Commentary Magazine

Auteur! Auteur!


Auteur! Auteur!
by Marion Magid

Some months ago at the Donnell Branch of the New York Public Library, a symposium was held on the art of film criticism. Less than spellbinding for the most part, the discussion took a decided turn for the better when one of the symposiasts, in an extraordinary departure from the genial liberalism he had been espousing all evening, rose to denounce a colleague, conspicuously absent from the hall. “A Messiah he may be,” thundered Dwight Macdonald in his windup, “but a film critic, neverl” Whereupon one faction in the audience applauded stormily, a second broke into hoots and catcalls, and the uninitiated remained silent in presumable bewilderment. Since that evening, the feud between Dwight Macdonald and Andrew Sarris has gone on to break new ground in the creative use of epithet. In the October 1963 issue of Esquire, Macdonald deplored the ascent of his younger fellow-critic from obscurity to relative prominence, likening him to a “Godzilla monster . . . who had come clambering up from the primordial swamps. . . .” Sarris responded in his regular column in the (primordial) Village Voice by casting aspersions on Macdonald’s political past, as well as on his eyesight. Whereupon Macdonald had recourse to his sometime platform in the San Francisco-Berkeley Film Quarterly to take vexed leave of that periodical altogether, on the ground that he found it impossible to appear under common auspices with a critic who judged Hitchcock in The Birds to be “. . . at the summit of his artistic powers . . .” Shifting metaphors, Macdonald now denounced Sarris as a “Greenwich Village Tsarris” issuing cinematic “ukases” rather than reasonable critical estimates. Sarris who, despite his journalistic affiliation, lives in Queens, did not respond—being occupied, word had it at the time, in hammering out a position paper on Muriel.

Though there has never been a shortage of ardor in aesthetic debate, the quality of the passions engaged by this one suggests that more than a personal antagonism is involved and that more is at stake than mere differences of taste. And, indeed, as any reader of the film quarterlies will know, while the rest of us have been arguing over such questions as whether or not Antonioni is boring, there has been raging in film circles a full-scale ideological battle which leaves that sort of thing far behind. This battle, known as the Auteur Controversy, has rent film criticism into opposing camps, pitted East Coast against West, brought about agonizing reappraisals on the editorial pages of existing film magazines, and infiltrated critical discourse about the movies with a host of new words, attitudes, and mannerisms as alluring to their users as they are infuriating, when not incomprehensible, to most people on the outside.

It all started in Paris in the late 1950’s with the group of French critics associated with Cahiers du Cinema, a monthly periodical which strikes the casual browser on first encounter as something of a cross between Photoplay and Botteghe Oscure. Impeccably austere of format in the Gallimard mode, it combines epigraphs from Hegel, Baudelaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Edgar Allen Poe with tiny, scowling photographs of American movie stars, mainly of the 40’s. Though it is highly doubtful that Cahiers‘ readership (among English-speaking adherents at least) even approaches the number of people who quote from it, the magazine nevertheless exercises an incontrovertible cachet in the present dispute; the variations in its critical line, indeed, exert an influence reaching as far as the Melbourne (Australia) Film Journal. It was in the pages of Cahiers‘ thirty-first issue (January 1954) that there was first articulated the creed of the “Politique des Auteurs”—a reformist manifesto whose essential purpose was to dispel, as it were with one major theoretical thrust, the taint of illegitimacy that still clung to the cinema as an art form. Like any other work of art, a film, the Cahiers critics declared, is a totality shaped by, and totally obligated to, the unique personality of its creator. Thus the traditional critical approach to films in terms of their separate elements—acting, story, dialogue, subject matter—was mistaken; a film should instead be viewed as a single formal entity, whose diverse elements were unified by the personality of the artist—in this case, the director. Just as the great painters, playwrights, novelists had left their signatures unmistakably on their masterpieces—allowing us to speak of a “Rembrandt” or a “Picasso”—so were the greatest films pervaded by the unique personalities of their directors. And just as the names of the masters in the other arts come in time to serve as a species of automatic guarantee of the caliber of their works—impelling us to examine those works in a spirit of quest rather than judgment (seeking, for example, Shakespeare’s esoteric meaning in the apparent ambiguities of Hamlet, rather than finding fault with the play on those grounds)—so do the names of the acknowledged masters of film impel us to a similar humility of attitude. The important question then became who these acknowledged masters were, and the Cahiers critics obliged by setting up a “pantheon” of the great directors in cinematic history.

