Am I Still an Auteurist?

This Is the Magazine That Started It All

The Politique des Auteurs started in France with the writers of Cahiers du Cinema. André Bazin and a young cadre of rising filmmakers and critics felt that the French cinema was becoming too literary and that much was to be learned from the vitality of the American film industry. With almost every issue, they were discovering scores of new film artists such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and even such downmarket geniuses as Edgar G. Ulmer.

By 1962, the auteurists found an American disciple in Andrew Sarris, film critic for The Village Voice in New York. For the Winter 1962-1963 issue of Film Culture, Sarris created a whole issue dedicated to the auteur theory. As a student at Dartmouth College, I paid to photocopy the entire issue and used it religiously as a guide until Sarris came out a few years later with the greatly expanded American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

The Notorious Auteur Issue of 1962-1963

Circles and Squares: In the interim, Pauline Kael published a blistering attack in Film Quarterly called “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris.” Many of her attacks hit home, and they certainly exposed Sarris’s weaknesses as a film theoretician. I had met Pauline Kael and liked her work, but as a young man I was a budding auteurist.

Now, half a century and thousands of films later, I still see myself as having been influenced by the Cahiers crowd and Sarris, but I think there is a lot more to film than an a priori theory imposed from above. On the plus side, the auteurists opened me to the incredible riches of the American film—but I started liking films by such card-carrying non-auteurs as Felix Feist, Edward L. Cahn, Robert Florey, and Charles Vidor.

I give the credit to the auteur theory for introducing me to the idea that American films can also be great. I started my love of film by watching such foreign productions as Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1948) and Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1962); but by the late 1960s I was beginning to give Hollywood its due and loosened up considerably.

La Politique des Auteurs

Cahiers du Cinema: The French Film Journal That Started It All

I find now that yesterday’s post took a lot for granted. One can’t just float a concept like the auteur theory and expect to be understood. When I first got into films at Dartmouth College, I was influenced by a French monthly called Cahiers du Cinema, and by the work of an American film critic writing for the Village Voice named Andrew Sarris, who tried to translate the French critics’ ideas into the American idiom. For Film Culture magazine (Winter 1962/1963), he wrote a long article entitled “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” I photocopied his article and kept it with me for years, until he turned it into a book in 1968 entitled The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

The whole issue of the auteur theory is simple: If the cinema is an art form, then who is the artist in the cinema? Is it the producer? No, he’s mostly just a money man. Is it the film studio? Again, their major concern is money. Is it the writer, the actors, the director of photography, the editor? No times four. They just do what they’re told to do. The auteur theory elevated the director to the role of the artist. When the director is a studio hack, the result can be entertaining, but is rarely great. Yesterday, I wrote:

Why did I not go to the movies this year? Simply put, I remain an auteurist; and there were few films this year made by the directors whose work I follow. I am not interested in the films of William Seiter, Norman Panama, Archie Mayo, George Archainbaud, Alan Crosland, Alfred L. Werker, and any number of studio hacks who never signed their names to a great film. They were for the most part competent film makers whose work was light and entertaining; but I was after bigger game.

Now thye French considered Jerry Lewis to be an auteur, a true film artist. His films after he parted with Dean Martin are usually directed by him in a consistent and very competent way. You may not think that Jerry Lewis is a film artist, but he fits the idea the French have of the immature American male—like it or not.

Director Howard Hawks with Angie Dickinson on the Set of Rio Bravo (1958)

So who are the great film auteurs? There are almost as many lists as there are film critics. I remembered long discussions with my fellow film freaks in the late 1960s as to who was great and who wasn’t: I called the activity “trading bubble gum cards.”

Here is Andrew Sarris’s auteur pantheon:

  • Charles Chaplin
  • Robert Flaherty (he wouldn’t make my list)
  • John Ford
  • D. W. Griffith
  • Howard Hawks
  • Alfred Hitchcock
  • Buster Keaton (though he didn’t sign his name as director)
  • Fritz Lang
  • Ernst Lubitsch
  • F. W. Murnau
  • Max Ophüls
  • Jean Renoir
  • Josef von Sternberg
  • Orson Welles

A few of the names are predominantly European directors who also made several films in America (like Murnau, Ophüls, and Renoir).

Everything Changes

Try to Get Your Kids Interested in This!

This year for the first time in many years I have not attended the films at Cinecon. I did, however, go with Martine to the memorabilia dealers’ rooms. In the past, when my friend Norman Witty was alive, Martine enjoyed acting as his assistant; and she made a number of friendships with the other dealers. So while she chatted with her old friends and acquaintances, I found a comfortable chair and read a book. Also I devoted some time to thinking about what was happening to the dealers and members of Cinecon.

In short, they were getting older and passing on. I saw few people under the age of sixty at the dealers’ tables.

