Although auteur is a term that dates back to the 1920s in the theoretical writings of French film critics and directors of the silent era, it is worth pointing out that in Germany, as early as 1913, the term ‘author’s film’ (Autorenfilm) had already been coined.
The Autorenfilm emerged partly as a response to the French Film d’Art (art cinema) movement which began in 1908 and which proved extremely popular. Film d’Art was particularly successful in attracting middle-class audiences to the cinema theatres because of its cachet of respectability as art cinema. The German term, Autorenfilm, is, however, also associated with a more polemical issue regarding questions of authorship. In this respect, some writers for the screen started campaigning for their rights to these so-called Autorenfilm. That is, they staked their claim not just to the script but to the film itself. In other words, the film was to be judged as the work of the author rather than the person responsible for directing it (Eisner, 1969, 39). In France the concept of auteur (in the 1920s) comes from the other direction, namely that the film- maker is the auteur – irrrespective of the origin of the script. Often, in fact, the author of the script and film-maker were one and the same (but not always), for example, the film-maker Germaine Dulac worked with the playwright Antonin Artaud to makeLa Coquille et le clergyman (1927). During the 1920s, the debate in France centred on the auteur versus the scenario-led film (that is, scenarios commissioned by studios and production companies from scriptwriters and subsequently directed by a studio-appointed director). This distinction fed into the high-art/low-art debate already set in motion as early as 1908 in relation to film (the so-called Film d’Art versus popular cinema controversy). Thus, by the 1920s within the domain of film theory, auteur-films had as much value if not more than canonical literary adaptations which in turn had more value than adaptations of popular fiction. After 1950, and in the wake of Alexandre Astruc’s seminal essay ‘Naissance d’une nouvelle avant-garde: la Caméra-stylo’ (L’Ecran français, 1948) this debate was ‘picked up’ again and popularized – with the eventual effect, as we shall see, of going some way towards dissolving the high- art/low-art issue. The leader in this renewed auteur-debate was the freshly launched film review Cahiers du cinéma (launched in 1951) and the essay most famously identified with this debate is François Truffaut’s 1954 essay ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma’. Although it should not be seen as the sole text arguing for auteur cinema, none the less, it is considered the manifesto for the French New Wave.
What follows is a brief outline of the development of auteur theory through three phases (for more detail see Andrew, 1984; Caughie, 1981; Cook, 1985; Lapsley and Westlake, 1988). The figure outlined opposite gives a graphic representation of auteurism.
The term ‘auteur theory’ came about in the 1960s as a mistranslation by the American film critic Andrew Sarris. What had been a ‘mere’ polemic now became a full-blown theory. Sarris used auteurism to nationalistic and chauvinistic ends to elevate American/Hollywood cinema to the status of the ‘only good cinema’, with but one or two European art films worthy of mention. As a result of this misuse of the term, cinema became divided into a canon of the ‘good’ or ‘great’ directors and the rest. The initial impact of this on film courses and film studies in general was considerable, the tendency being to study only the good or great canon. Thankfully the impact of cultural studies on film studies in the late 1970s has served to redress this imbalance as well as developments in film theory.
The debate did not end there. It was picked up in the late 1960s in the light of the impact of structuralism. In France, the Cahiers du cinémawas obliged to rethink and readjust its thinking around auteurism, and in Britain the film journal Movie significantly developed the debate. As a concept, structuralism dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century primarily in the form of Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories. However, it remained little known until the theories were brought into the limelight by the French philosopher-semiotician Roland Barthes in the 1950s – especially in his popularizing essays Mythologies (1957). Saussure, in his Cours de linguistique générale, sets out the base paradigm by which all language can be ordered and understood. The base paradigm langue/parolewas intended as a function that could simultaneously address and speak for the profound universal structures of language or language system (langue) and their manifestations in different cultures (parole).
Structuralism was an approach that became extremely popular in France during the 1960s. Following the trend set by Barthes and Lévi-Strauss, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser adapted it into his discussions on ideology and Jacques Lacan into his writings on psychoanalysis. The fundamental point to be made about this popularization of structuralism in France is socio-political and refers to structuralism’s strategy of total theory. This popularization of structuralism coincided with Charles de Gaulle’s return to presidential power in 1958. His calls for national unity (in the face of the Algerian crisis), the era of economic triumphalism and the consequent nationalism that prevailed were in themselves symptomatic of a desire for structures to be mobilized to give France a sense of national identity. Thus, the desire for total structure, as exemplified by structuralism, can be read as an endeavour to counter the real political instability of the 1960s.
