I have a new video today in the Frame by Frame series on auteur theory in film, which is one of the basic building blocks in beginning to understand any serious work of cinema.
Here’s a transcript:
Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame. I want to speak for a few moments about the “auteur theory, “ the basic building block of all contemporary film theorists. Amazingly, in America, which is kind of the capitol of film production in the world, or one of the major film capitols, films were not considered as being made by directors, producers, or even studios.
They were a “Clark Gable film,” or a “Bette Davis film,” or a “Boris Karloff film,” or a “Marx Brothers film,” or a genre film… a western, a science fiction, a horror film, and on and on. It was only in the 1940s that a film theorist named André Bazin founded a journal called Cahiers du Cinéma, literally “the notebooks of cinema,” and a group of young critics — people like Jean Luc Godard, writing as Hans Lucas, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut — began writing about films from the point of view that the director is the primary creator of the film, and that each director’s individual signature is distinct, but also that each director has certain key thematic preoccupations that one can find throughout their work.
So just briefly, in John Ford’s films “professionalism” is something which is foregrounded; in Howard Hawks’ films, you have the “Hawksian woman,” a pre-feminist construct, a woman who can hold her own with the men in the picture. Alfred Hitchcock’s films offer an incredibly bleak worldview. Frank Capra’s films have a theme of small town populism and optimism running through all of them. This kind of distinction of the director as the primary creator of a film was something that only crossed to the United States in 1963, when Andrew Sarris, an American film critic in New York, wrote a book called The American Cinema, which listed for the first time the major film makers and their major preoccupations.
Auteurism is now almost taken for granted. People consider films as an “Alfred Hitchcock film,” a “Howard Hawks film,” an “Ingmar Bergman film,” a “Bernardo Bertolucci film,” a “Quentin Tarantino film.” And in most cases, the director is the primary force behind the making of a film. Movies are a team effort. But without one vision to guide them, films collapse into committee projects, which may be commercially successful, but aren’t personal statements. And so the director’s input into a film is absolutely essential, and auteurism has become the dominant way of looking at films in theory and criticism.