Auteur Theory and Authorship

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Auteur Theory and Authorship



Translated from the French, auteur simply means "author," but use of the term in relation to cinema—since the 1950s at least—has caused much controversy and critical debate. The frequent retention of the French word, as auteur and in the somewhat ungainly "auteurism," marks the prominent part played in those critical debates by French film critics, especially those associated with the journal Cahiers du Cinéma (literally: cinema notebooks), in the 1950s and 1960s. Controversy arose in part from the industrial and collaborative nature of most film production: given that collaborative context, who might be considered as, or who might claim to be, the "author" of a film? If authorship is claimed, on what basis of evidence might the claim be made? Claims were made for the director to be considered the most likely member of the filmmaking team—in industrially organized commercial film production—to be the author of a film. However, this did not mean that every film director should be considered an auteur, or author, or the author of a particular film. Indeed, in many ways it could be said that the director as auteur should be considered the exception rather than the rule.

Does a film need to have an author? Perhaps, to qualify as "art," a film needs an author, an artist. The question of authorship is important in every art form, whether for reasons of intellectual property rights and the art market or for reasons of status and identification. Painting and sculpture have usually offered reasonably clear examples of the individual artist as author, as have the novel and poetry. But other arts can pose considerable problems for straightforward identification of authorship. A playwright may be the undisputed author of a play text, but who authors a play text in performance? In the twentieth century, many theater directors claimed authorship on a par with playwrights (although television drama has usually preferred the writer as author). A composer may be the undisputed author of a musical score, but what about music in performance?


Cinema poses its own problems. Commercial filmmaking, which accounts for most of the films—European and world as well as American—shown in cinemas and reviewed in print, as well as most of the material made for television, is justifiably seen as a collaborative activity, involving the skills and talents of many different film workers. At the same time, that mode of film production is hierarchical as well as collaborative: not all the collaborators count in the same way. In the sense that many commercial film productions will include a "dominant personality" influencing the shape and look of a film more than others, the idea of the film auteur or author is not necessarily very controversial. Although claims have been made for the importance of producers, screen-writers, and stars, either in general or in relation to particular films, the director—usually with the final say over the detailed realization of scenes (and hence over the way they will look and sound on screen) and often with crucial say over editing and other postproduction processes, and even over scripting—has usually been credited with having the dominant role in most cases. This dominance seems implied by the nature and place of the director's credit on the film itself, though dominance may not equate with authorship.

Although the numbers and processes involved can vary greatly within commercial film production, filmmaking can also be organized in quite different ways. In experimental or avant garde filmmaking, for example, the term "filmmaker" is often preferred to "director," simply because the filmmaker does often make the film rather than play the particular role of director in a complex collaborative hierarchy. Filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow, for example, generally shot, edited—and sometimes distributed—their films. In such cases questions about authorship must be very different from those for commercial production—and perhaps should figure in the same way they might in the fine arts. Some radical filmmaking groups, such as the Dziga Vertov Group of the late 1960s and early 1970s, have purposefully rejected the hierarchical nature of most commercial production and claimed collective authorship.

Despite the controversial nature of claims about film authorship in the 1950s, authorship or something approximating to it had been very widely accepted for many years. No one seriously disputed that the films of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) were "authored" by him, or that it was justified to use the possessive form "D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation" for that 1915 film, or at the very least that Griffith was the "dominant personality" influencing the film's final form. This was even more the case with non-US films, like those by the German directors Fritz Lang (1890–1976), F. W. Murnau (1888–1931), and G. W. Pabst (1885–1967); Soviet films by Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953), Aleksandr Dovzhenko (1894–1956), and Dziga Vertov (1896–1954) (despite the supposedly more cooperative and egalitarian Soviet approach to art production); and films by, for example, Abel Gance (1889–1981), Jean Epstein (1897–1953), Luis Buñuel (1900–1983), Victor Sjöström (1879–1960), and Carl Dreyer (1889–1968).


