In the wake of Michael Haneke joining that exclusive group of directors who have twice been awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or prize, it may be an odd time to bemoan the lot of the auteur. (Haneke won first for The White Ribbon and on Sunday for Amour.) But beyond the bubble of the international festival circuit, auteur may have dropped in cultural value, even as (or perhaps because) the usefulness of the director as a commodity is now apparent to the major studios. When a blockbuster is sold using a director’s name to evoke familiarity (“From Michael Bay, the guy who ripped you off last summer…”), is it a bastardisation of the auteurist line pushed originally by André Bazin at Revue de Cinéma, or the perfectly logical co-opting of art by commerce? Marketing departments are surely only taking the credo mapped out by auteurist critics, and wringing out every last dollar.
That’s the commercial branch of auteur theory, and it’s one that has been growing ever since Steven Spielberg’s heyday. But some of the places where auteurs were once welcomed have been pulling down the shutters—or perhaps moving the goalposts is a more appropriate metaphor. In the Guardian this week, Hadley Freeman devoted 1000 words to complaining that Wes Anderson and Tim Burton had, with their latest films, been caught repeating themselves. I can’t comment on Burton’s Dark Shadows, which I haven’t seen, but I feel strongly that Anderson has found new vim and inspiration in Moonrise Kingdom. However, it is not Freeman’s specific argument that I found interesting so much as the general tendency to take traits once celebrated as auteurist (a recognisable voice, a continuity of theme, a discernible visual style, a repertory company of actors) and to use them as a stick to beat those auteurs we find lacking.
It’s a thin line between a director who produces a different meal each time from the same set of ingredients, and one who reheats the leftovers. And it’s a danger, I think, that we can mistake consistency for complacency when we can’t quite express what it is about a film that displeases us. Not admiring Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver or Broken Embraces, I concluded that the filmmaker’s familiar conventions must have inhibited him, reducing to the mechanical what had once been sensual. Why didn’t I feel the same way about the director’s latest movie, The Skin I Live In? It could just as easily have been the case that this one was gripping and dramatically persuasive, while the others were not—and that the qualities of the auteur had borne the brunt of my disapproval in the case of the earlier films, while enhancing my enjoyment in the latter example.
Auteur theory has always had its dissenters, be they critics (Pauline Kael: “Just because a director repeats himself, doesn’t make him talented”), screenwriters (William Goldman, upon first being told about auteur theory, asked: “What’s the punchline?”) or directors themselves (Fred Schepisi: “The word ‘auteur’ just denigrates everyone else’s job”). Even some of those who encouraged auteur theory came to harbour reservations, such as Andrew Sarris, who said : “I think it’s gone too fat now. Every director has to show his wild visual style in order to establish himself and blaze a trail immediately.”
The greatest damage was surely done to the careers of those who were not among the cherished favourites of the original auteurist critics. In Sight & Sound in July 1997, Ginette Vincendeau put into perspective the hypocrisy of the Cahiers du Cinema crowd, which included future filmmakers such as Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer. She writes:
“While the craft of popular Hollywood filmmaking was celebrated, that of French mainstream directors (as well as scriptwriters) was derided. The politique des auteurs recognised that for Hawks, Hitchcock or Ford it was possible to inscribe personal themes in films produced within ‘the system’—but within the French ‘system’, no such possibility was acknowledged.”
No need to shed any tears, then, for the auteurs or their supporters: only for those left unfairly in the cold. Perhaps auteur theory isn’t a school of thought so much as a shelter in which critics and audiences can seek sanctuary when necessary, while reserving the right to trash the place and spray-paint its walls whenever the mood takes them.