodriguez. He writes his movies, gives music, shoots them, cuts them, and yet, the only noteworthy film of his, barring El Mariachi, wouldn’t even exist if it were not for Frank Miller.

If it weren’t for George Lucas, there would be no Indie, and Spielberg would be still trying to make his ‘Bond’ movie.

Closer home, Satyajit Ray, arguably the greatest filmmaker and the only renowned auteur that our country has ever produced, couldn’t quite recreate the mise en scene of his earlier films after Subrata Mitra, the brilliant cinematographer, stopped collaborating with him. The cinematography, and the ingenuity of the camera-work in Charulata, is spell-binding, to say the least.

Hell, the dolly-zoom that I have mentioned earlier was suggested to Hitchcock by a crewman.

Sometimes, the voice of the director and, maybe, his persona off-screen is so Goliathesque that we tend to overlook those invisible hands that make sure the edges of a film is polished. Orson Welles, as an original voice in filmmaking, was so intimidating that when Sarris needed a hero to be the face of his auteur theory, he chose him, and when Kael needed an example to refute the theory, she chose Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane as the subject of her scrutiny.

So, when Naseerudin Shah says that he is infuriated when “An XYZ film” comes on screen, I can’t help but agree with him. And there, coming full circle, I would like to give some credit to Rohit Shetty for going for a shared credit rather than for a sole ownership of a movie.

Personally, two of my most favourite filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, seducing us all these years are all team-players. Anderson still lets his actors do their thing, and is constantly enamoured by the performances they give. And all this while, it has been the formidable director-editor duo of Scorsese & Schoonmaker - all crisp, crunch, and biting sauce.

That being said, I would say the two filmmakers who, as far as I remember, come the closest to being true auteurs are Charlie Chaplin, and Abbas Kiarostami. There’s more to this subject and the discussions on the auteur theory could and should go on, as opposed to the word being casually thrown about in conversations.

Till then, cinema beckons...

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!

About Author - 

Jyoti Prakash Mallick, an alumnus of NIT, Rourkela, is an IT Professional who believes that watching Do Aanken Barah Haath, the very first film he saw, The Basketball Diaries, Taxi Driver, and There Will Be Blood were the most seminal experiences of his life. 

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  1. I find many of the best movies have a writer/director. Many of the worst have too much studio influence. It all depends on the talent of the writer/director.

  2. Jonathan PincusMay 2, 2014 at 3:07 AM

    Film is absolutely a collaborative process. However, I still think that auteur theory gives people a way to see trends because, in a general sense, style and type of story telling is most easily seen through trends by director. Basically, it gives the viewer an additional narrative to follow that has most often the most influence on the film.

  3. I couldn't have agreed more... the director's influence on a film cannot be denied but at the end of the day filmmaking is not a one man show... it's indeed a collaborative process!!!

  4. Jyoti Prakash MallickMay 2, 2014 at 7:44 AM

    Thanks for reading, and being gracious enough to leave a comment. :)I concur. There used to be a time when the Hollywood studio-system used to have a crippling effect on a director's vision, and i remember a few directors used to go the "one film for them, one film for me" way. This malaise hasn't been completely done away with.
    Yore- Orson Welles struggling with Universal to release his cut of "Touch of Evil".
    Now- Tony Kaye disowned the released cut of American History X.
    I think Sundance has helped a bit. A director, and a writer both need that assurance from the studios, and the carte blanche, to not feel stifled, and make the best film they can. I find Brad Pitt's production house Plan B, among several other such instances,producing McQueen's movie quite refreshing. :)