Apart from Griffith, US cinema certainly was looked at rather differently than European cinema—especially after the entrenchment of the studio system and the coming of sound. (Cinemas other than the US and European barely registered with US and European critics and audiences at this time.) Hollywood cinema came to be seen as more industrialized, more factorylike and commercial, than production in Europe, and therefore less likely—perhaps, unlikely—to produce more personal or individual films. Even so, in the 1920s some American filmmakers managed to establish authorial identity. In some cases, like that of Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957), this standing drew on a variety of elements, such as his foreign background and his status as a star actor as well as a director, but authorial recognition of Stroheim owed much to his clashes with the system and not being allowed to make and release films like Greed (1924) in the form that he wished. Stroheim projected the image of the artist struggling to make art and achieve his personal vision against the impersonality of the system. Some other, less controversial, directors, however, also managed to establish some kind of personal identity with industry peers, critics and, to some extent, audiences without too many obvious or outright clashes with the system—Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947), Frank Capra (1897–1991), Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969), John Ford (1894–1973) to a certain extent, and perhaps Preston Sturges (1898–1959). Some of these were special cases in other ways—Sternberg's long association with star Marlene Dietrich, for example—and some were their own producers as well, especially from the late 1930s onward.

At the time of Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles (1915–1985) represented a clear break with past practices in terms of the freedom and status he was accorded, though his later image and notoriety drew on some of the same sources as Stroheim's. Much more clearly, here was the director—though in this case also the performer—as artist. No one could seriously doubt—despite later attempts to prove otherwise—that Welles was the author of Citizen Kane. The soon rapidly changing landscape of Hollywood production after the Paramount decision of the US Supreme Court in 1948, and the divorcement decrees obliging the studios to divest themselves of their exhibition outlets that followed, also encouraged what Cahiers Jacques Rivette (b. 1928) would call the more "egocentric conception of the director" of the postwar era, initiated by Welles (Hillier, 1985, p. 95).


In terms of international recognition—industrially and critically as well as in terms of audiences—European cinema was seen rather differently than US cinema. If US cinema was produced in factorylike conditions for mass consumption and entertainment, European cinema was seen much more in relation to, and as the equal of, the other arts. But it is also the case that European critics (and probably audiences as well, though this is less clear) considered the cinema in general—including US cinema—much more as an art form on a par with the other arts than US—and British—critics and audiences (and this was also true of other aspects of popular culture). In the postwar period, especially in France, the cultivation of cinema as an art form was sustained in part by a network of art cinemas and cine clubs (and in Paris by the Cinémathèque Française), though directors like Howard Hawks (1896–1977), King Vidor (1894–1982), and Frank Borzage (1893–1962) had been identified as distinctive as far back as the 1920s.

b. Goshen, Indiana, 30 May 1896, d. 26 December 1977

As well as racing cars and planes, the young Howard Hawks also worked vacations in the property department of Hollywood's Famous Players–Lasky studios. After serving as an army pilot in World War I and working in the aircraft industry, Hawks returned to Hollywood in the early 1920s as a cutter, assistant director, story editor, and casting director before writing screenplays and selling the story The Road to Glory (1926) to Fox on condition that he also direct. Thereafter, Hawks worked for over forty years in Hollywood as director, producer, and writer, one of the few filmmakers whose careers spanned the silent period, the heyday of the studio system, and the post-studio period, making over forty major features.

Hawks accommodated the demands and constraints—as well as exploiting the possibilities—of the studio system, covering a wide range of genres as well as making classic examples in several of them: Ceiling Zero (1936) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939) in the action-adventure genre; Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) in the western; Scarface (1932) in the gangster film; The Big Sleep (1946) in the noir thriller; and Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), and Monkey Business (1952) in the screwball comedy genre. In addition, Hawks's economical style—often referred to as "invisible"—makes his work a major example of classical cinema.

Though Hawks's talents were noted within the industry as far back as the 1920s, his work was not critically recognized until the 1950s, when French critics like Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer in Cahiers du Cinéma took his work seriously and claimed him as an auteur whose work demonstrated a consistent personality and worldview. Hawks—along with Alfred Hitchcock—became a key test case for the possibility for authorship within popular cinema. Hawks's predilection for understated, everyday heroism, often in the context of the all-male group; his straightforward, direct visual style; and his flair for bringing out unexpected traits in stars like John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart were seen as marking Hawks out as special. In the early 1960s Hawks was taken up by auteurist critics in the United States like Andrew Sarris and in the United Kingdom by Movie magazine and Robin Wood, who took Hawks as a supreme example of the understated artistry possible within the Hollywood system. Later, Peter Wollen emphasized the way in which the male struggle for mastery in the adventure and western films serves as an inverted mirror image of the comedies, which stressed gender role reversal and lack or loss of mastery.


