Thursday, 22 March 2012

On the history of auteurs

In 1939 Bosley Crowther reported in the New York Times that a debate was going on in the film community about whom should be considered the author of a film, was it the director, the writer, the producer or perhaps even actors? Crowther himself seemed to be undecided but it seemed the director was getting the upper hand.

This is but one of many examples that disproves the popular and persistent idea that discussions about auteurs and authorship began in the 1950s in France, with the writings of Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard and others in Cahiers du cinéma, and that previously directors were not considered authors or artists. This has always been an a-historical misconception. To consider the director as the artist, the auteur, was common already from the very beginning of narrative films. D. W. Griffith was for a long time (mistakenly) considered "the father" of narrative cinema and this can be said to be an early example of the cult of the auteur. Griffith was actively using his own name as a brand, promoting his films as "D.W. Griffith's latest film". The poster of Intolerance (1916) has as its selling point that it was made by the same man who made The Birth of a Nation (1915). But it was not only Griffith, the poster for Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ (1925), despite being based on a famous novel and having famous actors, emphasised the fact that it was directed by Fred Niblo. The same was true in Sweden, where during the so-called Golden Age (roughly between 1913 and 1924), films were sold as the work of Sjöström, Stiller or af Klercker, or, as many of the films were based on novels and short stories by Selma Lagerlöf, were marketed as "Selma Lagerlöf's novel adapted and directed by Victor Sjöström". And it continued like this in the 1930s. Posters would emphasise the director, especially if it was somebody famous like in the US Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and John Ford, in Britain Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith, in Sweden Gustaf Molander. Filmmakers that today are forgotten were also used as selling points. It was the same in trailers.

So as far as the publicity department was concerned, in the US as well as Europe, it was the director's medium, from at least the mid-1910s. But the critics and the theorists were not treating the medium any differently. Early theorists such as Vachel Lindsay, Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc considered the director as an artist, the person whose soul could fill a film. The leading British critic Dilys Powell, already in the 1930s, argued that great films are made by great artists, and that a filmmaker's complete body of work can be discussed as a whole. She treated Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, René Clair, Marcel Carné, John Ford and many others this way. In 1946 she wrote about the national, industrial and cooperative aspects of cinema and then asked the rhetorical question: “How can one man leave the mark of his personality and his talent on this hugger-mugger?” and she answered “But he does.” She also wrote that the visual language of a great filmmaker is the equivalent of the written language by a novelist. In the US such famous critics as Manny Farber and James Agee also wrote of directors and their body of work as a whole.

In Sweden there was a debate in 1940 about who the real artist was, the writer or the director, and most argued that it was the director, even when they did not themselves write the script, just as Dilys Powell felt. Leading Swedish critics such as Georg Svensson and Gerd Osten wrote about films and filmmakers in this way, Osten for example wrote an essay comparing the female characters in the films of Otto Preminger and Carl Th. Dreyer.

So when Truffaut and the others burst on to the scene in the mid-1950s they did not bring anything new to the table, there was a long and widespread history of auteur-thinking and auteur-writings. The major importance was that they now discussed a much wider range of filmmakers. Whereas earlier it had been a more selected group, such as Fritz Lang, Capra, Renoir, Hitchcock and Ford, now everybody was a potential auteur. Even though less prestigious directors had been championed before (Gerd Osten was particularly favourable towards Robert Siodmak), there was now much more of that. Joseph H. Lewis and Nicholas Ray were considered on par with Robert Bresson and that now started to become much more common. Or put another way, the critics of Cahiers du cinema did not change the way great films were discussed, as the work of great directors, they just considered more films and more directors to be great than had previously been the case. Andrew Sarris in the US and the critics at Movie in the UK also helped with this levelling of the playing field.

That film is a collective art form is sometimes forgotten, and other contributors have never been given as much attention as directors. Sometimes the French writers at Cahiers du cinéma have been blamed for this but, in light of the fact that the director has almost always been given primacy, this is not the fault of Truffaut and friends. Even when Roland Barthes wrote about the cinema it is often-times all about the director, not least his friend André Téchiné. But these many neglected contributors, the writers and the cinematographers and the art directors and so on, those whom Paul Coates once called "mini-auteurs", are not neglected due to chance. It is still the case that on most films the director is the central figure, the one through which everything is filtered, and the one whose vision informs the film. Of course the context in which the film is made also has a strong impact, but this is no contradiction, it is the negotiation between artist and context that forms the basis of the art work. (Sometimes a film will be a conflict, or compromise, between different visions, such as between a writer and a director, and that is a topic worthy of further research. The Social Network (2010, directed by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin) or Red River (1948, directed by Howard Hawks, written by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee) are two examples of this.)

So the idea of director as the star and as the auteur has been with us since the early days of cinema and has never really gone away, and will probably be with us for some time still.

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As somebody who is very much interested in aesthetics and style, perhaps more so than story, I am conscious of the importance of the cinematographer in the making of a film. Therefore my next post will be about them and their work.

2013-10-30, some spelling mistakes have been amended.

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