Category Archives: MDA3200 – Film Theory

Film Theory Essay – Defining an Auteur: A Consistent Visual and Cinematic Style

Focus: Auteur Theory
Theme: Discuss the shifting historical and theoretical approaches to auteur theory

To what extent does a consistent visual style contribute to a filmmaker being classed as an auteur?

Auteur theory or authorship is one of the most widely debated and discussed topics in film theory. The theory proposes that the director is considered the single creative voice behind the making of a film. There are many different factors one takes into account when determining whether or not a director qualifies as an auteur or not, such as consistent critical acclaim or regular thematic links across films. However in this essay, while examining the works of David Fincher, Michael Bay, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan, the argument will be put forward that the consistent visual style of the director across their filmography is the key factor in whether or not to classify them as an auteur.

In order to identify why the visual style of a director is the most important, the definition of the word “auteur” in this context must be addressed. In Understanding Film Theory, Etherington-Wright and Doughty define the word auteur as being “a film director whose personal influence and artistic control over his or her films are so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision.”(2011:3). This implies that Etherington-Wright and Doughty consider the degree of overall creative influence a director has over one of their films is one of the key factors in classifying a filmmaker as an auteur.

Alexandre Austruc, one of the key initiators of the debate around auteur theory in the mid-20th century, devised the term “caméra-stylo” which translates from French as ‘camera pen’. His article, The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo which is available online (New Wave Film, 2015) argues that cinema can be used as a form of expression by an artist similar to how an author or a painter uses literature and paintings to express their own individual voice. By utilising the camera as the filmmaker’s tool, a director can use it to express themselves whichever way they want, evoking their own visual language through the movement of the camera.

Throughout his career, David Fincher has evolved from a music video director for hire to one of the most respected and admired directors working in Hollywood today. Whilst his visual style is not overtly obvious in aesthetic like a Wes Anderson or a Quentin Tarantino film, Fincher’s approach to filmmaking neatly ties in with Austruc’s caméra-stylo argument in the way Fincher uses the properties of cinematography to adhere to his own visual style and creative sensibilities. Fincher’s cinematic style is deftly examined in the visual essay David Fincher – And the Other Way is Wrong (Every Frame a Painting, 2014) where Tony Zhou identifies key cinematic techniques that Fincher employs or refrains from doing consistently throughout his body of work in both film and television. Some of the techniques Fincher uses that are explored in the essay are his minimal use of handheld camera work, minimal use of close-ups and no unmotivated camera movement. These techniques seem simple and rarely straightforward but the way Fincher designs his scenes around these self-imposed restrictions, help to establish his own visual style that is subtle but nevertheless consistent throughout his body of work. It is without a doubt, a prime example of a director utilising the camera as a pen to express themselves in a way that observes their own creative sensibilities and sets them apart from their contemporaries.

With Austruc’s argument however, it can be applied to other directors whose works are not as revered or praised as Fincher’s. If all a filmmaker has to do is consistently craft a film in a way that sticks to their own creative sensibilities, then can filmmakers whose works are derided by both critics and audiences alike but maintain a consistent visual style, be considered auteurs as well? If a filmmaker’s films are analysed strictly on the technical aspects of the filmmaking rather than the quality of the films then the answer would be yes.

For instance, Michael Bay is a director whose films have been consistently scorned by critics and some audiences but he nevertheless remains one of the most commercially successful directors working in Hollywood today. His films, like Fincher’s, adheres to Austruc’s notion of caméra-stylo in the sense that Bay consistently communicates his own visual language to his audiences in ways that are now readily apparent in the perception of the public. Zhou analyses Bay’s filmmaking in another visual essay on his channel, Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? (Every Frame a Painting, 2014) where he breaks down Bay’s visual language across his filmography. Zhou coins Bay’s filmmaking style as “Bayhem” and describes it as Bay utilising camera movement, shot composition and fast editing to create a sense of epic scale. Nearly every shot in a Michael Bay-directed film is designed for maximum visual impact which results in sometimes Bay using certain types of shots that run contrary to the emotion of a scene or even to the theme of the entire film. The fact that Bay continually uses shots that are incoherent or contradictory to the scene he is filming, suggests that there is deliberate intent behind the way he crafts a scene, even if that intent may be perceived as mistaken on his part.