Why did I not go to the movies this year? Simply put, I remain an auteurist; and there were few films this year made by the directors whose work I follow. I am not interested in the films of William Seiter, Norman Panama, Archie Mayo, George Archainbaud, Alan Crosland, Alfred L. Werker, and any number of studio hacks who never signed their names to a great film. They were for the most part competent film makers whose work was light and entertaining; but I was after bigger game.

Then I thought,“Wait a sec! How many auteurists are around these days?” The answer is: damned few, and fewer every year. Instead people go to see superhero films intended for very young males, starring powerful guys and gals who like to wear their Underoos over their street clothes. Then there are the numerous independent productions, about the problems of young people who are altogether too full of themselves. What do I care about Hipster man with his man-bun and immaculately trimmed beard and all his digital toys?

Many of my posts have not been kind to the younger generation—mostly because the things they value are nothing to me, and the things I value, nothing to them. For how long will Cinecon be around to commemorate films of the 1920s and 1930s? I mean, people, we are talking about films that are not even in color!

After my generation leaves the scene, many whole worlds will disappear as if in a puff of cosmic dust.


Fifty Years in Hollywood

A Film Director for 50 Years, His Work Shows Signs of High Quality Throughout His Career

There were undoubtedly Hollywood directors who worked in the industry longer than Allan Dwan, but few of them were as consistently good for the entire half century while at the same time being so little-known. I know about him because he is one of the discoveries of the politique des auteurs to which I subscribed for many years. According to the auteur theory, as it is also known, there were within the Hollywood studio system some directors whose work was almost a guarantee of quality, almost irrespective of genre, studio, or stars.

Consider the following highly shortened list. How many films in it do you recognize?

  • Robin Hood (1922)
  • East Side, West Side (1927)
  • The Iron Mask (1929)
  • Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)
  • The Three Musketeers (1939)
  • Up in Mabel’s Room (1944)
  • Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945)
  • Brewster’s Millions (1945)
  • Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
  • Silver Lode (1954)
  • Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)
  • Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Most of these look and sound like typical studio products which Hollywood turned out by the hundreds each year. But even toward the end of his career (he retired in 1961), Dwan was doing amazing things. In Silver Lode, a B Western starring John Payne, Lizbeth Scott, and Dan Duryea, there is a tracking shot through a Western town of which even Orson Welles would be proud—some two years before Welles’s amazing opening credits shot in Touch of Evil.

Lobby Card for Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

Today, I saw Cattle Queen of Montana for the second time. The role of Barbara Stanwyck as Sierra Nevada Jones was a natural for this great star. Even Ronald Reagan managed to shine as a Federal agent investigating suspicious sales of guns to the Blackfeet Indians. There weren’t any directorial fireworks as in Silver Lode, and perhaps there were too many coincidences in the plot, but the aging Dwan showed he still knew how to cut the mustard.


An Unregenerate Auteurist

Film Critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

Although I never met the man, he has made a lasting impression on my taste in films. It all started around 1964, when I was a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I ran across the Spring 1963 issue of Film Culture magazine. Most of the contents was a 68 page article by Andrew Sarris, then movie reviewer for The Village Voice.  I remember photocopying the entire article while several other students fumed at the time I took to set up every page perfectly. In the end, I had the best survey of the work of American filmmakers then available.

My Original Encounter with the Auteur Theory

By the time I came out to Southern California, Sarris was working the same material into a book to be called The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. The book became my bible, a guide to the real artists of the American cinema, the directors. In both the book and the Film Culture article, Sarris was adapting the work of critics at Cahiers du Cinéma and other French film magazines who were reacting to the French classical cinema and rediscovering American film.

I and my fellow auteurists at the UCLA Film Department ran into heavy opposition from the faculty, especially from my thesis adviser, one Howard Suber, whose idea of film criticism was to do a shot-by-shot analysis of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. I quickly discovered that the people who were most opposed to the auteur theory were not terribly interested in seeing films. In fact, they did not know very much about film. Where my friends and I were viewing upwards of fifteen films a week, I doubt that most of the UCLA professors saw that many in a year.

The Book Version of the 1963 Film Culture Article

Although over the years, my take on films has changed somewhat, I still love the great auteurs such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Charley Chaplin, Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, and Budd Boetticher. Now I am willing to admit that, in certain rare cases, the producer could be the main artist of the film. The only example I can think of offhand is Val Lewton, who as producer, created his own style that overrode such excellent directors as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise.

Yesterday, I attended the Cinecon 53 Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. The very best films were auteur classics: John Ford’s The Brat (1931), George Stevens’s Boys Will Be Boys (1932), and William S. Hart’s Shark Monroe (1918). But where I diverge from the auteurists is my enjoyment of some films by relative nobodies,. most particularly John Blystone’s Woman Chases Man (1937)—which ended up involving three directors and five writers—and Alfred S. Rogell’s No More Women (1934), itself a sequel to auteur director Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), starring the same leading actors.

There are indeed many terrible filmmakers whose work I would think nothing of walking out on. But at shows like Cinecon, there are some wonderful films by people I have never heard of.