Had the young critics of Cahiers du Cinema stopped at this point, it is doubtful that word of their efforts would ever have traveled beyond the Left Bank. The list-making compulsion was, to be sure, a trifle odd, but could be viewed as a harmless idiosyncrasy of the French temperament, and the stodgiest of film, curators could not have taken exception to the stellar galaxy assembled in the first Cahiers pantheon. It subsequently developed, however, that these young men were also passionately addicted to American movies and spent most of their spare time in the basement projection room of the Cinèmathèque Française watching the gangster films, Westerns, and situation comedies of the Hollywood of the 30’s and 40’s—as well as, when opportunity presented itself, the even gamier output of Republic and Monogram and PRC [“. . . the insidious vertigo of the non-A film . . .”]. Being French, they could not be content to let the matter rest as an underground addiction, but felt constrained to validate their enthusiasms in a complex theoretical structure which would later find expression in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema in the form of meticulous analyses of “the thousand beauties of Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl,” or “. . . the exquisite tensions deployed in Crimson Kimono . . .” As a result, the pantheon was gradually expanded to include such directors as Howard Hawks, Samuel Fuller, and Douglas Sirk, whom the Cahiers critics joyfully juxtaposed with acknowledged eminences like Griffith, Welles, and Stroheim.

Undismayed (elated, in fact, for that was the point) by the obvious and undeniable disparity between the kinds of films they were describing and the way they were describing them, the Cahiers critics used this very disparity as the springboard for a theory of film art which might be regarded as the triumphant apotheosis of the virtue-of-necessity school. Since, for instance, the Hollywood directors they most admired had frequently been assigned bad actors, worse scripts, and inadequate shooting schedules by their studios, a theoretical loophole was devised whereby some of the greatest achievements in film art were found to have resulted from the “tensions” between the artist and his material. Trivial or banal subject matter, far from being damaging, could even serve to enhance a film, for movies were an anti-literary form and the intrusion of “literary” values could only serve to detract from cinematographic ones. And in any case, what made movies good or bad depended scarcely at all on those elements that had always been the concern of critical analysis—the verisimilitude of the actors’ performances or the caliber of the scenario; it depended, rather, upon some mysterious interaction of factors which resulted in that ineffable, intangible (and certainly untranslatable) essence of film art: the “mise-en-scène,”1 the “movieness” of movies.



Such, in essence, are the broad general outlines of the Cahiers ideology, grossly oversimplified to be sure, and perhaps inaccurate in certain respects—which in the end makes little or no difference. For the theoretical aspects of the dispute are clearly the least important in explaining its capacity to evoke attention and/or anger. What the Auteur Controversy comes down to in the end is the old quarrel between (good) bad movies and (bad) Good Films—heightened, to be sure, by the addition of French dressing. If the anti-Auteurniks tend to outdo the Auteurniks in anger, it is because, as in all such debates, the (unearned) psychological advantage invariably accrues to the side espousing the chicly disingenuous position—the highbrow affectation of lowbrowism—rather than to the one glumly trapped in sincerity. Moreover, as in all cases of ideological warfare, it is the secondary attributes of the opposing position that prove more inflammatory than its original tenets; and the Auteur position abounds in a host of such characteristics, inherited en bloc from the parental organ. What infuriates opponents of the Cahiers school is, accordingly, less the theoretical idea of a directors’ cinema (in itself scarcely a radical or original notion) than, for instance, the unanimity of all Auteur-oriented critics on the excellence of Edgar Ulmer, not to speak of Alfred Hitchcock.2

