There doesn’t seem to be much consensus about what auteur theory is among critics whether they support the theory or not. In a broad view, it implies that the director of a film has the most control over the interpretation of topics and themes in a film, leaving their own distinct imprint whereby the the film can be identified as their own. Auteur critics thus base their evaluation of a film solely on the execution of the film by the director inclusive of his previous work. This theory tends to ignore creative collaboration, the input of anyone else working on the film: the writer, the cinematographer or the actors.

This theory originated in France and was adopted by critics in America and England where it was co-opted and reinterpreted in various ways, applied as a new way to look at Hollywood films.  The French theorists are given precedence here, according to Peter Wollen, because they were in the unique position under the Vichy government of having been deprived of any American films and when the embargo was lifted, were presented with a floodgate of films torn from their historical context, the critics left searching for meaning seem to have found it in the distinctive qualities of what they considered great filmmakers, or auteurs.

One American critic who adopted auteur theory as the most efficient form of film criticism was Andrew Sarris who endeavored to define what makes an auteur in very simple terms. The first criteria is that the director should be technically competent. The second is that he should leave a distinctive mark of his personality on the film through his style. The third is that the director should tap into some elusive interior meaning, which is representative of his soul. He admits that there is a certain degree of flexibility and that the auteur theory does not apply in every case, but he seems to think those cases are not worth examining. He thinks it’s more important to focus on the career spans of great directors than on any individual film or movement in the industry.

Pauline Kael takes great umbrage to the auteur theory (Sarris’ in particular), dismissing it as a cult of personality built around a director, which prevents the enamored critics from perceiving the faults of the director and ultimately resulting in the reading of greater meaning and merit into what are essentially bad films. She also thinks it is wrong to divorce the film and filmmakers from their historical and ethnographic contexts. She says criticism is an art, not a science and claims auteur theory is nothing more than a sort of brand loyalty, which absolves the critic from having to make any actual judgments based on the quality of the film as a whole and justifies his enjoyment of commercial films that would otherwise be deemed “trash.” She thinks critics should not limit themselves to such a theory the way that Sarris does because it almost arbitrarily separates films into categories of good and bad.

Bazin has reservations about auteur theory, mostly in terms of its application. He agrees with certain of its ideas. He, along with Kael, thinks that the theory builds up a cult of personality, raising directors to the level of the infallible. He also believes that the work can transcend the director and that it is wrong to use auteur theory to read a deeper meaning into what are in actuality “B” films, as in the case of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Confidential Report. He makes the argument that anonymous art over the ages has been just as meaningful and made just as big an impact as specific artists. However, he also makes a point to discuss authors who transcended the mediocrity of their work to become indispensably influential as is the case with Voltaire. He believes auteurs do exist, but that their work is not automatically more meaningful than the work of newer directors who are still cutting their teeth or the work of generally bad directors who can still have flashes of genius.

It’s unclear and seems very subjective, the way that these critics determine who is and isn’t an auteur. According to Bazin it is someone who directs in the first person. Regardless of what type of film they make, the informed critic should be able to tell what direction the film will go and what kinds of ideas it will explore and expand on. But does this automatically make the film good? Not to Pauline Kael. Howard Hawks may use the same themes and tropes in his films, but only a few of them are good and even then they are merely entertainment.

On the other hand, Peter Wollen finds that the meaning that compounds over Hawks’ different films, in addition to the tension created by his work in two very different genres, builds a greater meaning and brings the viewer deeper into Hawks’ vision of the world. This, I believe, is evidence of Bazin and Kael’s criticism of a cult of personality. It implies that somehow, because Hawks is determined to communicate his unique vision repeatedly throughout his films, that this vision becomes almost transcendent to the material. But is Wollen just reading way too much into what are essentially action films and romantic comedies? Can a movie be good if the material is bad?

Dyer attempts to expand auteur theory, suggesting that it could be applied to actors who have more than the usual amount of creative input on a film and who bring their own vision to their interpretation of a character even if it conflicts with what the director or writer initially imagined.

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