(This was the final assessment for my Popular Cinema class, within my Journalism course. The prompt is below.)
How, why and in what senses can a film director be regarded as the ‘author’ of a film? Discuss with reference to at least two films screened in this course.
(Psycho & Lost in Translation. Alfred Hitchcock & Sofia Coppola.)
To be an author is to come up with an idea, and to manifest that idea into a text. This was quite a foreign notion within the Classic Hollywood era, in which Hollywood was known colloquially as the ‘Dream Factory’, with an emphasis on ‘Factory’ – a direct result of the formulaic, economic mode of film creation at the time, in which filmmakers were seen merely as manufacturers. Yet as this era began to break down, so too did the perception of filmmakers in general. This is evident through Alfred Hitchcock and Sofia Coppola’s films Psycho and Lost in Translation respectively, as although they sit within completely different Hollywood eras – having been created 43 years apart – they both contain a myriad of examples pertaining to the (albeit largely subjective) theory that directors can be viewed as authors. Furthermore, they are examples of the way in which independence, alongside art cinema narration in contrast to Classic Hollywood, can foster auteurism.
Before delving into these films specifically, though, one must be aware of auteur theory and its origins. The term ‘auteur’ has its roots in French film criticism from the 1920s, with the theory itself specifically beginning in the influential French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, within the 1950s. At the time, the magazine was led by revered French film critic and theorist, Andre Bazin, alongside the Cahiers group of film critics. Together, “the group developed the notion of the auteur by binding it closely up with the concept of mise-en-scène,” according to Susan Hayward. Interestingly, the theory entered the Hollywood vernacular in the 1960s somewhat by accident. Hayward claims that it came through “as a mistranslation by the American film critic Andrew Sarris,” through his use of auteurism as a means of elevating “American/Hollywood cinema to the status of the ‘only good cinema’, with but one or two European art films worthy of mention.” This sparked a division in the way in which directors were viewed, as there was now “a canon of the ‘good’ or ‘great’ directors and the rest” within Hollywood. Nevertheless, this division was corrected with the influence of cultural studies upon film theory, alongside its general development over time, in the 1970s. Back to auteur theory itself – essentially, it is the theory which suggests that directors can be regarded as authors, through the idea that cinema is the expression of the creative idea/s of the director. They are the individual creative force here – thus, they can be seen not just as directors, but as authors, or even artists. This is supported by Jeff Menne, who claims that “in its boldest form, auteur theory holds that the unity of a film – its totality of decisions – must be rooted in the director’s agency” – underpinning the belief that the director, rather than a production company, is the sole creator behind a film.
However, for a director to be seen as an auteur and thus fit in with auteur theory, they must align with a criterion, explained by Andrew Sarris. This is where the subjective aspect comes in, though. Essentially, the theory falls into three premises, which “may be visualised as three concentric circles, the outer circle as technique, the middle circle personal style and the inner circle interior meaning.” Firstly, the director must be technically competent. They must actually have “the ability to put a film together with some clarity and coherence.” This is evident through both Hitchcock and Coppola, as their films continue to be studied within university cinema classes to this day. Secondly, the director’s personality (alongside their worldview, potentially) must be distinguishable within their films. Thirdly, their films must carry an interior meaning, “the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art” in Sarris’ opinion, drawn both from the director’s personality and what is seen within the film itself. However, this is subjective, as there is no specific authority here. Are these three points just for film critics to follow? Or are they for fans? Who determines whether or not a director is actually an auteur? Essentially, this can be judged on a film-to-film basis, all coming down to the vision of the director through the mise-en-scène and narration within the films themselves.
