A Quick Guide to Auteur Theory

5 Essential facts about the theory of authorship in film

Dr Rachael Kelly explains why everyone loves Alfred Hitchcock now

Auteur theory – or the theory of authorship – is one of the few film theory terms to have made its way out of the stuffy halls of academia and into the mouths of cinephiles and film fanatics. If you’ve spent any time reading about your favourite movies – or, indeed, your favourite directors (extra bonus points if you’ve come across it via your favourite screenwriter or editor) – you’ve probably understood auteur theory to be a standard for assessing whether or not a director is any good at making films. And that’s certainly part of it (though it was arguably never meant to be used as an actual measurement of filmmaking talent), but there’s more to it than that.

At CinePunked, we’ve got a couple of decades’ worth of studying this stuff under our belts, and if you’ve read any of our other posts, you’ll know that we’re in the business of furnishing you with the kind of film facts that win you arguments in pub quizzes. Auteur theory has decades of debate and research behind it at this point, and in this article we’re going to distil that down to the five key things you need to know to get a handle on why it’s arguably the most important term in film criticism.

1. Auteur theory originated in France

Alexandre Astruc, the great grandaddy of auteur theory – image credit

Early cinema had a reputation problem: it was considered lowbrow, crowd-pleasing nonsense at best, and actively corrupting at worst. (Astute observers will note that not a lot has changed since then.) After a 1908 decree shut down every cinema in New York city on the grounds that the films they showed lacked… ahem… decency, film companies attempted to appeal to sources like literature and high art in an effort to legitimise the new medium.

This was not entirely successful.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the idea of film being an actual artform, in and of itself, was seriously advanced. By this point, the medium was half a century old, but was still seen as very much a commercial enterprise – one that relied on creative input for its existence, sure, but not exactly overburdened with any particular artistic merit. Film critic Alexandre Astruc was not happy with that assessment, however, and set out to change hearts and minds. In 1948, he coined the term “caméra stylo” – camera pen – to describe the capacity, as he saw it, for a film’s director to wield the camera in much the same way as an author wields a pen. Legendary film theorist Richard Dyer would later say that by comparing the new(ish) medium of film to the accepted art form of literature, Astruc sought to “mobilise a familiar argument about artistic worth”1 – in other words, literature = art, film = literature, therefore film = art.

Paying careful attention to this were the chaps who would go on to form Cahiers du Cinéma2, quite possibly the most influential journal in the history of film theory. And that’s not an exaggeration. The founding members of Cahiers include names that you will almost certainly have come across at some point, even if you’ve never seen one of the films they went on to make as part of the Nouvelle Vague movement: Jean-Luc Goddard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and François Truffaut. And it was Truffaut who, in 1954, reworked Astruc’s idea of the caméra stylo into an essay entitled “Une certaine tendence du cinéma français” (“A certain tendency in French cinema”), in which he argues that mainstream French cinema has become stuffy and “safe” but some directors – he’s looking at you, Jean Renoir – just get it. They get that cinema is a unique medium. They get that cinema has the ability to do amazing things that can’t be done in other artforms. He calls this “la politique des auteurs” – which does not, by the way, translate as “auteur theory”. It was never a theory, when Truffaut first proposed the idea. And that’s really important, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

2. Auteur theory holds that the director is the major creative force behind a film

Jane Campion on set in New Zealand – image credit

This idea of the director as author, then, begins to formulate the notion that a film’s cultural “value” is derived from the directorial vision that underpins it. Not the writer’s vision, or the film editor’s vision, or the vision of the props master, the wardrobe department, the cinematographer, or the actors: the director as the creative master whose worldview, thoughts, vision and personality shapes the raw material of the disparate filmic elements into the film text as a whole.

