Auteur Theory

Sunday, December 16, 2007



Auteur theory is a theory often referenced in film studies and film critiques. The theory focuses on the idea that a director is the author of a film, expressing their own creativity through the work. The theory holds that the film is entirely a work of the director if it has been directed by someone considered to be auteur. While it may be the case that directors exert a leading force over the outcome of a film they are directing, there are likely to be other factors impacting the final result. Therefore, it does not seem appropriate that any film be entirely attributed to a director, unless the director has solely performed every task in its production. Even then, the role that the audience, other directors, and society exerts on a director and film influences the outcome to such an extent that it seems inappropriate to attribute a film to one person. This essay will examine the auteur theory in greater depth, examining definitions underlying the theory and characteristics of auteur directors. The essay will identify factors that may impact the outcome of films outside of the director. Finally, the essay will examine how these factors impact auteur theory and why it is illogical to credit any director with authorship of a film.

Defining Auteur Theory

Auteur theory is a common theory in film quality. It is the concept in which focus rests on a director as the author of a film, rather than the screenplay writer, or any other person involved in its production. It can be defined as a style of film in which the director is “the primary creative agent in film production” (Allen and Lincoln 871). The reason for this is that directorial productivity and expressivity are emphasized as the key components affecting film quality. Auteur theory has been proposed as serving “to privilege certain directors over others” (Allen and Lincoln 871); which basically means that it sets some directors apart in the quality of films produced. However, Hicks and Petrova, argue that auteur theory is more than this (183). Auteur theory is also a “critical lens” (184) through which the quality of any film may be analyzed.

The History of Auteur Theory

Auteur theory became a dominant model for assessing quality of a film in the 1960s, until its popularity diminished in the 1970s. This was partially due to post-structuralist critiques of authorship and the emergence of broader approaches, which utilized a wider context in quality analysis (Moist and Bartholomew 31). Despite falling out-of-style in the ‘70s, it is an important tool still used in the study of film today. Naremore suggests that differentiation of films is more precise due to the use of auteur theory, but acknowledges that it may be more successful as a technique if combined with other cultural studies and methodologies of contemporary film criticism (22).

Early writers on auteur theory include Bazin (1958), Truffaut (1954), and a large number of other authors associated with “Les Cahirs Du Cinéma” (Hicks and Petrova 182). Coming from France, Andrew Sarris became the key academic involved with the development of auteur theory in the United States. In Sarris 1968 work, in a manner never done by any other way of study, he attempts to categorize directors according to auteur theory. There are a number of other auteur theorists of note; the most famous English language authors being Peter Bogdanovitch, Peter Wollen and James Wood (Hicks and Petrova 184). When auteur theory began, it was aimed at gaining recognition of film as an art form in its own right (Saxon 21). It was an attempt to move away from a previous concept of viewing film only as a form of popular entertainment, which is how it was generally regarded prior to that time. This recognition created a need to acknowledge responsibility for creativity within the film (Saxon 21). Thus, auteur theory was born. 

Characteristics of Auteur Film

There are a number of features in a film Moist and Bartholow identify as signifying authorial presence (31). These aspects are diverse, and include visual style and techniques, narrative elements and thematics. Wollen argues that “films which at first may seem eccentricities” are those which may best represent directors who are auteur (Moist and Bartholow 31). This is likely due to the apparent eccentricity within such a film implying that stylistics and other features are unique. A certain level of uniqueness signifies that personality and expression had a crucial impact on the film, which is characteristic of auteur directors.

Auteur Directors

Sarris’ work references three categories of auteur. The first category is  “Pantheon” directors. These are directors who have “transcended their technical problems” (39) with their own personal vision. Sarris claims that directors with this particular style have been “fortunate” (39) in that they source other people to work with them who have been receptive to their style and allowed “full expression of their talents” (39). Some examples cited by Hicks and Petrova are Charles Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Buster Keaton, Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang (185). Additionally, Wollen supports the notion that all of these directors are auteurs (Hicks and Petrova 186). The second category of directors is “The Far Side of Paradise”. This category is considered to be substandard to the “Pantheon” category, with the difference being attributed to failings in either the director’s own personal vision, or the people with whom they collaborate (83). Examples cited by Hicks and Petrova in this category are Cecil B. DeMille, George Cukor, Robert Aldrich, Blake Edward and Nicholas Ray. The third category is “Expressive Esoterica”. Sarris describes these directors as “unsung directors with difficult styles” and “deeper virtues”. Sarris does not appear to hold a particularly favorable view towards directors who fall into this category. Examples of “Expressive Esoterica” directors include Budd Boetticher and Andre DeToth.

