The Auteur Theory: Intentional and Unintentional (Hitchcock, Eisenstein, and Scorsese)

The auteur theory is possibly the most interesting theory of film for the simple reason that there is no true definition to fully explain the theory. It is a theory that concentrates or focuses on the styles and themes that are consistent in the films of an individual artist. Yet it is also a theory that explains that all the films of that individual artist or auteur is a basically a vision or view the auteur has on the world. It his vision and so the auteur usually uses the same themes to establish a point or message to the world.  However, some auteurs are great artists without them knowing it, while others know of their themes and are not afraid to inject the audience with their message. Auteurs have a theme consistent in their work and that auteur doesn’t necessarily have to be the director, in fact it may be a director and an actor working together, each displaying his own vision.

Hitchcock Sympathetic Look next to one of "The Birds"

Auteurs or authors in film are great artists, and while anyone can be an auteur, the work of the auteur varies, and therefore only the great ones are remembered for their work and clear vision. The auteur is clearly an individual who has something to say to the world, and through his work, the viewer discovers his statement. However, an auteur doesn’t necessarily have to be the director; an actor can be just as great of an auteur as the greatest of directors. Therefore in some cases we might end up watching a movie that has more than one auteur. A great example of such a case would be that of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese in the70’s. Back then, De Niro seemed to be very selective of his roles, and even though he experimented with genres, the characters he chose to portray had this constant similarity or feature. All his characters were those who seemed isolated, lonely, or tried to fit in whether among friends as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, or an immigrant trying to fit in American as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Copolla’s The Godfather Part II, perhaps a better example would be trying to fit in with society as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or maybe a veteran trying to fit in with life after the Vietnam war in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. His work as an auteur was still very strong and present well into the eighties with his portrayal of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull or Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Martin Scorsese worked with him several times, but his vision seemed a bit different. His movies seemed like he was trying to embody New York and its gritty environment unlike Woody Allen who kind of tried to portray the beauty of New York in movies such as Annie Hall and Manhattan. Scorsese’s collaborations with De Niro include Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas. All of which were portrayals of a city and the corrupted souls living within that city, in his case New York. Again, Scorsese continued to portray this city even without his collaborator in movies such as Gangs of New York, New York Stories, The Concert for New York, and Bringing Out the Dead. This is probably one of the few examples in which two great auteurs clashed with one another, and while one was contributing to his statement to the world, the other was doing the same as well. Now that one has established the point that there may be more than one auteur working within a picture, some may argue that some auteurs or great artists with a specific vision present their authorship intentionally while at other times it is unintentional and the auteur is unaware of his effect on the picture.

 

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

  Directors who are intentionally adjusting their picture to establish a certain effect are those who know their vision and are not afraid to express it to the world. One can recognize those so called intentionally artistic auteurs by identifying the input the director had on the picture. A very obvious example would be that of Sergie Eisenstein. Eisenstein clearly knew what he was doing, and through intellectual and dialectical montage he expressed the purpose of his movies. In his movies Battleship Potemkin and Strike, he used editing to an extreme to persuade the audience to act against authorities and those who take their power for granted. He knew what he was doing and he used the same methods in his movies to achieve an effect on his audience in all of his movies. A true film student can clearly identify an Eisenstein or Stanley Kubrick picture without even watching the opening or closing credits because they had a very specific style of filmmaking. While in their cases their contribution to their pictures is quite clear, others have intentionally tried to deliver a message but have done so without the awareness of the audience. A terrific example of such a case would be Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. An average movie-goer may watch the film and think that it is simply the greatest character study ever duplicated on film, but the movie is so much more than that. Again, by identifying the input the director had on the picture one can see the vision or message he had to the world. As stated before, Scorsese pictures usually talked about corrupted individuals living in New York City, and it is arguable that Taxi Driver is his ultimate masterpiece in an auteur point of view. The movie is quite confusing and the director doesn’t give us any clues or reasons for the actions that Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) commits, but if one thinks about the movie, there are two major plotlines. The first being the story of Travis and how he meets Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) in her working place and takes her out to dinner, and later on tries to assassinate the man she’s working for Senator Candidate Palantine.  The second plotline is that of Travis meeting Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12 year old prostitute in her working place, takes out to dinner, and succeeds at killing the man she’s working for Sport played by (Harvey Keitel). Having read the screenplay, I happen to know that Paul Schrader intended for the Iris plotline to take place after the Palantine plotline; however, Scorsese did not do that, he made them intersect as if to compare or establish a statement. Both storylines take place scene after scene intersecting with one another even though that wasn’t supposed to be the order. He clearly filmed the movie in the correct order since Travis’s haircut is shorter in the Iris scenes than in the Betsy ones; however in the movie, we jump from one scene to the other from short hair to long hair, Iris to Betsy, politics to the underground, and it is quite clear that Scorsese’s input was to have the movie edited that way. The interesting aspect about this is the similarities between both storylines. Travis meets both at their working places (an open office and a cheap motel room), he takes them both out for lunch (in a cafeteria), and shaves to a Mohawk and attempt to kill both of their bosses (Sport, Iris’s pimp and Candidate Palantine). Having watched the movie dozens of times, many more similarities arise like the dinner conversations of Travis with both Iris and Betsy. In both Travis is badmouthing their working environment, or the first time Travis meets their bosses (Palantine in his cab and Sport in the street) in both conversations he’s gentle and friendly with them and the most important similarity is probably his attempt to kill them. Here’s where the interesting part comes, for he failed to kill Palantine yet succeeded to kill Sport. Scorsese may be trying to state something here like the reason that as Travis Bickle puts it the “scum and filth of the Earth” exist are the Senator’s and leaders; or maybe Scorsese was just trying to state that the Senators are just as corrupt as the “low lifes” living in the dark street alleys of New York. It is Scorsese’s vision that is displayed before our eyes, and he and he only should take credit for that for it was his input to shoot the movie that way and have both stories intersect to establish the connection between them. (What he meant by this connection and what the message he was trying to inject us viewers is just my personal speculation.) Other directors, however, have done so without them knowing it.