The precise patterns of cultural cross-fertilization can never, of course, be accurately traced, but it may be that the Cahiers critics, before being taken up in the United States, were originally influenced by the work of Manny Farber, an American film critic who, without benefit of theory and without resort to inflated language, has long practiced a “mise-en-scène” type of criticism and has long admired the more controversial names in the Cahiers pantheon.3 But so far as the Auteur Controversy proper is concerned, alert trend-spotters (had anyone been looking) might have recognized as a trial balloon an assessment (under Sarris’s byline and published in 1961 in the New York quarterly Film Culture) of a number of American movie directors. The piece—perhaps because it was couched in rather tentative terms, and lacked that categorical assurance which is the hallmark of Auteur criticism—drew no fire, and it was not until roughly a year later that a two-part document appearing in successive issues of the same magazine (Spring, Summer, 1962) launched the Auteur Controversy on its Anglo-Saxon career. The author of this definitive white paper was, of course, Andrew Sarris.

Part One, “Notes on the Auteur Theory,” expounded the three basic tenets of the Auteur aesthetic, defended their value as a technique for judging American movies, and concluded with the assertion that a refusal to view films primarily in directorial terms masked an inherent condescension toward the art of cinema, an unwillingness to acknowledge its equality of status with the other arts. Part Two, proceeding logically from this base, was nothing less than a sixty-seven-page evaluation of the merits (plus a complete listing of the works) of every American director to have made a film in Hollywood between the years 1915 and 1962 in terms of nine possible categories ranging from “Pantheon” to “Esoterica.” (An appended note apologized for the unavoidable terseness of the pre-1929 listings, there being little reliable film scholarship on the pre-sound era.) The French gift for abstraction had once again been joined to American technological know-how, with spectacular results.

Needless to say, the Sarris List has since its appearance become the key exhibit in the Auteur polemic, the object of awed admiration or incredulous gibes, depending on one’s allegiance, but impossible to ignore. To those with any sort of private penchant for listmaking—which includes all who have ever doodled the names of their friends in descending order of affection on the backs of envelopes, or, in the throes of insomnia, busied themselves making many small words out of one big word or drawing up tables of contents for hypothetical magazines—the Sarris List constitutes something like the final achievement in this area; to those who do not share the impulse, it remains a monster of pointlessness. Yet because of the compelling internal evidence the List reveals of its author’s having seen every last one of the films included, it stands as a fairly hefty challenge to those battling professionally for the credentials of film erudition.4

Since quarterly polemics are of necessity attuned to the seasons, some three months went by before the Sarris Papers elicited a rebuttal, but when it came—in the Spring 1963 issue of Film Quarterly, the journal which would later carry notice of Macdonald’s defection—it came like a lion in the form of a pamphlet-sized demolition-job (laconicism is not a distinguishing trait of film-quarterly polemics) authored by Pauline Kael. Miss Kael subjected “Notes on the Auteur Theory” to a line-by-line textual scrutiny, and after finding it wanting on a variety of philosophic grounds (Platonism was only one of the charges leveled), concluded with the suggestion that the Auteur critics were all suffering from arrested development, given to the overrating of absurd pseudo-tough films because these played along with their “narcissistic male fantasies.”5

Sarris’s rebuttal to the Kael, attack did not, despite a promising title (“Perils of Pauline”), take issue with the points raised. Inhibited perhaps by natural gallantry from responding in kind to the sexual allegation, the author confined himself in large part to attacking the anti-Hollywood stance of the host periodical, as expressed in its veneration of “the espresso pantheon,” and to reprinting in toto an earlier piece he had published in Showbill dealing with four Italian directors, whose purpose was presumably to demonstrate that Auteur tastes in cinema were by no means limited to Allen Dwan and Gerd Oswald, and could rise, when necessary, to the occasion of celebrating non-coterie achievement. The round appeared to be Kael’s as the combatants withdrew to their corners.

