Auteur theory says that the director is (or should be) the “author” of a movie, that their personal vision and taste are primary relative to those of the screenwriter, actors, producers and everyone else involved.
The idea was developed by European critics and filmmakers in the 1950s (overlapping heavily with the French New Wave) and debated by American critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael in the ’60s, but its most influential form today is more broad and diffuse than what those critics were discussing. Let’s call it Auteur Lite theory. It’s the general idea that the more “serious” you are about film, the more you should be thinking and talking about directors.
You’ve seen it in the way that alternative video stores (R.I.P.) organized their movies by director, or heard it from your friends who describe their taste in terms of favorite directors. Auteur Lite has become so dominant that some people don’t seem to realize that it was ever contested, or that any other framework exists for thinking about movies as art.
The theory in its heyday was flawed — it could explain a number of good movies, not enough of the great ones — but it may have been a necessary corrective to the old studio system. In any case, there are two big problems with it that persist today, and may even be getting worse.
The first is that too many great directors — and more importantly, their best movies — are neglected by film buffs because they don’t fit the Auteur mold of pursuing a consistent style or set of themes. Targets of the original Auteur theorists who have since been somewhat rehabilitated include David Lean and William Wyler; the greatest non-auteur of the following generation was probably Sidney Lumet (above). One major example today would be Steven Soderbergh. (This discussion suggests a lot more candidates.)
The second problem, less often acknowledged, is that talented directors who do fit the Auteur mold can sometimes get too much creative control for their own good. It’s worse for some than for others, but even the best director, when they’re insufficiently checked by their collaborators, will be tempted to return to the same themes over and over in increasingly heavy-handed ways, to develop a stable of recurring actors rather than casting each film from scratch (weird how so many critics seem to be charmed by this), and to make every movie at least a half hour too long.
We can’t solve all those problems at once, but I’ve got an idea about the length problem. It has to do with the “director’s cut” — which occasionally has a different ending, but more often is just a longer version of the same movie, adding back a few scenes that the studio cut out of the original release.
My idea is to release a “studio cut” in addition to every director’s cut, which takes out scenes that the director had to fight to keep in. You could require the studio cut to remove the same amount of running time as the director’s cut adds — so a 120 minute movie with a 130 minute director’s cut would also have a 110 minute studio cut.
Of course, both cuts could still be done by the director — and even if you’re in the Auteur camp, you might sometimes find that it tells you more about the director’s vision to know how they’d trim a movie than how they’d expand it. But it could be interesting to see a producer’s edit too. And what about a screenwriter’s cut?
Just to take a few obvious examples: the last ten movies directed by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson average a staggering 155 minutes. Whatever their other merits, is there a single one that couldn’t stand to lose 20 minutes?
More broadly, it feels to me like the director-driven movie is beginning to lose steam as a vehicle for real innovation. Partly it’s being pushed out by digital animation and television, which are inherently much more collaborative — though note that we’ve created this pretentious “showrunner” label for TV to satisfy the demands of Auteur Lite.
But in addition, many of the highest profile auteurs, like the three above, seem to have more or less decided what kind of movies they want to make, and are happy to just keep making them. Others are being sucked into the superhero/franchise machine, where they may improve the results at the margin, but are still working within a narrow formula. And some of the best art house directors are moving further away from the mainstream rather than trying to cross over.
So, not that I’m a close follower of academic film criticism, but it’s starting to feel like they owe us a new paradigm. The cult of the director may have made sense for a while, when they were in the best position to dismantle the old studio restrictions in terms of censorship, genre and source material. But the creative problems with Hollywood today are very different, and stem from other commercial considerations. We may have passed the point where a great movie that reaches a wide audience can really be dominated by any single person’s vision — or it may just be that it’s harder than ever for the director to be that person.