Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Film Theory I - The Auteur

The term "auteur" is used in the film world to refer to a filmmaker or director who exerts control over the creative decisions made in the filmmaking process, particularly in the artistic direction of the film. They have become increasingly popular in modern culture with the rise of directors such as Tarantino, Bergman, Tim Burton, etc. who all exhibit a common visual "style" that makes each of their works instantly recognisable.

The term, which is French for "author", originated from Andre Bazin, co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma, an influential French film magazine which featured directors and critics writing about 50s film. Truffaut and other members of the Cahiers recognised filmmaking as an industrial and commercial apparatus, and encouraged directors to use the medium as a writer uses a pen, and apply their own creative vision to their work. Recognising the difficulty in achieving this through a medium that involves hundreds of people working together, the magazine commended the work of any directors who came close.

Generally speaking auteurs are like artists. Their work is original, they hold creative control, they develop a personal "film language" and often start conventions of a genre, but don't follow them. Andrew Sarris, an American film critic and leading proponent of the "auteur theory", further defined the auteur as being able to showcase technical competence, a distinguishble personality and an interior meaning to what's shown in their films. 

To relate these to an exemplar director I will be investigating the work and life of Alfred Hitchcock, who was acknowledged as an auteur during the French New Wave. With a career spanning six decades, he is often regarded as one of the most influential and important filmmakers of all time because of his innovative style and methods of creating suspense and engaging the audience's emotions. He has also been significantly influential in the development of the slasher and psychological thriller genres. 

Firstly, his technical competence. He was known for his use of expressionist lighting, expressionism being the act of creating emotion through form, tone and colour. One of Hitchcock's early silent films, The Lodger (1927) is noted for it's exaggerated make up and expressionistic influences. The poster for the film itself denotes innovation with it's cubist style.

Silent films required creative ways of visually depicting emotions, dialogue and sound, and this had a lasting influence on Hitchcock's style, as even later in his film career he would prefer his narrative to be shown visually rather than through dialogue, which is a demonstration of technical mastery. In The Lodger, a character overhearing agitated pacing on the floor above is shown visually from a low-angled shot through a glass ceiling; In Champagne (1928), another artistic shot involves showing a first-person perspective of drinking through a glass. Jamaica Inn (1939) also includes a first-person perspective shot through a spy hole (spying being one of Hitchcock's recurring themes).

A notable technical invention of Hitchcock's is the dolly zoom - simultaneously moving the camera away from the subject whilst zooming in, to create an eerie, disorientating effect - which is particularly used in Vertigo (1958) to reflect the sensation of dizziness James Stewart's character is experiencing. 

Hitchcock paid incredible attention to the use of cutting, or to use a term he prefers, the assembling of film. In another interview (here), he describes three approaches to editing, using Psycho as an example.
- The first is montage and juxtaposition of similar-sized cuts. The famous shower murder scene had to be done in an impressionistic manner, therefore he used lots of small sections of close-ups and extreme close-ups to express unsettling suspense and fear. 
- His second method he describes as being akin to the orchestration of music, with loud notes and soft notes and the all-important moments of apprehension. The second murder in Psycho uses a medium shot, then a wide shot from a birds-eye view, and finally a close up of the man's face, dripping with blood. He explains this as using the size of the image to create shock - similar to how, in a musical piece, tremolo strings might be punctuated with loud brass.
- For the third, he explains the importance of "pure cinematics", and how the assembly of the film and changing the content of a single shot can completely change the impression of a scene.


Secondly, to continue relating Hitchcock to Sarris's definition of auteur, I will look at what makes his "film personality" distinguishable. Generally, a vast number of his films include the following:

- Expressionistic influences, and narrative told visually rather than through dialogue
Hitchcock wasn't interested in realism or naturalism. In an interview he gave (here) he describes the majority of "talkies" films as simply being "photographs of people talking; they bear no relation to the art of the cinema" and goes on to describe the power of cinema in it's purest form being it's ability to be universally effective towards audiences regardless of their language. "Tell the story visually and let the talk be part of the atmosphere", he says. His prime focus was on evoking emotional responses in the audience, through his clever uses of suspense, satisfaction and terror. He strongly believed that the technique and manner in which the story is told is of more significance than the content and story itself.
- Cameo appearances from Hitchcock himself
- Recurring actors (Cary Grant, James Stwart, etc.)
- Blonds, also a female character who is repressed and frigid, then following some sort of epiphany becomes sexualised
- Suspense
Hitchcock was preoccupied with creating terror in his audiences without gore and blood. He did this by making his films so that the audiences would be aware of danger that the characters themselves were not, therefore the prime response on the audience's part would be anticipation of their conflict. As he said, "There's no terror in the bang of the gun, only the anticipation of it.".

His film Vertigo features many of his favoured themes, including voyeurism, dream sequences, artificiality, trauma, and the use of shadows to create drama and tension. There is also a common use of the colour green which symbolises something which is "ever-living" (reflecting Scottie's desire for Madeline to be ever-living). 

It is indubitable that Hitchcock has many themes he revisits, which constructs his "film personality" and has gone on to coin the term "Hitchcockian", which is used to refer to other films that include these elements.


Thirdly, the interior meaning of his films. This refers to Hitchock's own personal experiences inspiring content for his films. For example, a significant moment in his life would be in 1938, when we moved to America and was introduced to psychoanalysis by producer David O'Selznick. They went on to make many films that have psychological elements to them: Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946). He has also stated that he himself is easily scared, and lists heights as one of the things that sets off his adrenaline, which is of course a prevalent theme in Vertigo. 

So for all the above reasons, Hitchcock is a celebrated auteur. But, as with all things, the auteur theory has been met with some criticism. For one, a filmmaker is defined as auteur by the "elites", critics, etc. and so there are relatively few of them, and they are predominantly male. Two, it is also problematic in that a film requires hundreds of people working on it to succeed, yet all their efforts are shadowed by the director.
Three, it has quite a narrow definition of what denotes quality in a film, which takes away our freedom of opinion, which goes against the joys of art. And four, it can be used as a capitalist sales device as a film is able to be sold and acclaimed by virtue of it's director, regardless of it's actual content.

These points lead to further questions, such as: did Hitchcock establish himself, or did the critics/receivers? Is it the work itself which is good, or the hype that is caused? 

Nowadays, with conceptual art in particular, it is more about the reception or hype caused by the work, rather than the work itself. For example the work of artist Damien Hirst; Almost all discussions relating to him are arguments about the controversial elements of his art, and it could be said that this is the only reason he is so famous.

Similarly, if a Hitchcock film were to be criticised, nobody would acknowledge it following the hype that has been caused following comments from reviewers and critics. He has been established as a film genius, and nobody dares to argue against that. 

I, for one, am certainly happy to believe he is the "master of suspense", and find his films endlessly engaging, even after watching them, through contemplation of his complex use of mise en scene and repeated themes. He embraces the pure art of cinema, and arguably we have yet to find another director quite like him.

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