Postmodernism and The Auteur Theory

Post Modernism and The Auteur Theory Photo of Quentin Tarantino by Gage Skidmore
Photo of Quentin Tarantino by Gage Skidmore

There has been much debate about the concept of the modern auteur in filmmaking. Many say Fellini was a great auteur, because his films were ripped from his memories, his homeland, and the deepest corners of his psyche. Many say the Cohen Brothers are auteurs because of their unique visual style, and what Dr. Drew Casper refers to as an overall organizing principle. Many inside the hallowed halls of USC argue that the concept of an auteur filmmaker is dead, and film is a collaborative effort that no one person can be solely responsible for. However, there have been some truly great filmmakers that stand out within the studio system as well as the independent world: Hitchcock; Wilder; and Robert Evans being a few. What is even more intriguing is the idea of what an auteur means in post-modern cinema, a category of films defined by self-reflexivity, pastiche, and a schizophrenic narrative structure. Masters of this genre have arisen such as Spielberg, Tarantino, and Baz Luhrman who directed the greatest film ever made, “Moulin Rouge“ (2001). As we examine the concept of an auteur filmmaker, we will see how it has transformed, and continues today.

The old concept of an auteur filmmaker was that of someone who could portray a personal style as he/she told a story, and did it uniquely within the studio system. The concept originated out of the 1951 French journal, “Cahiers du Cinema” which stated that an auteur left a truly unique thumbprint on a film. Many filmmakers of the time period made independent films outside the studio system, such as Herbert Biberman and his 1954 film “Salt of The Earth” or George Romero’s “Night of The Living Dead” (1968), both of which has an anti-studio texture that could be felt in every frame, but it took great genius, strength, and perseverance for a director to make a unique film they could call their own while working under the strict reigns of Irving Thalberg, Walt Disney, and the Warner Brothers. Yet, some achieved this level of excellence, such as John Ford, Frank Capra, and Orson Welles, who not only made films their own way, but developed artistic styles which cultivated fan bases. It was Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946), and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) which broke barriers in cinema, and stood out as the work of true individuals.

The new concept of an auteur filmmaker has become more egocentric since the golden age of Hollywood and has also become centered more on directors than producers, or any other craftsperson, with the exception of maybe Jerry Bruckheimer, a producer whose films all stand out with his fingerprints on them. The title of auteur now represents someone who is the sole driving force of a film, from script (especially the source of the narrative), to the design of shots and tone, and even to the supervision of sound design. According to the contemporary auteur theory, a filmmaker must be the creative mastermind behind a film, and the well from which all great creative waters flow. Many do not believe in this theory, and whole-heartedly strive for the belief that films are a collaborative effort and belong to no one. Many individuals would agree with this, particularly the makers of “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” (2001) and “Dude, Where’s My Car” (2000). However, many directors have developed out of this new post-modern strategy that they will claim every process of movie-making as their own, including Tim Burton (who designs every character and location), Steven Soderbergh (who does his own camera work), and occasionally Woody Allen.

To examine the old-school auteur, it would be best to observe a film like “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994). Its director, Woody Allen has been a prime example of both new and old auteur, but with this film, he took a more moderate approach, and leaned closer to the Classical Hollywood side. His visual style is also very apparent, noted by dark lighting and long takes. There are many scenes, such as the final climax, where the character’s faces are not even visible. Most scenes are also one long take, including the scene where Valenti confronts Cheech about Olive’s death. This is similar to his early films such as “Annie Hall” (1977), “Manhattan” (1979), and “Stardust Memories” (1980). Also similar to these films, he takes many elements of his personality, and even his private life and relationships with friends, and flings them onto the screen. Conversely, the story of “Bullets Over Broadway” is about a neurotic playwright, struggling to produce his latest play, and along the course of the story, falls into an adulterous affair with his play’s leading lady. This is similar to Allen’s three films mentioned above, where he played a writer struggling with his profession and insecurity and fell into the arms of many other women. Allen’s main character, also had adulterous affairs in “Manhattan,” and “Stardust Memories.” The captivation of Allen’s stereotypical “Neurotic Writer” character even crossed into “Bullets Over Broadway” when John Cusack admitted to doing a blatant impersonation of Allen, and Allen complained that Cusack would ask a thousand questions of him. This use of pastiche is unique because it is self-reflexive of a huge body of past work, an oddity with most other post-modern films such as “Hulk” (2003). Allen also embodies the post-modern auteur by referencing other films: some would call this pastiche work, others would call it paying homage to them. With the gangland setting, the film portrays the infamous gangster rolls and storylines made famous by James Cagney and others of the 1930’s. The mafia kingpin, Nick Valenti, even resembles Edward G. Robinson, who was famous for his gangster films, and was the boss of bosses in “Little Ceasar” (1931).

