On Auteurism


I am fascinated by the endless vicissitudes and paradoxes in the continuing history of auteurism as a critical practice – and I say this as an unrepentant auteurist myself, i.e., one who tends to pinpoint a film’s director as the one most responsible for its art and craft. This proposition sounds so commonsensical – even given the inherently collaborative nature of the film medium – that a visiting Martian might wonder what there ever was to argue about in it.


But, around the end of 1960s, the already strong (and long) auteurist tradition started to be heavily junked. Charles Eckert wrote in the Spring 1974 issue of Film Quarterly  that the cinephile who declared "I want to write about Delbert Mann" was already a massive intellectual embarrassment, a nerd who was taking the search for auteurs in Hollywood to absurd extremes, and bringing about “self-serving narrowings of the field of inquiry” (p. 65).


For me, Eckert’s statement reveals a fault-line that was already noticeable even earlier in the ‘60s: the division between those auteurists content to sit with a rather small and unassailable canon of great directors – let’s call them, in the lingo of the time, the Hitchcocko-Hawksians – and those who questioned the canon, at the very least in order to expand it, and discover or re-discover other talents. One doesn’t need to look long for examples of the latter tendency: critics such as Raymond Durgnat, Tag Gallagher and Bill Krohn have tirelessly incited us to look into the undervalued careers of (for example) William Wellman, King Vidor and Edgar Ulmer; and the massive book 50 ans de Cinéma Américain (Nathan, 1995) by Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon is a sustained effort of archaeological excavation into film history from an auteurist perspective.


Another point from which to begin a history of auteurist combats would be Peter Wollen‘s declaration in the 1972 section of his of 1969 Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (a newer edition subsequently appeared in the ‘90s): "I do not believe that development of auteur analyses of Hollywood films is any longer a first priority". This inaugurated a militant anti-auteurist period in certain sectors of the cinema-studying world. Put most simply, for Wollen (among an army of new critics) there were other, neglected, more pressing things to now discuss: ideology, genre, social context, film language. The auteur had to be forcibly ejected from what Lacanian psychoanalysis called the “sovereign seat of consciousness”.


Yet the subsequent writings of film theorists displayed many paradoxes, and more than a little bad faith. Film directors continued to be evoked, pinpointed, analysed – but in weird ways. Books devoted to Lang, Tourneur, Ophuls and Dreyer in the ‘70s and ‘80s spent half their time justifying this attention, arguing that the auteur was no longer a consciousness but a site, an ideological institution, the X that marks the spot of criss-crossing discursive formations. And yet these self-same writers had not the slightest self-conscious twinge invoking the sovereign consciousnesses of Straub-Huillet or Jean-Luc Godard on the radical, progressive, anti-Hollywood side of cinema.


The most disturbing undercurrent to me in this whole climate of supposed revisionism is the fact that the narrowest canon of all tended to be accepted and reinforced: as much as I love Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks and Sirk, I do not believe they are necessarily the only filmmakers we should constantly return to. Serge Daney (speaking of Cahiers in the late ‘60s) described such covert regression well: "We wanted to re-read Ford, not Huston, to dissect Bresson and not René Clair, to psychoanalyse Bazin and not Pauline Kael. Criticism is always that: an eternal return to a fundamental pleasure". To which I would respond: well, yes … and no!


Speaking of Wollen, I was dismayed by his lengthy review in Sight and Sound of Andrew Sarris‘ retrospective on Hollywood, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet (which I have yet to read). Wollen interrogates Sarris’ famous auteurist canon only to the extent that he charges the author with never fully accepting the supreme greatness of Hawks – and, just as in the first edition of Signs and Meaning, he ends up wondering whether any Hollywood film has ever been as good as the best by Renoir, Rossellini and Mizoguchi. Good grief! This review offered a time warp – back to Paris in 1960 with Pete and Andy, Bogdanovich and Eugene Archer, Patrick Bauchau and a swarm of feisty French auteurist-cultists (this bit of cinephile history has been recollected so much lately, I feel I was probably there myself). Hitchcocko-Hawksianism lives! – but still with that niggling, residual shame about embracing the forms and values of a popular art form.


For me, coming to terms (critically as well as lovingly) with a form like Hollywood cinema means, by definition, opening oneself up to the depth and breadth of its output, and being willing to constantly revise, renew and question one’s own canon. It’s a model of open-mindedess you see more in Positif than in Cahiers, yesterday as today. An open-mindedness towards not only the auteurs we already know (or have yet to know), but towards genres as well: I am heartily sick of the academic privileging of only a few, trendy genres – film noir and melodrama, in particular. Auteurism at the end of the millennium is still a strange, spotty fish: what decent, comprehensive studies do we yet have (in English, at any rate) of Borzage, Boetticher, Ulmer, Ray, Lubitsch, Sturges, Ophuls, Preminger?


Even as a proud and unrepentant auteurist, I have to admit this: the Heroic Age of auteurism is over, dead and gone. What I mean is that the battle to convince people that the anonymous products of the Hollywood Dream Factory (and all other industrialised, popular cinemas on the globe) hide the unrecognised work of unheralded artists has long been won. Maybe the push behind anti-auteurism – the bordeom or the itch that sent critics off on other paths – was correct in this respect: maybe they sensed that, in the age of Hitchcock and Kubrick and Spielberg, not even a 10 year-old has to be convinced anymore that the nom d’auteur is something that really matters. And popular Hollywood cinema, as a form, has also been somewhat legitimised: even the lowliest TV guide tells us matter-of-factly these days that Rio Bravo, Touch of Evil and The Bad and The Beautiful are classics; while cable TV networks tenaciously market their own versions of auteurism, cinephilia and cultist fandom (restricted, of course, to the particular bodies of films they have in their vaults!).


But this is still no time for any true critic, scholar or lover of film to roll over and go to sleep! There is still – always – so much more to be said, discovered, fought over, reclaimed. Film culture, en masse, always manages to forget more than it ever remembers; the latest fashion in programming or critical style is always cripplingly selective and under-informed. Of course, we have to be interested in more than just the auteur, in some isolated, ultra-Romantic sense; but the best auteurist studies have been probing a myriad of social contexts and influences, as well as the intertexts of other movies and art forms, for at least twenty years now. We cannot yet give up the ghost of the auteur – since, at the very least, "the auteur is the fiction, the necessary fiction one might add, become flesh and historical in the director, for the name of a pleasure that seems to have no substitute in the sobered-up deconstructions of the authorless voice of ideology" (Thomas Elsaesser).



This reflection was composed as four instalments of the “Editor’s Day” section on Ken Mogg’s website devoted to Hitchcock, The MacGuffin, between 4-7 January 1999; I was among the invited guests of the column.


© Adrian Martin January 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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