  5. Jyoti Prakash MallickMay 2, 2014 at 8:35 AM

    Thanks for reading, and making a valid point. :)
    In fact, you make a point that i, personally, struggle with a lot. I think it was Bergman (or, maybe Fellini) who didn't particularly like it when a director developed his style (let's say the Tarantino boom-zooms), or made films on the same underlying themes(Scorsese struggled with the Madonna-Whore complex, jealousy, and father-figures in a lot of his films even up to The Departed). There's quite an interesting quote on the same which i can't seem to recall. Ideally rehashing the same stuff shouldn't be a good thing, But god, what would i give for Scorsese to go back to making those films in the 80s! I think Spielberg does the opposite; he develops a particular style for each of his films, and he is the least favorite of mine among the brat-pack of the 70s and 80s. I adore Wes Anderson and we can confidently identify his films just by taking a fleeting glance. Sofia Coppola, another idol of mine, made two autobiographical films, one a hangout-existential "Lost in Translation", and the other one, the hauntingly detached "Somewhere", and i would want her to be in the same zone throughout, not that i didn't like her last pop-culture, acid bubble-gum movie. For us fans, it does give a thrill when we yell out loud: Oh! That's so him/ her. But then we can extend the same to writers too. I know it's a Peter Morgan script when there's famous people involved, and one particular defining moment in their lives is captured. I concur with you on that.
    But, the auteur theory is almost like a license for movie-goers to associate a particular work with a director, and think and/or write about it. Retrospectives of writers, editors, cinematographers, etc. doesn't really happen; quite lazy of us, and the nameplate-critics too. The only thing that bothers me, like i said, is that the auteur theory makes us lousy, and lazy audiences by not discussing other aspects of film-making, and the people behind them. They certainly deserve some of the credit. :)

  6. I've never quite understood and really don't have much patience with pro/anti auteur theories. Movies are truly a collaborative art, the most all inclusive of arts in fact, but most of the time there's a driving force that brings it all together. Sometimes that force is a Selznick, and that's the stamp that's left, but for me the most effective films have a strong director who makes it happen and makes it happen his/her way. Notorious might be different if there wasn't a Cary Grant, and casting is by no means no small factor, but it would still be a Hitch movie. It would have a different dynamic of course, but would that dynamic be necessarily bad? And that choice of actor is of course a part of the parcel. What I like most about this piece is the opening quote from Tarantino: "Everyone setsary out to make a good film. No one wants to make a bad film. There have been several people with the vision and great stories too, but have failed to make good movies. And that was what scared me. What if i am just a great writer with no talent for filmmaking?! So, I put the question to Terry Gilliam in Cannes. He told me, and I still remember it, that if you have a vision, to bring it to life, you have to assemble a group of people who are great at their jobs, and if they do their jobs right, you have your movie."

  7. I understand the sentiment behind the counterpoints, but Kael doesn't appreciate that the collaborative aspect of filmmaking doesn't negate the merits of auteurism. Yes there are screenwriters, cinematographers, etc. But similarly, there were carpenters and contractors and painters building every Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier. The buildings are still distinctly the product of their architects regardless of their existence being dependent upon collaboration. As for a question like "Would Fellini's films be the same without Mastrionni" the important thing to keep in mind, from my perspective, is that Mastrionni IS a key aspect of a Fellini film. Fellini cast him because he was Fellini.

    As for the Manny Farber-ists of the world, there's not much I can say other than "you can't account for taste." But I personally love it the more a director has control. I don't think their owning every aspect of the film necessarily renders them unwatchable. I think what it does is renders the films a more pure expression of that specific filmmaker's subconscious. If I find that particular filmmaker's subconscious interesting, chances are I will feel the same way about the film. Carlos Reygadas' and Werner Herzog's films made with extremely small crews are great examples of this.

  8. Well, I think you are absolutely right on this one... I, for one, would always want to watch a film which is better controlled by an artist's subconscious than by a bunch of technicians (Btw, I don't want to demean the support staff by calling them so... they play an important part but without the director's creative vision, the end product may lack the soul)!!!

