The Auteur Paradigm, Part 2

In Part 1 I outlined a few key developments that led – by the late 1960s – to a widespread cultural reimagining of the role of a film director. That entry is not meant to be exhaustive. There are a number of books, essays, and documentaries that touch on the rise of the auteur, often going into great detail about the many artistic, industrial, cultural, and social factors that led to the development and sustaining of the auteur model in its various guises (shameless plug: you can also read about it in the second chapter of my book on Hal Ashby, which you can find more about by clicking that link over there –>). My intention in Part 1 was to demonstrate, with a couple of very narrow examples, how shifting theoretical ideas and production practices led to the director coming to embody two functions that had often previously resided in other roles: the film’s sole creative originator (previously often the writer or producer); and the film’s practical “owner” (previously often the producer or studio).

In a sense, the structural relationship between these two functions represents a totalizing of the bond between director and film. The film is of the director, the film is the director – at least in the way it represents an aspect of the director’s creative personality, his inner being. As this figure began to be recognized as a kind of artistic “genius” in the 1970s, attempts to recognize other modes of authorial contribution became increasingly difficult to frame and, in the case at least of performers as authorial contributors, nearly illegitimate.

That this construction so obviously contradicts the collaborative and industrial nature of Hollywood filmmaking did not seem to bother many of those advocating for the primacy of the auteur throughout the New Hollywood era. Nor did the fact that – in seemingly revolutionary times – the director-driven model of understanding filmmaking nearly replicated the despised hierarchical nature of the producer-driven model (Derek Nystrom’s 2004 article “Hard Hats and Movie Brats” is worth a read for more on how New Hollywood autuerism replicated previous modes of coercion and control on film sets).

These contradictions and inconsistencies seemed not to matter. Once the auteur concept had caught fire by the early ‘70s, there was a full-court press to develop it as a way of understanding the quality cinema that was emerging as the “new” Hollywood cinema, or at least one strain of it. As mentioned briefly in the Part 1, serious film thinkers like Ian Cameron and Andrew Sarris were developing not only models for understanding films and filmmaking as expressions of auteurism, but also hierarchies of directors from great to good to merely okay to not worthy of consideration.

“Bogdanovich has been infinitely more subtle in giving his film not only the decor of 1951, but the visual style of a movie that might have been shot in 1951.”

Roger Ebert
At the same time popular film critics were also promoting auteurism, often whether they knew it or not. For example, in his 1971 review of The Last Picture Show, Roger Ebert labels it Peter Bogdanovich’s film and credits Bogdanovich for everything in the film. No mention of original novelist and co-scripter Larry McMurtry; nor of the fantastic cinematography by Robert Surtees; nor of the set design by Polly Platt, who redressed an entire Texas town to give it an authentic 1950s look and feel. Ebert doesn’t even mention the name of a single cast member from old studio hand Ben Johnson, to established professionals Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman, or the many talented newcomers like Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, or Cybil Shepherd.*

“Coppola has made one of the most brutal and moving chronicles of American life ever designed within the limits of popular entertainment.”

Vincent Canby

Vincent Canby’s review of the same film does mention McMurtry and Surtees and much of the cast by name; however, he still attributes the film’s power and most of its decision making to Bogdanovich. Canby’s review of The Godfather, from the same year, likewise mentions many of the cast by name – and reserves particular praise for Marlon Brando’s Don – while still attributing much of the film’s visceral power to director Francis Ford Coppola (no mention, for example, of cinematographer Gordon Willis).

These are but a very few examples. Read any popular review of the great films of the 1970s, and the results are likely to be the same. Praise for stars and stellar performances abounds, but there is rarely any mention of crewmembers and their contributions – despite the many rapid stylistic and technological advances taking place in cinematography, editing, sound design, and special effects throughout the decade. Directors, however, are invariably not only mentioned, but accorded the lion’s share of creative credit. Thus, as the decade’s cineaste culture developed, almost any source a burgeoning film buff might seek out to read about the cinema would reinforce the notion that the director was a film’s sole artist.



Studios were aware of this and began to push films as products of their directors. This became a fantastic way to market films to an audience that increasingly saw itself as film literate. For example, on promotional posters for Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets (1968), the director’s name appears only once, in the billing block. For his second film, The Last Picture Show, he gets two credits: a small “A Film by” credit beneath the title, plus the standard billing-block credit. After the massive commercial and critical success of Picture Show, Bogdanovich became marketable as one of the era’s new auteurs. Publicity described each of his next three films as “A Peter Bogdanovich Production,” a credit not only implying his “ownership” of the films, but also hearkening back to the Classical era of Hollywood when producers were the creative progenitors of films, thus adding an extra sheen of authorship.

Other films of the era were similarly promoted once their directors had one bona fide artistic hit under their belt. Compare publicity for The Godfather, which mainly focused on star Marlon Brando (and in some instances author and co-scripter Mario Puzo), with what was generally promoted as “Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II.”


Along with this increased focus on their creative prowess came an increase in power. Directors were aware of this, as Arthur Penn pointed out in an interview in the early ‘90s: “Enormous power had devolved upon the directors because the studio system had collapsed. We were really running it.” Penn’s comment is instructive because it shows how, for a time, directors believed that not only did they have a creative vision that deserved the utmost respect, but that, in a way, they had supplanted the old studio moguls and producers. They were claiming at once both the new, auteurism-inspired authorship of the French and also the old-school authorship of studio control.

godfather_part_ii-posterThus, by the mid-1970s, you have many French, American, and British film critics pushing a director-driven model for understanding and criticizing filmmaking. You have film studios benefitting from a marketing approach that highlighted directors nearly as much as it did stars. And you had directors themselves emphasizing both their unparalleled creative magnitude as well as their power within the system. And finally, you had an academic film studies that, in spite of some resistance (more below) was structuring itself on an auteurist model. The result being that auteurism infiltrated and took command of every level of film and cinema discourse.