This theory does not just have to be restricted solely to what is seen within the film, though. The original 1960 teaser trailer for Psycho is an example of this, as Hitchcock himself takes the viewer on a virtual tour through the Bates Motel – a setting in which much of the film’s action takes place. His position as the film’s auteur is clear, as his creative authority is displayed in quite a tongue-in-cheek way – expressing his personality. Hints of light humour amid dark subject matter are conveyed, seen through his succinct, passing mention of the “bathroom” in the manor (which comes full circle upon his second mention of the bathroom, this time within cabin one), alongside the jovial tune playing throughout much of the trailer. This breaks into jolting strings, common within the horror genre, only when sinister subject matter is touched upon – such as the imprint of “the woman” upon her bed and at the trailer’s end, when Hitchcock yanks back the shower curtain, cueing the Psycho theme. The trailer also fosters intrigue and suspense, as Hitchcock obviously knows more than he is letting on – he is, after all, the film’s director. This is portrayed through his constant allusions – which he leaves hanging – to events that take place within the film, such as his claim that “this picture has great significance, because… let’s go along to cabin one.” Referring to the image covering a peephole that looks into cabin one – Marion Crane’s cabin – in the parlour behind the reception desk, Hitchcock’s break in the explanation of its significance prompts potential viewers to see the film and see it for themselves. In the words of Ryan Gilbey, “the possibilities open to this much-squandered species of advertising (the trailer) have never again been exploited as expertly as they are in the six-minute Psycho trailer.” Hitchcock’s agency is clear, alongside his technical competence. As a result, he fits within Sarris’ criteria, thus underpinning his position as an author.
Even though Psycho is based on a novel of the same name, written by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock can still be seen as an author – albeit in a different way to Bloch. Even though Hitchcock did not write the story, and thus was not literally Psycho’s ‘author’, his utilisation of cinematic techniques allows him to be seen as the author of the film. Hitchcock worked through the entire Classic Hollywood timeframe – French film theorists such as those mentioned earlier latched onto him as one of the first examples of an auteur within Hollywood – and thus, he had an exceptional knowledge of cinema, whilst also being well loved by the film-viewing public. As Thomson notes, “when Alfred Hitchcock turned sixty in 1959, he was already the best known film director in the United States.” When the Classic Hollywood system broke down, allowing more risqué ideas to make their way into Hollywood – such as the one behind Psycho, in which the ‘horror’ comes from the everyday, rather than a distinct monster figure – Hitchcock understood himself well enough as a filmmaker and as a brand to make these sorts of films. He could break away from Classic Hollywood narration in favour of narration more similar to art cinema, and so he did. Paramount did not want the film to be made, though. According to Thomson, “they were frightened of Psycho,” so Hitchcock was forced to keep it on a low budget and film it on cheaply rented sets from Universal. Here, Hitchcock both pioneered the independent studio system (which Coppola draws from) and truly solidified his position as an auteur, as he – not the production company – was the one with the creative license. Thus, the notion of the auteur could, and can, only be possible through independence and, in turn, the use of art cinema narration – this would not have been possible within the Classic Hollywood system. In terms of what is seen in the film itself – first and foremost, a key authorial signature is his own cameo. This occurs in the early stages, in which he is seen outside Marion Crane’s workplace. For James Vest, “the self-reflective, ironic nature of Hitchcock’s signature appearance in a film… exists for strategic purposes of thematic development and audience manipulation as well as for humour. The director’s cameo cleaves-in the dual sense of unifying and dislocating-the filmic narrative while reinforcing its developing themes.” This touches upon another of his authorial signatures – the voyeuristic nature of the film, evident from the outset, as the opening scene takes the viewer’s eye slowly from a cityscape into a private bedroom. Scenes such as the one in which Norman Bates looks through the peephole into cabin one also convey this nature, as Hitchcock essentially makes the viewer assume Bates’ point of view. Eerie scenes such as these are made even more so thanks to Hitchcock’s use of lighting, as he chose to shoot the film in black and white – even though it could have been shot in colour. Thus, the contrast and shadows are much starker, further underpinning Hitchcock’s authorial agency over every aspect of the film – made manifest through mise-en-scène. Ultimately, in the words of David Bordwell, “Hitchcock has created a textual persona that is in every way equal to that of the art-cinema author’s.” This is clear within Psycho, evident through the mise-en-scène, the film’s relative independence, and the subversive subject matter – expressed through art cinema narration.