André Bazin, in his essay De la Politique des Auteurs states that “…the worst of them [films] will always be in the image of their creator.” (Grant, 2008:20). So regardless of whether or not Michael Bay’s films are any good or not, regardless of whether critics praise his films or constantly deride him as a talentless filmmaker, Bay consistently sticks to his own creative sensibilities and visual style, which is what the most revered directors in the history of cinema have done for all of their careers. Henceforth, it is completely reasonable to argue that Bay is an auteur in his own right. A filmmaker who constructs his films to adhere to his own creative tastes and cinematic style consistently throughout his films.

But what about a filmmaker who has not got a consistent visual style akin to Fincher’s or Bay’s but who once was regarded as “the greatest living film director.”? (LoBrutto, 1998:2). Indeed, Stanley Kubrick is considered by many critics and film aficionados as being one of the greatest and most influential film directors of the 20th century but his films are drastically different in terms of visual style and tone. From a Cold War satire, to a deep space epic to a psychological horror, Kubrick has explored and defined many different film genres throughout his illustrious career. For each genre that Kubrick tackles, his approach to filmmaking changes. From the slow and deliberate pace of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) to the over the top melodrama from A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), Kubrick stood as a filmmaker whose cinematic style adapted to each project he worked on. In his essay Authorship, Design and Execution, Bruce Kawin argues that “Critically, the conventional test of an auteur is that a pattern emerges when all of his or her pictures are viewed together or are considered in relation to each other.” (2008:193). Likewise, in Notes on the Auteur Theory Andrew Sarris opined that to classify a filmmaker as an auteur they would have to satisfy three criteria presented as three concentric circles: the outer circle is technique, the middle circle is personal style and the inner circle is interior meaning (2008:43). Sarris believed that if a filmmaker did not satisfy all three then they could not be considered an auteur. But there are no discernible visual patterns or thematic links prevalent across Kubrick’s films, so if he had no consistent visual style or interior meaning to his films due to his approach to the diverse amount of projects he worked on, could he really be considered an auteur?

Perhaps he can, since Kubrick made it a point not to repeat himself in his work throughout his career stating “…there is no deliberate pattern to the stories that I have chosen to make into films. About the only factor at work each time is that I try not to repeat myself.” (Ciment, 1980:153). So it can be argued that Kubrick’s visual style is that he had no style, that he was a true master of cinema who could expertly craft a film to play to the strengths of whatever genre he tackled, a working practice that he was always conscious of in the projects he chose to direct.

If one were to try and identify a common pattern or thread that ties all of Kubrick’s films, then it would not be anything filmic that can be identified in the aesthetics of his films but rather in his approach to filmmaking as a director. Kubrick was renowned for his obsessive attention to detail, the authoritarian control he exhibited on his shoots and the creative ambition he showcased on nearly all of his productions with which many were fascinated with. Such ambitions include his acquisition of super-fast 50mm Zeiss lenses from NASA to shoot the interiors in Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) that were only lit by candlelight (Robey, 2009) and his ambition to acquire up to fifty thousand armed forces troops to use as extras in the big battle sequences he had planned for his unrealised Napoleon Bonaparte biopic (1998:325).

