Friday, 7 March 2014

Thinking about directors

Four years ago I wrote a blog post called On Authorship - or Auteurship but I was never completely satisfied with it, and as my thoughts on the subject has evolved since then I have now written a new piece, which incorporates parts of the old piece. It is primarily aimed at students:

When the first films were made at the end of the 19th-, beginning of the 20th century it was no secret who made them. The brothers Lumière for example, or Georges Méliès. As cinema evolved and developed the director became more and more important and by the 1910s some directors were global phenomenon such as D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Fred Niblo, Cecil B. DeMille and Victor Sjöström, and it has been like that ever since. In the 1920s Ernst Lubitsch had become such a superstar that he was invited to the White House and had songs written about him. He was celebrated and influential in the US, Europe and East Asia. This background is important for this discussion since it shows that the history of directors and the history of cinema run parallel with each other. It is not an accident that the director has almost always been singled out as the most important person on the set. But they of course do not work in isolation.

The idea of the director as auteur, as the creative force behind the film, has often been criticised, even ridiculed. Pauline Kael was one who was skeptical. In the 1970s and 1980s it was customary to dismiss the director, any author, for ideological reasons. Some well-known examples of such views are Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Stephen Heath. But these efforts were never all that satisfying or successful. Films are made by living, breathing individuals with ideas, beliefs and dreams and although these individuals work with restrictions (financial, cultural, political, personal) they still impact the films that they make, and the books that they write. No film is completely unique, but no film is completely like another film either, and the differences matter. Any work of art, such as a film, is the result of the combining forces of an artist's personal agency and the context in which the artist works, just as Foucault's writings are the combination of his own beliefs and the context in which he was working. He is firmly embedded in a French post-war academic culture. So looking at the auteur/artist/author must not mean neglecting context or social circumstances; in good auteur criticism/scholarship discussing the relationship between the author and her context is key. But since one person's engagement with her surroundings and context is different from that of another person, the art works will be different too. Anthony Mann's films are easily distinguished from Budd Boetticher's, just as Picasso is different from Braque. A work of art is an expression of the particular artist's engagement with the particular context in which she finds herself, and that is true for painters, writers and directors alike, if they have that interest. Emphasising the author can also be a progressive, political act. Bringing forward women filmmakers and filmmakers from minorities and non-Western regions is an important part of auteur studies.

The extraordinary ending of Ride Lonesome (Boetticher 1959)

Some think that "auteur" is synonymous with "a good director", with particularly talented directors and "art cinema", but that is not satisfactory. It is the consistencies of the director's body of work, not the quality of it, that matters here. Auteurism is not about giving medals and awards, it is empiric work. Being called an auteur is sometimes seen as a badge of honour, a club for the elite, but that is not a good way of going about it. The way that deep focus has been seen as the exclusive style of certain filmmakers (Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and William Wyler) rather than accurately seen as a common tool used by many filmmakers, good or bad, all throughout film history, is a good example of how ideas of auteurs as exceptional can lead to wrong and ahistorical assumptions. (See my earlier post on deep focus.)

Another assumption is that there is an "auteur theory". There is not, and never has been. Even Andrew Sarris, who did unfortunately use that phrase, said almost simultaneously that it was not a theory. “[u]ltimately the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude.” he wrote in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions (1968). It should preferably be regarded as an approach, one among many, of looking at films where a given film is discussed in the context of the film's director's other films. What are Hou Hsiao-hsien's trademarks, how does he view the world, and how has his style and his themes evolved through his career? How does Three Times (2005) compare to Café Lumière (2003) and Millennium Mambo (2001), and are they different from A City of Sadness (1989), and if different, how? These are questions that auteurism are concerned with, and they are the same questions that critics and scholars asked themselves in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s as well, about Fritz Lang or John Ford and many others. And before there was cinema, these questions were asked about writers and painters. For some it may seem uninteresting or unnecessary, but that does not make it wrong or romantic. Barthes himself wrote loving tributes to several auteurs, not least Michelangelo Antonioni.

 Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien 2003)

One of the most persistent arguments against auteurs is that cinema is a collaborative art form. Although that is true it is not the final word, a case-by-case approach is needed here. There are editors and cinematographers and composers and actors who are very important and can have a profound influence on a film, but they all do just their part. The directors are (in most cases) the only ones involved in the whole process and the director is also usually the one to whom the others answer. They usually write the scripts and if they have not written the original script they almost always rewrite it, officially or unofficially. The director is also the only one who is concerned with both the look and the sound of the film, with camera angles, editing, decor, colour, effects and so on. And, of course, the only one who directs the actors. There are exceptions. Some producers, such as David O. Selznick, have been intimately involved with all aspects of many of the films they have been producing, and some writers, like Carl Mayer in Weimar Germany, take on responsibilities that are usually the director's. Some films can have two or more auteurs of distinction. For example The Social Network (2010) has two, director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, and it does not feel like they are really compatible. Midnight (1939) should be approached both as an important part of Billy Wilder's oeuvre (he wrote it together with Charles Brackett) and of Mitchell Leisen's oeuvre, who directed it. Another point worth making is that whether a director has a contract with a studio or not does not matter within auteur studies. Ingmar Bergman (who worked for SF most of his life) is not less of an auteur than somebody using their own digital camera and their own money. Making very personal films, like Bergman or John Ford or Andrei Tarkovsky, is more a question of integrity, ambition and judgement than whether you have a contract or not. Even in pre-1960s Hollywood many filmmakers had contracts that gave them comprehensive creative control, none more so than Lubitsch when he came to Hollywood in the early 1920s. (It is often said that Orson Welles was given unprecedented creative control when he made Citizen Kane (1941) but that is not the case. Creative control yes, but not in a unique way.) Ultimately, arguments against auteurs are best answered by pointing at the films. If there are strong links between the films of a particular filmmaker, and if those films are different from those by other filmmakers, then that is what matters.

