“Auteur, Schmauteur,” and Other Such Eloquent Musings on the Different Critical Frameworks Offered by Pauline Kael and Peter Wollen

About midway through her rebuttal to Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Pauline Kael articulates the gripe I’d already scribbled in the margins of my textbook: “auteur critics tend to downgrade writer-directors—who are in the best position to use the film medium for personal expression” (18). Here, Kael is responding to Sarris’s claim that “a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of the material” (516)[i], basically dismissing the screenwriter and script as hurdles an auteur must overcome or somehow manipulate to achieve his[ii] overall artistic vision.

Kael’s not having any of Sarris’s nonsense—and neither am I. Perhaps it’s because I’m a fiction-writer myself—a sucker for language, and a believer in what Kael calls “unified…expression” (24), where form and content are inextricably linked, and seemingly the product of a single creative mind—but my favorite movies almost unanimously come from writer-directors: Annie Hall (Woody Allen), Broadcast News (James L. Brooks), Say Anything (Cameron Crowe). My favorite films of the ones we’ve watched so far in class—4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Lost in Translation—are also the brain-children of writer-directors (Cristin Mungiu and Sofia Coppola, respectively). A popular habit of late is to call prestige television “novelistic,” but this is largely in reference to TV’s scope and serialized nature; to me, though, filmmakers like Mungiu and Coppola are the greater “literary” artists, on-par with the finest short-story writers.[iii] Such writer-directors are able to compress the whole of human experience into a package digestible in a single sitting; they are craftsmen who have perfected the art of personal expression on the level of spoken language (dialogue, story) and filmic language (mise-en-scène).[iv]

Of course, I can’t speak for Mungiu and Coppola as auteurs, since I’m not familiar with the whole of their oeuvres. Kael sees the auteur theory’s critical emphasis on a director’s holistic body of work as a way to avoid grappling with that director’s lesser films—hand-waving his missteps as the product of a bad script that the auteur is still somehow able to salvage by his “personality,” his “familiar touches” (15). She seems to prefer taking movies on a case-by-case basis, rejecting the notion that a particular director’s name on a film will make or break its success: “we judge the man from his films and learn to predict a little about his next films,” says Kael, “but we don’t judge the films from the man” (23).

Enter Peter Wollen and “The Auteur Theory”—a treatise that does not directly reference Kael’s piece, but demonstrates the flaws she perceives in the auteur theory to an almost-comedic ‘T.’ Wollen takes as one of his subjects John Ford, arguing that the director “finds transcendent values in the historic vocation of America as a nation….[and also] begins to question the movement of American history itself” (521). Wollen clearly wishes to situate the director as one of the ur-auteurs[v] (Sarris also evinces a fondness for Ford, including him on his “list of auteurs” on p. 517), but is only able to do so by examining “the whole corpus[,] which permits the moment of synthesis when the critic returns to the individual film” (529).

Herein lies my (and, ultimately, Kael’s) biggest problem with the auteur theory: It can only be applied retrospectively, once a director has amassed a significant body of work—and suggests that the critical vocabulary available to a film critic is limited by how many of a particular director’s films he or she has seen. In other words, you are not qualified to discuss one film by a director if you have not seen all films by that director. For example, the only Ford film I’ve ever seen is Stagecoach—and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite its problematic aspects, because it had interesting characters with surprising arcs (particularly Doc Boone, who heroically achieves sobriety to deliver Lucy’s baby before promptly falling off the wagon[vi]—thus suggesting that a person can be both good and flawed, capable of great accomplishments and great blunders both). In class last week, we claimed that Doc Boone, Dallas, and Ringo—a drunk, a prostitute, and an outlaw—are situated as heroes in the film, a subversive act on Ford’s part in Production Code-era Hollywood; perhaps this feeds into Wollen’s conception of Ford as a rewriter of American history, but more likely it is an example of a director kowtowing to what Kael calls “a system of production that places a hammerlock on American directors” (23). In any event, such a reading of the film would not pass snuff with Wollen, because it contextualizes the individual film in the sociopolitical climate of 1930s Hollywood as opposed to placing it on a chronology of Ford’s other films and comparing and contrasting it with those.

The auteur theory renders impossible contemporaneous film reviewing, and in that way is antithetical to Kael’s (and my) conception of art criticism: for “the critic to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others” (21). Kael says that, in criticism, “you must use everything you are and everything you know that is relevant” (21); Wollen, though, takes exception to the claim that “the mark of a good film is that it conveys a rich meaning, an important truth, in a way which can be grasped immediately” (533). Kael sees film criticism as equal parts heart and head, while Wollen views it as a systematic, cerebral task. And perhaps, ultimately, both types of criticism are valuable—but Kael’s version is certainly more artful.

[i] Let it be known that I am using the fifth edition of Film Theory and Criticism, meaning my page numbers (let alone my critical musings themselves) will be of little use to anyone else. So it goes.

[ii] And it is, without a doubt, almost always a “his.” Some of this is surely the result of when Sarris, Kael, and Wollen were writing, but female filmmakers are not referenced in any of the three articles. Perhaps auteur status is inherently male, which contributes to its flawed nature; Kael dances around this idea when she takes issue with Sarris’s notion of the “essentially feminine” and says that “it is amusing that a critic can both support these clichés of the male world and be so happy when they are violated” (13). Here, she attacks the logical fallacy rather than the gender bias, but still draws our attention to the tendency of a Sarris-style auteur to co-opt female-coded behaviors and experiences without actually telling women’s stories on-screen. In any case, I choose to read barely-contained feminist rage in some of Kael’s more pointed strikes against Sarris—and (spoiler alert) would reject the auteur theory myself for its de-emphasis on the role of the screenwriter and the role of female filmmakers both.

[iii] Kael amusingly notes that an auteur critic would dismiss Dostoyevsky’s work for demonstrating “incredible unity of personality and material” (14), which is a no-no for Sarris, who champions “the tension between a director’s personality and his material” (516).

[iv] Later, Kael expressly says “that mise-en-scène and subject material—form and content—can be judged separately only in bad movies or trivial ones” (24), implying that the auteur theorist’s tendency to evaluate films solely for their visual elements while ignoring their stories, characters, and dialogue is an implicit recognition that the films themselves are not unified works of art (in the way a novel might be, for instance).

[v] To mix the Germanic with the Latinate, just a smidge.

[vi] Pun intended, of course.

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