De-Throning the Auteur!

Since the “auteur theory” was conceived in the 1950s by a group of cinephilic Frenchmen who rarely saw the sun, it has come to dominate the way people make and perceive movies. Over the course of the last half-century, the academy has torn the “auteur theory” a new asshole several times over: with structuralism, Marxist theory of ideology, post-structuralism, postmodernism, and, most importantly, by simply pointing out that movies are collaborative.

Nevertheless, the industry continues to use director name-branding in its marketing campaigns, critics continue to review movies in the context of the directors’ preceding oeuvres, and I continue to maintain my DVD collection so that it’s organized by director.

Furthermore, auteurism seems to have trickled down into mainstream consciousness through the proliferation of “Director’s Cut” DVDs. Though the mainstream public still cares more about J. Lo than J. Demme, an increasing portion of the population, which I would like to title the “IMDB generation,” has come under the spell of the auteur theory. As Eric Hobsbawm points out, “For every culture-lover who [can] fit two plays to the names of even five living playwrights, there [are] fifty who [can] reel off all the leading movies of a dozen or more film-directors." Read on...

I’m all for the public’s obsession with movies – (I hope that said obsession outlasts the recent box office drought). But why the obsession with the film director? Why, for a film to be taken seriously, must it be the expression of a single individual when what makes cinema unique is its collaborative production and subsequent ability to deal in themes of community? (See this article for an elaboration on this idea.)

Admittedly, auteurism used to make some sense, if for no other reason than the following list of names: Bergman, Bresson, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Godard. Even today, there are auteurs who are producing very good work. Others are not.

With few exceptions, however, I am not able to go to the movies anymore without somehow getting the sense that the movies I am watching could be made even better, sometimes a lot better, if only the writer-director had been more willing to compromise his/her “vision.” One could easily write this off as a kind of amateur-filmmaker mentality, the product of watching too many director commentaries on DVDs, which has given me, along with every other avid moviegoer, the illusion that I know what is best in making movies, if only Mr. Spielberg or Mr. Tarantino would listen up.

I believe that contemporary auteurs could seriously benefit from collaboration with someone, anyone: perhaps me and perhaps you, but more likely, someone who is schooled and talented in the specific job that a specific auteur cannot do. Vincent Gallo is not the only auteur who should not be tackling every task. For instance, Wes Anderson can direct but is not a great writer. He has problems with structure and he writes cheap jokes, designed to make one type of person laugh. Cameron Crowe is a great writer, but his direction is not very interesting. There has long existed an unspoken connection between the work of Neil Labute and Todd Solondz, who, in a perfect world, would be working together as screenwriter and director, in that order. There are exceptions. Paul Thomas Anderson is a great writer and great director, while M. Night Shyamalan is not particularly good at either. But some modern auteurs – almost all, in fact – could benefit from a little help.

Adrian Martin has said:

"Auteurism is only useful as a critical tool as long as it generates good, exciting results—helping us to make new discoveries. Historically, it has indeed done this, in many times and places. But in times of emergency and change, auteurism can just as easily become a rearguard, conservative action. Auteurist criticism can become a form of easy, rote learning, regurgitated to keep the situation safely “same as it ever was.” This is, sadly, what is happening today."

Martin is right. Today, auteur films are declining in quality as filmmakers strive to become auteurs simply for the sake of becoming auteurs, rather than for the sake of making good work. Martin poses an important question: “But what will take its place, what new, useful way can we think of the author in cinema — since directors will no doubt keep making films in which they invest their deepest selves?" Though it’s unlikely that auteurism’s hegemony will be completely overthrown any time soon, new ideas are emerging and new kinds of movies are being produced to reflect them.

In this column, I will celebrate new examples of Non-Auteur Cinema.