Directors are often called auteurs as if the words were synonymous, but they are not. All directors are not auteurs, whether someone is is revealed through studying the films. But most well-known filmmakers, regardless if they are contemporary or from earlier days, are auteurs after all, be they from Iran, Brazil or working in Hollywood. Yet just calling somebody an auteur is not enough, further elaborations are needed. There are different kinds of auteurs. For example, one approach I have been developing is to distinguish between external and internal auteurs. An external auteur is somebody who just makes the films, with thematic and stylistic consistencies, but without having any personal presence in them. An internal auteur is somebody who not only makes the films but appears in them as well, and/or makes explicit autobiographical films, in short somebody whose personal presence is experienced directly. Charlie Chaplin, Hasse Ekman, Chantal Akerman, Ingmar Bergman, Clint Eastwood, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut are some obvious examples.

Hasse Ekman in The Banquet (1948), which he also wrote, directed and co-produced.

Howard Hawks might also be considered an internal auteur, and in many ways an excellent example of the whole concept of auteurs. In all his films certain recurring characters, scenes, lines of dialogue, stylistic ideas, ethical discussion, ideas about life and love and gender, are to be found (and his voice). They are easy to recognise. He also was a freelancer, and often his own producer. But just because Hawks is an auteur does not mean that he alone has contributed to his films. There were indisputable contributions from writers such as Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, Ben Hecht, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway; cinematographers like Joseph Walker and Russell Harlan; actors like Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, John Wayne, among others, and his wife (for a few years) Nancy Keith, aka "Slim". But the strongest input, and the special particularity that separates a film by Hawks from all other films made, comes from Hawks himself. Not least since he frequently got the inspiration for the films from his personal experiences and his life. Any film by Hawks is to some extent about him, he is embodied in them.

Auteur studies is empirical work and it requires a lot of effort to figure out who is responsible for what in a given film. Only after seeing most, if not all, of a director's films is it possible to tell whether he or she was an auteur, and in addition seeing films made by other contemporary directors, and other films written by the writers this director worked with, and other films shot by the cinematographers this director worked with, and so on and so forth. There are also useful questions to help in the research, such as:

How does the director use music?
Are there particular recurring characters?
Are there visual motifs that figure throughout the director's oeuvre?
Does the director have a special view of space, or use space in a specific way?
Can any specific views on questions about death and love be found?
Are there certain words or expressions that return in different films?
If a director is working for a particular studio (like Paramount or UFA or Toho or SF), how does the style of his films compare to the films of that studio in general.

The films in themselves are not enough either but interviews, biographies, on-set reporting and history overviews are also essential tools for getting to the bottom of the issue. But most important is still looking at the films.

Chocolat (Claire Denis 1988)

But it is not only hard work. Watching the films of a particular director, seeing how his or her films belong to each other, how they seem to be engaged in conversations with each other, to notice how Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks 1939) is intimately connected to his Hatari! (1962), how Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing (2001) and Enough Said (2013) are dealing with similar people with similar problems yet with different emphasises and solutions, is, ultimately, the joy of auteurism, besides its scholarly usefulness.

A related posts about cinematographers.

2014-03-12. I always forget to include references. Here are some articles/essays:
Pauline Kael: Circles and Squares
Roland Barthes: The Death of the Author
Roland Barthes: Cher Antonioni
Michel Foucault: What is an Author?
As a bonus, a contemporary, nuanced text by James Naremore: Authorship,, Auteurism, and Cultural Politics.


  1. Once again, interesting and enlightening! The more I immerse myself in movies, the stronger is the urge to try and find these connecting links. Between directors, between actors, between stories. They're everywhere, man! ;)

    1. Thanks! And yes, they are everywhere indeed. Films speaking among themselves, that's a topic for another day.

  2. The American critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who's associated with "vulgar auteurism," recently said (I'm paraphrasing) "auteurism is only necessary when it's not obvious that a director is an artist." I don't agree, but it's worth considering.

  3. But who is obviously an artist, what does that even mean? Or did he mean that auteurism is only needed when we're talking about "vulgar auteurs" like John Hyams? Regardless of that, we still would need to study the work of the "obvious artist" to be able to discuss technique and meaning.

  4. The question of who's obviously an artist is problematic, but it's more readily apparent that Abbas Kiarostami has control over his work, consistent themes, etc. than Paul W. S. Anderson.

    1. Not necessarily. Anderson might be doing exactly what he wants to do whereas Kiarostami might be hamstrung by economic and not least political circumstances. I'm not saying that is the case but assuming that it isn't I think is too hasty.