Auteur theory makes a distinction between the genuine auteur director and what the initial proponents called a “metteur en scene” – literally, a “scene setter”. A metteur en scene is a director who’s probably perfectly competent – who may actually be very competent, in fact – but who lacks that artistic greatness that allows him or her to express their own thematic concerns and obsessions consistently across the entirety of their body of work. That’s the province of the auteur director, and the basis of the theory that would spring joyfully from “la politique des auteurs”: the idea that it’s possible to talk about a Quentin Tarantino film, or a Michael Bay film, or a Jane Campion film, and be reasonably certain that your listener will know exactly what you mean.

3. It was popularised in the English-speaking world by Andrew Sarris

Andrew Sarris (second from right) – image credit

So far, so not-a-theory-as-such. Cahiers du Cinéma continued to refine and debate the idea for the rest of the 1950s, but then, in 1962, a US critic by the name of Andrew Sarris – who’d read and absorbed the Cahiers arguments – published the first English-language essay on the subject, entitled “Notes on the Auteur Theory.” Remember how we said above that “la politique des auteurs” does not translate as “auteur theory”? Yeah, no. It does now. Even though it was never intended to be read as such.

“What started out in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma,” says Paul Watson, “as artistic-political polemic that called for the ‘true’ art of cinema to be recognised and for its artists to use their skills to transform real-world politics became, with Sarris, a prescriptive method for evaluating the worth of directors and championing the putative supremacy of American film.”3

That’s not a dig at Andrew Sarris, by the way. His particular contribution to advancing the study of film can’t possibly be overstated: he popularised this nascent structure for arguing the artistic worth of the medium in the English-speaking world, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that we have Film Studies degrees because of him (at least in part). But what’s unfortunate about “Notes on the Auteur Theory” is that, in translation, it became programmatic and hierarchical in a way that it was never intended to be.

That said, Sarris’ writings on the subject became wildly popular. He developed a three-part evaluation plan for determining whether or not a director could be considered an auteur:

  1. Technical competence (kind of hard to lay claim to auteur status if you can’t actually direct, but auteur directors transcend “competence”)
  2. Distinguishable personality (a “feel” to a director’s films that marks them out as part of that director’s oeuvre. This is what we mean when we talk about a Tarantino film)
  3. Interior meaning (an interaction between the director’s personality and the film text as a whole, which gives rise to multiple layers of meaning)

He also, in 1968, extends his earlier essay into book-length form. The American Cinema gifts us the absolute joy that is Sarris’ Pantheon: 11 snark-filled categories into which he organises the many, many directors whose work he’s viewed and evaluated. The pantheon has its flaws – plenty of them – but it was and remains an accessible, user-friendly entry point to the concepts he’s arguing. With the book’s publication, la politique des auteurs became, in the English language, irrevocably auteur theory, and a fundamental pillar of modern film theory.

4. Auteur theory recognised directors that critics had largely ignored

Douglas Sirk on the set of All That Heaven Allowsimage credit

Sarris’ pantheon follows the idea, first proposed in “la politique des auteurs”, that some directors were making work that was culturally and artistically significant – and they weren’t, by and large, the directors that tended to interest the cinematic awards ceremonies of the day. In fact, it lionises the work of quite a few Hollywood directors whose names we’d recognise today as Very Important People, but whose work, at the time, wasn’t particularly singled out for praise. Quite the opposite, in fact. The likes of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawkes and Douglas Sirk, to name just a few, were regarded as being perfectly serviceable genre guys, but “genre” was not exactly on a par with “quality” as far as the critics were concerned, and so the films weren’t generally afforded much critical consideration.

To understand why auteur theory took a different view, we’ve got to go back to Cahiers du Cinéma and France’s post-war Hollywood film glut.

In 1954, when Cahiers was getting started, France was barely a decade out of Nazi occupation, during which time there had been a ban on Allied movies entering the country. Consequently, after liberation, the country experienced a sudden influx of Hollywood films all in one great rush, which allowed the Cahiers critics the opportunity, effectively, to binge watch a gigantic movie marathon of epic proportions and thereby determine common themes, visual flourishes, and narrative commonalities that had largely gone unnoticed where the films had been on a more regular release schedule.

