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At first glance, auteur theory is deceptively simple; its basic premise is that a movie director, in certain circumstances, can be assigned the title of 'author'. Sadly, it is far more complex than that. It can perhaps be best explained by US film critic and leading proponent of the theory, Andrew Sarris:
The strong director imposes his own personality on a film; the weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant.
So who is an auteur, and how might they be recognised from a 'normal' film director?
To be considered an auteur, a film-maker must have a body of work which can be analysed for ongoing themes and considerations, whether they occur intentionally or unintentionally. One example would be the theme of the distant father in Steven Spielberg's work. In addition to this, an auteur must have a differentiating style, almost instantly recognisable.
At first it seems like a perfectly plausible theory: the director is responsible for the film, and so can be judged as to whether or not they are an auteur. However, more than one person will work on a film, so what makes the director more worthy of praise than, say, the scriptwriter or the camera operators? Using a similar theory, a movement in Germany once believed that script writers are the primal force in a film's style; after all, the director must work within the confines of the script. But conversely, you could argue that the director has the ultimate control, and is therefore responsible for the film's final output. In a collective medium, it is almost impossible to establish who has the most control.
Another problem with the theory is that it creates a hierarchy within film circles. Those who subscribe to it would automatically assume that an auteur is a better film maker than a 'normal' director, many of whom might make wonderful films.
The most common examples given to support auteur theory are Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard. Each presents a strong case, though perhaps the most well known example for modern filmgoers would be that of Tim Burton.
Case Study: Tim Burton
One example of a director that could be considered an auteur, Tim Burton's films have a very distinct style, and he often deals with similar themes in his work. In general, the lead character is separated from the norm of society in some way - a misfit. In the character of Edward Scissorhands, this idea is taken to the very extreme: the main character cannot even touch another person. Other examples of this character type include Batman, Beetlejuice, and to a certain extent, Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton's movies also have a distinct style, generally sporting a very Gothic feel. In addition, Burton is known for using stop-motion animation in his films, the prime examples being The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. He is also known for reusing actors and actresses, in particular Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Danny Elfman regularly provides the right music for the soundtrack. Tim Burton has directed many movies, each of which can be examined and compared for similar styles and recurring themes.
Metteurs en Scène
Having established that some directors are considered auteurs and why, it seems sensible to ask what becomes of those who do not fall into this category. Such directors were dubbed metteurs en scène by the renowned film-maker François Truffaut, and though they may be perfectly good directors, they are not considered auteurs, because they do not have the artistic control required.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is to present a director that could realistically be dubbed a metteur en scène. A good example is Peter Jackson, the director responsible primarily for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first thing to consider is that, despite the fact he has previously written his own films, in adapting someone else’s work he removes a certain amount of artistic control. In addition, he is subject to the economic pressures of Hollywood, which evidently rates artistic design below economic success; indeed, it is hard to find a mainstream Hollywood auteur, but not impossible. Although Jackson does have a large body of work, he lacks any overriding themes or recognisable artistic design. In essence, it all boils down to personal vision and whether a director is able to impose their own world view upon a film, which Jackson does not do. Therefore, although he is a perfectly good director, he lacks the credentials to be labelled an auteur.
Some Recommended Reading and Viewing
For further information on auteur theory a good starting point is the book Authorship and Film1 by David A Gerstner and Janet Staiger, which contains several case studies.
To observe an auteur in action, Hitchcock is always a good place to start. Vertigo is a particularly good example, as it delves into several of Hitchcock's own obsessions and how they came about - plus it's a solid piece of film making. A brilliant insight into Hitchcock is presented in Truffaut's biography, Hitchcock.
For a more modern take on film making, Tim Burton is one recommendation. In particular, A Nightmare Before Christmas contains many of his own personal touches. If Burton's movies interest you, then it is also worth investigating the book Burton on Burton, which contains an extensive analysis of Burton's films by the director himself.