Auteurism is the idea that a single individual, namely the director, is essentially responsible for all creative aspects of a film. This theory began with the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema and eventually permeated many aspects of film criticism.
Editor Barry Keith Grant, a noted expert on film genre (his Film Genre Reader has enjoyed a lofty place in this reviewer’s library for over twenty years) has compiled several important essays on auteurism for his book Auteurs and Authorship, which offers a historical perspective on the theory of a director as the sole creative force.
After an introduction, the text begins with Francois Truffaut’s 1954 essay that offers initial theorizing by examining some consistent tendencies in French cinema. But it is the second chapter, Andre Bazin’s De la Politique des Auteurs, that truly indicates the very start of auteurism as a critical theory. Bazin, considered one of the finest film scholars even fifty years after his death, approaches auteurism with some trepidation, with an eye toward the more excessive claims of younger critics of this period (1957) who tended to embrace the less significant films of those considered to be auteurs over the more successful efforts of other directors who do not happen to find themselves categorized as such.
Bazin’s essay is eventually followed by Andrew Sarris’s Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962, in which he embraces auteurism and advances it as a clear theory as to how one should approach film criticism. He states that auteurism effectively reshaped his thinking on cinema, and attempts to define and categorize film authorship from the perspective of the director. However Pauline Kael’s Circles And Sqaures from 1963 rather aggressively challenges Sarris’s theorizing by breaking down his essay with the sarcastic disdain that she frequently advanced in her movie criticism. This resulted in a genuine animosity between the two critics that lasted for years.
The importance of the Bazin, Sarris, and Kael essays is obvious, but British critic Peter Wollen weighs in with his own reaction to Bazin, incorporating ideas of structuralism in the work of noted auteurs John Ford and Howard Hawks. It is Wollen who clarifies that no manifesto or collective statement on the auteur theory had been written, and that auteurism can therefore be interpreted broadly by different critical approaches.
Further essays contained in this text offer the brilliant insights of such noted film scholars as Robin Wood, Richard Corliss, and Barry Keith Grant himself (an interesting essay on action producer-director-writer Kathryn Bigelow). Gore Vidal asks Who Makes The Movies in his 1976 essay questioning the auteur theory and challenging the idea that cinema is capable of conveying complex ideas through dialog in the Socratic sense. Graham Petrie correctly identifies Charles Chaplin as the only true auteur in that he had control over all processes, including writing, producing, directing, acting, editing and, later, the scoring of his films. However Petrie also has something to say about the creative freedoms enjoyed by Sergei Eisenstein, D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton during the earlier part of their careers (e.g. before Keaton joined MGM studios), expanding his list to include the likes of Von Sternberg and Bergman, as well as those directors that are most often embraced as auteurs (Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Howard Hawks, etc). How women’s cinema figures into this theory is explored by such writers as Claire Johnston (from her Notes On Women’s Cinema), Angela Martin, and Judith Mayne who examines female authorship from a historical perspective with her essay on silent film director Dorothy Arzner.
Gay cinema authorship as well as the early all-black films of producer Oscar Micheaux are also visited with essays by Michael DeAngelis and J. Ronald Green, respectively.
Overall, this collection of essays gives a thorough examination of the auteur theory from several different perspectives, while editor Grant places the essays in chronological order so the historical/evolutionary aspect of the writings can be appreciated. The essays had originally been in such journals as Cahiers du Cinema, Film Quarterly, Film Culture, and the New York Review.
Auteurism is just one critical approach, but it is a terribly significant one, finding its way in most cinematic studies, even if only tangentially. Barry Keith Grant’s collection of essays offers a deep and fulfilling examination of the theory, making this book a truly essential addition to the library of any film critic, scholar, or university. Its inclusion of virtually every valuable essay on cinema auteurism makes Auteurs and Authorship an indispensable book.