By: Ben Casey
Beautiful faces dressed in their Sunday best pack the pews of a Beverly Hills church on a cool May morning. Some are teary-eyed and others stoic as an old man approaches the pulpit. His hair is grey and his glasses oversized. He clears his throat.
“I am deeply saddened,” he begins, “by the death of my close friend and colleague, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, whose death today at his home deprives us all of a great artist and an even greater human being.”
For those out of the know, auteur theory is a way of looking at and analyzing films through the lens of the director as author. In his 1962 essay Notes On The Auteur Theory, film theorist and critic Andrew Sarris defined an auteur as a director with technical skill, a distinguishing personality, and interior meaning across a body of work. Auteurs also tend to have a consistent aesthetic across all of their movies. Hitchcock ticks all the boxes. Other examples of auteurs include Christopher Nolan with his highly choreographed action scenes, philosophical dialogue, and an obsession with time and trickery; Tim Burton and his dramatic lighting, heavy makeup, and addiction to outcasts; and Quentin Tarantino and his love of hyper-violence, references to to older Hollywood movies, and…feet.
Auteur theory is probably one of the most popular subjects of film theory. It’s pervasive. However, it isn’t without its problems. As film critic Kyle Kallgren said in his video Tommy Wiseau: The Last Auteur, “If an auteur is someone who maintains a consistent style over a body of work, doesn’t that require a body of work in the first place? Wouldn’t it be so much harder for directors to, for various tangential reasons out of their control, get consistent work from an industry that has an increasingly narrow definition of what an ‘artist’ looks like?”
In her 1963 article on Auteur Theory, critic and theorist Pauline Kael compares Hitchcock’s distinct style to that of Carol Reed, a less-praised director she says is more adaptive, creative and technically proficient than Hitchcock. She remarks, “The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?”
On a related note, Hitchcock was cremated.
Ignoring her hatred of Hitchcock, Kael’s point is clear: Even if directors are authors of their films, what about directors who don’t have a consistent style, who branch out and experiment, who don’t repeat? Where is the discourse on great directors who, for one reason or another, don’t qualify to be called auteurs? As Pauline Kael says, “Repetition without development is decline.”
This scrutiny of the definition of auteur has also started discussion on “bad auteurs,” directors who are critically panned but still have a very distinct and identifiable style through their filmography.
Maybe, like Hitchcock’s ashes thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, auteur theory has been scattered to the wind. Maybe that’s a good thing.
As good of a director as Hitchcock was, he was not as benevolent as his friends and fans seem to imply. The New Republic’s obituary on Hitchcock said, “His experience with actors was, by and large, a happy one.” However, Hitchcock himself called actors “cattle.” During the filming of Psycho, Hitchcock pretended to attack actress Janet Leigh with a knife to get the reaction he wanted for the film. In the biopic Hitchcock, a character remarked, “Well, I guess he’s like any great artist — impossible to live with, but it’s worth the effort.” Recently, actress Tippi Hedren revealed that Hitchcock sexually assaulted her during the filming of The Birds, had his lackies follow her home to make sure she wasn’t seeing anyone, and even had her attacked by real birds for a scene.
Although not nearly as extreme as this, reports of abusive and controlling behavior by auteur directors are not uncommon. It’s possible that the elevated status film critics have given them has allowed the public to excuse these directors’ awful behavior “for the sake of their vision.” It’s possible that if film is trying to leave this behind, auteur theory may get left behind with it. As scandals and suits come out for directors like Bryan Singer, Dieter Wedel and Brett Ratner, it might be in the best interest of studios to downplay the role of director and highlight the collaborative nature of film more, and it might be a safer environment for actresses like Uma Thurman, Reese Witherspoon, Lupita Nyong’o, and the countless others who have come forward with stories of sexual assault from men in power.
The idea of a director as an auteur isn’t inherently bad. In many ways, it champions independent filmmakers and artists with visions outside of the mainstream, but it can also erase a lot of the work done on film by those who don’t hold the title of director and encourage overlooking bad behavior by these same directors.
Sitting in one of the pews at Hitchcock’s funeral was Tippi Hedren, the actress he had sexually assaulted and briefly chased away from acting altogether. According to her memoir, Hedren felt that even after all the awfulness, Hitchcock was still a “brilliant, brilliant filmmaker.” Auteur theory might be looked at the same way: brilliant and interesting and engaging, but also deeply flawed.
And most importantly, dead.
List of Auteurs
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Films: – Breathless
– Week End
Films: – Seven Samurai
Films: – Do The Right Thing
Films: – I Killed My Mother
– Laurence Anyways
– It’s Only The End Of The World
Films: – Near Dark
– Point Break
– The Hurt Locker
Films: – Edward Scissorhands
– Mars Attacks!
– Corpse Bride