     An unintentional auteur isn’t aware of his input to the picture. He isn’t aware of what he was indirectly telling to the world. Robin Wood, a very much focused student of Hitchcock films, explains very clearly how Hitchcock was an auteur or great artist without being aware of that. The reason Robin Wood uses Hitchcock as an exemplar of the auteur theory in the chapter “Genre, Ideology, and Auteur” is because Hitchcock’s vision of the world is reflected in the themes that predominate in his films. There is this consistency within his movies that seem unintentional. A great example would be the characters of Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, both of those characters have homosexual features. The way Norman Bates walks and the way Bruno talks may suggest that they are homosexuals and since Wood believes that the vision the director has of the world dominates the picture, one can argue that since Hitchcock displayed both Bruno and Bates as the villains of their movies probably suggests that Hitchcock was homophobic. Hitchcock probably didn’t do this intestinally because it would be too controversial to do so, but using subliminal messages within the dialogue and any other element in a scene, we as viewers can get something out of the director’s character and vision. A lighter example would be in The Birds, it is probably a movie environmentalists despise, but the truth is, Hitchcock may have created the most environmentalist picture of all time. At first we may just think of the birds as evil birds gone crazy, but when studying the movie carefully one can easily see that Hitchcock was an environmentalist himself. In the beginning of the movie, the main characters meet in a bird store where all the birds are trapped in tiny cages. By the end of the movie, the main characters or human beings are the ones who are trapped only not in a cage but in a house. This times the ones the humans are the birds’ captives not the other way around. However, it’s the ending of the movie that makes Hitchcock an environmentalist. At the end, the trapped humans are freed and leave the house without any of the hundreds of surrounding birds attacking. This is the beauty of the scene, they actually let them go, which may suggest a message Hitchcock was trying to send out to his viewers; they (the birds) let us (humans) go, so why shouldn’t we set them free as well. Again, this is just a personal speculation in which the director may have tried to communicate a message unintentionally. The reason all of these examples are given is to clarify that Hitchcock may be the perfect auteur with a clear vision, and as Wood believes being unaware of his genius contributions to his pictures.   

            So what defines an auteur, he is probably an individual artist who has something to say to the world, and he is saying it through his work whether as an actor director, or even screenwriter. Whether or not that auteur is aware of his authorship and displayed theme or message in his films does not matter as long as he succeeds at doing so and the viewer becomes aware of what the person is trying to communicate and so labels him as an individual artist or author of his message. Most actors and directors these days either do it for the money or excitement of working on a movie, and sadly only a few can be recognized as true auteurs who actually work in film because they have something important to say to the world or the audience.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. That would put Bergman and Tarkovsky as distinct auteurs and Spielberg and Fellini as film makers with mere talent?

    Reply

    • I’m positive that Fellini is an auteur with equal stats as the ones mentioned but I don’t know about Spielberg. I mean he’s very influencial and all but sometimes I’m puzzled on whether he’ll be remembered for his “entertainment” factor in movies or the other rather powerful pics under his belt like Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan. I don’t know..now that I’ve mentioned Saving Private Ryan, it makes me think of Terrence Malick and The Thin Red Line..as great as both movies and filmmakers are, I somehow feel Malick is more in control as an auteur than Spielberg.

      Reply

  2. I’d question whether auteurs are always great artists. Why can’t you have an idiot with a vision (Adam Sandler)? Wouldn’t it be better to define the word as an artist with a vision?

    That aside, nice blog. I should thank Literary Dreamer for introducing me to it, on a post similar to this one.

    Reply

    • Welcome to my blog Ronak M Soni, I think auters are generally authors and very much in control of what they’re doing just like the control an author has over his book. I don’t think actors like Adam Sandler have that much power over there work, I mean yes he does goofy work but then comes out with some more dramatic roles (Funny People, Punch Drunk Love) ever now and then…some actors just accept whatever they get based on the salary alone and rarely do we get actors who are very selective in their work (I think it was Christopher Walken who said he never turned down any role. He currently appeared in over 100 movies) Tarantino once referred to De Niro as the greatest artist and filmmaker of the 70’s because he worked with the greatest directors of that era and gave consistent great performances of troubled characters (De Palma, Scorsese, Copolla, Cimino, Kazan, Bertolucci in the 70’s) An author has something to say or is willing to express..I don’t think actors like Vin Deasel have anything to say to the world.

      Reply

      • To be honest, I haven’t watched any Adam Sandler movies, except Punch Drunk Love, I just go by what Ebert says in his review of PDW. It made sense from a quick survey of his travails on IMDb, so I accepted it.
        Adam Sandler was just an example, which shouldn’t distract from my point: can’t there be a technically horrible auteur?

        Btw, call me Ronak.

      • Of course there can be but if it’s intentional…Edward Wood is an auteur…a horrible one..but I wouldn’t call Michael Bay an auteur simply because his intentions are purely to refill his wallet.

  3. Posted by Kathryne on October 31, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I’m doing an Auteur prject for my film course and came across this post. It’s interesting that you say an auteur doesn’t have to be the director – some would disagree. Would you say that Richard Curtis is an auteur. He is a producer, director, but mainly a screenwriter, his films including Love Actually, Bridget Jones etc.

    Reply

  4. […] to the Cinephile Fix, the auteur theory is possibly the most interesting theory of film for the simple reason that there […]

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