Becoming de Rigeur: Rise of the Auteur

Paper by Robyn Young. Viewed on DVD.

Auteur directors and films rose to prominence during the 1960s and 70s due to the discontent of film directors and producers regarding the rigid film format and storytelling of the archetypical Hollywood prototype. Contributing to the rise was also the shift in terms of societal morality, which created a receptive environment for this style of film to be mainstream. By switching to auteur perspective instead of conventional standards, directors found an opportunity to take “authorship”, creating movies that felt personal in nature affording the director the ability to reflect their feelings and visions in the camera work and narrative. By choosing films from directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, I will show how auteur directors benefitted (in terms of success and freedom of artistic expression) by breaking away from the Hollywood standard and how this success has continued today with directors like Guillermo Del Toro and his success with films like Pan’s Labyrinth.

Les Politique des Auteurs or Auteur theory is a term that has been debated for decades and expounded on since it was first coined by French film critic and director, François Truffaut in an article “Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français” for the film journal Cahiers du Cinema, in 1954. Truffaut created this piece to not only criticize certain screenwriters and producers, but to also condemn the French film industry and the rigid format that had been established for entering the film industry.

Posted by The Criterion Collection (2014), in an interview for New York art program Camera Three in 1977, Truffaut states,

“…But either someone has something to say, or someone has certain ideas, about life, or cinema or the world. So everything he does is interesting, even if some films more so than others…”

Truffaut theorizes that a director’s outlook on a subject will ultimately shape his or her vision and their desired portrayal of that topic creating a cinematic signature linking their works together. In 1962, American film critic Andrew Sarris published an essay in Film Culture titled Notes on Auteur Theory in 1962. In his piece Sarris agrees with Truffaut while also expounding and establishing American standards on what Auteurism means, writing that:

“…The second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels…” (Sarris p. 2)

This statement was quickly realized in American cinema as the decades progressed and film makers slow moved away from the standard Classical Hollywood Cinema that reigned from the late 1920’s through the early 1960’s to the more liberal and socially aware cinematic styling of the late 1960s that continues today.

If Auteurism were the liberal, forward thinking style of filming, then the Classical Hollywood standard that predated it would be the conservative, morally rigid one. Though this time in Hollywood history is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Hollywood” there was a predefined and predetermined way of doing things that was largely controlled by the major film studios MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, RKO, and the Production Code that was introduced by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). From a filming standpoint this meant that movies regularly followed a cinematic and narrative structure constituting a precise beginning, middle, and unambiguous ending (much like the acts of a play), while also adhering to very strict guidelines for what was and what wasn’t morally acceptable. Auteurism countered this by offering an alternative to the 1, 2, 3 method by opening a film after a catalyst had occurred for the main character/s. The audience is put in the position of viewing the film from the middle instead of the beginning and sometimes being left with a finale that ends on a note of uncertainty. This greatly deferred from the seemingly natural flow of Auteurism, which offered a more realistic portrayal by depicting a movie-reality that appeared “lived in”.
The 1960s was the beginning of the social movement Counterculture and it was this rebelling against preconceived societal norms that would change the face of American film. Though most equate the counter-culture movement with image of the free love, psychedelic drug using hippie, it was actually much more than it and it’s meaning and causes more encompassing.

As young Americans were bombarded with images of gender-defined happiness (men being the primary earners, while women either become nurturing, housecleaning mothers or obtain jobs working as secretaries and sometimes both), through movies, television, and magazines they begin to reject this notion for a more liberal one that offered more diversity and freedom on individual rights by participating in or organizing events for causes such as: civil, women’s, and gay rights movements. As American youth pulled further away from their parents’ ideals and morals, media gradually started shifting to reflect this change.

As the 60s progressed into the 70s and American’s began to think from a more liberal belief, social movements grew stronger and many Americans began voicing their discontent with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and it’s government. Filmmaking proved to be an essential outlet for directors seeking to offer an alternative stance to the traditional patriotic war perspective by filming movies that dealt with the harsh mental and physical realities of war. Two of the most famous films from this period are Taxi Driver (Martine Scorsese, 1976) and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). Though these movies were different in how they expressed the realities of war (Taxi Driver dealt with the psychological aftermath, while Apocalypse Now deals with the hypocrisies and disillusionment that can stem from being in a war zone), they still managed to evoke an honest discussion amongst the general American population about the war and its effects.