In the meantime, however, a second front in the Auteur war came into existence—in England, of all places. Reinforcements that would subsequently enlarge the scanty, though embattled English-speaking Auteur ranks made their appearance in a new film magazine launched in June 1963 in London under the title Movie.6 (An American film magazine, which started publication in Los Angeles at about the same time, bears the title Cinema, which about sums it up.) In their pilot issue, the editors of Movie came out, in rampant lower case, in dramatic repudiation of everything British cinema had come to stand for—including not only, as might be expected, the comedies of the Boulting Brothers, the Peters Sellers-Margaret Rutherford Axis, the stiff-upper-lip tradition of British comedy, and the sturdy, reasonable bastions of Sight and Sound (on whom Movie’s editors sternly laid a good part of the blame for the parlous state of British films), but also what they called “the Woodfall Answer.” This designation referred to the spate of recent English films of the kippers-and-herring-in-the-Midlands school, on the basis of which poor misguided England had deluded herself into believing she too was having a new wave. “Significant, ‘working-class’ subjects combined with conscientious attempts at style” were not the solution, cried the editors of Movie, and by way of demonstrating the direction of their own commitments, emblazoned their pilot issue with the identifying banner of the Cahieriste legions—a List, whose stunning compression made the Sarris List appear a prodigy of diffidence by comparison. In the space of a single page the editors of Movie achieved a comparative quantification of the talent-level of 71 British directors and 132 American ones, in terms of six different categories, employing the technique at the same time for the currently fashionable British pastime of self-deprecation. Not a single resident Briton placed in the first category (“Great”), shared by Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, and only one apiece made the second two (“Brilliant,” “Very Talented”), as opposed to 11 and 21 respectively on the American team. Only once on the chart did the British Empire achieve numerical superiority, and that was in the mournful final category: “The Rest.” Said the accompanying text, with a certain gloomy satisfaction, “. . . the Histograms demonstrate the British cinema’s lack of what we would consider as talent . . .”

The first journal actually to be created under the stresses of the Auteur Controversy (with the exception of the New York Film Bulletin, one of the primordial swamps cited by Macdonald which appears infrequently and is, moreover, mimeographed), Movie can serve as a showcase of Auteur principles in an alien habitat. Beginning with its pilot issue, which juxtaposed analyses of the respective oeuvres of Vincente Minnelli and Luis Buñuel (with space rather heavily favoring Minnelli), the magazine has continually endorsed the basic principle of the Cahiers aesthetic. This principle, which amounts in effect to playing the High and the Low off against the Middle, is reflected both in the composition of the magazine as a whole (featuring each month at least one member of the Hollywood Pantheon—Hitchcock, Hawks, Tashlin, Aldrich, Preminger—together with one representative of the more recherché of the European Experimental school) and in the style of the individual contributions. Following their French masters, Movie’s critics delight in talking about the Hobbesian world-view of Underworld U.S.A., or the Shakespearean approach of Rio Bravo, but this critical technique, like grand opera, comes off somewhat better in a foreign language.7

Since Movie goes in heavily for interviews with directors, its pages are an unfailing source of the particular kind of contretemps to which this aesthetic mode is most vulnerable: persecution of the artist by his admirers. Virtually every issue of Movie contains at least one example of the Perplexed Director in the grip of the Avid Interviewer with dialogue resembling the following:

Interviewer (hungrily): What would you say I Was a Male War Bride was really about? Howard Hawks (puzzled): Oh, I don’t know. Two people get married and red tape keeps them from sleeping together . . .

