The Film Auteur
- 9.5 What does auteur mean when applied to filmmakers? Why do these directors qualify as auteurs?
The French word auteur, or “author,” has been applied to the most significant directors, those whose special style and themes are so evident that their work is instantly recognizable. “A film by . . .“ usually means the director rather than the scriptwriter (although they may be the same person). The work of the auteur bears signs of individual technique—like an author’s unique use of language or an artist’s unique brushstrokes. It can be recognized in camera angles, overlapping dialog, swift transitions, and a personal view of reality. Occasionally, more recently, cinematographers, film editors, and even costume designers with distinctive, recognizable styles have been acknowledged as auteurs.
On television, the auteur may be even more prevalent. Each of the major dramatic series that have moved audiences and blown away critics over the last 10 or 15 years has been associated with one person, a creative “engine” who came up with the vision, wrote many of the scripts, and, often, played the critical role of showrunner, at least for the initial season or two. This has been the case for network shows such as The West Wing (Aaron Sorkin), which follows the presidency of liberal Jed Bartlett; Scandal (Shonda Rhimes, who also created Gray’s Anatomy), which focuses on a Washington “fixer” who happens to be a beautiful woman; and Lost (Damon Lindeloff), a sometimes confusing fantasy adventure about a plane crash on a mysterious island. And it has been even more true for the plethora of ground-breaking series on cable: The Sopranos (David Chase), Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul (Vince Gilligan), Mad Men (Matthew Weiner), True Blood (Allan Ball, who also created Seven Feet Under), and Orange Is the New Black (Jenji Kohan), among others.
The young Federico Fellini (1920–1993) learned his craft from Italian neorealistic directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini who, in the aftermath of World War II, had little money to work with and often used untrained actors to tell stories of ordinary people amid the streets and buildings bombed out during that war. Fellini, however, wasn’t satisfied photographing only external reality as it unfolded; he saw other possibilities for the camera. He wanted to uncover the true potential of the camera, to unlock the haunting imagery it could film. He sought to combine realism with poetry.
Fellini, La Strada
In La Strada (1954), Fellini tells the story of Gelsomina, a simple-minded young woman (Giulietta Masina, who was also Fellini’s wife) working in a traveling carnival as assistant to Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), billed as the world’s strongest man. Secretly in love with him, Gelsomina becomes his virtual slave (Figure 9.12). Zampanò’s enormous ego doesn’t allow him to treat her humanely: He rebukes her for every little mistake and eventually deserts her altogether, leaving her penniless in a world she can never hope to comprehend. The only tenderness she is ever shown comes from a musician, also a victim of Zampanò’s brutality, who teaches her to play a simple tune on a trumpet. In the final scene, as Zampanò heart-rendingly recognizes that for all his strength, he is nothing, he recalls Gelsomina’s devoted smile and the sound of her music. He weeps.
Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s La Strada (1954)
Have you watched a film in another language? With subtitles? What impact did that have on your experience as a viewer?
Credit: Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy
La Strada leaves an ambiguous message: Is love the answer? To what question? The girl’s love for Zampanò bore no fruit, and the strongman is left with no one to love him. Is love just another myth, sweet and poetic but, sadly, nonexistent?
As Fellini continued to experiment, his work became more and more complex. He turned inward, focusing on what happens when an artist’s creativity wanes—and perhaps fearing that this was happening to him. In what many consider Fellini’s masterpiece, 8½ (1963), the protagonist is, like Fellini, a film director who has made eight films and is now struggling to finish his ninth. But early commercial success, fame, a restless sexual appetite, and the continual pressures exerted by Hollywood-influenced studio executives all conspire to keep him from focusing sharply on his goal.
In the opening shot—a memorable one—the hero is inside an automobile on a ferry, windows shut tightly, so that sounds of reveling passengers cannot be heard: The artist is alone and alienated. Yet there is no comfort in that inner space, only more confusion. In a few breathtaking seconds, Fellini sums up the plight of the artist in an indifferent world. The final scene, a fantasy-like sequence in which various kinds of artists are shown dancing in a ring, gives hope that somehow the creative imagination will survive—but it might also mean that true art is simply going in circles within itself and can never reach an audience.