Scarface (1932), Ceiling Zero (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Monkey Business (1952), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962)


Hillier, Jim, and Peter Wollen, eds. Howard Hawks: American Artist. London: British Film Institute, 1996.

McBride, Joseph, ed. Focus on Howard Hawks. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

——, ed. Hawks on Hawks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Wollen, Peter. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. 3rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

Wood, Robin. Howard Hawks. London: Secker Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968. Reprinted, with "Retrospect," London: British Film Institute, 1981; New ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Jim Hillier

Postwar France was thus fertile ground for critics trying to develop new ways of thinking about cinema, particularly American cinema. From 1944 and 1945, Hollywood films that had not been allowed in France during the German occupation arrived in a flood and prompted insightful ways of thinking about cinema, especially American cinema. Examples are André Bazin's ideas about realism, responding to Welles's and William Wyler's (1902–1981) films with cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948), and the identification

of new strains in the crime thriller as film noir. The "egocentric conception of the director" embodied by Welles was important: François Truffaut (1932–1984) later used as an epigraph to his collection of critical writings, The Films in My Life, Welles's dictum, "I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it." This was the atmosphere in which the young novelist and director Alexandre Astruc wrote in 1948 the polemic "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo [Camera-Pen]" (Astruc in Graham, 1968, pp. 17–23). Although Astruc's precise meaning is not always clear, a central idea was that cinema was becoming a medium of personal expression like the other arts: "In this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning," he stated. "Direction is no longer a means of illustrating or presenting a scene, but a true act of writing. The filmmaker-author writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen" (Astruc in Graham, 1968, p. 22).

Contentions like Astruc's that filmmaking was as much an expressive art form as painting and the novel—art forms where the essentially Romantic idea of the individual artist before the page or canvas was easiest to sustain—and that the filmmaker arrives at self-expression through the process of direction, helped nurture the development of the politique des auteurs—the auteur policy or polemic—in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s. Some confusion tends to arise from the fact that the auteurism associated with critics like Truffaut, Rivette, Eric Rohmer (b. 1920), Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), and Claude Chabrol (b. 1930) is usually linked with their enthusiasm and reverence for Hollywood directors like Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), Ford, Nicholas Ray (1911–1979), Anthony Mann (1906–1967), and Samuel Fuller (1912–1997), whom they identified as auteurs, while the essay often credited as setting the scene for the politique was Truffaut's critique of contemporary French cinema (in his essay, "Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français" (A certain tendency of the French cinema), in the January 1954 issue of Cahiers. As spectator-critics, the Cahiers writers enjoyed and admired American popular cinema, but as future French filmmakers-critics in the French nouvelle vague (new wave), they would inevitably make French films, not American Hollywood ones; thus, their major concerns included French cinema (along with, for example, Italian cinema, which offered conditions and possibilities much more akin to their own than did US cinema).


However, although French cinema and American cinema were very different in some respects, in others they were not. The more personal and individual French cinema that Truffaut and the others admired—Jean Renoir (1894–1979), Robert Bresson (1901–1999), Jacques Tati (1909–1982), Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), Max Ophuls (1902–1957), Jacques Becker (1906–1960)—drew its strength and individuality from an essentially nonliterary originality and audacity of realization, or mise-en-scène—qualities that they also admired in American cinema. This French cinema they contrasted to the tired cinéma de papa (daddy's cinema)—the unadventurous literary cinema of Jean Delannoy (b. 1908) or Claude Autant-Lara (1901–2000), or the academic technical competence of directors like René Clément (1913–1996) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907–1977), who, they claimed, merely put solid, worthy scripts into sounds and images.

