A comment posted on last week’s column by David Brook (for all I know the only person who reads these rambles) has taken my interest. In discussing the thematic links between Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” I was faced with a counter-argument suggesting that these films just feature a more specific and overt manifestation of an idea which dominates the director’s wider oeuvre: obsession leading to ugliness and self-destruction. David stated of Aronofsky that: “his last two films are more clearly linked, but there’s an undeniable connection between all of them. It’s a sign of a true auteur if I ever did see one.” Auteur theory has always fascinated and bothered me, and I wanted to use this week’s column to air some grievances about it.
“One man writes a novel, one man writes a symphony, it is essential that one man makes a film.” These are the words of Stanley Kubrick, one of the several filmmakers held up as major examples of the auteur, hinting at the central idea behind the theory: that of the singular creative vision in which a film has its origins, which filters through the production and manifests itself palpably in the finished product. This, however, is only the mark of a single film having been auteured: a true auteur has to achieve this in all of their films, and the creative vision in each has to be in some way connected to a wider world vision as represented through art. How seriously can we take this quotation? One man can indeed sit and write all the words to a novel, or all the notes in a symphony, but these are inherently solo artistic enterprises: filmmaking is not, it’s a collaborative one. Anyone who doubts that need only pick any film and sit through the credits, and you will notice that there are a lot more names than just one. There’s only one name on the front of a Dickens novel, or a Beethoven score. One man simply can’t have that much singular artistic influence over a film unless they write, direct, photograph, act in, and edit the film themselves, not to mention make all the costumes, build all the sets, and compose the music. They can have a strong influence over these various elements, but can they really eradicate the contributions of their collaborators? If not, is it at all possible to be an auteur?
For starters, I’m a little dubious about where the whole auteur thing started. It was an argument put forward in established and esteemed film criticism, certainly, but specifically it was cultivated and championed by the “Cahiers du Cinema” critics in the 1950s. These were disciples of Andre Bazin, who I’ll come to shortly, but more importantly they were future filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. Before Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol et al made those undoubtedly influential first films they were putting forward the notion of directors having the potential to be auteurs, and the examples they were pointing to as illustrations of this point predominantly revolved around revered French directors: Renoir, Bresson and Tati to name but three. Auteur theory has its origins in the writings of men who were clearly trying to formulate a national cinematic canon, elevate the form to the status of art, and who were presumably already planning how they might contribute to this medium. The possibility of auteurism in film surely had massive personal appeal to them, in their present as critics with dynamic new voices and in their futures as aspiring filmmakers of no small amount of seriousness. Arguments advocating European auteurs aside, where does Hollywood fit into this? Bazin wrote essays on Bresson and Tati, but also on William Wyler. William Wyler? The man who directed films as completely different from each other as “Mrs Miniver” and “Ben-Hur?” What can possibly link “The Heiress” and “The Best Years of Our Lives?” Can we take the whole auteur thing seriously when applied to directors such as Wyler, who were clearly hired hands in an industrial production process despite certain stylistic recurrences in their films? Would it not be far more prescient to describe film as an art form dependent not on a singular voice but on creative collaboration, instead of asserting the director’s creative dominance in a debatably self-serving way?
Okay, let’s assume that I’m being overly skeptical about the origins of auteurism, and look more at what might be expected of an auteur’s films. Firstly, I find it impossible to accept any so-called auteur who hasn’t written their own screenplays. If you’re directing from script written by someone else, it is quite simply impossible for your own artistic vision to completely dominate the film: even a trademark directorial style can’t hide the fact that the ideas of the material at the heart of the work doesn’t belong to them. It is also difficult to see the mark of the auteur in films adapted from pre-existing material, since again the artistic epicenter of the film hasn’t emanated from their own head. This puts Mr. Kubrick in a rather fragile situation. Don’t get me wrong, I think Kubrick is a genius, and he’s my favourite filmmaker: but I can’t accept that he’s an auteur because with the exception of his first two films, which hardly anyone has heard of, all his films are adapted from novels. Certainly he chose novels which displayed strong elements of his artistic vision, and in some cases drastically altered his source material to fit with what he wanted to say, but the finished film will always be completely dependent on the writer’s original work, and when we take into account the fact that Kubrick usually co-wrote his screenplays with other writers there seems to me to be too many authorial voices for Kubrick’s to indisputably dominate. Similarly with Hitchcock, after his early years he rarely played an active role in writing his material: he just chose and slightly altered material written by others. This isn’t to say that these directors aren’t being discerning about their choice of material, or that they aren’t influencing the development of these scripts, but I simply cannot reconcile the idea of an auteur with a director who doesn’t have complete artistic control of their screenplays.
And another thing: what’s the difference between an auteur and a really good director of films in a specific genre? I’m happy to acknowledge that certain directors have themes and ideas they constantly return to/regurgitate and this can identify them as auteurs, and whilst not quite bracketing these directors as “one-trick ponies,” there is surely an argument that having a set-list of dramatic motifs will undoubtedly endear them to a certain genre of filmmaking. For example, Jacques Tati’s use of physical set-pieces and specific sound design to comment upon the emotionally distanced technological machinations of the modern world couldn’t work outside the comedy genre: does this make him an auteur, or just a great director of comedies? Hitchcock’s well-documented obsession with murder, debonair innocents on the run and icily mysterious cool blondes is best suited to the suspense thriller genre: does this make him an auteur or just a great suspense director? Five of Sergio Leone’s six films are Westerns: does this make him an auteur or just a specialist Western director? The point is that I think it’s disputable whether some supposedly auteur directors are using a genre to explore their personal vision, or using their vision to explore a genre: either interpretation surely displays on over-reliance of artistic exploration on a specific type of film.
Is there also a big tendency to attribute the title of auteur to directors who are merely idiosyncratic in their directorial style? When we talk about Kurosawa, we talk about his kinetic direction, his energetic editing, and the dramatic immediacy of his films, and we talk about these things in relation to his Samurai movies. But Kurosawa also directed many fine contemporary dramas, not least “Ikiru” and “The Bad Sleep Well,” which are completely different in style and tone to the director’s action films. Is it not, then, a little erroneous to call Kurosawa an auteur based on the style he brought to, again, a specific genre of film, ignoring his great and very different achievements in an alternative type of film? It also ignores the fact that Kurosawa’s style even in Samurai films developed to the point where, when he started working in colour, his films became completely different animals to what they were when he worked in black and white. This is also something applicable to Scorsese. He’s worked in the crime genre a lot, and we tend to take these works and the appropriately exuberant directorial style he brings to them as proof of him being an auteur. Firstly, this ignores the clear influence of his editor Thelma Schoonmaker on the visual style of his films, and secondly it again uses idiosyncrasies to define Scorsese as an auteur, which actually is doing him a disservice. What we can loosely call Scorsese’s energetic technique is largely absent from “Raging Bull” except in the boxing scenes, because he recognizes that restraint serves the domestic drama of the film far better, and similarly in “The King of Comedy” he knows that his laughs and uncomfortable atmosphere are better realized through restraint.
To summarise, I think it’s possible to be an auteur, but we have to be far stricter in how we define and attribute the term, as simply far too many directors are erroneously called by that name. The only clear example of a true auteur I can think of is Ingmar Bergman, but I’m sure there are others that slip my mind in this rush of writing. Here’s the real point, though: what constitutes a truly great filmmaker? Someone committed to a specific personal vision, which they are constantly using their films to develop? Or is it someone who can successfully engage numerous complex themes, in many genres, with an exciting style which is always at the service of the story being told. In short, what would you rather be: one director or many?