If you've spent any time talking to people who work within, at the fringes of, or with any proximity to the film industry, you've undoubtedly encountered the notion that the auteur theory is dead, and perhaps never should've been proposed in the first place. There are myriad reasons for this, which we'll get to in a moment, yet the purpose of this post is to explore whether maybe the auteur isn't necessarily dead, but is rather something of a misnomer, a flawed concept in need of revision.
To review – the auteur theory, which has been around since the 1940's, champions the idea that cinema, despite being an industrial process, is ultimately art, and as art, it expresses the voice of a single artist; or, more specifically, an author (“auteur” being the French word for author). That artist is almost exclusively the director. Francois Truffaut, who was a film critic before he was a filmmaker, vociferously expounded this idea throughout his tenure as a critic in the 1950's, insisting cinema be personal, an expression of the worldview and voice of an individual.
Hollywood, as a massive industry filled with loads of people who don't necessarily do much – if any – creative work, has always been averse to the idea that films express the personal vision of one individual. It's interesting Truffaut's favorite filmmaker, Hitchcock, was a massive star in Hollywood. Yet, it's easy to see, watching Hitchcock's films, that they share a unique voice and vision, and are clearly all the work of the same man (the author, if you will). Scroll all the way down to the bottom of this post and you'll see a trailer for a film documenting Truffaut's personal and professional relationship with Hitchcock.
It's possible that, to some degree, writers really want the auteur theory to be dead as a reaction to being completely powerless in a medium in which the written word is in many cases irrelevant. Film is a visual medium, and at the end of the day it belongs to directors, actors, and producers. Perhaps screenwriters, in reaction to their desire and inability to be authors in the way novelists are, lash out at the notion that films don't belong to them, and therefore proclaim the auteur theory dead.
But writers aren't the only people taking up their pitchforks, getting ready to burn the auteur theory at the stake. Producers are right there with them, as are executives, financiers, cinematographers, set designers, film professors (not film theory professors, of course), production assistants...you name it, they're ready to burn it down. Why? Because producers do creative work and help a film come to fruition, and they'll be damned if some pretentious fool is going to take credit from them. Executives give the green light, financiers put the money up, cinematographers create the visual design, set designers bring words to life – all of these people put time, money, and a lot of effort into making films. So they should get credit. Right?
Right. Part of the problem is that cinema, in contemporary America – and actually, in America, period – is not an art form as much as it is commerce. This is something we hear all the time, it's the film business, emphasis on business. A film is a product people put a lot of money and resources into for the purpose of making a profit. Films don't exist primarily as art, they exist primarily as product. And everyone who puts their effort into their product should get due credit. It's not a fucking Rembrandt, it's a movie. You eat some popcorn, you have a few yucks, you forget it the next day. (As an interesting side note, a number of very successful painters had studios in which understudies created or helped create work under the name of the famous painter – so is a Rubens even really a Rubens? A matter for a different day.)
At the end of the day, it remains a truth that someone must come up with the idea for a movie, and then execute it. And in some cases, even in the business-oriented, auteur-averse climate of the American film industry, there are numerous successful filmmakers whose work expresses a unique and consistent voice and vision, people who we could very easily called artists. Sticking only to Americans, for the sake of keeping this argument specific to commercial American film, wherein the death of the auteur theory is most vocally championed, consider Quentin Tarantino, David O Russell, the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, or even Christopher Nolan. We'll leave perennial favorite Paul Thomas Anderson off the list – though he's a personal favorite, too – because his films aren't always financially successful. (Writer's note: Yes, I know Cuaron and Del Toro are Mexican, and yet they work largely within the American studio system, hence their inclusion.)
To return to our agrument: You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn't agree that Tarantino, David O Russell, or the Coen Brothers express the same voice across their films. And who would say Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy aren't the work of the same visionary? Probably no one. But what about Cuaron? Nolan? They're just big time for-hire directors, right? Surely not auteurs.
Actually, Nolan has a received a writing credit on every film he's directed. There are like themes running throughout his work - memory, perception, revenge - and a common visual language. Even his Batman films manage to have a very strong point of view, a rarity among the anoymous, homogenous championing of abstract concepts like "hope" so prevalent in the genre. Sure, The Dark Knight Returns is corporate, facist, anti-revolutionary propaganda, but that doesn't matter. Neither does it matter whether you like Nolan. The point is, he has a vision, and he has a voice.
Cuaron served as a hired gun on Great Expectations and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, both big studio literary adaptations, but has gotten a writer credit on every other film he's done. He also gets an editor credit on the films he got a writing credit on. Cuaron's films all express similar visual and thematic qualities – the exploration of the effect of physical environment on a person's emotional state, and the struggle to find and maintain hope in a hostile environments.
OK, sure, but Del Toro, Cuaron, and Nolan almost always work the co-writers. The Coen Bros are a team, not one person. Russell is known to take scripts from other writers and re-imagine them as his own before directing them. They have cinematographers they prefer working with, editors they always use (if they aren't editing themselves, as the Coens do). Not to mention the actors they always come back to. The films are all collaborative efforts, despite expressing what is the obvious overriding vision of one or two people.
This is where we run into trouble with the auteur theory. Even if a film expresses the voice and vision of one person, that vision wouldn't exist without those who helps bring it to life, from technical contributions to actors and beyond. To call a filmmaker an author in the sense you could call a novelist an author is wrong. And I think that's why we run into so many problems with the auteur theory, which problems create an environment often hostile toward creative visionaries, and unnecessarily so. I've actually had someone say to me “Who the fuck does he think he is, Godard?” about a student who wanted to write and direct his own short film, rather than work with a screenwriting student. Seriously?
A composer writes music; musicians and a conductor bring it to life, put their spin on it, express their own vision of the music through the execution. And yet, there's no denying the work as a whole expresses the voice of the composer. Is the same not true of filmmakers? Actors, cinematographers, set and costume designers – they're the individual musicians of film. Their performances and interpretation of the material brings it to life, creates the tenor of the piece. Each one of these people provides creative contributions, and is an artist. And yet the work as a whole is an expression of a the voice of a different artist – the composer; or, in the case of film, the writer-director.
So, fine, let's call the auteur theory dead. And let's replace it with a new idea – compositeur theory. Because every highfaluting theory needs a French name.