The discussion of auteur theory in these readings offers a number of important ideas about the way that film itself is understood. The very notion of auteur theory, in fact, prompts deep reflection on the notion of film as art, and, if this is accepted, who is to be seen as the artist. While this is the central question of auteur theory, it is difficult to assign the entire artistic “personality” of a film to its director, which is the conclusion of this approach, which Pauline Kael argues quite convincingly; because he or she interacts with the work of the screenwriter, actors, musical directors, and other individuals with their own unique perspective, it seems impossible that the interior meaning that auteur advocates describe can truly be the vision of the director alone. Further, often when a director has a greater amount of control, the work can actually be less aesthetically pleasing than when he or she is working with the studio, writers and other entities, as Bazin concedes in his discussion of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Confidential Report. All of this suggests that the interior meaning of the film, which is the primary criteria on which comparison through auteur theory rests, cannot be clearly attributed to the director.
Despite this central problem with the theory, at least in my opinion, auteur concepts do help to create a deeper understanding and means of critical appraisal form film. Foe example, both of Wollen’s perspective from 1969 about what auteur theory can do when applied to the work of a specific director, as he did with John Ford is quite insightful; the fact that he can show the way that Ford plays with specific ideas, themes and antinomies suggests that the auteur approach can yield fruitful analysis of a director’s work (Wollen, 1969). Further, this kind of approach in many ways seems preferable to other kinds of criticism; the critique of the chronological approach to film theory, which Sarris refers to as a “pyramid” perspective is also limited, for the very reasons that he asserts, since it creates a need to accept certain films as critically important even if aesthetic tastes or technical debates change how it is perceived. This kind of imposition has not been placed on other artistic mediums, like literature (Sarris, 1963), nor would it work for film, as evidenced by the fact that the AFI list of the greatest American movies has changed dramatically in the last decade, to cite but one example.
Despite the fact that the director-centric approach advocated by auteur theory is important for overall criticism, there are too many flaws otherwise to accept it as the most valid form of analyzing film. One of the central ideas of the theory is that it is a pattern theory (Sarris, 1962), which means that certain motifs, techniques and other things recur in the work of one director. However, because of the often disparate stories and settings given treatment by film, saying that certain ideas recur in the work of one person is a highly subjective process; although it may readily apparent to a critic James Cameron uses specific techniques in both Terminator II and Titanic, finding antinomies that show either a consistency in his work or some kind of aesthetic progress is a far more speculative undertaking, and it is one that cannot be catalogued as easily as auteur theory suggests. Further, this theory also hinges on the idea that artistic vision never declines, meaning that the later work of directors will necessarily exceed earlier work. Bazin (1957) argues that this is true of all different artistic genres and mediums, but this seems incorrect on both counts; Kael (1963) highlights some of the directors for whom this assertion does not apply, and I personally can think of several writers and poets, ranging from William Wordsworth to a more contemporary and mainstream figure like Stephen King, who most critics feel saw a decline in their work as they grew old. Thus, while auteur theory offers some important ways of looking at film, on the whole I feel that the theory is not successful as a formula for formal criticism. As Kael (1963) points out, all critics in every genre seek to locate recurring themes and devices and analyze them, so to reduce film theory to the mere cataloguing of these according to directors seems to negate the importance of the film itself in favor of the vision of the auteur, which is something that Bazin (1957) himself feared despite his advocacy of the theory itself.