Debating the Auteur Theory: An Argument For

Auteur Theory Ugetsu Kenji Mizoguchi

Ugetsu (1953)

The first of a two-part debate between CURNBLOG’s Simon Butler and Jonathan Eig on the legitimacy of the Auteur Theory. See Part Two here.

My esteemed colleague Jonathan Eig and I have a little debate going on: Is the auteur theory, which finds that the director is the creative visionary behind the film, truth or hogwash?

I’m in the truth camp. And I came to this conclusion while watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) recently.

There’s no way this eerie, lyrical Japanese film could’ve been made without the control of an artist at the helm. It’s brutally anti-war. It’s cinematically fluid, with painterly landscapes and strikingly composed takes. And it provides a blistering comment on the plight of women in a flawed society, a subject Mizoguchi tackled in the harrowing Life of Oharu (1952), among others.

These aren’t perspectives that just any filmmaker can take. These are views with vision and forward thinking. Evidence of the auteur’s influence.

And I don’t believe it stops there. Hollywood has seen its masterpieces too, ranging anywhere from Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) and before to Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and after. The studio system and inimitable art can go hand in hand, I say. They’re not mutually exclusive, despite what the producer thinks (or does).

That leads me to the issue of whether the impact of other movie contributors – screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, et al. – falls under the director’s domain as well. It should … and if the filmmaker is good enough, his or her influence should help shape the picture. Directors give the OK to confirm or nix camera angles, edits, performances, music. They’re in charge of the whole idea. The quality of the flick, then, is their responsibility. All the cinematic decisions are, ultimately, theirs.

One can make the argument that this theory is easily observed in the films of masters like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa, all of whom had distinct visual styles. But what about in the case of, say, Michael Bay. Or Joel Schumacher? Directors with less-than-sterling credits and resumes that pander to the popular side. Can one attribute a vision – or lack thereof – to them, too?

Yes. Yes, one can.

auteur theory Kenji Mizoguchi

Kenji Mizoguchi’

I don’t think auteurism is relegated to greatness. Everyone has a vision, including those whose creations are less than perfect. Schumacher’s and Bay’s styles are typified by directorial flash and, unfortunately, philosophical flatness. But hey, they’re not alone. Ed Wood had vision, too, right?

Even folks such as Zack Snyder have a style. Slow motion is overused. Posturing is seemingly encouraged. Splashy computer-generated effects are plentiful. What’s the vision? It’s hard to boil down, but I think it has something to do with special, powerful people and their impact on the world. Not very profound, but it’s something.

See what I mean? This theory can be all-encompassing.

This doesn’t mean a cinematographer is entirely absolved for crafting a dreadful shot or that a great screenwriter can’t be reputed for an ability to generate classics. But it does suggest that directors have the lifeline to their films. They control what goes in and comes out. And that means they’re accountable.

If Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu didn’t have famous actors such as Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo in it, would it still be as great? They had the star power, after all. Would the movie have retained its impact?

I don’t think film, an art of permanence, is a conceptualist entity. We don’t wonder “what if?” because we have the finished product. If Mizoguchi had chosen lesser-known actors to play the roles of the potter Genjuro and the ghostly Lady Wakasa, it would’ve been a different movie – but we don’t have that with us. Instead, we have the masterpiece he created, and he’s responsible for. It has his look, his themes, his style, his arguments. It has everything one expects from a director like Mizoguchi.

That’s why I believe in the tenets of auteur theory. The components make the whole, but only the director can glue it together. It’s that glue which provides the creative vision of a movie. To me, it’s essential, and defines both the filmmaker and the end product.

Frankly, I don’t see any other ingredient as important.

Check out Jonathan Eig’s argument against the Auteur Theory here.

 

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

12 thoughts on “Debating the Auteur Theory: An Argument For

  1. I’m currently writing an essay for a university assignment that pretty much mirrors this debate. We have to argue whether or not the is such a thing as an auteur. I’m arguing that there is, and I’ve found this article very helpful, however after much research over the meaning of an auteur and the requirements that need to be met for a director to be classified as such, I have to disagree with Butler’s reasoning as he focuses on only one of the three identifiers of an auteur: the artistic signature. I also disagree with his belief that “this theory can be all-encompassing” as I do not believe that all directors are auteurs any more than all writers are authors, which is, after all, where the word ‘auteur’ originates from.

  2. An interesting debate but I am certain you both know the answer to this debate. It depends on the film and the script and producer, who may be as responsible for he success and style of the film as the director. As John mentions, one must take into account the cinematographer, editor and actors as well. The director can influence a great deal of control over those last three depending, of course, on who the producer is. We can be very certain than an auteur is at work if the same person is the writer, producer and director. Of course, that doesn’t always create a quality film. The art is, after all, collaborative. I tell my students, I am both a film maker and a film professor, that there are “directorial responsibilities” and it is often difficult, if not impossible to know who did what in terms of selecting the script and having the final edit. Remember the DGA only requires the director to have first cut, everything else to final cut is negotiable. To be an auteur these days, one almost has to also be a producer.