Christopher Nolan is arguably the only filmmaker in contemporary cinema who exhibits the degree of creative control over his films the way Kubrick did. Nolan also, unlike Kubrick, has a consistent visual style and tone to all of his films which help audiences distinguish his films from others. Film critics shower Nolan’s films with praise and consistently use words like “auteur” to describe him as a filmmaker (2015:17); but critical praise aside, Nolan satisfies all of Sarris’ criteria of what is considered essential to be an auteur: he is well-versed in different cinematic techniques, he has his own visual style that is prevalent amongst his films and regular themes and ideas can be identified in his filmography that give his body of work an interior meaning. Whilst a regular thematic link across one’s films are important and help audiences and scholars analyse what themes a director likes to explore, it is not essential criteria when assessing a director as a filmmaker. A director’s ability as an artist, to write with his camera as a painter paints with his brush, can only be fully assessed when one pays attention to a director’s cinematic style. The ability to manipulate the rules and possibilities of the technical aspects of film to communicate to the audience is the single key skill where a director’s worth is measured. Nolan achieves this with his cinematic techniques that he often utilises such as framing dialogue scenes in wide close ups with a shallow depth of field, cross-cutting different scenes to build to a climax and unconventional editing in the sense of cutting away quickly from the money shot (Bevan, 2014). All of these techniques he utilises to communicate to the audience in a way that makes sense to him. The same way Fincher rarely uses handheld camera work, the same way Bay rarely has his camera static and the same way Kubrick approaches shooting different genres, these filmmakers approach their craft in different ways to communicate stories and ideas to an audience in a way that is consistent with their own personal styles.

This essay has given an account of how a consistent visual style is the key factor in defining whether a filmmaker is an auteur or not. The word ‘auteur’ is French for the word ‘author’ and an author can write both good and bad novels but they are still the single author of that novel. If a filmmaker is an auteur, then it stands to reason that they can produce good and bad films also in terms of quality. Through examining the cinematic styles of David Fincher, Michael Bay, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan, it can be determined that the quality of films a director produces irrespective of general critical and audience opinion, is inconsequential when classifying a director as an auteur.


Word count: 1,894



2001: A Space Odyssey. 1968. [Film] Directed by Stanley Kubrick. US-UK. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Barry Lyndon. 1975 [Film] Directed by Stanley Kubrick. US-UK. Warner Bros.

Bevan, J. 2014. Christopher Nolan: escape artist. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Ciment, Michel. 1980. Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. London. Faber and Faber

A Clockwork Orange. 1971. [Film] Directed by Stanley Kubrick. US-UK. Warner Bros.

Etherington-Wright, C. and Doughty, R. 2011. Understanding Film Theory: Theoretical and Critical Perspectives. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

Every Frame a Painting. 2014. David Fincher – And the Other Way is Wrong. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Every Frame a Painting. 2014. Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? [Online] Available at: [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Furby, J. and Joy, S. (eds.) 2015. The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible. United States: Wallflower Press.

Grant, B.K. (ed.) 2008. Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

LoBrutto, V. 1998. Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber

New Wave Film. 2015. The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Robey, T. 2009. Barry Lyndon: Kubrick’s neglected masterpiece. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 28 April 2016]


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Dissertation Practice Report

Dissertation Pathway: Screenwriting

Project Title: Redfield

For my dissertation project this year I opted to take the screenwriting pathway to write a thirty five page screenplay based on my own original idea. My screenplay will be a television pilot script instead of a short film script that is set in the fictional county of Redfield, Texas in the year 1907. This period is the decline of the American Old West where the frontier lifestyle is dying out and is being slowly replaced by new technologies such as automobiles, machine guns and oil rigging projects. Obviously the genre for my dissertation project is a Western so I have elected to focus on the film theory of genre criticism to analyse and discuss the informed choices that have gone into my project thus far. Furthermore I will also briefly touch upon feminist film theory in relation to one of the female characters in my script and the film theory of realism and how that relates to the historical realism in which has informed my creative decisions when researching for and writing my screenplay.

One of the reasons why I chose to write a Western was because the visual iconography and narrative tropes commonly associated with the genre are immediately recognisable to a mass audience. This is a notion Etherington-Wright and Doughty acknowledge in their book (2011:27) in which they talk about how the visual imagery of a film poster in marketing alone can communicate volumes to the audience about what type of genre the film poster they are looking at is advertising. The visual iconography present in my script that one can immediately associate with the Western are rifles, horses, sheriffs and deputies, outlaws, saloons, bank robberies, violence and ranches to name but a few. Even though I think that this strong imagery will help to fully establish that the setting of my story is a Western, visual iconography isn’t the only way in which an audience can identify different genres.

