– by JD Westfall –
In today’s article we will be discussing the “auteur theory.” So to begin, it only makes sense that we explain it. Auteur is simply French for “author,” such as the author of a novel. But when applied to film it takes on a different meaning. Typically, movies are assembled by many people – producer(s), director(s), screenwriter(s) – and backed by a large studio with executives and many more staff members. Each of these people have input into the creation of a film. Contrast that with the aforementioned novel. There is exactly one author who sees the whole project through from beginning to end. Even though others may be involved (proofreaders and editors and whatnot), the creative part is entirely in the hands of one individual. So the auteur theory, when applied to film, means that for a film there is only one driving creative force behind it.
Though the phrase originated in the 1940s, auteurs themselves have existed since the creation of cinema. As far back as 1896 a man named George Melies was inventing new filming techniques, though his claim to being an auteur could be debated as these weren’t feature films, and didn’t really require more than a man with a camera.
The first “official” auteur was likely Charlie Chaplin, who removed himself from the studio system and continually exerted a stronger and stronger influence over his own films. By time he had retired, Chaplin was directing, starring, writing, producing, editing and composing the music in his films. Around the same time, fellow comedian Buster Keaton was tackling similar duties and ensuring they would match up to his personal standards.
There were scattered occurrences of people doing the same through the years (Cecil B. DeMille, Carl Theodore Dreyer, and Maya Deren, the first female auteur director I know of) before the label was attached to this filmmaking method.
The phrase was coined in the 1940s as a way to differentiate the fledgling French New Wave movement from the increasingly studio-oriented Hollywood films of the day. First and foremost amongst these newly labeled auteurs was François Truffaut, who kickstarted the French New Wave movement with his films The 400 Blows and Jules & Jim (for more on François Truffaut, see our article highlighting his filmography).
Through the years many other directors received this label, some of them among the most critically acclaimed filmmakers of all time, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, and Billy Wilder.
Today, auteurs are alive and well, arguably more prevalent than ever. Among the nine films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture last year, six were the product of a singular vision. Lady Bird from Greta Gerwig in her mindblowingly good directorial debut; Get Out from Jordan Peele, also in his debut; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri from Martin McDonagh; Dunkirk from Christopher Nolan, who is among the most financially successful auteurs of all time; Phantom Thread from Paul Thomas Anderson; and the eventual winner, The Shape of Water from Guillermo del Toro. This year’s offering was much of the same, with films like Roma and BlacKkKlansman both models of this method.
Yes, it seems auteurs are still as strong and influential as ever. But now for our final question …
Does the auteur theory actually make a difference? Because let’s face it, a lot of great movies are made by the studio system. Well, here’s the thing, I can’t say for sure whether the auteur theory is inherently better than any other filmmaking method, any more than I can definitively tell you what the greatest film of all time is. And that’s the great thing about art. It is subjective, so you can think or feel or believe whatever you want and nobody can tell you otherwise. However, what I can do is tell you what I believe, and present evidence to support my opinion.
I believe the auteur theory is without question the best method of filmmaking. Why do I feel that way? To answer that, let me turn your attention to a list compiled by They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They. This list takes all the “best film” lists available and puts them together, assigning scores to the different films in an effort to make the ultimate “best film” list. According to this, which are consistently hailed as being the top-10 greatest movies of all time?
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Rules of the Game
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Now, let me ask you this, what do these 10 films have in common? Each and every one was the singular artistic vision of their directors, someone who is usually regarded as an auteur (Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Jean Renoir, Yasojiro Ozu, Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, F.W. Murnau, John Ford and Akira Kurosawa). Even the highest rated film directed by a woman on the list (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) was helmed by Chantal Akerman, an established auteur. You have to go down to entry #32 before you find a movie that was the result of the standard studio system of filmmaking.
Casablanca. The movie at #32 is Casablanca.
So are there good films made with the studio system? Yes, many times. But is the auteur theory far, far better at making classic films that will stand the test of time? Absolutely yes.