mother of cinema

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.

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6 responses to “mother of cinema”

  1. I agree that auteur theory is not the be all and end all of film criticism, but it does have its value. I think auteur criticism works if the director has managed to fully plumb different themes well in one film resulting in a great story while at the same time the meaning of these same themes compounds over his whole oeuvre, becoming richer and fuller. But if the director is not capable of achieving this, I think applying auteur criticism holds the director to a lower standard, allowing him to take baby steps towards finding his meaning while all the time supported by the crutch of his previous work.

  2. The often debated Auteur Theory holds a lot of truth, for I often can find thematic and stylistic patterns in a director’s work. I agree that many do indeed work on a film (it is a collaborative effort) but it’s the director who makes the choices to work with certain cinematographers, composers, writers and editors. I find it strange that when a film is reviewed badly, it’s almost always a case of blaming the director. Yet when a film succeeds, people cry out that it wasn’t just the director’s involvement that made it that success. This fickle approach to film analysis has always bothered me. For example, when one praises a Hitchcock’s film score because Bernard Herman wrote and performed it, Bernard Herman is the one who is praised. When Hitchcock released a film like “Topaz,” which was not scored by Herman but Maurice Jarre, critics don’t site Jarre as to blame, but rather Hitchcock for failing to use Herman again. If I was to look for the Interior Meaning of Hitchcock’s films I can see similar patterns in a lot of his films. There is a story that Hitchcock likes to tell in interviews concerning his father having him arrested by a police officer when he was young. Hitchcock was placed in a prison cell for some hours until he was finally released and told, “this is what happens to bad boys.” This story and Hitchcock’s fears of police officers and the law can be seen as a recurring motif in his films. With The Lodger, 39 Steps, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest, Frenzy, etc., the story of a wrongly accused man being hunted by the law can be seen as an interior meaning (of something quite personal in Hitchcock’s life) is a recurring theme. Though, Hitchcock did not write the previous listed films, he nevertheless chose them as projects that he could relate and then fabricate on celluloid. Does this not support Auteur Theory? A fingerprint is embedded on every film that he makes, with or without Herman as composer, or such and such as writer. Hitchcock is just but one example of a director I believe gives support to Auteur Theory.

  3. I agree with the issue of the director being blamed only when the film is deemed a success. There is a lot more that goes into the film than the work of just the director. Even though he/she are major support systems to what makes it work I do believe credit should be ackowledged when its due.

  4. Ronnie, I think you presented a very convincing critique of the shortcomings of auteur theory– I share many of your reservations. At the same time, there is something very useful involved in the search for patterns and structural similarities between the works of a single director– and some directors lend themselves more to this approach than others (Hitchcock, Sirk, DePalma, Lynch). To do so doesn’t mean than one had to discount other factors (collaborations, or political/cultural climate), either.

    But Jarrod raises a great point about the inconsistent, and unfair way in which we resist giving directors credit for anything other than failure. Certain critics in particular seem driven to bash– it’s this kind of personal approach that can push auteurism into the realm of subjective taste, in opposition to a theoretical framework.

  5. I agree that it can sometimes be a bad thing for a director to have too much control. Most directors are not experts at everything, so they need to be good at working with other people. Nonetheless, the director can still be considered an auteur. For example, in Citizen Kane, the cinematographer is not merely trying to make it look good. He is trying to create a visual style that best communicates the vision and the interior meaning that Welles had in mind. I think what makes Welles (or any other auteur) an auteur is the fact that he is good at making the rest of the crew understand exactly what his vision is.

    Who deserves the credit/blame for a movie being good/bad? It’s difficult to tell from one movie, but if a director can consistently make good movies regardless of who he works with, then I think it’s clear that he deserves most of the credit.

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    mother of cinema

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