The French Auteurs: Godard, Truffaut, Resnais
Mid-twentieth-century French filmmakers belonged to a school that acquired the label nouvelle vague, or “New Wave.” New Wave directors, especially those associated with the iconic magazine of film criticism, Cahiers du Cinéma, put style above all else. Like Fellini, they experimented with the possibilities of the camera. They were less interested in startling, symbolic images than in refining brilliant new techniques in editing and controlling the pace at which the audience experiences the story. Many New Wave films are fast-moving—so fast that audience understanding often lags behind the action; the result is a need to concentrate that forces viewers to put aside their popcorn and pay attention. Others, particularly those of Alain Resnais (who disassociated himself from the Cahiers directors), moved slowly, making every minute last a long, long time.
Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) achieved fame with his version of the traditional American gangster film. Breathless (1960) would not have been possible without the shoot-to-kill violence of the 1930s and 1940s gangland B films. In Breathless, we are less concerned with outcomes than with what we might call the “poetry of violence.” Free from the constraints of the Motion Picture Production Code in the United States, which set “moral” standards for film, Godard uses murder and mayhem as a means of stirring up screen excitement. His style of rapid cutting continues to influence directors including Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, 1994), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992, and Pulp Fiction, 1994), and the Bourne films (The Bourne Identity, 2002; and especially The Bourne Supremacy, 2004, and The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007, both directed with rapid-fire cuts by Paul Greengrass).
François Truffaut (1932–1984) started out as a film critic, a career choice that may have led him to believe that he could do better work than some of the directors be wrote about. Seeing so many movies also made him knowledgeable about film styles and techniques, and he was able to “borrow” from the best while creating his own personal style. The term “eclectic” is often used to describe that style, meaning that it is wholly original but composed of bits from many sources.
Truffaut is a genuine auteur in that his primary subject, like that of Fellini, is himself: his own philosophy, emotions, fears. His first major work was The 400 Blows (1959), the story of a troubled boy at odds with school authorities and with his mother. Truffaut’s own childhood was an extremely troubled one, and this haunting film was apparently his way of escaping from its hold on him. While less renowned for imagery than Fellini, Truffaut has nonetheless left us his own visual poetry. In the final moments of The 400 Blows, the protagonist, who has been running away, reaches the sea. Unable to run any farther, he turns and faces the camera in a close-up of despair and confusion that sums up certain teen experiences better than volumes written on the subject.
Jules and Jim (1962) offers an apparently conventional sequencing of events, but this story of a love triangle involving two close friends and the extremely eccentric woman whom they both adore exists not only for its story but also for the imagery with which it is told, and even the background music that, in its lighthearted mood, provides a counterpoint to the tragedy of love betrayed. In one of the screen’s unforgettable performances, Jeanne Moreau as Catherine creates the prototype of a new woman in convention-bound society: a free spirit whose crazy antics are infectious, and whose off-center dazzle arouses ardent longings in men. Loved by Jules, a morally upright German, she tries unsuccessfully to avoid becoming infatuated with his best friend Jim. Catherine is both restless and rootless, incapable of fidelity, a person who will never find herself or be at home in this world. She has no options but suicide, and in the final moments of the film, she drives her car off a bridge, taking Jim with her. The film is a perfect expression of postwar European despair. It is an artistic whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an inevitable tragic end.
A contemporary of Truffaut and Godard, Alain Resnais (1922–2014) belonged not to the tightly knit Cahiers du Cinéma group but to a loose affiliation of more politically driven filmmakers called the Left Bank. While Breathless and Jules and Jim require close watching, their plot lines bear some recognizable relationship to the familiar world. Not so in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In Marienbad, there is no conventional handling of time and space. We never know exactly where we are; past, present and future intertwine without regard for logical sequencing. People open doors, for example, that appear to lead from outside in, only to find themselves in another exterior space, perhaps in another era. Resnais’ message to audiences appears to be that a film does not need to make sense as long as it is itself a sense experience. Like Godard, Resnais was anti-interpretation. He felt that if a film did something to you, nothing more needed to be asked of it.