It is also worth labouring the point that this ‘rethinking’ of film theory in the 1960s did not come via film criticism (as it did in the 1950s) but through other disciplines, namely structural linguistics and semiotics. This pattern would repeat itself in the 1970s with psychoanalysis and philosophy pushing the debate along, and then history in the 1980s. The significance of this new trend of essayists and philosophers turning to cinema to apply their theories cannot be underestimated. Not to put too simplistic a reading on their importance, it is unquestionably their work which has legitimated film studies as a discipline and brought cinema firmly into the academic arena.
Structuralism was eagerly seized upon by proponents of auteurism because it was believed that, with its scientific approach, it would facilitate the establishing of an objective basis for the concept and counter the romantic subjectivity of auteur theory. Furthermore, apart from its potential to give a scientific legitimacy to auteurism, the attraction of structuralism for film theory in general lay in the theory’s underlying strategy to establish a total structure.
Symptomatic of this desire for order in film theory were Christian Metz’s endeavours (in the mid-1960s) to situate cinema within a Saussurian semiology. Metz, a semiotician, was the first to set out, in his Essais sur la signification au cinéma (1971, 1972), a total theory approach in the form of his grande syntagmatique. He believed that cinema possessed a total structure. To adopt Saussurian terms, he perceived cinema as langue and each film as being parole. His endeavour – to uncover the rules that governed film language and to establish a framework for a semiotics of the cinema – pointed to a fundamental limitation with such an all- embracing, total approach: that of the theory overtaking the text and occluding other aspects of the text. What gets omitted is the notion of pleasure and audiencereception, and what occurs instead is a crushing of the aesthetic experience through the weight of the theoretical framework.
After 1968 Cahiers made a first attempt to introduce ideology into the debate in its exploration of Hollywood films that either ‘resisted’ or reflected dominant ideology. (In what is referred to as ‘the Young Mr Lincoln debate’, the Cahiers group claimed that this film mediated Republican values to counter Roosevelt’s Democratic New Deal measures of 1933–41 and to promote a Republican victory in the 1940 Presidential elections.) Althusser’s discussions on ideology, particularly his concept of interpellation, made it possible for both Cahiersand the British journal Screen to start to address the screen–spectator relationship. At this juncture, both journals accepted what, with hindsight, turned out to be a profoundly anti-humanist analysis of spectator positioning. According to Althusser, ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) interpellate individuals as subjects: that is, as pre-existing structures, ISAs function to constitute the individual as a subject to the ideology. ISAs manifest themselves as institutions of the state: thepolice, government, monarchies are ISAs. Just to illustrate: the British are subjects to the monarchy. The individual is, therefore, an effect of ISAs and not an agent. As subject-effects, individuals give meaning to ideology by colluding with and acting according to it. A mirroring process occurs which provides the subject with a reassuring sense of national identity (of belonging). Applied to film this means that cinema, in terms of meaning production, positions the spectator as a subject-effect who takes as real the images emanating from the screen. Thus, meaning is received, but not constructed, by the subject.
Having defined the auteur’s place within the textual process, auteur theory could now be placed within a theory of textuality. Since there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ text, the intertextuality (effects of different texts upon another text) of any film text must be a major consideration, including auteurial intertextuality. That is, the auteur is a figure constructed out of her or his film: because of x hallmarks the film is ostensibly a certain film-maker’s and also influenced by that of others, etc. Psychoanalysis introduced the theory of the sexual, specular, divided subject (divided by the fact of difference, loss of and separation from the mother (seepsychoanalysis)). Questions of the subject come into play: who is the subject (the text, auteur, spectator)? What are the effects of the enunciating text (i.e. the film as performance) on the spectator and those on the filmic text of the spectator? What are the two-way ideological effects (film on spectator and vice versa) and the pleasures derived by the spectator as she or he moves in and out of the text (see spectator-identification)? To speak of text means too that the context must also come into play in terms of meaning production: modes of production, the social, political and historical context. Finally and simultaneously, one cannot speak of a text as transparent, natural or innocent: therefore it is to be unpicked, deconstructed so that its modes of representation are fully understood.