  9. Jyoti Prakash MallickMay 3, 2014 at 2:21 PM

    A couple of clarifications to begin with-
    1. Mirnal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak weren't/aren't covered by the world-media as much as Ray was, and neither have their works received as much attention as they warrant or merit. Chetan Anand is actually my favorite Indian filmmaker, along with Mukul Anand(a choice which i can never really defend). So when i meant 'renowned', i meant just that. Like Ozu, or like even Breeson, i am still waiting for Ghatak's work to grown on me. It still hasn't.
    2. Since i meant the piece as a counterpoint to the auteur theory, i was leaning towards the anti-auteur theory, and consciously leaning away from a more balanced view. Hence, just the couple of names to suggest that i do struggle with an out and out rejection or acceptance of any thing. Chaplin, and Kiarostami because, i didn't have to revisit their works again and again for their films to grow on me. They got me, hook, line and sinker. Buster Keaton, i have never enjoyed, and neither have i particularly liked the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy, for that matter. And there's a definite reason to it too. I used to watch a lot of Chaplin, because we had a VCR, and my father used to get all the Bruce Lee, Chaplin, Ramsay movies. :) The rest of the Vaudeville greats, i caught much later, and the genre doesn't quite appeal to me. Again, duly charged, and duly guilty.
    So that's out of the way.
    With Malick, i actually like his Badlands a lot. And with The Tree of Life, i maintained that if you had grown up in the summers in America, like Ebert did, you would enjoy it. I couldn't though, and i am not a huge fan of the kind of filmmaker he has become, a problem i had with De Palma too. In fact, making films or any trade for that matter is a young man's game.
    However, i will surely go through the reviews of Mr. Jugu A. I doubt if i will make myself sit through Malick's films again though. ;)
    I agree with your opinion that a lot of filmmakers are very close to being true,true auteurs, and am quite looking forward to a few names in the list, whose works i am not versed with. A fan-boy YAY fr that! Herzog, Melville, Cassavetes, Visconti, i love. Jarmusch, Tarkovsky, i keep going back to see if they hit me, and they haven't yet.
    To add to that list, a couple of names that i need to mention are Kitano and Wong kar Wai. Kitano is a magician, and very few filmmakers are.
    A terrific counter to the article. :)

  10. That's exactly what I was trying to suggest that it's all a matter of subjectivity and perception. After all, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder!!! :-) Anyway, do keep revisiting the works of all those great filmmakers... one can just cannot have enough of great cinema.

    P.S. I am sure that reading Mr. Abraham reviews will provide you with a wider perspective to approach Malick.

  11. Jyoti Prakash MallickMay 3, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    Thanks for reading. :)

    The last paragraph is exactly what my sentiments are. A director(one of the good ones) hides a part of his soul in every movie of his.

    However, "Fellini cast him because he was Fellini." is exactly the issue i have with the auteur theory. It just makes me feel like a director is a puppeteer, micromanaging his actors and crewmen, as opposed to him collaborating with his actors to get a real insight, and even rediscover the character the actor is supposed to be playing. Who knows if a character is 10% director, 10%actor, 80%writer, or is he 50%director, 30%actor, and 20%writer. Interesting, right?! Now we can say that "All That Jazz" just might be a Bob Fosse film, no questions asked. There might be other similar examples too which are purely auteuristic works. The rest- who knows! Let's take your average film, the script maybe inspired from the writer's current predicament, the way the film is shoot a reflection of the director's mood, and a character may well be a coloured interpretation by the actor. It's is very hard to then critique a film sub-textually, and hence, writing sub-textual critiques become great fun too. :)

  12. Jyoti Prakash MallickMay 3, 2014 at 2:45 PM

    Thanks for taking out the time to go through the piece. :) I agree with everything you said, Dynamics, we can't really predict.

  13. Richard W. HainesMay 22, 2014 at 10:56 PM

    In terms of some critics claiming that filmmaking is a collaborative art form, none of them have actually worked on a production nor do they understand how a film is made. While we shouldn't discredit the screenwriter's input, if the director is any good, he or she will take the script and make it their own with a unique style and perspective. Most movies that are 'collaborative' tend to be formulaic productions without a distinct vision. Entertainment but not that unique combination of artistic entertainment. Those are not the movies I watch over and over again.


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