What Truffaut and his friends were able to see, then, were a whole run of films reliant not on the borrowed prestige of other artforms, but films that had to sink or swim on their own merits – and were therefore innovating their way to filmic greatness on the strength of their creative talent. Truffaut attributed this to the films’ directors, and the way in which they engaged with the narrative material in their own very specific, very artistic, and very personal ways. And Sarris, when he brought the ideas to the Anglophone world, followed suit. His list of pantheon directors aligns strongly with the names celebrated in Cahiers du Cinéma’s early efforts to establish la politique des auteurs: Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Renoir, and company. 

Sure, you’d be hard pushed these days to find a film studies course that didn’t fannishly obsess over one or more of these guys, but in 1968, Orson Welles was “that bloke who made a pretty good movie and then nothing but flops; I think he’s somewhere in Europe now?” Auteur theory wasn’t having any of that. And now Citizen Kane is second only to Vertigo as the Best Movie Of All Time, according to the people who compile these kinds of lists.

5. Not everyone agrees that auteur theory is a good way to analyse film

Orson Welles, somewhere in Europe, directing Chimes At Midnightimage credit

The publication of Sarris’ pantheon kicked off a running feud with legendary film critic Pauline Kael that lasted until her death. She hated auteur theory with a fiery passion, and, if you’ve ever read one of her reviews for a film she didn’t enjoy, you’ll know that her passion could be pretty fiery. But she wasn’t the first person to express doubts: way back in 1957, one of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics themselves, Andre Bazin, published an article in which he cautioned against the over-emphasis on this idea of authorship as a means for engaging with the (very objective) idea of a film’s quality. And… he’s not wrong. 

Auteur theory has always been a problematic framework for evaluating the success or failure of a collaborative effort like filmmaking, particularly in its codified Anglophone form. To what extent is it accurate to say that a mainstream film can possibly be the vision of one member of its creative team? Even relatively low-budget productions have dozens, if not hundreds of personnel involved in the process. Sure, the Key Grip or the 4th AD might have considerably less input into the overall look of the finished piece than, say, the Cinematographer or the Props Master, but can the Cinematographer’s or Props Master’s contribution really be so easily dismissed? An editor is absolutely critical to the look, feel, pacing and sound of the film they piece together – in fact, Quentin Tarantino famously called Sally Menke, who edited the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, his number one collaborator.

And that’s before we get into the fact that auteur theory relies on the idea that the meaning we take from films is – or can be – stable and fixed. Models of spectatorship show that’s just not what happens. A director might very well have some deeper layers of something or other that they try, consciously or unconsciously, to weave into the narratives they create, but how the audience receives that message is always fluid and shaped by various aspects of their identity, social history, and worldview. 

And finally, the fact that auteur theory (rightly – fight us…) reveres Orson Welles is… kind of hilarious, in a way, because this is the guy who had his second movie taken away from him by the studio and viciously recut when his version didn’t meet their expectations. The idea of the all-powerful director is all very well, but it completely collapses as soon as there’s the slightest sniff of box office disaster. Talk to us about auteur producers, and, yes, maybe that chimes a little more closely with the reality of film production as an inherently commercial enterprise, often with an absolute tonne of money riding on the outcome, and a narrow margin of tolerance for creative types and their lofty artistic visions.

In fact, auteur producers is also a concept that’s been bandied about, just possibly not as vocally as the idea of the director as author. But that’s another story for another day…

1 Dyer, Richard (1998). “Introduction to Film Studies” in Hill, John and Church Gibson, Pamela [eds] (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.5

2 Fun fact: MS Word often tries to autocorrect this to Cashiers du Cinema. Film students, take note. Rachael has enjoyed marking more than one essay in which this went unnoticed.

3 Watson, Paul (2012). “Cinematic Authorship and the Film Auteur” in Nelmes, Jill [ed] (2012) Introduction to Film Studies. London: Routledge. 5th Edition. p.151

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