Who better to explain what an auteur of the cinema is than one of the originators of auteur theory? In his famous 1954 essay “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” published in Cahiers du cinéma five years before the release of his first feature, François Truffaut proposed the revolutionary notion that the director is the true author of a given film, an idea that has thoroughly permeated film culture by this point. Today, to mark what would have been Truffaut’s eighty-second birthday, we’re posting the following clip of the filmmaker describing auteur theory to New York Film Festival director Richard Roud in October 1977, from a conversation that aired on the New York arts program Camera Three and represented Truffaut’s first appearance on American television. More of the interview can be found on our special edition of Jules and Jim.
While I was out, the reader Driedchar posted a fascinating comment regarding our recent discussion of Pauline Kael and her famous essay against Andrew Sarris and the “auteur theory,” “Circles and Squares”:
Kael was justifiably angry when she wrote “Circles and Squares.” Sarris was giving zero ratings to a whole bunch of films that she loved, amazing films such as “Yojimbo,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and “Billy Budd.” And at the same time, Sarris was applying his silly auteur theory to celebrate the “art” of such atrocious trash as “Advise and Consent,” “Hatari!” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” One of Kael’s abiding principles is that we should not be false to what we enjoy. She makes this clear in her great essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” where she discusses, among other films, “The Thomas Crown Affair.” She says, “‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ is pretty good trash, but we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts.” Auteurism, as espoused by Sarris et al., was lowbrowism masquerading as highbrowism. That’s the point Kael was making in “Circles and Squares”…
Driedchar’s recap of Kael’s views is accurate and stimulating. It gets to the heart of why I find Sarris a more useful and more important critic. Kael misunderstood and caricatured the auteur theory as reductive. In fact, the “theory” (Sarris’s translation of what the French called the politique des auteurs) actually expands the experience of watching movies, by putting another character into them, one who hovers just off-screen but participates in the action as surely as any of the dramatic performers or documentary subjects: namely, the director. Auteurism doesn’t get in the way of discussing the work of actors, screenwriters, or set designers; it adds another dimension to those discussions. (For instance, it’s worth discussing why Humphrey Bogart is better in Howard Hawks’s “The Big Sleep” than in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon,” or vice versa.)
Overall, the notion of the auteur adds to criticism the element of artistic psychology—that of the director. Howard Hawks said, “I liked almost anybody that made you realize who the devil was making the picture” (a line that Peter Bogdanovich—who, before becoming a director, was a crucial auteurist critic—cited for his fascinating and essential book of interviews with directors, “Who the Devil Made It”). I’d say that the virtue of auteur criticism is its approach to the question of why the devil they made it: a well-directed movie is one that reveals the terms of the director’s personal involvement in it. Kael was in the habit of suggesting that the answer to “why they made it” was money, but the paycheck doesn’t explain the specifics of the innumerable decisions that a director must make, and which are the difference between the artist and the journeyman, between an engagement with the film’s elements and their mere deployment. And the recognition of a kindred spirit at work, hitherto laboring in undeserved anonymity, is itself an authentic and legitimate kind of joy.