Auteur Theory and Authorship


The tastes of both Movie in Britain and Andrew Sarris in the US were clearly influenced by those of Cahiers, and they shared similar ideas and emphases. The British magazine Movie , whose main editors and contributors included Ian Cameron, V. F. Perkins, Mark Shivas, Paul Mayersberg, and Robin Wood, opened its first issue (May 1962) with an assessment of American and British cinema in the form of rankings, signaling Hawks and Hitchcock as "great," with Joseph Losey (1909–1984), Mann, Minnelli, Otto Preminger (1906–1986), Ray, Douglas Sirk (1897–1987), and Welles among the "brilliant." Andrew Sarris in his "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" (Sarris in Mast and Cohen, 1979, pp. 650–665)—later reprinted and expanded in his book, The American Cinema (1968)—included Hawks, Hitchcock, Ford, and Welles in his "pantheon," with Losey, Mann, Minnelli, Preminger, and Sirk just below them. As in Cahiers , both the Movie critics and Sarris aimed to be provocative, to stir things up—though more in the arena of critical attitudes than in filmmaking itself. In this they certainly succeeded. In Britain, under the impact of the French nouvelle vague , Sight and Sound in its Autumn 1960 issue tried to address the critical "excesses" of Cahiers , while editor Penelope Houston ("the critical question") joined battle with the critics on Oxford Opinion (shortly to found Movie ), arguing that "cinema is about the human situation, not about 'spatial relationships'" (Houston, 1960, p. 163) and that criticism should be concerned primarily with a film's "ideas." In the United States, Sarris's "auteur theory" provoked a fierce attack by critic Pauline Kael, arguing that artistic signature did not imply anything about the value of the art itself, and that Hollywood directors were inevitably working with material of low artistic value (Kael in Mast and Cohen, 1979, pp. 666–679).

But the differences between Movie and Sarris were important, too. Movie committed itself—in a way which Cahiers had not—to the detailed analysis of films. The conventional view has been that the Movie writers combined Cahiers 's tastes with the British tradition of close literary textual analysis associated with F. R. Leavis and others. Certainly, Movie -associated writing is rich in close attention to textual detail, which is largely absent in the more philosophical and abstract writing in Cahiers (although the lengthy interviews in Cahiers with directors demonstrated its writers' interest—as critics and future filmmakers—in detailed decisions about mise-en-scène ), but of the original Movie group, only Robin Wood was familiar with this literary tradition. From their earliest writing in the student magazines Oxford Opinion and Granta , the Movie critics, like the Cahiers critics before them, were always as interested in non–English-language—primarily European—cinema (Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and, not least, the French nouvelle vague ) as they were in English-language cinema.

Sarris's object of study was American cinema, and one of his prime goals was to argue for the superiority of American cinema over others. Both Movie and Sarris, however—like Cahiers —aimed to change perceptions of and attitudes to American popular cinema. Most established critics and reviewers—used to weighing the thematic content of respected directors like Fred Zinnemann (1907–1997), George Stevens (1904–1975) or William Wyler—found it hard or even impossible to consider B westerns and thrillers by directors such as Budd Boetticher (1916–2001) or Samuel Fuller—e.g., The Tall T (1957) or Pickup on South Street (1953)—as both examples of the art of cinema and vehicles for the articulation of an authorial worldview. As Sarris noted, "Truffaut's greatest heresy … was not in his ennobling direction as a form of creation, but in his ascribing authorship to Hollywood directors hitherto tagged with the deadly epithet of commercialism" (Sarris, 1968, p. 28). Though Sarris translated the politique des auteurs into the auteur "theory," there was little more, if any, theory in Sarris's version than there was in Cahiers ; Sarris himself concedes that "the auteur theory is not so much a theory as an attitude, a table of values that converts film history into directorial autobiography … a system of tentative priorities" (Sarris, 1968, pp. 30, 34).

Although Sarris saw the critic's job as illuminating—and implicitly evaluating—"the personality of the director"—also necessarily an evaluative task—this did not mean that directors should be credited with total creativity and control. For Sarris, all directors, whether from Europe or Hollywood, are shaped and constrained by the conditions in which they work and the culture that has formed them. "The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression" (Sarris, 1968, p. 31). Sarris conceded studio domination of Hollywood cinema but argued that producers were more likely to tamper with scripts than with visual style; further, genre filmmaking was likely to provide more freedom from studio interference for filmmakers.

