In response to: The Andrew Sarris essay “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
American film critic Andrew Sarris’ “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” expressed the concerns about the auteur theory, particularly outside the insights coming from the French thinkers and the film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Unlike Francois Truffaut in his essay “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” Sarris provided clear examples of scenes in films, offering enough elaborations to make the general reader understand his point without requiring a lot of film viewing sessions and further research. He said that the auteur theory emphasizes the body of work of a director instead of simply highlighting selected masterpieces. He also raised the issue of the auteur theory suggesting that it would be difficult to think that a good director would make a bad film and a bad director would make a good one. He also made a good point with his words, “the auteur theory itself is a pattern theory in constant flux.” He went on further saying, “The task of validating the auteur theory is an enormous one, and the end will never be in sight. Meanwhile, the auteur habit of collecting random films in directorial bundles will serve posterity with at least a tentative classification.” This, I believe, is where film criticism and scholarship become of great value to understand a filmmaker’s body of work, promoting further discussions and even debates, which are healthy for the art form.
According to Sarris, “The first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.” He expressed how in this theory, “if a director has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, he is automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors.” Moving further, “The second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serves as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels.” This reminded me of one of the directors that influenced my decision in going to film school – Tim Burton. Early on in his career (personally, his best works were from “Edward Scissorhands” to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), he established an easily identifiable visual style with his panache for German Expressionism. Sarris made a good point with his conviction that the system utilized by American directors allowed them to really infuse their personalities with stylistic consistency in the way they express their cinematic works. With the nature of American cinema being generally commissioned, an American director incorporated a specific visual treatment in the material worked on. “The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.” From what I understood in the reading, the ultimate guiding principle of the auteur theory requires the director to mount a material he didn’t write. In so doing, the challenge of using the tension between a director’s personality and the material becomes very apparent in the process of making the film. However, this becomes quite an issue with a good number of directors who are often described as auteurs because they would typically write or even produce their film projects as well. Moreover, this brings the auteur theory in such a strange place because the idea of putting a director’s personality on screen despite the story calling for another treatment seems to violate the material’s integrity. Besides, the general public is in no position to really know that much to figure out which elements of a film came from the director, producer, cinematographer, production designer, musical scorer, actor, and the list goes on (add a test screening’s comment card to the list as well). This even goes further with directors with frequent collaborators in their projects. As I further reflected in all these, I would say that the so-called requirements and elaborations should always be taken with a grain of salt. I believe Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino are auteurs despite writing (or even producing) many of the films they directed. Film is a collaborative medium and one must not discount the contribution of the production team (besides the director) in every project. There will always be a long (probably never-ending debate) on the case of film’s authorship with the contribution of most people in the production becoming invisible and the director ultimately shining through the work’s entirety.
Indeed, Sarris made these three premises of the auteur theory more fathomable and visually comprehensible through his “three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning.” He further added, “The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur” and “there is no prescribed course by which a director passed through the three circles.” I liked how he expressed, “specific beauties of interior meaning on the screen and, later, catalogue the moments of recognition,” as part of understanding the nature of the auteur theory.
I agree with his articulation on the case of a director who tries to cover up the lack of expertise by hiring expert members of the production team, serving as his or her security blanket throughout the project – which still persists until now. In his own words, “Nowadays, it is possible to become a director without knowing too much about the technical side, even the crucial functions of photography and editing. An expert production crew could probably cover up for a chimpanzee in the director’s chair. How do you tell the genuine director from the quasichimpanzee? After a given number of films a pattern is established.” I believe that a director should have the expertise of effectively communicating his vision to his or her production team, and for the director to do that requires understanding each of the production team member’s role in the project. The director should understand photography, acting, editing, sound, and even visual effects, or he or she becomes a “quasichimpanzee,” as how Sarris pointed out.
I also agree with his statement where he quoted Jean Renoir’s observation: “a director spends his life on variations of the same film.” This is very much worth pondering on.
For me, the auteur theory offers a good modality to understand cinema through film criticism and scholarship.
I always believe that a film has a distinct signature because of its author, the director. Even if a single script is provided to 10 directors who should make their own films from this single source, each of the 10 films will turn out as a different film. The joys of the auteur theory, as how he noted in the reading, allows a film critic, a film scholar, a film reviewer, a cinephile, or a fan, to benefit from the different levels of understanding of a film, a director, and his or her other films by identifying the kind of authorship this director offers in the rest of his or her body of work.
I think though, that a certain aspect of the auteur theory can easily be abused to the point of limiting too much of what a director can do – getting pigeonholed, finding a niche that wouldn’t allow much freedom and diversity for stories that would require a brand new “personality” for a so-called auteur director. In such case, I would go back to my stand on being an auteur – the director should have one’s thumbmark or signature in the film, which doesn’t necessarily mean having the same German Expressionist look for the next Burton film when the material strongly calls for something else. It shouldn’t be the specific elements but the entirety of the director’s personality that should come into play. Interestingly, people can read through a film by this director known for dark shadows, high-contrast shots, and skewed geometric figures like in “Sleepy Hollow” in a more colorful and whimsical film like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the very emotional journey of family love in “Big Fish.” They don’t share exactly the same technical looks, but people can see something ingrained in them and they can collectively be seen as signature Tim Burton films. Ultimately, it is not about techniques, it is about storytelling.
A lot of questions come with the idea of the auteur theory, but I feel the most important one to answer is how this would make filmmakers better at making films. For me, as a term used to articulate how directors mold their films on every level to reflect their visions and perspectives, the storytelling called for by the project’s material should be the main focus with the director’s signature style only second to it.
Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall. “Andrew Sarris: Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.