Indeed, the intricate equilibrium on which the Auteur theory rests is in danger of being shattered each time a Pantheon director comes face to face with his disciples. An incident which could have had dire consequences occurred some years ago in the course of a notorious interview between Hitchcock and François Truffaut. Hitchcock agreed with Truffaut that his American period was superior to his British one, only to be confronted with the distressed reminder that he had once made the opposite declaration to a British interviewer; ideological chaos was averted on that occasion only by Hitchcock’s cheerful willingness to admit that he had lied the first time. The case of Robert Aldrich, however, was not resolved so painlessly. Formerly a front-runner with the Cahiers critics, Aldrich lost favor not too long ago with the statement that he has always detested the film Kiss Me Deadly, a work of his which had long served in the Cahiers arsenal as triumphant proof that in movies, form is content.

If Movie seems on occasion to have traded its sense of humor for a mess of potage, Sight and Sound has in general weathered the Auteur Controversy with a calm dignity befitting its venerable status (it was founded in 1932). Steadfastly refusing to be swayed in its convictions by the temptations of mere novelty, S&S had nonetheless—even before the launching of Movie—opened its pages to the consideration of the new ideas from across the channel. These ideas were presented to its readers primarily through the agency of Richard Roud, movie critic (and entrepreneur, among others, of the New York Film Festival) whose three-fold credentials made him eminently suited to the role of mediator and cultural ambassador: American birth, Parisian sojourn, London domicile. As suavely as a diplomat, Roud undertook in frequent articles and reviews to purge the Cahiers aesthetic of its more spectacular gallicisms, rendering it palatable for British consumption. Even while S&S’s editor, Penelope Huston, was arguing gently but firmly that the time had not quite come when it was safe to jettison principles of commitment and humanism in the cinema, Roud was proving with equal persuasiveness further back in the book that there might be something besides villainy and giddiness in the suggestion that movies with no overt social significance and which did not, even on the face of it, engage with substantial themes, could yet by some mysterious alchemy work toward a moral effect—that, in short, “form is at least as important as content.” In the end, something like a modus vivendi was suggested when Miss Huston conceded (Spring ’62) that the British “breakthrough” hadn’t come to much, and asked whether it might not indeed be time to do a bit of thinking along continental lines—“cinema as language” and all the rest of it, à la Antonioni, Truffaut, and Godard. A similar concession was made at roughly the same time by S&S‘s opposite number in America, that very San Francisco Film Quarterly which found itself in the course of the past year at odds in its Correspondence and Controversy section with no less than three erstwhile valued contributors representing as many critical positions. Perhaps it was these intimations of discontent that led FQ’s editor, Ernest Callenbach, to come out with an editorial statement rather more lyrically couched than is the magazine’s wont, in favor of a more “personal,” “expressive” cinema regardless of where it might lead.

In the light of these concessions by the opposition to the allure of the Auteur method, there is a certain irony in recent signs that all is not well within the inner circle of the Auteur camp itself. Two communications, published respectively in Film Quarterly and Sight and Sound, seem to indicate that two of the leading Cahiers critics, Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette—members of that threesome which, with Godard, used to meet daily at the Cinémathèque back in 1950—were on the verge of defection. In separate interviews, each stated that content might be as important as form—and that, in fact, movies without plots were becoming a bore. Truffaut went so far as to add that he now “detested” the gangster genre.

The reasons behind these developments are not known, but it has been suggested that contributing factors may have been the growing excesses of the MacMahonist faction—a dissident group within the Cahiers camp who have established a pantheon-within-the-pantheon, led by the four directors Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey, Raoul Walsh, and Otto Preminger, life-size portraits of whom adorn the lobby of the movie theater on rue MacMahon dedicated exclusively to the showing of Hollywood “genre” films. Typical of the MacMahonist aesthetic is the following (by Michel Mourlet, chief MacMahonist): “Charlton Heston is an axiom. By himself alone he constitutes a tragedy, and his presence in any film whatsoever suffices to create beauty . . . one can say that Charlton Heston, by his existence alone, gives a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima Mon Amour or Citizen Kane, whose aesthetic either ignores or impugns Charlton Heston . . .”