Ed Buscombe argues that describing the Western genre is more than just being able to identify it’s visual iconography as that isn’t the definitive thing of what Westerns are about (1995:15) and that the visual conventions just provide a context in which to tell certain types of stories. This is true in the sense that a film’s narrative is also another way of identifying what genre a film, or in my case television series, falls into. Many genres have typical formulaic plots that immediately tell you what genre the film you’re watching could fall into. Etherington-Wright and Doughty (2011:23) touch upon this in relation to the typical formulaic plots prevalent in musicals and horror films. For my dissertation, I’ve taken several tropes commonly found in Westerns such as the revenge scenario, bank robberies, and bounty hunting and used them as plot devices to help me tell a larger story about the decline of the American frontier and the advent of modernisation.

Westerns are also well known for their singular focus on masculinity and on male heroes. For my pilot script, I did not want to just focus on male characters as I also wanted to explore female characters and women’s identity in the Old West too. In her essay, Sarah Berry-Flint describes women as representing “civilisation in the classic western” and that their roles within any given classic western story must be marginal (2003:31). In my script however I elected to write a female character that has her own degree of agency and her own narrative arc to follow in her hunt for an outlaw who killed her mother. I think in today’s cultural climate, where there is the debate in Hollywood around diversity and gender pay equality, having a multi-layered female character in a genre which has been traditionally male-centric would add a degree of contemporary relevance to my story.

In relation to realism, André Bazin endorses Westerns as an idealised version of historical reality (1972:142) and that even though most Westerns are hardly historically accurate, the myth behind Western stories have existed in American folklore since before the dawn of cinema, adding a sense of cultural realism so to speak. Realism has always been on my mind when writing my screenplay as I did not want my story to be a highly stylised and unrealistic take on a Western, like films such as Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012) or Wild Wild West (Sonnenfield, 1999), both films which take the Western genre and deliver a fresh take on it with different elements. Instead I wanted my screenplay to evoke a grounded approach to the Western mythos, similar to the hit television show Deadwood.

This involved extensive research into how people in Texas spoke, the socio-economic status of various professions of society, the legal proceedings back then involving bounty hunting as well as the different weapons, tools and modes of transportation available in 1907 among other things. This comprehensive research I felt was necessary in order to tell my story with the degree of grounded realism that I wanted.

In my endeavours to achieve a sense of realism in my script I came across an issue early on in my writing process with the language of my characters. I had elected to use some of the vernacular that was spoken during the period in which my script was set but was also using language used in contemporary society that people today would instantly recognise and as a result I had a conflict of cadence in the way in which my characters spoke. To rectify this I elected to rewrite all of my character’s dialogue so that the language largely reflects how people speak today as I feel that would be more accessible to a contemporary audience. As a result my script could fall under the scope of being a revisionist western in the sense that it is historically accurate in some parts and not in others. This was an approach that was adopted by Deadwood in which David Milch, the show’s creator, opted to write his characters using current day profanity rather than the type of profanity actually used by Americans in 1876, mainly because the actual profanity they used wouldn’t carry the same impact on audiences that current day profanity would have (Nunberg, 2008).

In conclusion, there have been several film theories that have informed my choices in regards to my approach to writing my pilot script for my dissertation and I feel that by paying particular attention to how each of them can influence my story creatively, it has helped me develop my script into something stronger.


Word count: 1,075



Bazin, A. 1972. “The Western or the American Film Par Excellence.” In What is Cinema? Vol. II. Ed. Hugh Gray. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Buscombe, E. 1995. “The Idea of Genre in the American Cinema.” In Film Genre Reader II. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Deadwood: The Ultimate Collection. (2007) [DVD]. Paramount Home Entertainment.

