What is an auteur? That’s a question for the ages.
Richard Brody, writing at The New Yorker, ponders in a new essay, “An Auteur Is Not a Brand.” Are there too many collections — retrospectives and box sets alike — celebrating directors of classic Hollywood who, though not without talent, bear little distinction? Are we placing too much emphasis on a film’s production process? His answer to these questions is resolutely in the title of the essay.
Read an excerpt:
Yet that’s how it seemed from the start. The archetypal auteurs are Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, directors who worked within the mainstream of the movie business, seeking and often achieving the commercial successes that rendered their work artistically dubious to critics who looked askance at precisely such Hollywood commercialism and the constraints that studio formats entailed. The young critics at Cahiers du Cinéma who formulated the concept of the director as author were even called the Hitchcocko-Hawksians.
Those original auteurists weren’t solely obsessed with American filmmakers; they championed the work of such directors as Roberto Rossellini, Max Ophüls, and Jean Renoir at a time when their films were widely derided. But they also made no distinction between directors who worked with big stars on prestigious productions, such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Vincente Minnelli, and those who worked on genre films on low budgets, such as Samuel Fuller and Edgar G. Ulmer. Their point was simply that the incidentals of production and marketing ultimately didn’t matter in the face of the transformative power of artistic vision.
Brody also makes salient points about criticism:
If criticism is a matter of the future, it’s in large part because every great movie changes the world and the viewer, and opens new possibilities for the art form and for life itself. Most movies aren’t at that level of achievement. The notion of the auteur, of the director as creator, isn’t the universal state of the art; it’s an exceptional achievement.
Has the meaning of the “auteur” been degraded over time? You could certainly make that case for Michael Bay, who Brody articulately flays in this essay.