Perspectives on Film: Great Directors
This auteur theory, which proposed that the director of a film is its author, started in France in the 1940s. It was created by Alexandre Astruc and Andre Bazin, who introduced the idea in the journal Cahiers du Cinema. The term la politique des Auteurs was also coined by Jean Luc Goddard and François Truffaut, who sought to establish cinema or film as a legitimate work of art by giving the director the status of an artist. In their opinion, it is in the same manner in which a painter uses a brush and paint to create masterpieces, the same way a writer creates stories with his pen, that a film director uses or should use filmmaking devices to create a unique work that represents his vision as an artist.
This theory has met with many critical debates that arose partially from film production's usually collaborative nature. As pointed out by Philip Halsal, the idea of elevating the director to the status of the author in a collaborative process like filmmaking is to belittle what other creative personnel contributed—considering the different people who play one role or another in the creation of a film, who can truly be considered as the author of film work.
Also, if anyone claims to be the author of a film, on what basis would that authorship be proven? The general argument here is that if anyone could have the right to claim a film's authorship, it has to be the director. According to Andrew Sarris, for a director to be given authorship status, there must be a premise that shows the director has shown a distinguishable feature or style which has been exhibited in enough films to serve as a signature.
An example is made of David Lynch, a director who can be considered an auteur due to his films' distinct traits, which makes them easily identifiable as his surrealist style. Lynch films are so distinct and defy description that they have their own classification as Lynchian. Thus, the idea that the director should be given the status of the author for every film, rather than the director's role as auteur, is an exception instead of a rule.
Another question that has been posed is whether a film requires an author to qualify as a work of art. An opinion is that maybe this is truly necessary. This is based on the fact that authorship plays a prominent role in every work of art, for reasons that could be of the intellectual property rights or for identification and status. Art forms such as painting, sculptures, poems are clear on authorship. However, identifying the author in other arts can be a lot more complicated. For instance, while a playwright can claim undisputed authorship of a drama text, the situation becomes different when that particular drama text is enacted on stage. The same way a composer can claim authorship of a musical score, but there are certain issues when it comes to the music performance.
Ascertaining Authorship in Cinema
It is a forgone conclusion that filmmaking is a collaborative process, where the talents and skills of many workers are needed to produce the final work. In such a situation, why then should the director have the most claim to authorship? The reason for this is found in the fact that film production is not only collaborative but hierarchical as well. While many people are working together to make movies, the contributions are never the same and at the top of the hierarchy is usually the director who influences the look and shape of the movie. While actors, screenwriters, producers, etc. play an important role in filmmaking, the director has the final say on the realization of scenes, the scripting, and makes crucial inputs with editing and the rest of the post-production processes. It is this dominance of the director that has played a major role in why authorship is attributed to him as well.
Director as An Auteur
As stated before, despite any debate or controversy that may exist as to why the director, of all those involved in the filmmaking, has to be the author, there are instances when such attribution is glaring. This is usually when the director has established a unique and distinct style for himself based on a group of movies he has directed.
David Lynch represents this type of auteur director whose films could be easily identified for their distinctive style even by amateurs. His films revolve around inherently conservative themes where elements such as ad weirdness and normality, evil and innocence, absurd and macabre were contrasted both metaphorically and literally.
He utilized dreams and nightmarish sequences extensively in his films, which also reflected an obsession with graphic violence and masochistic and sadistic sexuality. In all his films, his protagonist has tortured souls who seek an escape from reality by creating illusions for themselves. More often than not, these fantasies and illusions unravel, and the protagonist dies as a result. This was what happened in Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, Fire Walk With Me, etc. In the exceptional cases where the protagonist does not die, the survival, which is meant to be a happy conclusion, becomes a parody, mocking such end as if it was the wrong way for things to end.
Lynch further uses the element of femme fatale in almost all his films, depicting such sexuality with an association to danger and unattainableness. He uses the duplicity of motifs and characters to suggest alternate realities and reinforce the parallel. Another distinctive feature of Lynchian films is the self-referentiality where a film's elements and features are resurrected in another film either as it is or with little alteration. In this manner and a unique style, Lynch is able to establish himself as an author of his films.
Regardless of the debates that may exist in the academic setting as to the director's role as the author, it is an already established theory that even the film industries have come to accept as sacrosanct.
Author: Frank Taylor