Django Unchained, 2012 [Film] Directed by Quentin Tarantino. USA. The Weinstein Company.

Etherington-Wright, C and Doughty, R. 2011. Understanding Film Theory: Theoretical and Critical Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Miller, T. and Stam, R. (eds.) 2003 A Companion to Film Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Nichols, B. 1976 Movies and Methods: Vol I. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Nunberg, G. 2008 The Language of Blogs. Available at: (Accessed 28 February 2016)

Wild Wild West, 1999 [Film] Directed by Barry Sonnenfield. USA. Warner Bros.

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Textual Analysis – Searching for Sugar Man

searching for sugar man

Searching for Sugar Man (Bendjelloul, 2012) is a Swedish-British documentary film that details the cultural phenomenon of American musician Sixto Rodriguez in South Africa. The film centres around the endeavours of two South African music fans in the late 1990s who embark on a mission to find out whether the rumoured death of Rodriguez is true, and if not, to discover what truly happened to him. Throughout the film, Rodriguez is portrayed in a very mythical and enigmatic light and this essay will analyse this portrayal in relation to the opening five minutes of the film just after the opening credits.

Searching for Sugar Man employs a mixture of reflexive and poetic modes of documentary storytelling in order to effectively tell the extraordinary tale of Sixto Rodriguez through the perspective of the two main South African subjects – Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom – who make it their personal missions to try and find out what actually happened to the musician who was rumoured to be dead.

The film has a reflexive nature to it in the sense that the narrative of the documentary is orchestrated and framed in such a way to withhold important information from the audience, making the narrative of the film feel very constructed and somewhat artificial even though it is documenting the events of a true story. Such pieces of information that were twisted and omitted from the film include the fact that Sixto Rodriguez has been alive all along and living modestly in Detroit, whereas the film encourages the myth early on that he in fact committed suicide. The film also chooses to ignore other information pertinent to Rodriguez’ story such as, notwithstanding his fame in South Africa, how his music was also relatively popular in Australia as he did two tours there in 1979 and 1981 respectively (Watt, 2013). The film has received criticism for this as it has been seen as “myth-making” by the filmmakers (Cody, 2013) as they chose to ignore documenting his fan following in Australia in favour of his influence in South Africa during the height of its apartheid era. If one researches Rodriguez’ career post the release of his last studio album Coming from Reality (Rodriguez, 1971) it does become evident that Bendjelloul had altered the narrative to tell a more impactful and emotional story.

So how does Bendjelloul’s representation of the story make it more impactful and emotional? The crux to his method of telling this story starts with the sequence I have elected to analyse. The sequence starts off with different shots of inner city Detroit as we hear the first-hand accounts of Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey’s first encounter with Rodriguez in a bar as he plays with his back to the audience. The low-key and eerie way in which the reconstructive sequence is shot, as well as Theodore and Coffey’s voice-over throughout this sequence, propagates the urban myth-like air that the film wishes to portray Rodriguez’s persona. Here we have early on in the film Bendjelloul opting to introduce Rodriguez as an obscure urban folkloric figure that happened to have existed in 1970s Detroit, Michigan. This was likely done to establish the mystery behind the man who would go on to be unceremoniously ignored by American audiences but unexpectedly adored by South Africans.

Shortly after this, we get an animation sequence. The use of animation in this sequence serves as a powerful device in further exacerbating the alleged myth of Rodriguez’ character. Roe opines that “animation and documentary make an odd couple” and that they are a union of opposites that offer a unique perspective in how we view and see the world (2013:1). She goes on to say that animation brings forth ideas of comedy and fantasy whilst documentary is serious and heavily fact-based. It’s interesting to note then that during the opening sequence there is a shot that tracks down a street in Detroit that starts off as an animation and we see an animated figure of Rodriguez walking down it with his guitar strapped on his back. As the camera tracks to the left of the frame the animated reconstruction of that location slowly morphs into live-action photography of the actual physical location. I found this sequence to be fascinating as it serves as an on-screen metaphor for the blur between the facts and myths that surround Rodriguez and how he is presented in the film. The animated part of this sequence representing the myths and the live-action part representing the fact. This is an example of the poetic mode of documentary filmmaking which is when, I think, documentary is in its purest form as a cinematic discipline as it takes inspiration from fiction films to use the full potential of the technical aspects of film to enhance the story that is being portrayed on screen.