It was during these changing times that Auteurism began to grow as directors ceased to follow the Hollywood guidelines and made movies that represented their thoughts, feelings, and views on subjects. The success of these films and films that were outside of the “one size fits all” approach of the Classic Hollywood era were pivotal in reestablishing the American cinema for future generations.

Alfred Hitchcock is considered to be one of the greatest overall directors ever and one of the best examples of Auteurism. So admired amongst his peers was he that Hitchcock granted François Truffaut an interview that last for a full five days and resulted in Truffaut’s book Hitchcock. Many know Hitchcock from his more famous movies Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) and his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but it was his first American movie Rebecca (1940) that garnered him his only Academy Award for best director. Staying true to the genre that inspired him most, Hitchcock movies viewed like Edgar Allen Poe poems read – like voyeuristic views into the darker side of life interspersed with moments of levity.

Alfred Hitchcock exemplifies the meaning of auteur. His movies are uniquely his and carrying a signifying theme throughout that umbrellas them all under Hitchcock. Hitchcock made the statement about his cinematic proclivities “I’m a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.” Perhaps the of a body footmen stashed in an enchanted coach is an exaggeration, but not the context of him producing a film that stayed within the views of what of what he felt made for complex characters. The authorship that Hitchcock had over his films extends to every facet of filmmaking, production, musical soundtrack, and character narrative. Feeling that movies were a visual medium, Hitchcock made sure that writers for his films could see the journey of the characters from beginning to end before they wrote dialogue for the script. One of the greatest examples of Hitchcock’s visions for his films was in the movie The Birds during which Hitchcock wanted the sound of the bird’s chirping and their wings flapping to play as the soundtrack, so their was no musical accompaniment for the film.

Though The Birds is just one example of how Hitchcock wanted to preserve the integrity of his art, the best case for this, arguably, comes from one of Hitchcock’s most well known films Psycho. Controversial even before it theatrical release, Production Code censors didn’t want to release Psycho the way Hitchcock had originally filmed it. Due to Psycho involving scenes of sexual explicitness, graphic violence, and promoting sympathy and understanding of the killer, the MPPDA wanted revisions that followed the standards of cinema at the time. Hitchcock allowed one for one revision by removing the shot that feature the naked buttocks of Janet Leigh’s body double.

The overall journey and misdirection that Psycho embarks on, starts from the very beginning and doesn’t quit until the very end of the film. Hitchcock’s use of props, posture, and point of view help create an atmosphere that is creepy and intriguing. The duality of character that he creates is an aspect that carriers throughout this film and seen most importantly within the two main characters Marion Crane and Norman Bates. Where Marion is riddled with guilt and paranoia because of her crime, Norman has descended into a state of psychosis where he is unable to identify right from wrong and has taken on the identity of his mother to act out those impulses. These two characters inhabit the idea that there exists in all humans the ability to do bad, even heinous things; the difference is the environment in which one is taught to either not indulge those impulses or those impulses are left to grow.

Hitchcock uses a number of techniques to showcase his point on character dichotomy. Most prominent was filming in black and white instead of color; this actually proved to be a wise choice for a number of reasons. Black and white film allowed Hitchcock to highlight and obscure scenes that were meant to be pivotal. In the famous shower scene for instance, Marion is highlighted in bright white lighting (some consider this and her murder as an atonement for her theft), whereas Norman/Mother is silhouetted and then shown completely in shadow. Even the house when shown in light has shadows and negative spaces. Hitchcock also uses camera placement and angling expertly in Psycho. By using close shots, deep-focus shots, and foreground shots the viewer is treated to a depth of film by the layering objects and people in a scene.

The success of Psycho was astounding considering the content and the era it was in. In order to keep the ending of the film a secret, Hitchcock attempted to buy every physical copy of Psycho that he could and even prevented latecomers from entering the movie theatre after the film had started. The controversies surrounding Psycho only made peeked the curiosity of the public making them want to see it more and resulted in Hitchcock having the highest grossing movie of his career. This marked the beginning of auteur films and directors being mainstreamed and enjoyed the general public.