Everything comes full circle eventually on the cultural merry-go-round. The Cahiers du Cinema aesthetic originally constituted another stage in that traditional attempt by the High to achieve liberation from the Middle by mimicking the styles and enthusiasms of the Low. In the end, however, as usually happens, the Low got wind of what was going on and proceeded to upset the applecart by imitating its imitators—affecting its own style at one remove, and in so doing replacing its initial vigor by shabby-genteel “refinement.” Volume One, Number 4 of Cinema offers accordingly the most unsettling version of the Cahiers Pantheon-syndrome yet to appear: a list (sandwiched in between cheesecake pictures of foreign film stars of a high gloss) of the twenty-two favorite directors of the magazine’s editor, beginning with Fellini, ending with Billy Wilder and reaching a high point in the middle with Walt Disney—“as a guide,” says the accompanying manifesto, “to the real ‘movie stars’—the men who make the films . . .”

Où sont les movies d’antan?


1 “. . . a certain way of extending the elans of the soul in the movements of the body: a song, a rhythm, a dance . . .” This is the definition (by Cahiers critic Alexandre Astruc) most frequently cited for this elusive term. Though still invoked in somewhat gingerly fashion, its use has by now become fairly prevalent even in non-Auteur journals—so much so that word had it at press time that mise en scène was about to be superceded by découpage—a concept which has not yet crossed the Atlantic and which cannot, in any case, be defined without the use of the hands.

2 In the absence of other distinguishing characteristics, the position of any film journal vis-à-vis the Auteur Controversy can be gauged almost automatically by its editorial line on Hitchcock; a review of a new Hitchcock film is almost invariably made the occasion for a larger ideological statement. Generally speaking, blanket endorsement up to and including The Birds is the sign of total Auteur orientation; severe reservations about The Birds coupled with amused toleration for Psycho signifies a fundamentally anti-formalist orientation (willing, however, to entertain certain reforms in its direction); etc., etc.

3 See his article “Underground Films” in COMMENTARY, November 1957.

4 For purposes of accurate classification, it should be noted at this point that though Film Culture has been consistently hospitable to Auteur-oriented contributors, and has been described for that reason as an “Auteur journal,” it does not strictly belong to that category. Literary bastion of the New American Cinema movement, it leans more to the Sturm und Drang school of film criticism, as reflected in its championship of the work of filmmakers like Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, and Gregory Markopoulos—manifestoes by and interviews with whom occupy most of its pages (“Is cinema your love and your death, Gregory?”). But even Film Culture’s fervent and repeated disavowals of the pale cast of intellect have not been sufficient to guard it against the stresses of ideological discord, and the editor in a recent issue found himself forced to take measures against the “Glossary Group”—a faction of dissident moderates, so-called because of their publication in the magazine of a satiric glossary defining certain articles of faith of the New American Cinema in less than respectful terms.

5 Since the intention of these observations is to offer a blueprint of current positions in film criticism, it must be said at this point that the Kael-Sarris Dispute, though equal in vigor, is altogether different in kind from the Macdonald-Sarris Dispute. Kael is in fact a good deal closer to Sarris in, so to speak, mise-en-scène than she is to Macdonald—sharing a number of secondary characteristics with the Auteur critics, among them a genuine, long-standing, grassroots loyalty to American movies, as well as a grimly held belief in Movies as Fun.

6 Movie’s editors were subsequently to enter the lists firmly on Sarris’s side in the Kael-Sarris feud. Their point-by-point rebuttal of the original Kael rebuttal seemed to have closed the issue for good. Even as this manuscript was being concluded, however, the question was being reopened by Volume One, Number One of The Moviegoer—the newest, to date, of the film journals—which took the “plague on both your houses” position, in fact denying that the Auteur Controversy existed at all.

7 Robert Aldrich achève l’accord par une dissonance exacte, la description lucide et lyrique d’un monde en dècadence, aseptique, métallique, sans issue; la chronique des derniers sursauts de ce qui demeure d’humain en l’homme au milieu d’un univers purement artificiel, d’où la nature, jadis chantée dans Bronco Apache, a été presque systém-atiquement exclue. . . .

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