In this essay, I shall endeavor to outline the beginnings of the auteur theory, and show the arguments that support and oppose the relevance of the auteur theory in modern film. It is my opinion that it is still relevant, though ultimately only to the individual. That is; the theory may be more relevant to a follower of the industry, and in particular a follower of a certain director, than to a person who takes a film at face value and has no interest in its connection with past works. There are a number of arguments both favouring, and against this theory, which I will look further into. I will concentrate on the work of Steven Spielberg, showing the influences through his work and the relevance they have with regard to auteur theory.
Arising in France in the late 1940s, the auteur theory was the production of the cinematic theories of Andr Bazin and Alexandre Astruc. The theory of director as author was first put forward in Bazin’s periodical Cahiers du cinema, (founded in 1951). Two of its theoreticians, Fran ois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, later became major directors of the French New Wave . Unknown, (02/12/2000 [A-level Film Studies Tutorial, online]). The auteur theory means that a film is most valuable when it is the product of the director, and his personal style, rather than taken as the content of the film. The influences of the director can therefore be seen through all of his works, with aspects of his personal life often seen, portrayed in different manners, through each film. Ideally the director can be identified by watching the film, without knowing previously who is responsible for it.
A term also used closely in conjunction with the auteur is the metteur en scene. Cahier critics distinguished between auteurs and metteurs en scene. The term metteurs en scene is used to describe film directors who master the mise-en-scene, and the formal organisation of the completed film competently, but the overall meaning of the film expressed is not her or his own. Mise-en-scene can be described as the way a director sets the scene, having an eye for detail, and can be seen in the disposition of the scene and the way the camera is used etc. This can become the signature of a director. For example, Eisenstein was an auteur in terms of mise-en-scene. He constantly produced his films, showing conflict of shots, which could be further seen in all his works and recognized as being his style of film making.
With modern film making becoming more accessible to the average person, there is a greater scope of quality of film, and a greater quantity of that which is viewed by the public. This abundance of material, in my opinion, has lead to the devaluation of film as an art form, instead making film another everyday source of entertainment, which is subject to floods of bad quality that reduces the overall image. This change in overall image means that directors are instantly considered auteurs, regardless of talent, by the Hollywood Film Industry, since they will no-doubt show some degree of individuality in their work. This is most often seen when a new film is being promoted as, A Film by the director concerned. The whole point of auteurism originally was that it represented especially talented filmmakers, with strong personal points of view, using their film to get their message through and give them due credit for their work. Unknown, (24/11/2000 [Criteria for Criticism, online]).
There are various arguments in favour of auteurism and the need for it in modern film making. One such argument is that there is still a minority of Hollywood directors who have a distinct personal vision, technical competence, a distinct visual style, and an interior meaning which has arisen precisely from the tensions between the director (auteur) and the conditions of the production within which she or he works. One such case is the work of Howard Hawkes. Hawkes is a director who worked for years within the Hollywood studio system. He has worked in almost every genre. He has made westerns, gangster films, war movies, thrillers, science fiction, musicals, comedies, and even a biblical film. All of these films exhibit the same thematic pre-occupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, and the same visual style and tempo. Another argument in its favour can be expressed in terms of genre, which can actually provide a creative tension, which enables the director to express more in a short period of time, through the audience’s knowledge of the codes and conventions of the genre, than would be possible in other films. Unknown, (02/12/2000 [A-level Film Studies Tutorial, online]).
There are, however, arguments against the auteur theory and what relevance it holds in present society. It is suggested that in the early days of Hollywood, the enormous commercial potential of cinema was recognised, and the rush to exploit that potential meant that innovation and experiment were encouraged. However the coming of sound in 1927, and the establishment of the Hollywood Studio System in the 1930s, gave way to the idea of cinema as entertainment, and producers and stars became more important in the marketing process than directors. The creative source of the film was then taken to be the writer of the original work rather than the director. Therefore Hollywood assembly line film production was based upon genre, and prescribed formulas, eliminating the space for artistic creativity, and therefore the need for the auteur. Similarly it is said that the director can only be an auteur if they have complete autonomy and independence, and since the director has to work as member of a team of editors, script writers, casting agents, camera-workers, technicians, stars, producers, executives, etc, it is studio heads who control the production of a film, therefore preventing the emergence of a personal vision. Unknown, (02/12/2000 [A-level Film Studies Tutorial, online]).
Steven Spielberg is a household name amongst the English-speaking world. His first film was a television movie, the highly acclaimed Duel (1971), a suspense film about a motorist being terrorised by a truck. After two more television thrillers, he directed The Sugarland Express (1974), which was critically well received but not financially successful. This was followed the next year by Jaws (1975), which became a huge worldwide success and made him a household name. These early films, made before he was famous and influential, developed his reputation based purely upon his skill at orchestrating suspense and action. The proficiency with which he did so suggested that this was a field in which he would continue to work. After Jaws, he continued to direct action (the three Indiana Jones films), and did not make another film in the suspense field until Jurassic Park (1993). Brode (1995).
From 1982, beginning with E.T. (1982), Spielberg’s works have explored many issues close to his heart. Brode (1995) traces this passage of increasing maturity, beginning with the exploration of childhood dreams in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T, Poltergeist (1982) and Empire of the Sun (1987). He suggests that there are influences of Spielberg balancing work and personal commitments in Always (1989), and issues of his own fatherhood in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Hook (1991). He finally shows details of Spielberg s cultural background coming through in Schindler’s List (1993). Descriptions of Spielberg s work suggest that he is, by definition, a modern auteur, following the personal influences in his work, and the repeated ways in which his films can be related to himself, as director. Taylor (1992).
It is therefore my conclusion that, although there are many differing opinions, the auteur theory is still a relevant concept within the modern film making industry. The auteur is, by definition, a director who incorporates his personal style into his work, and shows various aspects in his/her films throughout his/her career. Taking Steven Spielberg as an example from modern film, I have noted my personal observations, aswell as the opinions of respected professionals, with regards to his career and the labeling of auteurism to his work. Everyone will have their own personal opinion on this matter of auteurism, but taking Spielberg as an example, I feel it is a relevant concept today, as it can be seen in a number of modern director s work.
Taylor, Phillip, Steven Spielberg, B.T. Batsford Limited, London, 1992.
Unknown Author, A-level Film Studies Tutorial page, http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/9128/, accessed 02/12/2000.
Unknown Author, Criteria for Criticism, http://users.erols.com/konecnyd/GoodScript.html, accessed 24/11/2000.
I also used a number of sources as reading material, for a better understanding of the terminology used and the idea of auteurism. These are as follows:
Cook and Bernink, The Cinema Book, London, 1980.
Unknown Author, The Steven Spielberg Directory, http://www.scruffles.net/spielberg/, accessed 08/12/2000.
Unknown Author, The Steven Spielberg Database, http://www.multimania.com/spielbrg/, accessed 08/12/2000.
Unknown Author, Auteur Theory, http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/2/0,5716,11482+1+11350,00.html, accessed 24/11/2000.