As this implies, one of the crucial effects of this identification of auteurs was to shift to the center of film analysis the notion of mise-en-scène as the means through which the auteur expressed his (or her—but American or European, the figures discussed were all male) personality and individuality. Writing in Cahiers in August 1960, Fereydoun Hoveyda argued that:

the originality of the auteur lies not in the subject matter he chooses, but in the technique he employs, i.e., the mise-en-scène, through which everything on the screen is expressed.… As Sartre said: "One isn't a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way." Why should it be any different for cinema? … The thought of a cineaste appears through his mise-en-scène
(Hillier, 1986, p. 142).

Although the Hollywood director might have little control over choice of subject and cast, or over the script, it was on the set, attentive to décor, performance, and camera positioning and movement—controlling what would appear on the screen—that the director expressed his individuality. Of course, many of the directors that the Cahiers critics championed as auteurs—Hitchcock and Hawks, certainly—were often their own producers and chose their projects and worked on their scripts, officially or not, and so had more control than the general model implied. Additionally, in the post-Divorcement Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s, the growth of independent production meant that many other directors began to have more say in their projects.

Given the essential emphasis on mise-en-scène, it is somewhat confusing that Cahiers critics distinguished between those directors whom they regarded as auteurs and those they regarded as (mere) metteurs en scène, directors whose work lacked the individual personal expression of the auteur but who could be competent and even skilled interpreters of others' ideas. Clément and Clouzot might have been classified thus; regarding American cinema, arguments raged around particular directors—Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986), for example—as to whether they were auteurs or metteurs en scène.

What appeared in Cahiers was not any kind of concerted "theory"; furthermore, there were disagreements in Cahiers itself. Chief among those who did not subscribe to the "excesses" of the politique des auteurs was the journal's chief editor (until his death in 1958) and best-known writer, André Bazin. Bazin shared his colleagues' enthusiasm for taking American cinema seriously, but at the same time he argued in the April 1952 issue of Cahiers that in the cinema more than in the other arts, and in American cinema more than in other cinemas, industrial, commercial, and generic factors came into play and meant that "the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference" needed to be seen in context (Bazin in Graham, 1968, pp. 137–156). It is also not quite right to credit Cahiers exclusively with thinking about authorship in popular cinema. In Britain during the late 1940s and the 1950s, the young critics who produced Sequence magazine and later worked on Sight and Sound—preeminently Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert—identified the popular cinema of John Ford and Nicholas Ray, for example, as distinctive and personal. Strikingly, Anderson argued the case for John Ford's authorship in terms of his westerns rather than his more "worthy" prestige productions, while Ray became seen—by Cahiers and later by the British film publication Movie—as one of the supreme examples of the post–Orson Welles generation of Hollywood directors, consciously striving to make more personal films and often in conflict with the system.

Ordinarily, such polemics and debates in a French film magazine barely read outside of France would not have caused many ripples in American and British film criticism. However, by 1959 many of the Cahiers critics involved in those polemics had gained acclaim as new filmmakers. This was particularly true of two of the most controversial Cahiers critics, Truffaut, whose first feature, Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), triumphed at the 1959 Cannes festival, and Godard, whose first feature, À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), also premiered in 1959. Chabrol had already had success with Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge, 1958) and Les cousins (The Cousins, 1959). The international success of these nouvelle vague films drew attention to their directors' critical pasts, helping ideas about authorship, and new ways of thinking about popular cinema, become matters of debate in Britain and the United States at more or less the same moment.


