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.
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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: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/christopher-nolan-escape-artist [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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPAloq5MCUA [Accessed 28 April 2016]
Every Frame a Painting. 2014. Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? [Online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2THVvshvq0Q [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: http://www.newwavefilm.com/about/camera-stylo-astruc.shtml [Accessed 28 April 2016]
Robey, T. 2009. Barry Lyndon: Kubrick’s neglected masterpiece. [Online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4524037/Barry-Lyndon-Kubricks-neglected-masterpiece.html [Accessed 28 April 2016]