Theoretically, both Movie and Sarris recognized that authorship might on occasion be ascribed to someone other than the director. In the second issue of Movie , Ian Cameron argued that it was the director who was responsible for what appears on the screen, but he also argued that a dominant personality other than the director could be the "author" of a film, that, for example, the "effective author" of the film versions of Paddy Chayefsky's (1923–1981) works was primarily Chayefsky rather than the credited directors, and the person responsible might on occasions be the photographer or composer or producer or star. Cameron cites The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961), which "although directed by the excellent Gordon Douglas, was above all an Angie Dickinson movie, being entirely shaped by her personality and deriving all its power, which was considerable, from her performance" (Cameron, 1972, pp. 13–14). In practice, though, little of the work done by Movie or Sarris implied an authorial dominant presence other than the director.

b. London, England, 23 February 1931

Robin Wood is one of the most influential film critics to write in the English language. Brilliantly insightful and infuriatingly opinionated, Wood has spoken for a minority of critics in his attempt to bridge the gap between politically engaged criticism and questions of human value. Educated at Cambridge University in the early 1950s, Wood has taught film studies at universities in England and Canada, ultimately making his home in Toronto, where he has worked with an editorial collective to publish the journal CineAction since 1985.

Wood began publishing film criticism while a graduate student, contributing an article to Cahiers du Cinéma on Psycho (1960) in 1960 and a short piece on Advise and Consent (1960) to the second issue of the British film journal Movie in 1962. But it was with a series of books on individual directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol, Howard Hawks, Arthur Penn, and Ingmar Bergman) in the latter part of the decade that Wood established himself as a major voice in film criticism. In Hitchcock's Films (1965), he offered a series of impressively detailed textual analyses of seven Hitchcock films to argue that Hitchcock is a moralist who forces spectators to confront their own darker impulses through "therapeutic" viewing experiences. Wood's auteurist readings of Hitchcock and Hawks have become canonical, influencing virtually all subsequent scholarly discussions of these two directors.

When Wood shifted his attention to genre films in the late 1970s, he set the terms for the intense critical debates on horror films that would arise in the following decade. In 1979, along with his longtime partner Richard Lippe, Wood mounted a major horror retrospective for the Toronto International Film Festival that included the publication of a small anthology of essays on horror titled The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (1979). In Wood's celebrated introduction, he argued that the horror film was driven by the Freudian concept of repression and offered a psychoanalytic and Marxist reading of the genre that remains influential.

Wood came out as gay in the mid-1970s, and since that time his criticism has become increasingly political. Sexual politics has been of particular importance to Wood in his later work, whether he is discussing light-hearted entertainments like American Pie and its sequels or the confrontational art films of Gaspar Noé and Michael Haneke. Many of his essays are gathered in the volumes Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986) and Sexual Politics and Narrative Film (1998). In subsequent editions, Wood has also reconsidered his early auteurist work from his more recent critical perspective, often examining the directors' ideological limitations rather than celebrating their stamp of personality. Over three editions of the book on Hitchcock, for example, Wood offered new gay and feminist readings of the director's films.


Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Films Revisited . New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

——. Hollywood. from Vietnam to Reagan—and Beyond . Revised ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

——. Ingmar Bergman . London: Studio Vista, 1969.

——. Personal Views: Explorations in Film. New ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2006.

——. Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond . New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Barry Keith Grant

In important respects—and this was a clear implication in Astruc's conception of the "caméra stylo"—the arguments for authorship in cinema at this time represented a triumph for a rather traditional Romantic view of the author as artist. This was a somewhat paradoxical position to take in relation to an art form that was popular and made in industrial and collaborative conditions—though the film author was seen as able to transcend those conditions. Given the dominance of modernism in the other arts, and particularly developments in literature and literary criticism that rejected Romantic forms and Romantic views of the artist, the establishment of the idea of authorship in this period could be seen as a retrogressive step. Yet at the same time, auteurism offered a critical method to replace the then-dominant largely thematic or sociological critical approaches with more specifically cinematic concerns, as well as opening up for serious consideration many filmmakers and categories of film barely taken seriously before. Auteurism shifted the focus of film criticism away from the more or less explicit thematic subject matter that was the concern of most other critical approaches, and toward the personality of the auteur and the consistency of the auteur director's style and themes. These were not immediately or easily accessible, and required the analysis of individual works in relation to a body of work: the critic's task became to discover and define the auteur and the ways in which the auteur had worked with the given material. "Film criticism became a process of discovery, a process which … forced a more precise attention to what was actually happening within the film than had been customary for a traditional criticism which tended to be satisfied with the surfaces of popular film" (Caughie, 1981, pp. 11–12).

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