The utilisation of art cinema narration is one of the key cornerstones of Coppola’s auteurism within Lost in Translation. Also, most obviously, Coppola both wrote and directed the film – so in this case, she is literally the film’s ‘author’. Nevertheless, in terms of auteur theory, her personality and worldview are depicted throughout the film’s entirety. Quoted by Tim Anderson, Coppola – speaking of Lost in Translation – claims “I like movies that just meander along, where it’s more about the feelings…. I was just compiling all these different things that I liked and hoped that it would all add up to the feeling I wanted to give.” Anyone who has seen this film would know that this is a fitting summary, as nothing much really ‘happens’ by way of Classic Hollywood narration. This is supported by Mark Olsen, again quoted by Anderson, as he notes that the film “seems driven more by its tone than by the mechanics of getting from A to B.” Coppola uses art cinema narration, as the dialogue is heavy, and much of the film takes place within one setting – the hotel (somewhat similar to Bates Motel in Psycho). Furthermore, the two protagonists – Bob (played by Bill Murray) and Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson) – are both at different stages of their lives, yet they are unsure what to do with themselves. Again, this directly mirrors Coppola’s own experience at the time, as she claims within Anderson’s piece that she was “trying to figure out that phase of my life [being newly married]” at the time that she created the film. In terms of her position the film’s author, though, Todd Kennedy refers to Coppola specifically as a “feminine auteur,” with her films “pertaining to female characters, feminine pleasures of consumption, and a filmic point of view that portrays women as dominated by the environment surrounding them.” This is evident through the opening scene, in which Coppola shows Scarlet Johansson’s “panty-clad rear end as she lies on her hotel bed facing away from the audience.” A scene such as this could easily be sexualised, yet Coppola places the focus here “for a full thirty-six seconds,” thus creating an awkward atmosphere and “forcing the audience to become aware of (and potentially even question) their participation in the gaze.” Independent films seek emotional and intellectual engagement, and Coppola achieves this to the level of an auteur within Lost in Translation through both her own creative vision, and her technical prowess in being able to depict that vision through film.
Ultimately, Hitchcock and Coppola have both created films which are still well-known and widely discussed to this day. They have been able to manifest their ideas and meanings into film-as-text, through both their technical competence and creative drive. In doing so, they have been able to fit in with Sarris’ auteur theory criteria, and as a result, they can be seen as the authors – rather than just directors – of Psycho and Lost in Translation respectively. While the theory is largely subjective, and while it all essentially lies within the eye of the viewer, Hitchcock and Coppola’s aforementioned films are both clear examples of the way in which auteurism shines through independent cinema, alongside art cinema narration.
List of Work Cited
Anderson, T. 2013, ‘Lost in Transition: Popular Music, Adolescence, and the Melodramatic Mode of Sofia Coppola’ in Arved Ashby (ed.) Popular Music and the New Auteur: Visionary Filmmakers after MTV, Oxford University Press, New York.
Bordwell, D. 2002, ’The Art Cinema as Mode of Film Practice’ in Catherine Fowler (ed.) The European Cinema Reader, Routledge, New York, pp. 94-102.
Gilbey, R. 2006, ‘Trailer Trash’, New Statesman, vol. 19, no. 902, pp. 42-44.
Hayward, S. 1996, ‘Key Concepts in Cinema Studies’, Routledge, London & New York.
Kennedy, T. 2010, ‘Off with Hollywood’s Head: Sofia Coppola as Feminine Auteur’, Film Criticism, vol. 35 no. 1, pp. 37-59,120.
Menne, J. 2011, ‘The Cinema of Defection: Auteur Theory and Institutional Life’, Representations, vol. 114, no. 1, pp. 36-64.
Psycho Trailer (1960) 2009, video, Randy Monster, 9 October, viewed 8 September 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ps8H3rg5GfM>.
Sarris, A. 1973, ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962’, Simon & Schuster, New York.
Thomson, D. 2009 ‘The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder’, Basic Books, New York.
Vest, J.M. 1999. ‘The Controller Controlled: Hitchcock’s Cameo in Torn Curtain’, Hitchcock Annual, pp. 3-19.