Unlike the American master Orson Welles, who came to Hollywood determined to create film art, British-born Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) was imported to make scary melodramas and only gradually acquired the critical reputation his work continues to merit. Known first as a man who made thrillers about spies and murders among highly civilized people, Hitchcock was dubbed the “master of suspense” in the late 1930s. The plots in his films were filled with unexpected twists, and always there was a breathtaking and surprising finale with a new and ingenious kind of danger. Hitchcock’s heroes are typically ordinary, decent—if often flawed—people whose lives are disrupted by evil only after we have come to know, and like, them.
Famous for sketching out every shot on story-boards before the first day of filming, Hitchcock was a technical master who rarely deviated from his initial plan. He used the technical tools of filmmaking—sound, camerawork, mise-en-scène, color—skillfully, to make our hearts pound faster. Janet Leigh’s murder in the shower in Psycho (1960), probably the most famous scene Hitchcock ever filmed (and one of the most famous in the history of film), uses (according to some sources) over 75 camera angles, more than 50 separate cuts, and a soundtrack full of screeching violins to achieve its effect.
The director believed implicitly that we live in a fundamentally amoral universe in which good triumphs only by accident, and in which, despite the civilized façade we erect, chaos is the law of nature. In The Birds (1963), that chaos comes frighteningly to everyday life in a peaceful northern California village. Without warning and without any known motives, the birds—masses and masses of them—take over the town, killing some of its inhabitants, injuring others.
The most memorable scene is typical Hitchcock: the juxtaposition of danger and normal activity. A woman waits outside an elementary school, totally unmindful of a grim scene taking place behind her, where hundreds of blackbirds are massing in the schoolyard. From inside the schoolhouse comes the joyful sound of young voices singing. Suddenly the calm erupts into a scene reminiscent of the elongated moment in Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. The woman, the children, and the teacher are running down a steep hill, holding up their arms to shield themselves from the shrieking onslaught as the birds swoop and peck. Hitchcock cuts from one fleeing person to another in a montage so rapid that we actually see very little of the devastation but think we see it all.
Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho
Hitchcock had already used this rapid montage technique in Psycho (1960), considered by many critics to be his masterwork. The film may well be the scariest movie of all time. Here evil assumes the form of a shy, lonely young man named Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins), who runs an out-of-the-way motel in rural Arizona.
In Psycho, the Hitchcock vision of the world is fully realized. As usual, he brings ordinary people into what turns out to be a twisted and evil world. An attractive young woman, Marion (Janet Leigh), has embezzled $40,000 from her Phoenix employer in order to run away with her boyfriend. Marion is not, obviously, entirely innocent—but still, we understand and sympathize with her. Driving through the night to get away, she is caught in a blinding rainstorm, takes a wrong turn, and seeks shelter at the Bates Motel, where she is the only guest. She happily accepts the hospitable offer of sandwiches from the young owner, who gives every appearance of being sweet and helpful, although she is taken aback when she overhears him arguing loudly with his mother. After the slightly uncomfortable meal, Marion heads to her room and steps into the shower—but only after regretting what she has done and deciding to return to Phoenix with the money in the morning.
We do not (or at least, before Psycho, we did not) expect terrible things to happen in our showers. What surroundings could be more conventional and uncharacteristic of a horror film? As Marion washes away her guilt and enjoys the warm stream of water caressing her face, a silhouette appears against the shower curtain—what appears to be a woman, holding a knife. Against a terrifying score of violins imitating discordant screams, the figure repeatedly stabs the naked Marion. We think we are seeing every moment of her agony, but in fact, the cuts and edits are so masterful, so quick, that we are actually watching only a collage of camera shots: the water, the shower head, the woman’s hands to her face, blood swirling into the drain. Finally there is only ominous silence—and the close-up of a dead face, eyes open in horror. We have not seen the murderer, nor, despite what we may think, have we seen knife touching flesh. The scene lasts 45 seconds and took seven days to shoot, and led an entire generation to hesitate before getting into the shower.