Sarris also details characteristics of directors whom he believes do not fall into any of the three categories above, and therefore are not considered auteurs. Amongst these is a group termed “Less Than Meets the Eye” directors. These are directors Sarris considers to have an undeserved, outstanding reputation when judged by the director’s inspiration and personal influence within a film. Although Sarris does not see these directors as auteurs, they are preferable to “Lightly Likeable” or “Strained Seriousness” directors; two other categories in which he assigns non-auteur directors. Hicks and Petrova identify John Hutson, Lewis Milestone, Carol Reed, and Fred Zinneman as “Less Than Meets the Eye” directors. Wollen supports this notion that these directors do not meet the standards required to be auteur, as he mentions only four of them, once each, in his work. However, Wollen considers a few directors to be borderline; Mankiewicz, Wellman, Wilder and Wyler (Hicks and Petrova 186).

Auteur Theory and Film Discourse

Auteur theory has been identified as a crucial element of film discourse (Allen and Lincoln 871). Hicks and Petrova state that it is “a prominent intellectual force” (183) driving academics and critics in the industry. The importance of auteur theory is further supported by how it is singled out in a large number of academic studies. Examples of this include a study of directorial reputation by Kapsis and a study of film artistic status by Baumann. 

Allen and Lincoln claim that films identified by either critics or scholars as having been directed by an auteur are more likely to be retrospectively consecrated compared to those that are not (879). This idea is supported by findings (887), as well as by Hicks and Petrova (197). One explanation given for this finding was that it is difficult for critics to ignore a director or their films once they are identified as auteur (890). Once a director has been acknowledged as being an auteur, they are likely to receive greater attention in academic articles and critical reviews. This increases the probability that, in hindsight, the work will be viewed as an extraordinary achievement (Hicks and Petrova 197).

Hicks and Petrova show that analyzing directorial status through auteur theory as a lens revealed that film anthologies may be more influential on consecration than academic directorial studies. Therefore, the effect of auteur theory on consecration largely depends on the films included in the anthology. It is likely that a greater numbers of films will feature when directors are considered auteur, although there is also a strong likelihood that large numbers will feature those considered “Less Than Meets the Eye” or “Star Hacks”. This led Hicks and Petrova to conclude that films by these “Star Hack” directors are just as likely to be retrospectively consecrated as those from auteur directors.

Rise to Auteur Status

Not all film directors are immediately recognized as auteur. Some are regarded as non-auteur when first emerging on the scene. An example of this is Alfred Hitchcock, identified by Sarris as a “pantheon” director (39). Prior to 1960, Hitchcock was regarded as merely a popular entertainer rather than a serious director in American film. Although his theory of reputation within the art world would imply that Hitchcock’s popularity would grow as his work improved, this is not generally considered to be the case. Many critics actually considered Hitchcock’s later works to be far inferior than his earlier works. For example, Hitchcock’s greatest works have been suggested by critics to be “Vertigo” and “Rear Window”, both of which were released prior to his improved status of auteur (Kapsis 15). This indicates that the theory of reputation is not sufficient enough to explain Hitchcocks reputation explosion, morphing from a perceived popular artist to an acclaimed auteur. Kapsis argues that the publicity and marketing strategies employed by Hitchcock played a seminal role in the improvement of his status. He argues that along with his biographical legend, the image Hitchcock was able to create around himself as a person is likely to have greatly influenced the perception that both the public and critics have of his films.

This example indicates that the status of auteur is something achieved throughout a career, rather than a status automatically assigned, or immediately recognized. Furthermore, it supports the concept discussed earlier in this essay; that auteurs are more likely to receive retrospective acclaim for their films. Hitchcock is a prime example where films that are not initially well received when first released are later on met with an improved level of response as reputation evolves.