The tastes of both Movie in Britain and Andrew Sarris in the US were clearly influenced by those of Cahiers, and they shared similar ideas and emphases. The British magazine Movie, whose main editors and contributors included Ian Cameron, V. F. Perkins, Mark Shivas, Paul Mayersberg, and Robin Wood, opened its first issue (May 1962) with an assessment of American and British cinema in the form of rankings, signaling Hawks and Hitchcock as "great," with Joseph Losey (1909–1984), Mann, Minnelli, Otto Preminger (1906–1986), Ray, Douglas Sirk (1897–1987), and Welles among the "brilliant." Andrew Sarris in his "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" (Sarris in Mast and Cohen, 1979, pp. 650–665)—later reprinted and expanded in his book, The American Cinema (1968)—included Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, and Welles in his "pantheon," with Losey, Mann, Minnelli, Preminger, and Sirk just below them. As in Cahiers, both the Movie critics and Sarris aimed to be provocative, to stir things up—though more in the arena of critical attitudes than in filmmaking itself. In this they certainly succeeded. In Britain, under the impact of the French nouvelle vague, Sight and Sound in its Autumn 1960 issue tried to address the critical "excesses" of Cahiers, while editor Penelope Houston ("the critical question") joined battle with the critics on Oxford Opinion (shortly to found Movie), arguing that "cinema is about the human situation, not about 'spatial relationships'" (Houston, 1960, p. 163) and that criticism should be concerned primarily with a film's "ideas." In the United States, Sarris's "auteur theory" provoked a fierce attack by critic Pauline Kael, arguing that artistic signature did not imply anything about the value of the art itself, and that Hollywood directors were inevitably working with material of low artistic value (Kael in Mast and Cohen, 1979, pp. 666–679).

But the differences between Movie and Sarris were important, too. Movie committed itself—in a way which Cahiers had not—to the detailed analysis of films. The conventional view has been that the Movie writers combined Cahiers's tastes with the British tradition of close literary textual analysis associated with F. R. Leavis and others. Certainly, Movie -associated writing is rich in close attention to textual detail, which is largely absent in the more philosophical and abstract writing in Cahiers (although the lengthy interviews in Cahiers with directors demonstrated its writers' interest—as critics and future filmmakers—in detailed decisions about mise-en-scène), but of the original Movie group, only Robin Wood was familiar with this literary tradition. From their earliest writing in the student magazines Oxford Opinion and Granta, the Movie critics, like the Cahiers critics before them, were always as interested in non–English-language—primarily European—cinema (Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and, not least, the French nouvelle vague) as they were in English-language cinema.

Sarris's object of study was American cinema, and one of his prime goals was to argue for the superiority of American cinema over others. Both Movie and Sarris, however—like Cahiers—aimed to change perceptions of and attitudes to American popular cinema. Most established critics and reviewers—used to weighing the thematic content of respected directors like Fred Zinnemann (1907–1997), George Stevens (1904–1975) or William Wyler—found it hard or even impossible to consider B westerns and thrillers by directors such as Budd Boetticher (1916–2001) or Samuel Fuller—e.g., The Tall T (1957) or Pickup on South Street (1953)—as both examples of the art of cinema and vehicles for the articulation of an authorial worldview. As Sarris noted, "Truffaut's greatest heresy … was not in his ennobling direction as a form of creation, but in his ascribing authorship to Hollywood directors hitherto tagged with the deadly epithet of commercialism" (Sarris, 1968, p. 28). Though Sarris translated the politique des auteurs into the auteur "theory," there was little more, if any, theory in Sarris's version than there was in Cahiers; Sarris himself concedes that "the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography … a system of tentative priorities" (Sarris, 1968, pp. 30, 34).

Although Sarris saw the critic's job as illuminating—and implicitly evaluating—"the personality of the director"—also necessarily an evaluative task—this did not mean that directors should be credited with total creativity and control. For Sarris, all directors, whether from Europe or Hollywood, are shaped and constrained by the conditions in which they work and the culture that has formed them. "The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression" (Sarris, 1968, p. 31). Sarris conceded studio domination of Hollywood cinema but argued that producers were more likely to tamper with scripts than with visual style; further, genre filmmaking was likely to provide more freedom from studio interference for filmmakers.

