Ask Movie Irv: Do You Believe in the Auteur Theory?

Movie fans around the world have something to thank the French for (besides the movie Betty Blue): Ever since the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma promoted the idea that film directors such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, due to the very distinctive and identifiable style of their work, could be designated as the sole “authors” of their films—an assertion with which American critic Andrew Sarris agreed, classifying the controversial argument as the auteur theory—cineastes everywhere have argued endlessly over the idea.

Is the theory legitimate? Are movies artworks for which directors can or should be credited with birthing by virtue of their visions alone? Or, is cinema a more collaborative and industrial enterprise where every craftsperson’s talents are as integral to the whole as the man (or woman) calling “action”? For some, this question has an easy answer. For others, the truth is more complex. Let’s Ask Movie Irv:

Agreed? Disagreed? Irv is itching to answer another question. Take on his point of view and then give him another meaty, movie-related question to chew on:

  • Quasiblu

    I’ve always thought this theory was interesting on paper, but only true about 0.05% of the time. A director undoubtedly makes a significant contribution to a film in terms of visual style, eliciting certain performances from actors, etc., but if you’re going to talk about an “author” why is the SCREENWRITER, not taken into consideration? He/she is the one who creates the entire story, constructs the narrative, imagines the characters, creates subplots, complications and resolutions. The screenwriter is the true author of a film, while the director oftentimes is merely a hired hack by a studio to get the job done. Many directors, while totally competent, are merely journeymen. I always found it amusing going into a video store and seeing the DVDs divided by director, as though they were all “auteurs.” The “John Badham section” for example. I mean, for crying out loud! Every director is not an Orson Welles. I say we apply auteur theory very sparingly and selectively.

  • Blair Kramer

    It depends upon the director, does it not? Ask allan Smithee what HE thinks about it…

  • Blair Kramer

    Oooopppsss… That’s Allan Smithee… By the way… The films that feature the special effects work of Ray Harryhausen… Should we thank the director for their merits, or should we thank Mr. Harryhausen? Anyway, I say once again, see if you can find the famous director known as Allan Smithee and ask him what he thinks of the “Auteur” concept…

  • Tito Pannaggi

    I cannot agree that the screenwriter is the true author of a film. I can show you two exemlpies that this is not thruth.

    1) John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939) vs. Gordon Douglas’ version from (1966).

    2) Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1959) vs. Gus Van Sant’s version from (1998).

    In both cases they used the same screenplay and in both cases the original version was far better.

    Both Hitchock and Ford are real Auteurs. They have a spesial touch to their films. If the metioning of Allan Smithee was for fun I didn’t get it.

    A real Auteur director is the director that make you want to go to see their film because they have this magic thouch that makes one recognize them right away. As an exemple is Hitchock’s style so well known that sometime one can see “A film in Hitchcock-style” written.

    • Rufnek

      I disagree on your examples. The 1966 version of Stage Coach imbellished the original with additional scenes. More important, it was badly cast with actors more at home on TV than the wide screen,proving only that poor directors can mess up even a good script while even the best directors can’t save a bad one.

      Psycho wasn’t a remake–it was a shot-for-shot film exercise with no thought and no heart.

      If you want to compare remakes with originals, look at the first picture that Huston, a writer, directed–The Maltese Falcon–compared with the two earlier versions of that film. Also the A-grade remake of Last of the Mohicans using basically the same script as the earlier B&W Randolph Scott version. Shows what can be done with a bigger budget and better actors on the same story line.

  • OZ, Rob

    I consider Chaplin, Fuller, Renior, Vigo, Sturges, Bresson to name just a very few to be True Auteurs,.. Directors that can also be credited with Writing and in some cases Producing their own films.
    It would a great discredit to these Directors if we did not applaud & recognize them as the creators of their films. Individual visions, philosophies, life experiences they have woven into creative, unique, original Movie Artworks…

  • Tito Pannaggi

    Rob Oz, you said it!!!

  • Blair Kramer

    OK George and/or Irv, have either of you had a chance to consult with Allan Smithee just yet?

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    Yes, no and maybe. With film theory it is usually useful to have a “grab bag” of different analytical approaches of which the auteur theory (not really a theory in the scientific sense) is one of them. There are so many different approaches taken to cinema.

    Remember Chaplin like Keaton (and quite a bit of the silent comedians) for their silents did not do much writing (or any), they filmed and filmed and went different ways as they thought the characters and situations should go. The amount of film used in this approach is quite big, but we know the results can be quite effective.

    Much of Hong Kong cinema uses the formal notion of a script writer, often filming as it goes or using just a basic outline (starting filming an unfinished script is not unknown in Hollywood either or either is an outline approach).

    Then you think about how important (and sometimes meddlesome) producers were in the golden age of Hollywood. Is Val Lewton the auteur? What do you consider the effects of David O. Selznick or Thalberg or Darryl F. Zanuck on a film?

    I do believe in the auteur theory for certain directors (and even some of their films might not fit under this theory) like Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, and well many, many more. They can put their imprint one a movie regardless if they wrote it or not (the theory was originally used to talk about how certain directors had an imprint even though they were in a studio system like Hawks and Hitchcock).

    In a way a director can be like a CEO of a company, much of the success rides on how he/she correlates the abilities of everyone around into hopefully a cohesive and worthwhile venture. The movie is certainly a collaborative venue (with exceptions like Stan Brakhage; in cinema there are always exceptions :)), but often there is someone there to put everybody’s energies into it. The better the director the better the ability to do this, though this director does not necessarily have to be an auteur (and an auteur does not necessarily have to be a good director).

  • George D. Allen

    BK, as to Alan Smithee, obviously, his filmography is perhaps the most elusive and the most challenging to the “auteur” concept.

    Just what IS it that links “Death of a Gunfighter” to “The Birds II: Land’s End”? What stylistic devices, if any, can be found in common between “Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home” and the extended cut of David Lynch’s “Dune”? Smithee is indeed a chameleon, and yet, his work does appear to maintain a mysterious, perhaps ultimately unnamable consistency…

    I’d invite readers to pick up the 2002 made-for-TV doc “Who Is Alan Smithee?” so they could investigate his career further, but it appears to be unavailable on video. An oversight? A conspiracy? Who’s to say?

    Meanwhile, I should add, I rather like the very first part of MOIIP’s latest response, as it neatly mirrors my own philosophy on the question: Yes, and no, and maybe.

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    I hate when I make a mistake that I can’t edit :). I meant on my previous post to write “Much of Hong Kong cinema does not use the formal notion of a script writer…” I apologize for the fault in that post and those responsible have been sacked.

  • Blair Kramer

    Love your response regarding Allan Smithee, George. It’s perfect!

  • Rufnek

    Like most theories, this may be apparently true in general and obvious false in particular cases.
    My favorite directors generally are those like Huston who started out as screenwriters and therefore know how to tell a story as well as how to make a film.

  • Milagros Moura

    Real riches will be the riches possessed inside.
    Do a lot more than is needed. What is the distance between someone that achieves their set goals consistently and those who spend their lives and careers merely following? The extra mile.