“Auteur” (“Author” in French) should not be a new word for you. I’ve been using the term all semester to indicate artistic film directors.
The tension between art and entertainment in film is an old one. So too is the tension between film directors motivated by art and those motivated by craft.
Auteur cinema originates with the French critics and directors who congregated around the offices of Cahiers du Cinema, an influential film magazine, in Paris, in the 1950s and 1960s. Jean-Luc Godard, you’ll recall, was one of the more prominent French auteurs.
Andre Bazin was one of the more influential film theorists of auteurism. I’ve mentioned him before, when speaking and writing about Michael Curtiz and Casablanca.
But remember that Bazin did more than just argue for the superiority of French “New Wave” directors. He also praised the “genius of the system,” the Hollywood system of making films, which produced great film artists like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, during the Hollywood studio era.
Auteurists are often depicted as film snobs (see Eileen Jones), when in fact they often attempt to elevate Hollywood directors to high art status.
Andrew Sarris, the film critic of The Village Voice who championed the auteur cause in the United States, defined three qualities of the auteur. According to Sarris, an auteur is distinguished by
- Technical competence.
- A distinguishable personality in his/her films (themes and style).
- An interior meaning (underlying tension between the director’s vision and the subject matter).
The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael countered Sarris, arguing that
- Technical competence is a weak criterion. It should be “excellence.”
- The “distinguishable personality” criterion penalizes directors who go beyond a recognizable genre or style.
- True film art is collaborative, not the work of individual geniuses.
For many critics, Kathryn Bigelow meets the criteria for the auteur. She is acknowledged as being quite competent, even “excellent,” as a director (and has a Best Director Oscar to show for it). Critics have noted common themes and stylistic elements in her films. And there is tension between her artistic vision and her subject matter.
This tension plays out in interesting, unique ways in her films (another argument for her auteur status).
She is a woman and arguably a feminist in her films, and auteur theory has traditionally privileged male directors. So here the tension would be between a feminine and masculine points of view in “art” films.
Bigelow is also a director of action movies, a genre that is not usually associated with art film. Here the tension would be between artistic introspection and active engagement with the world.
Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty presents a third tension: that between journalistic realism and artistic licence. This plays out particularly in her treatment of torture. This I will examine in another blog entry.
University of Maryland