Theoretically, both Movie and Sarris recognized that authorship might on occasion be ascribed to someone other than the director. In the second issue of Movie, Ian Cameron argued that it was the director who was responsible for what appears on the screen, but he also argued that a dominant personality other than the director could be the "author" of a film, that, for example, the "effective author" of the film versions of Paddy Chayefsky's (1923–1981) works was primarily Chayefsky rather than the credited directors, and the person responsible might on occasions be the photographer or composer or producer or star. Cameron cites The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961), which "although directed by the excellent Gordon Douglas, was above all an Angie Dickinson movie, being entirely shaped by her personality and deriving all its power, which was considerable, from her performance" (Cameron, 1972, pp. 13–14). In practice, though, little of the work done by Movie or Sarris implied an authorial dominant presence other than the director.

b. London, England, 23 February 1931

Robin Wood is one of the most influential film critics to write in the English language. Brilliantly insightful and infuriatingly opinionated, Wood has spoken for a minority of critics in his attempt to bridge the gap between politically engaged criticism and questions of human value. Educated at Cambridge University in the early 1950s, Wood has taught film studies at universities in England and Canada, ultimately making his home in Toronto, where he has worked with an editorial collective to publish the journal CineAction since 1985.

Wood began publishing film criticism while a graduate student, contributing an article to Cahiers du Cinéma on Psycho (1960) in 1960 and a short piece on Advise and Consent (1960) to the second issue of the British film journal Movie in 1962. But it was with a series of books on individual directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol, Howard Hawks, Arthur Penn, and Ingmar Bergman) in the latter part of the decade that Wood established himself as a major voice in film criticism. In Hitchcock's Films (1965), he offered a series of impressively detailed textual analyses of seven Hitchcock films to argue that Hitchcock is a moralist who forces spectators to confront their own darker impulses through "therapeutic" viewing experiences. Wood's auteurist readings of Hitchcock and Hawks have become canonical, influencing virtually all subsequent scholarly discussions of these two directors.

When Wood shifted his attention to genre films in the late 1970s, he set the terms for the intense critical debates on horror films that would arise in the following decade. In 1979, along with his longtime partner Richard Lippe, Wood mounted a major horror retrospective for the Toronto International Film Festival that included the publication of a small anthology of essays on horror titled The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (1979). In Wood's celebrated introduction, he argued that the horror film was driven by the Freudian concept of repression and offered a psychoanalytic and Marxist reading of the genre that remains influential.

Wood came out as gay in the mid-1970s, and since that time his criticism has become increasingly political. Sexual politics has been of particular importance to Wood in his later work, whether he is discussing light-hearted entertainments like American Pie and its sequels or the confrontational art films of Gaspar Noé and Michael Haneke. Many of his essays are gathered in the volumes Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986) and Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998). In subsequent editions, Wood has also reconsidered his early auteurist work from his more recent critical perspective, often examining the directors' ideological limitations rather than celebrating their stamp of personality. Over three editions of the book on Hitchcock, for example, Wood offered new gay and feminist readings of the director's films.


Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

——. Hollywood. from Vietnam to Reagan—and Beyond. Revised ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

——. Ingmar Bergman. London: Studio Vista, 1969.

——. Personal Views: Explorations in Film. New ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2006.

——. Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Barry Keith Grant

In important respects—and this was a clear implication in Astruc's conception of the "caméra stylo"—the arguments for authorship in cinema at this time represented a triumph for a rather traditional Romantic view of the author as artist. This was a somewhat paradoxical position to take in relation to an art form that was popular and made in industrial and collaborative conditions—though the film author was seen as able to transcend those conditions. Given the dominance of modernism in the other arts, and particularly developments in literature and literary criticism that rejected Romantic forms and Romantic views of the artist, the establishment of the idea of authorship in this period could be seen as a retrogressive step. Yet at the same time, auteurism offered a critical method to replace the then-dominant largely thematic or sociological critical approaches with more specifically cinematic concerns, as well as opening up for serious consideration many filmmakers and categories of film barely taken seriously before. Auteurism shifted the focus of film criticism away from the more or less explicit thematic subject matter that was the concern of most other critical approaches, and toward the personality of the auteur and the consistency of the auteur director's style and themes. These were not immediately or easily accessible, and required the analysis of individual works in relation to a body of work: the critic's task became to discover and define the auteur and the ways in which the auteur had worked with the given material. "Film criticism became a process of discovery, a process which … forced a more precise attention to what was actually happening within the film than had been customary for a traditional criticism which tended to be satisfied with the surfaces of popular film" (Caughie, 1981, pp. 11–12).


