Kill the director

'I can't believe they took my politique so literally!'

In the current issue of the generally excellent Sight & Sound magazine a review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows states:

Ritchie goes for cheap laughs by having the brothers call each other “Mikey” and “Shirley”… (p78b)

Now unless the reviewer knows this for a fact, we should assume that this ‘cheap laugh’ originated with the scriptwriters rather than the director, Guy Ritchie. However the idea that the director is the author of the film has led to a blind assumption that the he (it is male 90% of the time) is responsible for all the creative decisions. To be fair S&S has published a number of letters recently complaining about the same tendency; nevertheless many of its reviewers blindly repeat the canard. The effect is that all the other creative forces are regarded as subordinate and film, that most cooperative of artforms, is reduced to the ‘great man’ theory of the world.

The origins of this obsession are in the 1950s. For following is from my Introduction to Film:

Writing in Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut excoriated what he called French cinema’s ‘tradition of quality’, films that were tasteful and bound by their scripts. He dubbed the directors of such films as metteurs en scène, those who merely filmed the script, and contrasted them negatively with auteurs, directors who brought a personal vision to the film. Truffaut’s attack was intended as a critical policy and not a theory; however Andrew Sarris’ wrote in 1962:

‘Henceforth, I will abbreviate la politique des auteurs as the auteur theory to avoid confusion.’

(‘Notes on the auteur theory in 1962‘ Andrew Sarris)

It could be argued that auteurism has been confused and confusing ever since. However, the view that certain directors can be seen as the author of their films continues to be held. Sarris believed that:

‘The strong director imposes his own personality on a film’ the weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant.’

In Britain Victor Perkins, and his co-editors of Movie magazine [now happily revived on the web], took up the auteur baton and, like their Gallic colleagues, used the ‘theory’ to eulogize Hollywood directors such as John Ford and Nicholas Ray… They believed the personal vision of such men (it was by necessity men, as women rarely directed during Hollywood’s Golden Age) transcended the commercial context in which they worked. Hollywood became, for the first time, a respectable area of study. B (low-budget) pictures, by directors such as Sam Fuller, and the ‘women’s pictures’ of Douglas Sirk, were seen to be offering subversive takes on the American dream from within the heart of capitalist Hollywood. Auteurism was particularly useful in allowing the revaluation of the American films of European directors, such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.

The approach was particularly in chime with the British academic tradition, exemplified in F. R. Leavis’s work on literature, with its emphasis on close reading of canonical texts. So although it was radical in the way it treated the mass culture of Hollywood as art, it was simultaneously reactionary because it used the traditional discourse of Romanticism in eulogizing ‘great men’. (pp 155-6)

I’ve only seen a couple of Guy Ritchie films so can’t comment on whether he’s an auteur or a metteur en scène, but film criticism must move on from the assumption that the director is only creative force we need to consider. The idea was ridiculous when Truffaut first suggested it; why are magazines like Sight & Sound still propagating it? Comments more than welcome.

2 Responses

  1. Its something that defiantly is becoming a problem, within the criticism of texts as well as production of them. In producing shorts within a Uni context its hard to fight against ego’s who believe the director to be the key influence on projects where collaboration is key. Is collaboration just a dreaded “C” word, i definitely think its time for writers, cinematographers and other key creatives to get the recognition that they rightfully deserve.

  2. […] posted here: Kill the director « Nick Lacey on films Share […]

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