Following the success of Psycho and the downfall of the Production Code, movies were entered into a new generation and cinematic era. Auteur films and subjects were still largely shown in art houses due to being considered too risqué or serious for the general public, but burgeoning director Steven Spielberg found away to elevate this niche genre to blockbuster status.
Steven Spielberg got his professional start in 1969 when he directed the pilot episode of the TV show Night Gallery. Labeling Alfred Hitchcock as his favorite director, Spielberg ultimately wanted to direct movies and when he was offered the change to direct a film based off the Peter Benchley book Jaws, he accepted. A Steven Spielberg movie is always an adventure in storytelling that ends in a spectacular finish, though this doesn’t always mean explosion or harrowing end to a grand adventure. If Auteur means finding consistency in a directors films even though the subject matter differs from previous films, then Steven Spielberg is the modern day archetype.

From Jaws to Lincoln one thing that links Spielberg movies together is the use of camera angles, long shots, and tracking shots. Spielberg uses these filming techniques to add complexity to shots by creating dimension between the actors and the scenery. These techniques are evident in films such as Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pulling inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock when filming Jaws; Spielberg chooses to hide the “villain” for most of the time only featuring the title character for a total of 4 minutes. Despite the great white not being shown until towards the end, the build up to the great reveal was accentuated by close-up shots that had the effect of surprise and disbelief at the image in the background. The clear direction, effects, and filming methods resulted in a film that audiences loved and catapulted to blockbuster stardom.

Jaws was the launching pad for the twenty-seven year old Steven Spielberg. Though the concept wasn’t original to Spielberg, he nonetheless made it his own with themes that were prevalent to society at the time. In the opening of the film, two young adults are seen at the beach, breaking curfew. The atmosphere is set for something to go wrong with darkened tones dominating the scene and secrecy shrouding the actions of the characters. As the young woman swims out to the buoy, the music kicks in a slow pace and increases in pace as the moment reaches its climax. This moment in the film represents a cause and effect that was often seen in older movies in Hollywood. By breaking the rules of going to the beach after it was closed, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and engaging in risqué behavior, the young adults set themselves up for a negative reaction to their choices.
The point of view shots in Jaws are spectacular for a number of reasons, paramount is due to the fact that the audience has the p.o.v. of the shark at times. Even though viewers might not see exactly what is happening to the character at the time of attack (such was the case with Chrissy in the opening), we are aware of who the intended target is (the little boy on the raft at the beach). This added an element to the film that caused dread owing in part that the audience knows that the person we see is about to die and there is no way to stop it. Another excellent p.o.v. angle is the used in the scene on the boat when the shark is first seen. Although the audience sees the shark before Brody does, when Brody, Quint, and Hooper come onto the deck the camera does a long view p.o.v. as the three men watch the shark approaching the boat.

The release of Jaws involved new techniques meant to take advantage of the new wave of cinema viewing and also to revive a dying Hollywood system. Marketing for the high-concept film involved new techniques meant to ensure that the film became a blockbuster hit. Trailers and movie posters for the film focused on maintaining the mystery and intrigue of what the shark looked like by highlighting how small humans were in comparison to the ocean and sharks. Universal even went so far as to have Richard Zanuck, David Brown, and Verna Fields go on talk shows eight months before the movie premiered (Cook & Harpole 2000). Released in what is now called a “saturation” release, Jaws premiered in over 400 theatres unlike previous formats where films where released slowly and became an instant summer blockbuster success.

Following the mainstream success of auteur film in the 70’s, major film studios adapted their films to appeal to the general public by producing films that were auteur in subject but formatted to fit a wider viewing audience. This resulted in auteur films becoming watered down by trying to be “something for everyone”. However, there have been directors who have stayed true to what it means to be an auteur director and the vision that goes into it. Guillermo Del Toro is one such auteur director and has dominated in both film and television with a style that is an amalgamation of fantasy, mystery, and horror. Beginning his American film career with the movie Cronos, Guillermo Del Toro has become a leading director in Hollywood. He has stated before “I can’t pontificate about it, but by the time I am done, I will have done one movie, and it’s all the movies I want.” This self-narrative rings true because throughout Del Toro’s career there has been a connecting element that harbors between the monsters aren’t they appear can be more human that the human and the fact the humans can be just as cruel as the monsters they pretend to fight.