In hand with this pervasiveness another subtle, but profound transition occurred. When the writers of Cahiers du Cinema first articulated their understanding of the auteur, particularly the auteur in Hollywood, they had in mind a man whose vision transcended the limitations and restrictions that the studio system imposed upon his films. Because the director’s vision above all others was detectable, the Cahiers auteur was very much a single author. However, as the concept of the auteur was developed by Cameron, Sarris, and others, the director became a man who imposed his vision upon the film. And by the ‘70s, he was a man whose vision was not to be restricted, not to be tampered with. Add to this the notion put forward by Penn and others that the directors were actually running things within the studios, and we arrive at the model of “director as genius”: a man whose vision was so elevated, and whose power over his films so unrivaled that his vision was not to be questioned. Thus the auteur came to represent several overlapping functions that the term still implies today: director-as-owner; director-as-single-author; director-as-genius.

This isn’t to say there was no resistance to any of these models. By the early 1970s, in fact, much film scholarship had been taken up by many of the competing strains of post-structuralism that seriously challenged such notions as “vision,” “genius,” and the very idea of a single “author.” However, even as these theoretical approaches gained ground within academia, they still remained mired in a director-based approach to film. For example, as post-structuralists debated the existence of the “author function,” they still limited their discussions to Hitchcock vs. “Hitchcock,” or Ford vs. “Ford.” As Laura Mulvey set about a profound rethinking of Hollywood cinema’s aggressive stance towards women in “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” she based her analysis of the male gaze on an understanding that directors like Sternberg and Hitchcock were responsible for fashioning the apparatus of that gaze.

citizen-kane-book-feWhen more mainstream writers did attempt to interrogate the director-only model of authorship, they tended to be ignored or attacked by the auteurist guard, now confident in its certitude about how films were made and who deserved credit for making them. Pauline Kael raised many public objections to auteurism in her writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but she also tended to practice it by singling out particular directors for praise (Altman, Beatty) over other contributors to their films. Furthermore she unintentionally dealt multiple-authorship a serious blow with her 1972 extended essay “Raising Kane,” which attempted to give Herman Mankiewicz equal (or more) credit than Orson Welles for the success of Citizen Kane. Welles’s supporters and auteurists in general were quick to reply with such vociferous condemnation of Kael’s piece that she later chose not to republish it in any anthologies of her work.**

Once the heady days of 1970s Hollywood, when it seemed the director was king, had come to an end, and after studios used the success of blockbusters to reinscribe a new, corporate structure on movie making, it seemed that the conversation around the auteur had moved on. The “auteur theory” was dead.

At first glance, most film scholars would probably agree. Auteurism tends to be taught these days with a fair amount of historicity attached – it was an important moment in the development of film studies and film literacy, but we’ve moved beyond it. We understand so much more today about film’s industrial nature, the political economy of film cultures, the role that fans play in developing meaning, the various intersections of cultural studies that can be applied to film. And so on.

And yet auteurism surrounds us and pervades so much of film culture, academic or otherwise. More books are published about directors than any other production member. University courses are taught on directors. And directors who achieve auteur status continue to be associated with the entirety of their film body and film styles, regardless of whom they may have worked with and on how many films. Tarantino films are Tarantino, despite the work of Lawrence Bender, Sally Menke, or Robert Richardson. People will talk about Wes Anderson’s mise-en-scène, framing, and camera movement without once mentioning Robert Yeoman, the cinematographer who has shot every one of Anderson’s live action films.

This is the auteur paradigm. It doesn’t need to be defined or theorized or even debunked. It is what film is.

Yet despite all that, the internal paradoxes and contradictions remain. Filmmaking continues on as a creatively collaborative endeavor, particularly in Hollywood. But the auteur paradigm asks us to ignore that fact, or, at best, to pay it lip service. For all the amazing contributions to film artistry and technological development from 1970s cinematographers, editors, production designers, even writers, there are no books on Gordon Willis, no university courses on Dede Allen, no conferences dedicated to the work of Dean Tavoularis.

This is a massive disservice to our understanding not only of how filmmaking works, but also of the actual development and progression of film history. Furthermore, because directing throughout Hollywood history has been reserved almost exclusively for white men, the auteur paradigm has drastically marginalized or outright ignored major contributions of artistry and labor of women and people of color.

In my own small way, it is this latter disservice that this project hopes to address, most particularly by demonstrating how integral the authorship of women was to the success of 1970s cinema.

In a coming entry, I’ll spend a bit of time outlining multiple-authorship and the many ways it makes understanding filmmaking and film history not only more accurate, but also a whole lot more exciting.

*In a second review from 2004, Ebert mentions several of these contributors by name.

**To be fair, there was much to criticize in “Raising Kane.” More than a spirited defense of Mankiewicz, it often degenerates into personal attacks on Welles. Furthermore, as has been outlined elsewhere, Kael’s research methods were often shoddy, and her outright lifting of other scholars’ work (particularly Howard Suber) was indefensible. However, the essay does make many valid points about the film’s multiple-authorship. And much of the response to it was vicious in its personal attacks against Kael, often brimming with only subtly veiled misogyny. Fourteen years later, Robert Caringer published The Making of Citizen Kane, a much more thoroughly researched volume that goes to some length to vindicate Kael’s instincts while avoiding the vitriol that so helped to enrage the auteurists. There’s a pretty good rundown of the whole debacle here, fairly objective although, even today, still getting in a few digs at Kael.

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