Part One: ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’ – Andrew Sarris
Andrew Sarris, influenced and inspired by the politique du auteur, produced his “notes” not as a manifesto but rather a clarification of the auteur issue. In 1950s-60s America, auteurism was not well-received by screenwriters and the many other people who collaborated in film production. However, Sarris felt that several articles constructed “straw-men” or clichéd versions of auteurism. In reaction to this Sarris decided to produce his article on the auteur theory. In this article I will explore Sarris’s ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’ however in my next article (part two) I will explore Pauline Kael’s criticism of Sarris’s defence and definition of the auteur theory. In the next article I will also conclude and explore the strengths and weaknesses of both articles.
An outcome, or implication, of the “Auteur Theory”, according to Sarris, is the belief that ‘the weakest Ford is superior to the strongest King’.(1) The worst John Ford film is held to be ‘invariably superior’ to the best, or most enjoyable, Henry King film.(2) Sarris wryly notes then that ‘by auteur rules, the Fords will come up aces as invariably as the Kings will come up deuces. Presumably, we can all go home as soon as the directorial signature is flashed on the screen’.(3) There are no good or bad films, just good or bad directors. This ‘inflexible attitude’, as Sarris notes, seems counter to commonsensical notions of a films’ worth. After noting these consequences of the auteur theory Sarris notes however that he intends to praise the auteur theory.(4) Beyond these problems for the auteur theory Sarris argues that a positive aspect of the auteur theory is that is is a ‘critical device for recording the history of the American cinema’.(5) Sarris goes on to explain:
the auteur theory is the only help for extending the appreciation of personal qualities in the cinema. By grouping and evaluating films according to directors, the critic can rescue individual achievements from an unjustifiable anonymity.(6)
Directors’ minor films, due to the focus the auteur theory puts on exploring a directors’ total catalogue, are evaluated and analysed beyond their popularity and apparent, or immediately evident, importance or interest. Films are re-analysed and re-criticised continuously in relation to a director’s canon. To Sarris this is an important element of the auteur theory and one that replicates the way critics’ treat literary figures such as Shakespeare and artists such as Van Gogh. Another reason why Sarris embraced the auteur theory is that it is an account of film which does not, and in some ways rewards, directors in a constrictive environment such as the Hollywood studio system. Sarris explains that in the auteur theory ‘there is no justification for penalizing Hollywood directors for the sake of collective mythology’.(7) The pressures of Hollywood and its funding system should not be used to penalize and disqualify Hollywood directors from the “pantheon” of directors or auteruism. A Hollywood director may not be allowed to choose their subject matter – they may hate making gangster films – or the leading star, but they do, according to Sarris, author the film the same way a non-Hollywood director does. [For this example we must assume unfairly that all non-Hollywood director are given total freedom over their subject matter].
The auteur theory has, according to Sarris, three central premises. Sarris explains ‘the first premise of the auteur theory is the technical competence of a director as a criterion of value’.(8 ) The ability of a director to organise or implement their “vision” requires technical competence. To Sarris to be an author of a film technical understanding is required. Knowing which technique, method, suits one’s aims best is the basic level of competence that Sarris asserts is required to be evaluated as a director. Sarris argues that ‘if a director has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, he is automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors’.(9) This position is summed up by Sarris when he states ‘A badly directed or an undirected film has no importance in an [evaluative system]’.(10) Technical ability is, according to Sarris, the ability to organise a film with some degree of clarity and coherence.(11)
Sarris explains ‘the second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value’.(12) Sarris continues that ‘over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style’ which the auteur theorist asserts ‘serve[s] as his signature’.(13) The similar shooting style of John Ford’s domestic screens, and the death valley vistas, could be cited as a signature of Ford’s direction. Sarris argues that:
An expert production crew could probably cover up for a cimpanzee in the director’s chair. How do you tell the genuine director from the quasichimpanzee? After a given number of films, a pattern is established.(14)
The continued utilization of the same concepts/techniques – worked through, altered, re-analysed, mocked, readjusted – is of critical importance to the auteur critic because it facilitates the ability to analyse over a period of several films the growth and development of a director’s technical competence and the emergence, and continued influence, of a director’s world-view.
The third premise of Sarris’s auteur theory is more obtuse and a bit more difficult to define. Sarris explains that:
The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.(15)
The third and ultimate premise, indicating that it is according to Sarris the most important essential criterion of the auteur theory, relates to the meaning or outcome produced from the tension, or difficulty, a director encounters and overcomes in the production of film. Sarris seems to acquire a rather mystical note here arguing that an important criterion of judgement is “internal” in a visual medium but he explains his position better when he notes that internal meaning springs from the ‘intangible difference between one personality and another’.(16) The third premise of the auteur theory is that the internal meaning, to Sarris that certain something about an individual that is produced in everything they do, is produced by the director’s attempt to create a whole from significantly desperate and opposing meanings and influences. Internal meaning is the combination of contradictions; the director’s word-view combined, meshed with the film’s subject matter and all the other contributing factors of the film. A meaning and outcome ultimately derived from the director.
Alfred Hitchcock is seem as a prime example of an auteur and Sarris would agree because Hitchcock satisfies all three of the auteur theory criteria. Hitchcock was a competent technician and his films contain similar techniques played with time and time again – sometimes hitting other times missing. And all of Hitchock’s films retain an aspect of his distinguishable personality. Sarris would assert that Hitchcock is an auteur because the continued utilization of certain film techniques, film form, which are in-line with, and rely on, Hitchcock’s personal/internal interpretation of the psychology of cinema viewers. Hitchcock authors his films. The three “circles” of Sarris’s auteur theory are technical ability, personality and internal meaning.
(1) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979), pp. 650-665, p. 650.
(2) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 651.
(3) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 651.
(4) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 651.
(5) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 660.
(6) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 660.
(7) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 660.
(8 ) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.
(9) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.
(10) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.
(11) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 664.
(12) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.
(13) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 662.
(14) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 664.
(15) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.
(16) Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962’, p. 663.
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