The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is set in post Civil War Spain in 1955 is told through the p.o.v. of ten year old Ofelia who has to live with her pregnant mother and sadistic stepfather Vidal who is a Falange Captain. Pan’s Labyrinth features of number of fantasy creations most notably the Faun and the Pale Man. These two creatures are perfect illustrations of how monsters are not always what they appear to be. Both visually appear to be evil and menacing, but only one is actually as they appear, while the Captain Vidal is the other monster but in human form.
Although Pan’s Labyrinth has only made $83 million worldwide (not qualifying it as a blockbuster success), the movie was an instant winner at the Cannes Film Festival where it premiered even receiving a 22-minute standing ovation after its ending. Critics praised his use of imaginative storytelling, constantly tittering on the edge of whether or not Ofelia is experiencing reality of hallucination. Indeed, one of the most beautiful things about Pan’s Labyrinth is the use of color to highlight certain elements of film (something that Del Toro does in a lot of his films) and it’s quite evident in scenes regarding the Faun and the Pale Man.

Auteurism reaching mainstream success was an overnight sensation. From hindrances from the MPAA to the general conservative attitudes of the American public, many changes had to made in order for Auteur directors to be able to tell their story how they wanted. Pivotal was social movements of the 60s and 70s dominated by American youth. Minorities were gaining civil rights, women’s liberation was changing how were viewed in society, and sex was something that was no longer hidden or something spoken about coquettishly. Also highly influential was the Vietnam War and the public outlook on America’s involvement. America had entered into a time when speaking out against the government wasn’t a taboo, but initiated dialogue and paramount in that dialogue was the loss of so many lives for a cause so many didn’t believe in.

Within these changes, Auteur directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg found in an opportunity to openly create stories that reflected real aspects of society and it was in these spaces that they thrived. Though viewer content that had once only been shown in art houses now dominate popular movie theatres and have become diluted in the process, directors like Guillermo Del Toro have stayed honest about what filmmaking means to them. Whether that means directing films that tell the same story in a myriad of ways or filming a movie that views as if one is reading a novel, its real and a glimpse a what made the genre so popular in the first place.

Works Cited

*Andrew Sarris Notes on The Auteur Theory in 1962. Web. 10 April 2015
Beggs, Scott. “6 Filmmaking Tips from Alfred Hitchcock.” Film School Rejects. 11 April 2012. Web. 14 April 2015
Beggs, Sott. “6 Filmmaking Tips from Steven Spielberg.” Film School Rejects. 16 May 2012. Web. 14 April 2015.
Berman, J. “Watch Alfred Hitchcock Tell You How to Enjoy ‘Psycho’.” Flavor Wire. 18 July 2012. Web. 14 April 2015
Carroll, L. “Scariest Film of the Year? Pan’s Labyrinth Director Spills His Guts.” 26 October 2006. Web. 14 April 2015.
Cook, David and Charles Harpole. History of the American Cinema 9. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2000. Print.
Counterculture. In CliffNotes. Web. 14 April 2015
Criterion Collection. “Truffaut on Auteur Theory.” [Video File]. 13 February 2014. Web. 14 April 2015
Duguid, D. (n.d.) “Hitchcock’s Style.” BFI Screenonline. Web. 14 April 2015.
Hall, S. (2006) Blockbusters in the 1970s. In L.R. Williams, M. Hammond (Eds.), Contemporary American Cinema (pp. 164-181). New York, NY: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill
McCormack, S. “How “Jaws” Revolutionized Movie Marketing.” WorkingConfab Employee Communications Solutions. 3 May 2011. Web. 14 April 2015.
Miles, B. “Spirit of the Underground: the 60s Rebel.” The Guardian. 30 January 2011. Web. 14 April 2015.
Palmer, L. “6 Filmmaking Tips from Guillermo Del Toro.” Film School Rejects. 10 July 2013. Web. 14 April 2015.
Paris, M. “The American Film Industry and Vietnam.” History Today. 4 April 1987. Web. 14 April 2015.
Raymond, A. “Godzilla Joins Jaws, Alien, and the Blob in the Shy Monster Hall of Fame.” Yahoo! Movies. 19 May 2014. Web. 14 April 2015.
Robb, S. “How Psycho Changed Cinema.” BBC News. 1 April 2010. Web. 14 April 2015.
Stephenson, JP. “Jaws and Spielberg’s Rise to Auteur Status.” 23 May 1998. Web. 14 April 2015
Suid, L. “Hollywood and Vietnam.” Film Comment. Web. 14 April 2015.
Steven Spielberg Film Techniques – With Pretty Pictures. LA Video Filmmaker. Web. 14 April 2015.
The 1960s-70s American Feminist Movement: Breaking Down Barriers for Women. Tavaana. Web. 14 April 2015.


About this entry