However, was Bendjelloul’s decision to introduce Rodriguez’ character as an urban myth that faded into obscurity the right decision to make? The very nature of the documentary field requires filmmakers to be ethical about the subject matter they are portraying. Rosenthal describes the issue of ethics in documentary cinema as the director’s burden to bear as in documentaries “filmmakers use and expose people’s lives” (2007:389); therefore it is the director’s responsibility to be as truthful as possible when constructing the film. Searching for Sugar Man has many elements where the truth is altered in order to fit Bendjelloul’s vision of the narrative. In reality, Rodriguez wasn’t as obscure a figure as the film implies and his musical career did not disappear into nothing the way film would have us believe. Furthermore, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw in his review of the film accused director Bendjelloul as being “guilty of the sin of omission” (Bradshaw, 2012) as he elected not, as aforementioned, to depict Rodriguez’s fan following in Australia. As the film is told through the perspective of Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom and the way South Africans view Rodriguez, it’s not hard to see why Bendjelloul chose to take the film in this direction. He is the director of the film and it ultimately it his job to construct the narrative of his film in a way that is as impactful as possible.

Rabiger describes the medium of documentary as not being reality but a construct (2014:68) and it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to decide which key facts and points to include in the narrative of the documentary. Therefore it can be argued that Bendjelloul’s decision to construct Rodriguez as an enigmatic figure was a decision he made to help tell a better story. When I first watched the documentary I was convinced by the way the subjects of the film described Rodriguez, as well as the conflicting accounts of his alleged suicide, that he was in fact dead and thought that the documentary was telling a tragic story about a man who died without knowing how famous he actually was, or could have been. In fact, that wasn’t the story at all. How the first half of the film is constructed makes us fill mixed emotions of awe and pity about a man so talented to have lived and die in obscurity without any well-deserved recognition. This was a purposeful choice by Bendjelloul to make us feel even more uplifted when it is revealed that Rodriguez is in fact alive and that he visited South Africa to perform sold-out concerns to his loyal fans.

This narrative arc begins strongly with my chosen scene of the film in which Bendjelloul opts to paint the picture of Rodriguez as somewhat of a folkloric drifter whose music was said to be as good, if not better than Bob Dylan’s. The very lack of Rodriguez’ presence in the early part of the film, when the film is really his story, speaks volumes of the air of mythos Bendjelloul wishes to impart on how the audience initially views Rodriguez.

In conclusion, the opening sequence of Searching for Sugar Man after the credits neatly and expertly sets up the trajectory of the narrative throughout the entire film. It establishes Bendjelloul’s interest not on Rodriguez’ story from an objective standpoint but more on the mystery and wonder of his character from the perspective of his millions of South African fans where the truly extraordinary part of Rodriguez’ story is very readily apparent.


Word count: 1,387



BRADSHAW, P. 2012 Searching for Sugar Man – Review. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2015]

CODY, B. 2013 ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ – True Story or the Making of a Myth? Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2015]

RABIGER, M. 2014 Directing the Documentary. United Kingdom. Focal Press.

RODRIGUEZ, S. 1971 Coming from Reality [CD]. Detroit. Sussex Records.

ROE, A. H. 2013 Animated Documentary. Basingstoke. Palgrave MacMillan.

ROSENTHAL, A. 2007 Writing, Directing and Producing Documentary Films and Videos. 4th edn. United States: Southern Illinois University Press.

Searching for Sugar Man, 2012 [Film] Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. [DVD] Sweden-UK. Studio Canal.

WATT, A. 2013, International man of mystery. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2015]

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