Given the debates and arguments about authorship in cinema, and given the changing cultural context, it was inevitable that auteurism would be put under pressure and evolve. Peter Wollen, influenced like Movie and Sarris in his tastes by those of the Cahiers's critics, wrote in the early 1960s in New Left Review and developed his ideas in the 1969 and 1972 editions of his book Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. He introduced a new emphasis, so-called "auteur structuralism" or "cine-structuralism." Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology looked for patterns of "structuring oppositions," or antinomies, both within and between texts, and the cine-structuralist, as Wollen put it, looked not only for "resemblances or repetitions," but also for "a system of differences and oppositions." These needed to be teased out of what might appear very different kinds of films—Ford's or Hawks's westerns as well as their comedies, for example. In a further shift, Wollen put the auteur directors' names in inverted commas—"Hitchcock," "Ford," "Hawks"—to distinguish the real people and creative personalities Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks from the structures or retrospective critical constructs—the auteur codes—named after them.

The auteur thus became something more like an unconscious catalyst for elements and influences beyond his or her conscious control. In the politically and theoretically highly charged post-1968 cultural atmosphere in France, Cahiers itself was changing rapidly, and this stage of the development of auteur theory generated the collective essay by the editors of Cahiers, "John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln" in the August 1970 issue of Cahiers. This essay considers the film symptomatically in terms of its repressions and contradictions, in which the auteur/director John Ford cannot be taken unproblematically as a unifying, intentional source. From Wollen's inverted commas and the auteur as "unconscious catalyst" and Cahiers's problematizing of authorial inscription, it is not far to post-structuralism's virtual disappearance or "death of the author," as Roland Barthes's 1968 essay put it. For Barthes, the author becomes a by-product of writing, and emphasis on the author is replaced by emphasis on the text's destination, the reader.


For many writers on film for whom auteurism had been in many ways liberating, these post-structural theoretical debates were a step too far. One of the main results has been that, having been central to debates about the nature and function of film criticism and film studies for twenty-five years or more, since the 1980s questions about authorship in film have not generated the same frenzied critical debate they did between the 1950s and the 1970s. To a large extent, this is because—the problems of high theory aside—auteurism has been widely recognized as one of the most useful critical approaches available, and writers on film, while happy to modify what might have been initially naïve ideas about authorship in film, have refused to give up the concept. This is not to say that critical and theoretical writing has reverted to the simpler and hence more problematic positions of the 1950s and 1960s: the critiques of those positions have been taken on board and have been adapted and modified. More recently, Robert Stam argues that "auteur studies now tend to see a director's work not as the expression of individual genius but rather as the site of encounter of a biography, an intertext, an institutional context, and a historical moment." (Stam & Miller, 2000, p. 6).

The radical changes in film studies brought about by auteurism's insistence on exact attention to just what was occurring in the film brought in its train a number of very important later developments in film criticism and film theory. Indeed, as well as, from the mid-1960s, a steady flow of sophisticated and influential auteur studies—notably Robin Wood's monographs on Hitchcock and Hawks—the discipline of film studies itself can be seen to have emerged out of these first debates in English about authorship in cinema and the further debates and questions they raised.

Bazin's objections to some of the ways the politique des auteurs was practiced by his Cahiers colleagues arose in part from his insistence on the contexts in which Hollywood films were made. These objections were recognized, if not paid much attention to, by early Movie writers and Sarris's writing. One of these contexts—of more interest to Bazin than to most of his Cahiers colleagues—was genre. Hollywood cinema was, in many ways, primarily a generic cinema; Bazin himself was particularly interested in the western. Whatever might be said about the authorial signatures of Hawks, Ford, or Mann, the fact remained that they made—among other genre types—westerns. How did the long-established but constantly evolving conventions of the genre interact with authorial personality? What did the genre provide for the auteur, and what different authorial emphases or inflections might the auteur bring to the genre—or, put more simply, how were westerns by Hawks, Ford, and Mann both different and the same? Building on the previous critical theoretical work on genre, which was very sparse, these were the questions posed by Jim Kitses's book Horizons West (1970), a study of the western genre and of the work of Ford, Mann, Boetticher, and Peckinpah within it. Colin McArthur's Underworld U.S.A. (1972) aimed to do something very similar for the gangster-crime genre. These were important stages in the growth of genre study, soon able to break away from any dependence on auteurs for its justification. Debates about authorship also raised the question, as discussed above, of whether anyone might stake a greater claim to authorship than the director. This question also had some fruitful results: although no one was very convinced by Pauline Kael's attempt in The Citizen Kane Book (1974) to argue that the writer Herman Mankiewicz (1897–1953) was the real author of Citizen Kane, Richard Corliss's Talking Pictures (1975) was a useful reminder of the often crucial role of screenwriters in the Hollywood system and in the work of individual directors.

