What is the philosophical status of auteur film theory today?
Auteur film theory is a rather broad school. To the French Cahiers du Cinemacritics, who first
developed the politique des auteursthat later became mistranslated as Auteur Theory, it was merely
a way of looking at the stylistic similarities between the works of the same director. It soon became
inextricably linked with evaluative judgements. There was a clear pattern of authorship in the films of
Hawks, Hitchcock et al and this therefore justified valorising these directors above others. It became a
way of justifying the approbation of many popular Hollywood films rather than just the output of 'arty'
Continental film directors.
To these French writers Auteurism was a loose, contradictory, open critical approach; the idea of
personal authorship in the cinema. The fact that Barthes, Foucault and Derrida were at the same time
challenging the very existence of an author and querying the preferring of authorial meaning was
contradictory but not a problem. Anglo-American writers turned it into a much more precise formal
theory. Andrew Sarris was the first of many to seize on Auteurism and construct a formal theory
based aesthetic evaluation of film directors (to justify his personal view that Hollywood films were
superior to Continental films). You can see here the loose relaxed Continental philosophy inflecting
the French writers while the more demanding, definition seeking, theoretically based Anglo-American
Analytical Philosophy school feared contradiction and demanded more close analysis and certainty
among Anglo-Saxon academic institutions.
In relation to its current philosophical status, it sits embedded within film aesthetics and is an example
of the debate about whether artists or their art should be the unit of aesthetic analysis and
valorisation. Should aesthetics be considering the author Hitchcock or the film Psycho(in the same
way other arts agonize over whether it is Beethoven or The Moonlight Sonata,Van Gough or
Sunflowers,etc.) Film writers like Bazin plead for the film/ text, as, in philosophy writers like Scruton
argue for the piece of music in his The Aesthetics of Music.Truffaut argues for film authors just as in
literature Harold Bloom argues for poet/ authors.
This debate is often reduced to statements like "there is no art without artists" versus "it is art that
defines an artist" — a variant on the "chicken and the egg argument" — and it seems equally
pointless. The argument is peculiar to Anglo-American Aesthetics. Continental aesthetics is much
more flexible. Why should it be one or the other? Why not both? The concept of an artist is in any
case no more than a critical construct. It is not the flesh and blood Hitchcock that we analyse but
'Hitchcock' — a perception created from his films. Maybe the artist and his art are indivisible in
There is also a problem with Auteurism and all authorial aesthetic analysis as to where to draw the
line. Is everything that Hitchcock/ Beethoven/ Van Gough produced a work of art? What about Van
Gough's rough sketches?, Hitchcock's home movies?, Shakespeare's laundry lists? Auteurism
struggles to produce a coherent answer.
That being said Auteurism, in the form of authorial stylistic and aesthetic analysis, is now fundamental
to most film aesthetics, just as authorial analysis is basic to most art aesthetics. The Spring 2001
issue of the Internet film magazine Screening the Pastis entitled 'Auteurism 2001' and contains a
number of articles carrying on the Auteurism reinterpretation. No one denies that there are authorial
styles identifiable within films. However the danger is that authors with the most individual personal
imprints (e.g. Tarantino) are excessively valorised because they have a strong intrusive style that can
be clearly identified, discussed and analysed, compared to more subtle authorial styles which
integrate cinematography into the narrative (e.g. Ang Lee). As Pauline Kael has noted a skunk smells
more than a rose but that does not make it better.