However, this example casts some doubt as to the credibility of the auteur theory. If Hitchcock was able to elevate himself to the status of auteur through publicity and marketing, then this calls into question the true nature of the status. It questions how many others considered to be auteurs have attained this status as a true reflection of their film direction, and how many have engineered their reputation themselves by achieving this status in a manner similar to Hitchcock. This is not the only reason why the integrity of auteur theory is questioned. The remainder of this essay will continue to discuss the reasons for why it may not be possible for auteurs to be credited with the full authorship of their films.

Does Auteur Truly Exist?

The apparatus of film, with its mix of many crafts, its plurality of producers, its range of spectators, quite literally models the idea of the multi-authored text.” (Self 4).

This quote taken from Self’s work on Robert Altman indicates that not all film academics believe that Auteur Theory is an appropriate method for analyzing film quality.

It is clear that many directors are considered to have a certain style characterizing their work. One modern example is Quentin Tarantino. Those familiar with his films will recognize recurring themes throughout, such as the use of costumes and scenery aimed at reflecting the style of Pulp novels and comic book heroes. There are also recurring themes based on the Far East, most notably the weaponry used by characters. Another element that defines his films is the way in which the audience is encouraged to sympathize with the lead character, each provided with characteristics of being partial to an element of criminality and fearlessness, usually of equal measures. 

While some of these elements can be observed in other films, there are some that are more difficult to place, and may seem at first a bit quirky. One example is the way Tarantino employs a toilet as a means of cutting the action and introducing an unexpected event. This is evident in Pulp Fiction, where Vincent Vaga (John Travolta) goes to the toilet upon returning Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) to her home. When he returns to the room where he left her,  he finds that the situation has unexpectedly changed and Mia has passed out. This is a significant point in the story for Vincent. It is not the only point during the film where his return from a toilet signals a change in circumstances. Each time it is critical to his character’s storyline. Later in the film, he leaves to go to the toilet and returns to find the diner that he is in being held up. At another point, he returns to find his life being threatened with a gun. This is a recurring theme in other Tarantino films. Other characters where toilets play a pivotal role in their lives include Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) in Jackie Brown and The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill Volume 1. Conversely, these two characters use the toilet to their advantage in preparing for attacks on their enemies.

There is a certain style associated with films directed by Tarantino that defines his films. It is entirely possible that Tarantino could be considered an auteur director if Sarris’ work were to be re-written in the modern era. There are many modern critics who firmly believe that Tarantino is exemplary of auteur theory (Bertelsen 10). The style associated with his films is considered unconventional and unique in modern film, although there are two elements of his films that suggest the contrary. First, there are many elements of Tarantino’s films borrowed from the work of others. Secondly, there are numerous elements considered to characterize “Tarantino films”, which are not attributed solely to Tarantino. 

Returning to the example of Alfred Hitchcock, there are aspects of his own career seen in Tarantino’s career. While many consider Tarantino to be a primary example of post-modern auteurism, it is possible that Tarantino has, like Hitchcock, elevated himself to a higher status through clever engineering of his image and reputation. According to the theory that films are likely to be more favorably reviewed from a director who is considered to be auteur (Hicks and Petrova 197), this would cause all of Tarantino later films to be favorably reviewed. It would then be in the directors best interests to elevate themselves to auteur status, enjoying the benefits that inevitably result from this label.

While Tarantino is a prime example here, the same two concepts apply to numerous other directors, or possibly even all directors. Both of these concepts will be examined further in the next few sections, in an attempt to prove that auteur theory is not possible due to the myriad of factors involved in attributing authorship of a film.

Collaboration vs. Auteur Theory

Saxton discusses the controversy between different academics in the field of film relating to the existence of auterism. Some film critics argue that any film can not solely be attributed to the director of the film, as there would undoubtedly be influence from any number of people involved in the collaboration of a project. This includes writers, camera men, sound and lighting crews, set designers and actors. Those opposing the existence of auteur theory argue that this is the case in all instances, regardless of how similar a film may be to others directed by the same person. The rebuttal to those in favor of auteurism pose the notion that not every film has an auteur. They insist that the film was only considered to have a director as auteur when their influence prevailed over everything else (Saxton 19). Although, contrary to the original period of controversy, it has not been maintained that those in favor of auteurism appear to prevail. Originally, those in favor of auteurism dominated and auteur theory became a pillar in the field of film criticism and study. The theory further came under fire in the 1980s, however, when post-structuralists began to question the applicability of the theory. While the auteur theory may imply that the “voice” of the film is an expression of the director’s own creativity, the new concept developed during the 1980s was that the “voice” is in fact a complex interaction of various elements which “blend and clash” in order to produce the final outcome (Barthes 146).