For an example of the more post-modern auteur, one could examine “In America” (2003), an autobiographical film by director Jim Sheridan. “In America” tells the story of a poor writer who has just lost a child, Frankie, and moves with his remaining two daughters and wife to New York City. Sheridan admits that the film was written based on his own experiences of losing his brother, also named Frankie, and moving to New York with his family. The movie is so autobiographical that Sheridan’s daughters helped him co-write the script. This self-reflexive nature shows less of a priority of entertainment, and more on a post-modern imperative of expressing one’s own personal story. The director also incorporates pastiche in his work by using allusions to “E.T.” (1982), which was a popular film at the time the story takes place. He interweaves the pastiche by using the creature E.T. as a metaphorical being who was sick on Earth, but befriended little children, and was able to heal them. This is similar to the character of Mateo in “In America” who has AIDS, and befriends the two little girls of the film. As Mateo is dying, Sarah, the wife, is suffering of cancer, but can’t afford the treatment. After Mateo dies, it is revealed that he left all his possessions to the little girls and their family, and they use that money to give Sarah the treatment she needs. “In America” also has a frazzled (what some would call a schizophrenic) nature, by exploring visual expression with new art forms and techniques. For example, to heighten the illusion of reality, the director cuts in shots from the daughter’s handheld VHS camcorder, alternating the audience’s point of view. It also aides the audience this way by jumping between the point of view of the children, and the parents. This helps the story because the narrative structure is not locked down, but free to flow about. This technique allows the audience to have a fuller understanding of what’s going on in the story, and become more emotionally involved in the characters.

Whereas both films have several overlapping principals, such as a writer as the protagonist, New York City, and marital problems between the characters, there is one glaring difference. “In America” is a subtle recreation of a past event, retelling a moment in the director’s life, even going so far as to utilize camcorder video footage in the film to heighten the reality. Its purpose is to portray the reality of the moment without giving in to stereotypical Hollywood conventions or archetypes. It gently tells the story with little stylization, poor lighting, and gritty reality because the director actually lived it, and wants the audience to relive it with him. This is the nature of a post-modern auteur who molds the story with his own bare hands as if it were a precious gift he was going to give. However, “Bullets Over Broadway” is an extrapolation of the author’s life and thoughts. “Bullets Over Broadway” uses the thoughts and styles of Woody Allen, and heightens it, using caricatures such as: gangsters; diva actresses; and pretentious bohemians. Because Allen utilizes the old school of post-modern auteurs, he tells his story using the standard conventions of a Hollywood comedy while still maintaining his directing and visual style. He utilizes over the top characters, and places the story in the roaring twenties to distance the audience from it. Because, while it is his story, it is still a film of the classical Hollywood cinema of spectacles.

In conclusion, we can see the progression of the auteur theory as it has grown from a handful of talented directors striving to make their mark under the repressive studio system, to the possessive notion that places the great creative power (and responsibility) solely in the hands of the director. Whether it be Woody Allen’s innovative use of his unique narrative and shooting style, or Jim Sheridan’s autobiographical tale of life and death in New York City, their films each carry their own personality of the director. Some might say that because the idea of the auteur has grown into the egocentric notion that “the film director is God,” that film has faltered because of it, giving into the whims of pastiche, self-reflexivity, and the narrowing of the narrative spectrum (relying on caricatures rather than real people). Rather, film has grown in the post-modern era, telling more stories of individual struggles rather than great movements and spectacles. Today, the director is God, and with the destruction of the classical studio system, the auteur must place all his (or her) energies into making the film into a masterpiece. They must strive as the captain of their ship, because the infrastructure that once held a film’s marketing, production, and distribution together under Thalberg, Disney, and Warner is gone.

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