For Bazin, genre was part of the "genius of the system," but the system was also a mode of production. Sarris could assert that the studio system imposed potentially beneficial constraints on its directors and Movie could recognize that a film like Casablanca (1942) represented a coming together of various talents and conventions, but there was relatively little thought about or research into the intricacies of how films actually got made within the studio system—and after. Given the new interest in the possibilities for authorship within that system, this then became an area for urgent further research, stimulating a remarkable amount of work on the way the industry functioned, and functions. Major books like Thomas Schatz's The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (1988) and David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2005) are testimony to both the new research field that opened up and the more "holistic" perspectives on Hollywood production.

As mentioned, debates about authorship also served to focus attention on the ways in which directors made choices in the process of direction in relation to meaning-making. This suggested that the specificity of the medium—what made film different from other media—resided in mise-en-scène. Sarris argued that the art of cinema was "not so much what as how" (Sarris, 1968, p. 31), and this Movie -Sarris emphasis began a process of focusing on questions about the specificity of cinema—or at least the specificity of narrative, illusionist cinema. V. F. Perkins's book Film as Film (1972), which is strongly authorial in its assumptions, looks at the ways in which meaning is constructed in such cinema, in a chapter titled "'How' Is 'What.'"

One thing this focus on direction, or mise-en-scène, did not really do was pay much attention to the various conventions and "rules" about shooting and editing. However much an auteur might "invent" (as Hoveyda put it) via the mise-en-scène, this invention also took place in the context of a long and developing history of textual conventions. This was an area that had interested Bazin since the 1940s (as in, for example, his essay on "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema") and which was no doubt part of the "genius of the system," but the auteur debates, as they focused on mise-en-scène, also foregrounded the need for a systematic examination of the various conventional constituents of the "classical" style of film narration. Not quite coincidentally, Jean-Luc Godard's nouvelle vague films of the 1960s were also engaging in a systematic deconstruction of these narrative and continuity conventions. Later critical and theoretical work like David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson's book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, (1985) and Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) grew out of these imperatives.


Outside of academic and other serious film writing and teaching, auteurism in relatively uncritical form has been much more obviously triumphant. Perhaps because it was always more critical—and evaluative—than theoretical, early auteurism was very readily assimilated into film journalism, relatively untroubled by later debates about the theoretical basis of authorship. In serious and even popular film journalism it is now generally and quite routinely taken for granted that directors are primarily responsible for films, no matter what country or system they might originate from. The period since the 1960s has been, effectively, the age of the director as superstar. In part, this reflects the triumph of the concept of the "director as auteur" not only in Europe and world cinema, but in commercial cinema—and not least Hollywood—as well. And this is a concept that the film industries themselves—including post-studio Hollywood, with agents putting together star-director-writer packages—have also bought into. The earlier, relatively neutral credit, "Directed by Joe Doakes," is now routinely replaced by "A film by Joe Doakes" or "A Joe Doakes film"—even when this might be Joe Doakes's first film—with legal copyright and "authorship" implications. In some senses, director-auteurs have taken the place of—or become the equal of—stars, cultivating auteur "brands." One has only to think of the ease with which we are invited to consider not only the Pedro Almodóvar or Michael Haneke or François Ozon "brands" but also, in different registers, the Spike Lee, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Sayles, Ridley Scott, or Steven Soderbergh "brands."

SEE ALSO Criticism;Direction;France;Genre;Great Britain;Journals and Magazines;Mise-en-scène;New Wave


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——, ed. Cahiers du Cinéma: 1960–1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

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Jim Hillier