One example used to illustrate this concept is the film “Written on the Wind”, which is directed by Sirk. Sirk is nominated by Sarris as a “Far Side of Paradise” auteur. Originally, this label is attributed for the film “Imitation of life” (83). The nature of auteurism is that while it concerns the director rather than the specific film, the theory will hold across later films. This film uses point of view displacement frequently throughout. This is aimed at creating a discrepancy between the camera positions and the alternating character positions. It is used in order to portray to the audience the emotion of the character during conversation, while at the same time emphasizing the person who is taking their turn in the conversation. Therefore, this is far more effective in the building of an understanding of character emotion compared to the traditional method of assuming reverse position during conversation. While it is evident that Sirk had a role in the decision to pursue this method of filming, it is also clear that there would have been contributions from others involved in the collaboration. The ideas may have originated with the director, but they would have relied on the technical expertise of the camera crew in order to achieve the desired outcome. Thus, the decisions have been made as a result of collaboration between director and production crew, culminating the director’s ideas with a limited number of technical possibilities to discover the best method of achieving the required results.

The example of Tarantino once again demonstrates the role collaboration may play in the expression of overall creativity. There are several characteristics highlighted as characteristic in Tarantino’s films that may not be directly attributed to Tarantino’s own creativity. Aside from elements borrowed from other directors, there are elements attributing to significant input by other members of the team. The use of Uma Thurman in many of his films may is an example. The way in which she portrays The Bride in “Kill Bill” and Mia in “Pulp Fiction” clearly contributes to the end result. The same may be true of other actors featured in Tarantino films. Although, the expression of creativity Uma Thurman brings to her roles is perhaps the most pronounced in the general effect associated with a “Tarantino film”. While the acting may be in a large part influenced by Tarantino himself, the films would simply not be the same if there were other actors and actresses involved who brought different qualities and personalities to the role. Therefore, it does not seem fair to ignore some of the success of films resulting from the cast, in addition to the authorship. If it is imagined that some other actress had played The Bride in “Kill Bill”, then the story would undoubtedly have been different. These slight differences in character and storyline may have led to the audience to form different viewpoints and opinions, thereby altering the authorship.

The concept that actors should be considered as a pivotal part of film authorship is a theme investigated by Self. In Self’s essay on the films of Robert Altman, several examples are cited in which the role of the actor is considered by Self to be an integral part of the implied auteur theory. Examples include Paul Newman’s portrayal of Buffalo Bill in “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” and Shelley Duval as Olive Oyl in “Popeye” (Self 5). This further supports the idea that actors should be accredited with some degree of authorship of films, even those directed by individuals considered to be auteur directors.

Beyond actors, there are a number of other elements within the films which have been directly influenced by others. An example is in “Kill Bill Volume 1”, where anime is interspersed with live action in order to tell the story of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). The concept of this was Tarantino’s own, although the actual development of the idea was heavily influenced by the artists who created the anime. Other examples are in the use of perspective, such as the boot shots that were previously discussed. These would have been advised by the camera crews, and collaboration between different team members would have led to the design of the scene. There are likely to be many other examples sought throughout Tarantino’s films. Additionally, Tarantino presents only one example in the industry, with the principles argued here applicable to all directors and their films. In Robert Altman’s films, there are examples of individuals who have worked on his team in multiple films, contributing to the general expression associated with his films. An example is Wolf Kroeger, who was the set designer on a number of Altman’s films, including “Popeye”. Self argues that the design of sets conceived by Kroeger, are key to the overall power of film sets, which greatly influences the perception of the audience (Self 5). Now, Altman is considered to be exemplary of auteur theory by Self (3), even though he is not actually mentioned in the work of Sarris. Assuming that he were to be considered a prime example of auteur theory, as with Tarantino, it would then be suggested that the concept of co-authoring in films would apply to other presumed auteurs.