The Japanese film Rashomon (1950), which shows a single event from multiple points of view, catapulted its director, Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998), into the forefront of internationally recognized filmmakers and brought new audiences to an appreciation of non-Western cinema.
Though he had studied Western techniques very carefully, learning the wizardry of a camera, Kurosawa was also dedicated to recreating his country’s past and bringing it to the attention of a worldwide audience. His masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954) introduced that audience to the code of feudal Japan’s warrior class, their nobility, their sense of honor and decency, as well as their super-swordsmanship, which they were always prepared to demonstrate in a good cause (Figure 9.13). In some sense, the samurai were the equivalents of King Arthur’s Round Table knights.
Seven Samurai strengthened Kurosawa’s already growing reputation and caught the attention of Hollywood, always eager to jump on a new bandwagon. In 1960, director John Sturges brought forth The Magnificent Seven, a Westernization of feudal Japan, in which a band of roaming gunfighters with no allegiances finds itself fighting against an army of bandits terrorizing the innocent inhabitants of a Mexican village. The blazing and dangerous shootout turns the previously lawless bunch into righteous crusaders. The film was hailed by critics as an ethical Western with a solid sense of values.
Kurosawa’s films are visually glorious, often using sweeping long shots and intense color for effect. He is also noted for his meticulous approach to filmmaking; he often held up production if something about the set was not quite right. On one occasion, during the filming of Seven Samurai, he insisted that the painstakingly constructed sixteenth-century fortress—a set costing over a million dollars—be completely torn down and rebuilt because the carpenters had used steel nails, which didn’t exist at that time. When someone objected, asking “Who’ll know there are steel nails holding up the set?” he answered, “I will.”
An American director whose films were sometimes funny, even when his themes were death and the destruction of the planet and the cosmos, Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999), in the best tradition of satire, lashed out at self-deception and hypocrisy. He always did the unexpected, refusing to turn out formula work designed for the “blockbuster” market (even though one of his most popular films, the 1960 Spartacus, certainly qualifies as a blockbuster). He made only 16 films in his lifetime, but almost all earned awards, and four earned Academy Award Best Picture nominations.
Kubrick’s influence on a generation of filmmakers is obvious from the admiration he draws from directors with such diverse styles as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, and George Romero. He was an early user of Steadicam (in The Shining, 1980), reverse tracking and wide-angle panorama shots (in Spartacus), and innovative use of color and light (especially in his masterwork, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968). His use of music has been widely imitated. He took many chances in an industry where risk-taking is increasingly expensive and not necessarily admired. Very much in the tradition of Orson Welles, the earlier bad boy of Hollywood, Kubrick attained worldwide recognition as a true auteur.
Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) continued Kubrick’s interest in antiwar, antihypocrisy themes, but this time in a blatantly satiric style. The film concerns the effort of a general named Jack D. Ripper to start a war by ordering American pilots to drop a nuclear bomb on the Soviet Union. When word reaches the Pentagon, the president and his staff are able to rescind the order, but one bomber crew continues flying. Kubrick parodies World War II movies by making the bomber crew the customary cross-section of geographic and ethnic backgrounds. The music accompanying the bomber as it flies over Soviet territory is the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” The pilot, wearing a ten-gallon hat, discovers that the bomb bay door will not open; but, undaunted, climbs on the bomb himself and, uttering a triumphant “Yee-haw,” rides it gleefully to the destruction of both himself and thousands of civilians below.
The president of the United States puts in a call to the leader of the Soviet Union. In an effort to be fair, he suggests that, since an American plane has bombed Soviet territory, perhaps the Soviet leader would like to retaliate by bombing only one place in America. But that solution is impossible, he learns; a Doomsday Machine designed by the Soviets to rid the planet of all life for the next 99 years has already started its countdown. Nothing can stop it. As politicians and military strategists on both sides prepare to take shelter deep underground (accompanied by lovely young women who will breed future generations), they look forward to a time when their descendants will be able to continue the hostilities, once the earth has breathable air again. The final scene shows an airplane being refueled by another plane in mid-air to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again.”