    • Thank you. I agree that there’s a definite producer-oriented element required these days for directors. Perhaps that makes them even more auteur-ish, owing to the involvements in other facets. It does remain a big question: Could Ridley Scott be the auteur of Blade Runner when one looks at the theatrically released version with the voiceover and happy ending … or is he only to be considered one with the director’s cut that subtracts these elements? My feeling is that there’s enough “auteur” in every director to warrant shelter under this umbrella theory. Good or bad, filmmakers all are reaching the goal made tangible by their vision.

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  4. I think the theory has more or less application depending on the state of the industry. There are peaks and troughs. In Hollywood’s “golden age” of the studio system the director was often just a guy who was told to shoot the script he was given, exactly the way it was written. It was more the studios that were known for having particular styles, which were often the product of other factors. Today it seems to me that the auteur theory can be applied to some directors, but overall I find most film product today pretty generic, one director’s “style” indistinguishable from most of his or her peers. Even the work of big name directors seems flattened out by the pressures of the marketplace.

    As an alternative, David Kipen’s “The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Re-Write of American Film History,” that argues that the screenwriter is the guiding creative genius behind most great films, is worth considering. A fun read anyway.

    • Thanks, Alex. You have a good point about the studio system. My feeling is, however, that no matter how rigid the system was, every director put a personal imprint on the movies … even going by the script. The way the director coaxes an actor–“No, look mean–not that way. Yes, that way.” Something like that. It’s an ability to mesh everything together, now matter how much the producer’s input counted. Everything has an effect, and a director has the greatest effect … even if it’s by the book. The way the director acts and reacts is what counts in my book.

    • Thanks Alex. Every screenwriter loves the fact that Kipen wrote that. I don’t know many who actually agree with him, and I think he has admitted he deliberately overstated his thesis in order to offset the director-philia that the Auteur Theory spawned. Cesare Zavattini and Jacques Prevert had more influence on cinema than probably 90% of the directors who have ever made a movie, but even I would have a hard time calling them auteurs.

      I agree whole-heartedly with your first paragraph.

  5. As much as I am looking forward to Jon’s counter-argument, I believe that I will have to side with you Simon. I have only ever really considered the use of ‘Auteur’ alongside works of great importance, or directors who put an unmistakable signature on films. My own list would include David Lean, Bondarchuk, Kurosawa, Malick, Scorsese, Almodovar, Lynch, Welles, The Coen Brothers, Eisenstein, Griffith, and quite a few others. I always see this as total involvement; from concept, script control, production values, sets, to overseeing photography.
    And most importantly, taking chances. Not just turning up, and shouting ‘Action’.

    I looked up one dictionary definition. ‘A filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp’.
    That more or less covers it.

    Best wishes, Pete..

    • Jon has a very convincing argument, Pete, so stay tuned. 😀

      It’s funny: When I was writing this, the question arose about whether to include directors who are not talented or commercial/slick or even very bad, such as Ed Wood. And my feeling is ultimately that we need to expand our interpretation of auteurism. Everyone should be included. That’s because every director — unless he or she is sleeping throughout the filmmaking process — has a significant impact on a movie. It’s like the manager of a baseball team who is known for, say, taking the starting pitcher out in the sixth inning. A director doesn’t have to be great or innovative to affect a film positively or negatively; he or she just has to be there. Every director places a personal stamp on a film… even if it’s unintentional. The decisions made result in that.

  6. I agree, directors are most important. Although, I would think that finding the director best suited to a particular film production is probably something of an art in itself. Mistakes have been made, and egos have often got in the way of clear-headed decision-making.

    John Wayne produced, directed, and starred in his historical epic “The Alamo” (1960). It went way over budget, and neither the critics nor the public were very enamored with the film. Personally, I liked it a lot. “The Alamo” was a great visual spectacle which adroitly portrayed the emotional aspects of war… its historical inaccuracies notwithstanding.

    My favorite director is Stanley Kubrick. I doubt that anyone could have directed “Dr. Strangelove” as expertly as he did.

    • I agree with you about “Dr. Strangelove”–it really had Kubrick’s stamp on it, all the way to the crisp look of the film. I think you bring up a really interesting point about the decision-making process of choosing a director. What if Dr. Strangelove had been helmed by a less-talented filmmaker? It’s almost a conceptualist headache to think about! I believe that the decisions made are the celluloid ones we deal with–I can’t think of “2001: A Space Odyssey” with Alex North’s score instead of Strauss(es). As Robert Frost might say: And that has made all the difference. 😀

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