The arguments presented here have shown that true auteurism is impossible, as there are too many other members of the production team involved to warrant sole credit to a director. In addition, the perspective of the audience must also be considered.

The Social Impact on Auteur Theory

The argument put forward by Barthes is that it is in fact the audience who decides what the elements of the film signifies (146). Saxon argues that film is a “cultural collaboration” in which every person contributes, both producers and consumers (20). Furthermore, Saxon argues that as the nature of film is a collective commercial undertaking, there is no possibility that the end product will not absorb elements from a diversity of contributors. The commercial nature of film means that it would at least be fashioned to a limited degree by the intended audience, with their interpretations and tastes in mind.

In order to illustrate this concept, lets address “Written on the Wind”. Techniques used in this film in displacing point of view, as discussed previously, rely on the understanding of the audience as if they are to be of significance in the film. It is through the understanding of how the audience will relate to the characters that the technique of displacement functions. If this were not a consideration, then the manner in which the film portrays the characters would have little meaning in the final result of the film. Saxon argues that these techniques rely on assumptions about human behavior, which are drawn from social constructions in the wider social context (27). Together, these demonstrate the role the audience themselves have in the construction of a completed film.

Impact of Other Directors

The impact of other directors’ work contributes to the style of a film, reducing the amount of input that could be attributed solely to the director. There are some directors, such as Tarantino, who have developed ideas clearly used by other directors while developing their own styles. One classic example seen in several Tarantino films is s shot used from the trunk, looking upwards at the criminals who are looking down. This shot occurs in “Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill Volume 1”. This scene is based on one appearing in “Goodfellas”, directed by Martin Scorcese. In particular, the scene in “Reservoir Dogs” almost exactly recreates the shot in “Goodfellas”. This example displays how innovative directors may in fact develop their ideas from outside influences. While he adapted some of them and added elements to form his own idea, this does not mean that he can truly claim original authorship of a film when elements have been borrowed from others. 

Some may argue that this concept does nothing to disprove the possibility of auteurism, rather only that Tarantino should not be considered a true auteur. While many of the earlier examples of auteur directors identified by Sarris have been influenced in this way by other directors, they may have had other influences impacting on their work. For example, it is entirely possible that some of the early directors drew ideas from stage, photography or other aspects of art, which would have led to the integration of another individual’s ideas within their own work.

Summary and Conclusions

The auteur theory has had a varying level of regard throughout its existence, while remaining a central component of film study for several years. Since its conception and development during the 1950s, the theory was initially accepted, refuted, accepted again, and currently in a state of controversial stability. There are many who still maintain that the works of Sarris and Wollen, among others, are entirely appropriate and elevate the status of those directors whose work are considered to meet the characteristics of auteur theory. Studies identified that directors have managed to achieve the status of auteur receive wider acceptance of their films via retrospective consecration of their earlier films. This indicates that attaining auteur status would be something considered important in a career. Several directors demonstrate the high regard considered by this status, such as Alfred Hitchcock, who engineered his reputation to ensure that this status could be achieved. Despite this level of importance, it could be argued that it cannot be possible to attribute the creative outcome of any film to the director alone. The input of numerous production team members, along with inputs of other directors or artists, create significant impacts on the vision and eventual expression of the director and the outcome of the film. The inputs from the audience and society in a wider context must also be considered in relation to auteur theory. This implies that its impossible to attribute authorship to any one director. Auteur theory would then be a false representation of sole director authorship, but rather a collaboration between these people and outside influences.



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Moist, Kevin M. and Michael Bartholow. “When pigs fly: Anime, auteurism, and Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso.” Animation 2.1 (2007): 27-42.

Naremore, J. “Authorship.” In T. Miller and R. Stam. A Companion to Film Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions: 1929-1968. Dutton: New York, 1968.

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Self, Robert. “Robert Altman and the theory of authorship.” Cinema Journal 25.1 (1985): 3-11.

Written on the Wind. Dir. Douglas Sirk. DVD. Universal International Pictures, 1956.

Sunday, December 16, 2007
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