This week on “Christian’s Cinematic Syntax,” a new addition to my film journal has emerged through my reflection upon cinematic theory. I have always been interested in theories of cinema and the many aspects that have shaped its history. Consequently, I want to highlight a theory as a way to inform and apply it, within the parameters it created. I want to allow my readers to learn about a piece of cinema history, and appreciate a famed director, Michelangelo Antonioni, through the lens of an auteur theorist. Without further delay, let us explore the nature of the auteur theory.
“That is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of camera-stylo (camera-pen).” — Alexandre Astruc
Background on the theory: The auteur theory is a French film theory in which the director is considered the author (auteur) of their film. Since the theory states that the main authorship of a film is given solely to the director, we see that the theory developed cinema, calling it a reflection of an artist’s vision. The auteur theory differs from others, such as the formalist theory, because of the importance it places on a single creator. The originators of this theory are André Bazin and Roger Leenhardt, who, in the 1940s, founded a film magazine called Cahiers du Cinema, which was vocal about the director’s importance in cinema.
The ideas presented were later elaborated on by French filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard. Truffaut wrote in a 1954 issue of Cahiers du Cinema an article entitled “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema.” Regarding two contemporaries, Truffaut stated, “The entire reputation of Aurenche and Bost is built on two precise points: 1. Faithfulness to the spirit of the works they adapt: 2. The talent they use.” Truffaut diminished the value of some French film collaborators for not being “true” to his view as an auteur and would later receive backlash due to his severe critiques of his collaborators, subsequently getting him banned from the Cannes Film Festival.
“There are no good or bad movies, only good and bad directors.” — François Truffaut
Here in the States, we received the auteur theory through the writings of film critic Andrew Sarris, who penned a number of books on the subject. His first publication on the topic was an essay, “Notes on the Auteur theory in 1962,” which brought meaning to the theory in English. Sarris also wrote the extremely influential book, The American Cinema, wherein which he ranked directors he believed to fit the criteria of an “auteur,” and also explained the theory through purely American directors.
Criticism of the theory: The auteur theory has a lot of critiques, one being that it diminishes the collaborative aspect of film. The making of a film typically has a vast number of people who develop and incorporate their ideas into a single shoot, and the idea that a lone director can be called the work’s “auteur” is preposterous. According to many detractors, a cinematographer, screenwriter, or actor could be considered an auteur, since some can be seen as surpassing the director in visionary incorporation. Their collaborations are often of equal importance, meaning it would be unfair to use the term since it automatically diminishes the role of others. Another opponent of the theory is film critic Pauline Kael, who wrote for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, and often disputed Sarris’ controversial opinions.
In her Film Quarterly series, “Circles and Squares,” Kael argues, “The auteur theory, silly as it is, can nevertheless be a dangerous theory — not only because it constricts the experience of the critics who employ it, but because it offers nothing but commercial goals to the young artists who may be trying to do something in film.” The argument that she presents seems to interpret the auteur theory as a pollutant to the scope of cinema, and a completely blinding theory. She believes that the theory “constricts the critics,” particularly in the United States, and does not allow for the critic to look beyond the director.
Applying the theory: To better develop our understanding of this theory, I am going to highlight the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Through inspection of Antonioni’s work, an application of the theory can be established as a way of comprehension.
What makes Antonioni an auteur?: As previously defined, an auteur is a director that has a complete vision, and one that uses this vision as a guide for their art. Antonioni has a vision within his cinema — a main factor that paints him as an auteur. His vision typically revolves around the existential crises people experience in modern times, and he proudly displays this in many of his films. When a person grows accustomed to Antonioni’s films, his individual style becomes ingrained in the mind (similar to other filmmakers that are regularly considered auteurs themselves). Because of his style and vision, it becomes easy to differentiate an Antonioni film from others.
Parallels between Antonioni’s films: To be an auteur in cinema, a director’s voice should be defined with conceptual consistencies between their filmography. These consistencies can be of motif, mise en scène, and thematic narrative, among other things. Antonioni’s films typically have relationships which deal with love and its various interplay. His composition and geometrics between shots is one of the most striking aspects of his work and is commonly revered. He also consistently utilizes slow-paced camerawork throughout his films, typically lingering with or without characters.
Antonioni’s most revered works:
- Il Grido (1957)
- Red Desert (1964)
- Blowup (1966)
- The Passenger (1975)
- L’Avventura (1960)
- La Notte (1961)
- L’Eclisse (1962)
Conclusion: The auteur theory is an interesting one, and can be easily applicable to many filmmakers today. It is an important piece of cinematic history, helping to solidify cinema as an powerful art form and even inspiring the French New Wave movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I recommend watching the films of Francois Truffaut in order to apply your understanding to a direct proponent of the theory, but I also advise viewing the stellar works of Antonioni. Not just to examine Antonioni’s label as an auteur, but to enjoy his life-examining works of art.
— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger
- Alexandre Astruc, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” in The New Wave, ed. Peter Graham. Trans. from Ecran Français 144, 30 March 1948.
- François Truffaut, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” from Cahiers du Cinéma in English 1. Originally published in French in Cahiers du Cinéma 31 (1954).
- Kael, P. (1963) “Circles And Squares,” Film Quarterly, vol. 16, No. 3 ed. University of California Press