What is Auteur Theory? And how much should we rely on these theories?

Andrew Sarris in Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 he points out the important premise of the theories are “the technical competence of a director as a criterion value” and “the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value”. Basically the first premise states that is a director makes bad movies doesn’t necessarily make him a bad director as long as he has technical competence, because that is what will be criticized. Another criterion value is if we are able to link together the director’s work, because his hand in the film is obvious. I understand his arguments on Auteur theory but I don’t necessarily agree. There are a lot of weaknesses.

Pauline Kael in her article e Circles and Squares rips apart Sarris article and basically discredits it by attacking all of his premises on Auteur Theory. Kael excerpts a paragraph from Sarris articles discussing two films by Raoul Walsh which he was able to see a “crucial link” between Every Night at Eight and High Sierra with thanks to Auteur Theory. Kael describes this “crucial link” as an uninteresting and obvious device, which was used in a worse earlier movie. The debate here is simply just because a director has a certain style or repeats certain devices throughout his film, is that enough to make and an Auteur? Shouldn’t it be the content of his work being judged?

Kael seems to think so; she states “that artists borrow from themselves all the time and how the same devices, techniques and themes reappear within their work…. (but) repetition without development is decline”.  If these repeated devices are not developing in the director’s work, that needs to be recognized as a decline, critics should not congratulate this.

Andre Bazin in his article ‘On the politique des auteurs’ agrees with Kael on this point. He believes in Auteur Theories but this is the one place where he disagrees. This idea of the film-maker and his films being one, therefore even the worst of them will always be in the image of its creator. Bazin states that he disagrees, but does not proceed to bash it the Kael does.

Another important point of Auteur Theory according to Sarris was “the technical competence of a director as a criterion value.” Kael believes “An artist who is not a good technician can indeed create new standards, because standards of technical competence are based on comparisons with work already done” She brings up a director names Coceau and says that his greatness is being able to achieve his own personal expression and style. Coceau states” the only technique worth having is the technique you invent for yourself”. I agree with Kael that directors should be judged on the basis of what he produces. You can’t justify a bad film as good just because a director has technical competence and a distinguishable personality. “It is an insult to an artist to praise his bad work along with his good; it indicates that you are incapable of judging either.” I loved her analogy about buying clothes with the label, just because its Dior means it’s good.

Sarris’ rebuttal in the Film Quarter, The Auteur Theory And The Perils Of Pauline, wasn’t a strong argument. He was not able to bounce back and defend her attacks. He felt the need to justify his arguments by throwing numerous amounts of references to directors and films. He also goes on about the “pyramid fallacy” and “the patent system”. He also goes on to say that silent directors invented forms while sound directors perfected styles, I can see some truth to this, but his following statement about directors oriented to realism being the “Drones of Cinema” I do not agree with.  He goes on to talk to about neo-realism and again more references to directors and films. He clearly did not win the rebuttal and I found it difficult to follow his arguments.

Over all, when it comes to Auteur Theories I think it’s important to understand these theories but you should definitely not follow them blindsided. Take in all elements and judge the film for its content and execution, not on the director’s reputation.

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Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 11:16 am Comments (9)


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  1. on March 11, 2010 at 12:09 pm Lauren Schwartz Said:

    Kael does say that a director, even a really bad one, if he/she keeps to a certain style or repeats certain cinematic devices throughout his film, it is enough to make him an Auteur. And I see what you are saying that being an Auteur should be content based, making sure the films are good. But I think we should try to differentiate between an Auteur, someone who is an author of a film, good or bad, and a good filmmaker. It is possible for someone to make a film and construct it a certain way, making them an Auteur. But there is a difference between that and someone who is a good filmmaker and creates masterpieces.

  2. on March 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm christina421 Said:

    I also thought the analogy to clothing was good. This goes with any art form. It’s unrealistic to expect a director to have consecutive works that are all at the same level. A director who is classified as “good” is bound to have a flop. That doesn’t discredit them, it’s only natural. And a director who is classified as “bad” can actually have a great film but that doesn’t put them at the top of their game.

  3. on March 16, 2010 at 5:29 pm justina87 Said:

    I definitely agree that a director should be judged for their content alone and not by their previous works of art. If a director isn’t well known and he/she is able to direct one good movie, that movie shouldn’t be discredited or display any less significance than a movie of the same level directed by someone who is more familiar to us and visa versa. I do believe that knowing the director will automatically set prejudgments and hinder the opinion on the film itself whether or not a viewer has actually seen the film first there is always somewhat of a subjective judgment which goes back to the reinforcement happening to approach a film objectively which is nearly impossible.

  4. on April 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm dana318 Said:

    I agree that work should be judged on content alone. There have been many films where I have gone in expecting more considering the director’s track record and came out disappointed. That is also a downside to go in expecting too much because it could hinder what your meant to see in general

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