The Auteur Theory and Modern Directors

The auteur theory expresses the director’s unique fingerprints on his work, which I guess I have taken for granted, being a citizen of the 21st century.  Personally, I can not imagine a world where people and critics do not give sufficient credit to the artistic presence in film directors. 

In his 1972 essay, The Auteur Theory, Peter Wollen states that there are main schools of critics concerning the auteur theory: “those who insisted on revealing a core of meanings, of thematic motifs” and “those who stressed style and mise en scene.”  According to the former, you can see a constant core of beliefs along with recurring motifs and incidents.  To the latter, you can recognize a director from identifying the same visual style and tempo in each of their films.

Andrew Sarris says in his essay, Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962, that, according to the theory, the director is reflected in three ways: technique, personality and interior meaning.  Technique represents the “technical competence of a director as a criterion of value.”  Personality is reflected through “the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of material.”  Lastly, the interior meaning is “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.”  Sarris goes on to equate the personality with the soul, meaning only what distinguishes an individual from others.

Given that each of these essays was written decades ago, I figured that I would plug some modern directors into the theory.  David Lynch, for example, is a great director who made movies that can easily be identified as his work.  The actors in his films are usually unimportant and the plots are often confusing or incomprehensible.  But, thanks to his authorship, comprised of his technique, personality, and use of interior meaning, these movies become disturbing and insightful.

While reading these pieces, I immediately thought of the recurring themes in Quentin Tarantino’s movies.  He consistently reuses settings, such as bathrooms, car interiors and bars.  Tarantino also appreciates the themes of drugs, violence, unrealistically cool men and strong women.  His style isn’t solely reflected through plot elements.  He also has a penchant for off-screen action and extreme close-ups.

Finally, the Coen brothers can be identified not just by their use of fat men with large personalities, like John Goodman or James Gandolfini, but also by their use of scenery. They portray plenty of open space, often dwarfing the characters residing there, like the desert in No Country for Old Men, the snow in Fargo or the forest in Miller’s Crossing.  Concerning the interior meaning of their work, we can guess that this represents the characters’ powerlessness over their own fate.

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6 Comments

  1. Kam Said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    It’s a strange contradiction within auteur theory as espoused by Andrew Sarris that he seems to denigrate directors who write their own films. When we think of auteur directors in the 21st century, the ones who really leave a discernible mark on their films, many of them tend to write their own films, like all of the contemporary filmmakers you mention in your post. Writer-directors have the most control over the film that they produce, which indicates a greater degree of authorship. It seems counter-intuitive that Sarris finds it a necessary component of auteur theory that the director’s true art is born from a tension between the material and his own vision. But isn’t a writer-director’s work far more reflective of their personal style and “elan of the soul?”

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