We've been speaking for over 20 minutes about numerous films exclusively in terms of their directors. Given the recent passing of Andrew Sarris, the auteur theory has been on a lot of people's minds lately. It's been roughly 50 years since Sarris wrote his famous "Notes on the Auteur Theory" piece. Considering the focus of our earlier discussion, do you still think the auteur theory is the best way to approach films and filmmakers?
KAUFMAN: I don't know if it's the best way, but it's one useful way. It's an easy tool for people to look at a group of films. At the time when film scholarship was getting started, that was important. I don't think it should be overstated as the "best" or only way to look at films because it excludes a lot of other contributions and it tends to favor the canon -- you know, it tends to favor white men.
RAINER: Right. It's a convenient shorthand. The more you know about how movies are made, the more obscure the auteur theory becomes. My big problem with it has always been that when carelessly applied -- and this is not something Sarris really did -- it not only says one must judge a film by a filmmaker's personality but it implies that the personality by itself is of value. In other words, the continuity of personality, the ways in which various films link up, is of value. You can have a lousy director who has a really consistent personality in all of his or her films just as you can have directors who are all over the map. And yet you can have somebody like Soderbergh, for instance. There's not a lot superficially connecting his films and yet he does have a recognizable style.
To me, the way of a looking at movies from a directing point of view predates the auteur theory. It just wasn't called a theory. If you go back and look at James Agee's reviews from the '40s, or Manny Farber's reviews, or Otis Ferguson's reviews, they look at films very much in terms of directors. Agee wrote a very long essay called "Undirectable Director" about John Huston. The auteur theory was a way of applying a scholarly imprimatur, which had been transposed by the Cahiers du Cinema group and André Bazin onto American films to legitimize a lot of studio films that had been otherwise relegated to B-movie status because they weren't bigger movies.
Peter, you've really brought into focus the numerous generations of film critics that have come and gone since the beginning of the form. So far, most working critics have been impacted on some level by Sarris' "The American Cinema" and the auteur theory he espoused in it. But how will the critics of tomorrow -- the teenagers of today -- look at movies? These are people whose initial love for the medium coincided with Netflix recommendation engines and the like. They can see more movies than ever before, but there are also a lot of factors that might lead them to watching the wrong movies or missing out on the right ones.
KAUFMAN: It's a good point. I don't know that much about how teenagers discover movies. Will the recommendation engines drive them to think about a filmmaker's work and think about film that way or drive them to watch a film with a similar genre or star? Of course, it has been argued that stars can be an auteur force as well. I wonder if the director as a figure will have less importance to discussion around films as they have in the past.